Dim Stars - Preview
1 - Captain Dashiell Drake
Dash scrubbed furiously, but the dark stain refused to budge from the airlock floor. This is what happened when you had an Octopus for a first mate.
From the other end of the airlock came the hum of antigrav motors and the squeaks of tentacles on tile. Dash glared at Squix, who walked through the corridor on two arms, pushing a hovering cargo pallet in front while pulling another two behind. He was nearly finished loading their cargo onto the lift and marked the new additions on his handset with two free arms.
“I can’t believe you.”
Squix faced the captain, waving his eighth arm like a white flag.
“I said I was sorry!” Squix meant it, too, his mottled red skin flashing yellow with embarrassment as his exosuit translated his speech. “You know we’ve needed to repair this airlock forever. If the pressure fluctuates, even a little—”
“I know, yes, I know,” said Dash, failing to mask the edge in his voice. He exhaled hard and stopped scrubbing.
“Look,” he said, calmer. “It’s just…the cadets arrive soon, and I’d rather they don’t think the Gremlin is a dump.”
There was a brief pause.
“But,” Squix said, “it is a dump.”
Dash started scrubbing again. “Well, sure, but I’d still prefer they don’t know that until after we start our trip.”
“Or at least until after their credits transfer into our account,” added Squix.
“Right,” Dash said, spraying more cleaner on the floor. “Remember Jonah?”
“He got a rash from the sheets in his bunk after boarding two weeks ago.”
“Oh yeah, the itchy kid!” said Squix. “He was disgusting.”
“He was,” said Dash. “Called his parents to get him before we even left port. They threatened to leave bad reviews and tell the other parents to stay away from our cadet immersion program—unless we refunded them. And that’s why you’re loading the cargo instead of him.”
“Oh,” said Squix. His head squeaked as he rubbed it with a tentacle. “I was wondering about that.”
Dash shook his head and sighed. “Let’s just not give anyone a reason to call home until we’re a few star systems away, okay?”
Dash folded his rag in half, hoping to use the clean side to loosen more ink. Even as the rag darkened, the stain seemed like it might be a permanent fixture. The airlock corridor wasn’t long—only a few meters—because it extended from the ship’s starboard side whenever it docked with a station or another vessel. And that was the problem. Without much floorspace, and with the ink splattered right in the middle of the corridor, it was unavoidable. The moment anyone boarded the ship, it’d be the first thing they saw.
“How many more crates are there?” Dash said as he punished the floor.
Squix looked at his handset and scrolled through the display. “Only a few more pallets. Should be all loaded in twenty.”
Dash dropped the rag, his shoulders slumped.
“You win this round, stain,” he sighed, standing with a grunt. “Let’s just get the boxes stowed so this place isn’t a complete disaster. I still have—”
Dash paused mid-complaint. He sniffed the air.
“What’s that smell?”
Squix flashed green, his tentacles coiling. “I don’t know.” Then, defensively, “You know I’ve always wanted a nose.”
Dash sniffed again. “Goddammit.”
He sprinted down the corridor. Squix yelled after him, “So, I’ll just finish up here, then?”
He knew it wasn’t the cargo bay trash compactor—he’d emptied it when he landed, like always. Dash ran to the galley at the center of the Gremlin’s top deck. Usually that was the first place to check for an unidentifiable stench.
He slapped the door control and ran to the sink, finding…nothing. He couldn’t tie the smell to any spot in the galley. But the stink—a stomach-churning blend of rotten flowers, fermented synthetic cheese, and superglue—was definitely getting stronger.
This was bad. That smell could only mean one thing. And he knew it would only get worse if he didn’t find the source…fast.
Dash clambered onto the counter and tore the magnetic air vent off the wall. The captain looked inside, saw nothing, and was hit with a fresh wave of funk. Gagging, he slammed the vent cover back into place. He bolted back into the corridor and pulled his jacket lapel over his face as the smell matured into adulthood. He breathed through his mouth, but somehow, he could still taste it.
Dash checked each room surrounding the galley, going counterclockwise, looking for the stink-beast. First his room, strewn with dirty clothes and candy wrappers. Then Squix’s room, which mostly was taken up by an aquarium in the wall and a rack for his exosuit—the mechanism keeping him hydrated and supporting his limbs out of the water. Then the empty crew and passenger bunks. Even the six-seat escape pod on the ship’s port side, though he couldn’t guess how something might’ve gotten into there. Nothing. The cockpit at the ship’s bow, the dusty, disused weapons control room near the stern—all clean.
Dash ran into the medical bay. Its usual antiseptic scent was overpowered by the bastard smell. Bill, the medical robot attached to the ceiling, started chattering at him immediately.
“Captain, the ship’s oxygen contains alarmingly high levels of—”
“I know!” Dash yelled, cutting him off. The screen displaying Bill’s digital face buzzed with a burst of static.
“Well, I hope you find it soon,” Doctor Bill said, crossing his medical probes in irritation. “This is the second time in as many months!”
Dash opened a storage locker and grabbed an emergency oxygen mask and a biomedical waste bag. He climbed onto an exam table while fitting the mask over his face and looked into the vent. Nothing.
“Come on!” Dash slammed the vent cover back onto the wall.
The handset on his hip chirped as he ran back into the corridor. He tapped it and shouted, losing his breath with each step.
“So,” said Squix, “the crates are loaded, and I sent them all down to the cargo bay.”
“Great job, Squix, really awesome,” said the captain, squeezing every ounce of sarcasm festering in his body into his words. As usual, Squix didn’t notice.
“Thank you!” he said.
“Anything else?” said Dash, racing toward the ship’s rear.
“Yes, two things. First, the cadets board in ten minutes.”
“Ugh.” Dash entered the engine room. The chamber housing the Gremlin’s huge reactor core spanned both decks and was the largest room on the ship, featuring a ladder to the bottom and lots of air vents to check along the way.
“Second, I got a solution for the ink in the airlock! I think that—”
“Sounds good, thank you, bye.” Dash tapped his handset to cut the connection. He removed another vent cover as he climbed down the ladder. The creature shouldn’t have made it this far through the ship without being detected earlier…but the Gremlin was old, and Dash was losing track of its growing list of hiding spots for vermin.
Finally, after six vents and climbing halfway to the bottom of the engine room, he found it: a whole stinking nest of crungers.
Dash nearly threw up in his oxygen mask. Holding back breakfast, he looked closer. The small green creatures stabbed spiny beaks into a hunk of brownish-yellow meat. They flapped featherless wings as they ate, feasting on the rotting remains of their mother, which had birthed its brood and died for their nourishment.
She must’ve been living in the ship’s vents for weeks—probably came aboard and mated with the other one Dash found in the crew quarters’ vents on Antares Beta. The heat of the engine room was the perfect incubator for her eggs.
In some ways, the crunger momma’s self-sacrifice was a beautiful expression of motherhood, an example of how love can take many forms throughout the galaxy. Creatures across the galaxy lived, fought, and died for the betterment of their species. The crunger turning herself into lunch proved that even from death could come life.
To Dash, however, it just smelled like his ship had athlete’s foot.
Dash swallowed another wave of nausea and tucked the vent cover under his left arm, his left hand gripping the ladder. With his right, he slowly reached for his laser pistol. No sudden moves, or else the dozen baby crungers would bolt into the ventilation system. The new cadets arrived any minute, and he couldn’t afford to cut the trip short because of the inescapable stink.
He leveled the pistol at the nest and fired, frying the crungers in a righteous fury of pest control. Dash let the vent cover drop to the engine room floor with a clang, wrapped his legs around the ladder rungs, and unfurled the biomedical waste bag. He carefully swept in the crunger family’s remains, then climbed the rest of the way down. After cinching the bag, he opened the hatch to the reactor core and tossed the whole thing inside.
Dash tapped some commands into the nearby engineering console, and once he heard the air rushing through the ship’s ventilation system, he removed his oxygen mask. He still caught the tail end of crunger stench, just before the overwhelming scent of lemon flooded his nostrils.
After changing clothes (but keeping his jacket despite the sleeves’ fresh crunger stains), Dash sauntered into the airlock corridor, where Squix waited.
“We really need to upgrade our internal sensors,” said Dash, tapping at his handset. “The Fleet’s flagship would’ve found those crungers the instant they stowed away.”
He looked up and saw Squix’s tentacles slowly curling and uncurling with satisfaction. Dash looked for the inkstain on the floor, but it wasn’t there. Instead, there was a towel, held in place with gray duct tape over each corner. The word “Welcome!” was scrawled in big black letters, the result of an Octopus wielding a magic marker.
Dash slumped against the wall, defeated. “Perfect.”
“I know,” said Squix. “Isn’t it great?”
2 - Mackenzie Washington
Kenzie’s eyes flicked from the thief to her handset. Her fingers danced across the touchscreen’s surface as she took notes on the perp’s activities, his physical description, and even some theories about the root of his criminal impulses. Already she was divising a plan for how she’d stop the creep from making off with his loot, while also being sure she was prepared to disarm him if necessary. Kenzie thought it best to always be prepared for any contingency.
She did all this while standing behind a keychain display in the space station’s gift shop.
Kenzie was fourteen years old and ready to dispense justice.
Minutes earlier, Kenzie was browsing the various space-themed knick-knacks and bric-a-brac available for purchase from Milky Wow, the souvenir shop near the elevators on Arcadia Station. She was due to report to her new posting on the Gremlin in about a half hour, and she was killing time.
She was one of a handful of customers walking through the aisles and the only Human. Across the store were two Crags, male and female, examining dermal polishing kits. Near the beverages stood a Marvinian—but because it wore the species’ ceremonial tiny hat, Kenzie couldn’t determine its gender, as she was unable to see the color of its cranial spike.
Milky Wow was brightly lit and crammed tight with narrow aisles filled with overpriced items that any well-prepared traveler would never need. Miniaturized toiletries, extra cables, data-storage cards, snacks with sodium content levels that had already been outlawed on most Alliance planets long before Kenzie was born. It was hard not to see Milky Wow for what it truly was. Kenzie saw past its brightly colored packages and admittedly clever name (she gave the store’s owner credit on that one) and knew the shop was a galactic barnacle, clinging to the station as it floated through space and pulling in stray customers who couldn’t ignore the siren song of Blazin’ Hot Tortilla Blocks.
Still, when she saw the keychains, she was compelled to look for one featuring her name. She’d given up on the “Ks,” and was about to switch to the “Ms” to see if she could find “Mackenzie” when she spotted a mirror off to the side, presumably for customers trying on pairs of cheaply made sunglasses.
She took a moment to study herself, checking to see if she looked presentable enough to report for duty later that afternoon. Her jumpsuit looked clean. Her dark brown skin was mercifully zit-free—for once—and her frizzy hair was relatively well-tamed, pulled into two tight, black poms at the back of her head. She’d thought about doing braids, but reasoned that maintaining them every day during her tour aboard the Gremlin might distract her from focusing on being the best cadet she knew she would be—and impressing Captain Dashiell Drake.
While fretting over her boring brown eyes, Kenzie spotted someone else in the mirror’s reflection: an Aphid male, almost two meters tall, with purple spots dotted on his otherwise dull green carapace. Most Earthers compared Aphids to big, Human-sized mantises. Kenzie thought they had more of a giant cricket vibe. This one, she observed, was still a youth, probably only a few years older than her. He must’ve been crouching in his aisle, since she hadn’t spotted him at first. But when she finally saw him, what he did made her gasp.
He tucked an inductive battery pack into his jacket pocket. He was going to steal it.
Kenzie’s mind kicked into overdrive. She ducked behind the display, watching his every move, tapping at her handset, and looking for signs of weakness or vulnerability. Aphids were notoriously tough, physically. However, their tendency towards a group mentality—their need to protect the interests of the hive—was a trait that had been exploited in the past. In fact, Kenzie recalled, it was Admiral Robert Jawoski during the original Precursor Wars who found a way to turn a phalanx of swarming Aphid ships against one another by tapping into their comms and—
Kenzie shook her head to clear away the digression. The Aphid’s predisposition toward group tactics wouldn’t be useful now since there was only one here, and he was stealing a battery, not attacking an Earther outpost. She was a single Human girl in the Milky Wow gift shop, and she needed to protect it. She couldn’t take the Aphid in a hand-to-hand match-up—he had the height, the strength, and the build, and despite her rigorous daily training schedule, she was still among the worst fighters in her jiu jitsu class.
Then she figured it out. As ever, her favorite book held the answer.
“Don’t out-fight your enemy,” she whispered as she stroked her chin dramatically. “Out-think him. Drake, page 59.”
Kenzie realized she was focusing on the wrong weakness. This Aphid’s desire to take property that didn’t belong to him—his need to steal—that’s what she would exploit. She felt her heart leap as she imagined Captain Drake’s image from the book’s cover, nodding with approval.
She finished typing her notes in her special shorthand (one she’d created during a day off from school, devised for maximum efficiency for situations just like these), and put her handset’s echolocation protocols to work.
Kenzie had developed this program as a school project a few years ago, when she was eleven. Most mapping programs worked by visually scanning an area beforehand. Hers, however, created real-time maps of physical spaces using sound, like how bats or dolphins navigated their environments. She’d thought it could be useful for ground conflicts, when soldiers needed to know the physical lay of the land but didn’t have time to send out a scouting party. Her sixth-grade science teacher gave her an A, and for some reason set up an appointment for her with the school therapist.
The device sent out several short pulses of incredibly high-frequency sound—so high that neither she nor the Aphid would be able to hear them. But out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the two Crags suddenly wince and look in her direction. She hadn’t accounted for the Crags’ finely attuned hearing to give her away, but it was too late to worry about that now.
With a map of Milky Wow in front of her, she tapped in a few more commands. She set her handset to ping any available power sources in the area, revealing a long list of serial numbers on its display. Those were all the inductive battery packs in the store. Then she bridged those into her echo-locater program. Blammo: she saw exactly which battery pack the Aphid had stuffed into his jacket.
Kenzie tapped a few more commands into her handset and accessed the battery’s power flow inhibitors and safety commands. She turned them all off. Then she tapped “connect.”
The Aphid stood bolt upright and started flailing wildly, the power flowing from the battery in his jacket into the muscles throughout his body. He wasn’t being electrocuted per se, though he was definitely uncomfortable and not in control of any of his body parts. His vocal cords constricted too, producing a high-pitched, buzzing whine. The battery pack was designed to wirelessly juice up power-hungry technology. And these were reliably safe, too…no one ever got their muscles electro-stimulated, not even when a few of the highly regulated products malfunctioned after being sold. Then again, most people didn’t intentionally disable a battery’s safety commands either. You’d have to be a truly determined troublemaker to do that—or a really smart fourteen-year-old with an overdeveloped sense of civic duty.
By this point, everyone in Milky Wow watched the Aphid, whose involuntary muscle spasms knocked antacids and snack cakes off their shelves. The store’s owner, a faintly-glowing Drook, rushed out from the storeroom to see what the fuss was all about.
“Sir, are you okay?” the Drook said, panic in her voice. She hurried over to the dancing Aphid, and as she approached, Kenzie cut the connection, ending the battery’s power surge. The thief collapsed into a heap. Before the owner could make it to the Aphid’s crumpled form, Kenzie stepped in between the two.
“Hello,” she said. “Mackenzie Washington, future cadet at the Alliance Academy. I’m afraid this Aphid doesn’t need your help…unless it’s help getting over to the station’s security office.”
Kenzie kicked open the Aphid’s jacket and pulled out the battery pack. The price label reading “Milky Wow” was still on it. She handed the warm pack to the owner and smiled.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
* * *
The transport ferrying Kenzie to the Gremlin hovered down the station’s corridors, its anti-grav motor humming, reducing the shops, restaurants, and service kiosks within Arcadia Station to a colorful blur. A hundred alien languages burbled over the transport’s motor, while the acrid yet sweet smells of cuisines from around the galaxy hung in the recycled air as the vehicle rushed past.
Kenzie tapped at her handset—taking more notes—as the transport carried her and the two Crags to docking clamp 18. Apparently, the pair she’d seen in the Milky Wow were headed for the Gremlin as well, though she hadn’t spared a moment to consider her new traveling companions. She was still trying to make sense of what had happened after she incapacitated the Aphid thief.
The Drook store owner certainly seemed appreciative of everything Kenzie had done. She’d thanked her and offered her some free bags of Protein Puffs, but the owner stopped smiling and offering her snacks as soon as Kenzie told her she’d alerted station security about the incident. That was weird. She figured the owner would’ve been happy the criminal was being apprehended and that he hadn’t made off with her merchandise. Why did—
“She wanted to keep station security out of it,” said the Crag sitting to her left—the female. Kenzie took a quick breath and tucked her handset into her jacket pocket. How did she know what she was writing? Had the Crag cracked her shorthand after only five minutes of their ride so far? And wasn’t it universally rude to read someone else’s handset?
“Um, excuse me,” said Kenzie, “but isn’t it universally rude to read someone else’s handset?”
“It is,” she said, “but you were talking out loud while you were typing.”
“Oh,” said Kenzie.
She stared at Kenzie blankly, and Kenzie stared back, unsure about quite what to do next.
She’d never been this close to a Crag, though she knew that a fair number of them—not as many as Humans—tended to enlist in the Academy. The alien girl looked to be about Kenzie’s own age and had a smooth, lavender-gray face, broken up by hard edges where Humans had wrinkles and fine lines in their flesh. Crags didn’t grow hair—at the top of her head were glittering spikes, like the inside of a broken geode. She looked not unlike a statue, sculpted from living stone. Her outfit was a one-piece jumpsuit, functionally identical to the ones traditionally worn by all space travelers, which were laced with fabric-thin life-support systems that could kick on in emergencies. But instead of looking drab and utilitarian, like Kenzie’s, the Crag’s suit flowed with slow, ever-shifting colors, like a rainbow inside a volcano. Kenzie had thought about dressing up her pale blue suit with an Academy jacket she’d gotten from the gift shop during a school trip to Earth’s Moon the year before, but decided against it.
But there was more. Geometric patterns—faint indentations someone must have made with a fine chisel—crisscrossed the girl’s face. Kenzie had read that getting your face “etched” was all the rage right now on Rhyolar, the Crag homeworld. The planet’s youths decorated their bodies with these designs in rebellion against their parents and grandparents—the conservative generation that had first signed the agreement to form the Interstellar Alliance with Humans and Aphids in the first place.
“You’re pretty weird,” the Crag finally said, breaking the brief silence. Her voice was flat like a desert mesa. “Interesting, though,” she added as she pulled out her handset. “Kind of.”
“Thanks?” said Kenzie.
“Yeah,” said the Crag, staring at the device to check her social feeds. Then, “I’m Jo.”
“I’m Mackenzie. Most people just call me Kenzie, though.”
“Whatever,” said Jo. The Crag was done with her. And the other Crag, the male sitting in the row in front of them, didn’t turn or say anything at all. Kenzie wasn’t really sure what had just happened.
“So, why?” Kenzie asked.
“Why what?” said Jo, not looking up from her handset.
“Why didn’t the store owner want station security to come?”
Jo turned to her. As the automated transport rounded a corner to approach the station’s docking ring, Kenzie overheard an argument over the cost of a ship repair. The transport zoomed away and the arguers’ voices faded.
Kenzie continued: “I mean, I stopped a thief.”
“You totally did,” Jo said, “but you also gave security an excuse to go to the store and poke around. And that Drook was definitely doing something shady with that shop.”
“What?” Kenzie blinked. “Really?”
“Think about it,” Jo said. “Arcadia Station is a major hub in this sector. Tons of people coming in and out of here every day. But there’s that little store, off to the side, with hardly any customers. And did you see how old those ration packages were? They were all expired.”
Kenzie cocked her head to the side. “Still not following you.”
Jo rolled her eyes. “If no one’s shopping there, how’s the owner making money to pay the store’s rent?”
It finally dawned on her.
“It’s a front,” said Kenzie. “Milky Wow is a front for…” she trailed off.
“For something she didn’t want security to know about,” said Jo, a hint of satisfaction creeping into her voice.
“‘See with your mind, not just your eyes’—Drake, page 75,” Kenzie said. Jo raised an eyebrow but said nothing. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. I mean, how could I miss that?”
The Crag girl shrugged. “Now you know. Don’t worry, she probably paid security off anyway. But, like, good thing you didn’t take any of those snacks she offered you. Probably loaded with parasites. Right Vor?”
The Crag sitting in the seat in front of them—the male Jo had been with in the Milky Wow—turned to face them. His complexion was a bit darker than Jo’s, more purple than lavender. But, like Jo’s, his face was covered with etchings, though much deeper and more defined. That is, except for the bottom half of his face, which held a jagged ruin where his mouth should’ve been. But he nodded his assent and smiled with his eyes.
“That’s Vor, my brother,” Jo said, turning back to her handset. “He doesn’t have a mouth.”
“I, uh, I can see that,” Kenzie said.
Jo laughed. “He etched one time too many. So his face caved in.”
Vor shrugged, as if to say, “Sure did,” and turned back around. He didn’t seem the least bit upset at his missing maw.
After a few more minutes, the automated transport glided up to docking clamp 18. Even though the trip had been strange up to this point, Kenzie knew things were about to improve significantly. She was going to meet Captain Dashiell Drake, hero of Gantoid IV and intergalactic adventurer. Better yet—she would serve on his crew for two whole weeks. Kenzie had been a Captain Drake fan since she was six, when her dad took her to see The Glory of Gantos, that old movie they made about him a few years after the Forger War ended—the war that took her mom. She didn’t have any actual memories of her mother, but her dad and grandparents made sure to remind Kenzie of her absence on a regular basis.
Anyway, after that movie, she’d been hooked. His autobiography, Drake: A Study in Courage, was a frequent source of inspiration. Captain Drake was one of the main reasons she wanted to enlist in the Academy after she finished high school. Serving under him on his actual ship was a dream come true—and it’d look great on her Academy application too.
It didn’t matter how weird Jo and her mouthless brother thought she was. This was going to be great.
Kenzie, Jo, and Vor grabbed their bags and approached the docking tube’s door. It slid open with a whoosh as they approached.
At the other end of the corridor, a familiar-looking Human leaned against the corridor wall, looking strangely tired. Sandy brown hair, five o’clock shadow, and features that belied his Euro-Asian heritage. He wore a rumpled jumpsuit under a Fleet jacket—the same kind of Fleet jacket she’d seen so many times in The Glory of Gantos. There he was. Not an actor. Not a book. The real Captain Dashiell Drake.
Kenzie walked down the corridor to shake his hand.
“Captain Drake,” she said, taking her first steps aboard her hero’s ship, “Mackenzie Washington, future cadet at the Alliance Academy reporting for duty—”
That’s when her foot got caught on the towel that was taped to the floor. She tripped and crashed to the ground in a heap.
From her left, she heard a computerized voice yell, “Holy crap!” She looked up: it was an Octopus in an exosuit that she hadn’t noticed a second ago, his tentacles wiggling.
Jo spoke next. “Why does it smell like lemons in here?”
3 - The Speech
Dash leaned against the wall, trying to keep the annoyance off his face. He was pretty sure it wasn’t working.
“That’s a Grade B dermal regenerator, isn’t it?” the cadet named Kenzie asked Doctor Bill.
“Very good, young lady,” the Doctor replied, waving the blue-glowing device over her hands and elbows.
She closed her eyes and shook her head. “That’s so awesome,” she said. “We only had Grade D regenerators at school. They took forever.”
“And I imagine that patients itched like mad too.”
“I know!” Kenzie threw her hands up, forcing Bill’s robotic arm to readjust. “It itched like crazy!”
Doctor Bill and Kenzie had been babbling at each other since the moment Dash carried her into the medbay. After tripping, a nasty purple bruise formed on her already-dark cheeks, and she started bleeding all over the docking tube floor. Luckily, a towel was handy.
Dash was impressed that her questions hadn’t slowed even when Doctor Bill applied the anti-inflammatory gel to her face. The gel didn’t hurt, but it felt mighty strange. Every time Bill treated Dash’s bruises with it, the captain made no effort to hide his discomfort. But Kenzie didn’t miss a beat—she just asked Doctor Bill about the gel’s various non-medical applications.
“One time at my school, a kid snuck out of gym class and put it in another student’s uniform as a prank,” she said. “It was nuts!”
“Now, that’s hardly safe—or very kind,” said a smiling Doctor Bill as he painted her face in the stuff, the swelling going down almost instantaneously. “What happened to the victim?”
“Well…I was out of school for a week,” she said, looking away. “But it was still pretty funny.”
“Ah,” he said, moving right past the anecdote. “Though somehow I don’t think that’s what the gel’s manufacturer had in mind when—”
“Um, excuse me,” said Dash.
Kenzie and the Doctor looked at Dash, who had left his spot on the wall and walked toward the center of the room, hands behind his back. By his side was Squix, whose skin had taken on a distinct shade of embarrassed yellow since Kenzie took her tumble. Meanwhile, Jo and Vor occupied two examination tables. Jo was on her handset checking her social feeds (for the fifth time in ten minutes), while Vor—the Crag kid with no mouth, Dash was alarmed to discover—busied himself by taking an extreme interest in the table’s side control panel. With each button push, a new medical diagnostic application appeared on the display or the table itself revealed a new mechanical function. He took particular delight in seeing the fluctuations in his biometric readings as he raised the table from the floor before lowering it again.
“So, if you guys are almost done,” he said, “I usually make a speech when new cadets come aboard, and I’d love to get back to our schedule—”
“Oh, so I get to hear the speech finally?” said Doctor Bill, putting his robotic hands on the bottom corners of his screen. The gesture would’ve been more effective if he had hips. “I’ve been on this ship for centuries, and I’ve never been invited to hear it once.”
“Centuries? This ship is that old?” said Jo. She didn’t look up from her handset. “No wonder you have to cover up the smell.”
“Ha, uh—it’s not nearly that old,” said Dash, frowning.
“Yeah, actually it’s closer to eighty,” said Squix.
Dash looked up at the ceiling. “Thank you, Squix.”
A loud buzz accompanied by metal grinding on metal came from Dash’s right. The examination table Vor sat on was at least two meters off the ground—higher than Dash had ever seen it go. Apparently the medbay itself was just as surprised and let everybody know with its alarm. It stopped when Vor began lowering the table again. His eyebrows were knit together as he considered the experience deeply.
“But, uh, anyway, I usually give the speech in the cockpit, so if you’re almost done, Doc…” Dash said as he took a tentative step backwards to the door.
“I still have a few more minutes of work to do to patch up young Ms. Washington,” said Bill, waving the dermal regenerator over Kenzie’s elbow. Dash noticed the device had gone dark.
“It’s not even turned on,” he said.
“It’s in low-power mode,” said Doctor Bill.
“Dermal regenerators have a low-power mode?” asked Kenzie.
Doctor Bill looked at her for a moment. “Yes.” He cocked a digital eyebrow. “Grade B dermal regenerators do,” he sniffed. He looked back at Dash. “Do please continue, Captain.”
Dash glared at Bill, saw Kenzie watching him intently, then cleared his throat.
“First I’d like to thank you all for coming aboard. Squix and I have been running this immersion experience for a while now, and we’ve worked with a lot of great young cadets looking to have, uh, real-world experience on a—a real-world ship.”
“I mean, um, a real ship,” he said. “Not a real-world ship. I mean, we’re a real-world ship, I guess. If that’s a thing. But anyway. I’d like to think our reputation speaks for itself.”
He looked at Squix. The Octopus stuck two tentacles together into a ball, then poked the tip of one up through it. His version of a thumbs up.
Dash took a deep breath—this next bit was usually pretty good.
“So. We who gather on this ship will embark on a grand adventure together,” he said. “An adventure…of learning.” Dash gently tapped a fist into his other hand.
“And an adventure of working—working hard to achieve our fullest potential. Working to keep the Gremlin flying. Working to prepare ourselves for the vast wonders of the galaxy. And working to make that galaxy—” Dash looked at the three cadets, two of whom were busy looking elsewhere. “—a better place.”
Kenzie yelped. Everyone in the room turned to see Doctor Bill’s robotic arms shaking, his face replaced with the chaos of static.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Jo, finally looking from her handset. “Is he broken?”
“No,” said Squix. “I think he’s laughing.”
Dash folded his arms. After another second, Doctor Bill’s face returned.
“Terribly sorry, Ms. Washington,” he said, squirting a pain-relieving cream from his left arm onto the knee he’d just whacked. “I really should be more careful. Here, good as new.”
Kenzie inspected her hand, elbow, and her newly cream-smeared knee, and smiled. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure,” said Bill. He pivoted to face Dash. “Now, Captain Drake, if I may ask a question? How, exactly, will you and the cadets here…” He smiled smugly. “…‘make the galaxy a better place’?”
Dash folded his arms again. “Actually, Doctor, I don’t typically take ques—”
“Yeah,” Jo said, glancing from her handset to side-eye Dash. “How are we gonna make the galaxy a better place if we never leave Arcadia Station? We’ve been here for, like, days.”
“It’s been fifteen minutes,” said Dash. “And actually, we’re going to—”
“Because I really think we oughta get this trip going, so I can get back to, like, my actual life,” said Jo, scrolling through her feed again. “I can already feel my social skills draining into my feet. Where are we even going first, anyway?”
“We have a delivery to make in the Motomondo system tomorrow,” said Squix. “And then we’re stopping at Pumbar, Grtbrl, and New Kentucky before heading to Rax to load more cargo for our trip back.”
“Thanks, Squix, but I—”
“Ew,” Jo said, sticking out her tongue. “Rax? Guh, don’t tell me we’re actually landing on the planet. I heard it’s all just moss and hair everywhere.”
“Now that doesn’t even sound plausi—”
“From what I’ve read, there is a lot of hair,” said Doctor Bill, his display nodding on the hinge connecting him to the medbay’s ceiling. “The Raxians are a very…hirsute people, and the planet’s chief export is wigs.”
“Wait, wigs? That can’t be—”
The medbay’s warning buzz came back, this time double in volume. Sparks shot from the control panel on Vor’s examination table. More than a few wires had been exposed since the last time Dash looked in that direction.
“Now fix that this instant, young man!” scolded Bill. Vor patted the air, possibly looking to put Bill at ease.
“He does this all the time,” said Jo, unfazed by her brother’s brush with electrocution.
“Okay, so, uh, I’d like him to stop,” said Dash, his voice starting to crack. “Seriously, I don’t even—”
“Well, he only does it when he’s bored, so maybe this one’s on you,” Jo said.
Dash’s face was getting hot.
“Captain, I have a question,” said Kenzie.
Dash wheeled on her, snapping, “What?”
The room went silent, and Dash’s hot white flash of anger was quickly replaced by a green gut-plop of humiliation. He felt everyone’s eyes on him—finally quiet and listening, but not quite in the way he’d hoped.
But Kenzie kept his gaze, a blank expression on her face. She didn’t even flinch at his outburst. After the briefest of pauses, she spoke.
“Shortly before boarding the Gremlin, I discovered the owner of the gift shop near the elevators on Arcadia Station was likely involved in some, uh, shady business,” she said, jumping down from the examination table. “We should go back and investigate. ‘Always leave the galaxy a better place than you found it,’ right?”
Dash stood up straight, realizing as he did that he’d been hunched over. He had a tendency to hunch when he got frustrated. And he’d just been very, very hunchy.
“What?” he said.
“‘Always leave the galaxy a better place than you found it,’” she repeated. “Page 113?” There was a pause as Dash just stared at her.
“From your book?” she said, her eyebrows scrunching together.
He coughed. “I don’t really, uh,” he scratched his armpit, looking at the floor. “I’m pretty sure station security can handle whatever’s going on at the—” He looked at Kenzie. “—gift shop?”
Dash looked around the rest of the room, then turned to leave. He rushed out the door.
“Thanks, Cap’n! Great speech,” said Squix as he left. “Now, how about I show you cadets to your rooms?”
* * *
When Squix walked into the dimly lit cockpit, Dash was practically laying across the main helm console, his head and face buried in his arms. At the sound of Squix’s entrance, Dash sat up in his chair, trying and failing to pretend he hadn’t been wallowing in a heap for the past several minutes. The only illumination came from a few scattered screens and some of the more important buttons on his console. Otherwise, Dash liked to keep the cockpit pretty dark—well, when he was in one of his moods, at least.
Dash’s display monitor, hanging above his seat, showed a live broadcast of the news from around the quadrant. He kept an eye on the broadcast while fiddling with his handset. He wasn’t really paying attention to either, but he thought he might appear busy enough that he wouldn’t have to talk for a little while longer.
“—six people died in the shuttle accident,” said the newscaster over the speakers, “while the other four passengers, including the pilot, have been missing since the wreckage was found a day ago. Local authorities noted that the cause of the crash is unknown, with no clear signs of technical malfunction—”
“The cadets are in their bunks, Captain,” said Squix, taking his seat in the navigator’s chair to Dash’s right. “Should I start making navigation calculations?”
“Mm-hmm,” said Dash.
“That Washington kid sure knows a lot about…” Squix paused. “Stuff. Lots of stuff.”
“When I showed her to her bunk, she told me all about how this model of ship was the second most widely used for cargo runs during the Precursor Wars.” Squix flicked a few switches and turned on his navigation display. “Did you know that?”
The newscaster continued: “—the political climate around Drai’s capital city has been in turmoil since the about-face from majority leader Skellen Arbo—”
“I didn’t know that,” said Squix. “Pretty interesting!”
The newscaster: “The Interstellar Alliance’s governing council continues to argue over deployment of jump-chain technology on member worlds, holdings, and space stations throughout Alliance territory. The initiative, which has remained a subject of intense debate since its first proposal by the Human delegation from Earth nearly a decade ago, would add an extra layer of security in the form of planet-wide force fields powered by a large-scale remote reactor Hub orbiting IA Prime. If approved, the system would supplement the jump-beacon network that currently connects all Alliance worlds. But despite the security benefits the system would provide, many non-Human council members oppose the jump-chains initiative, arguing the technology could slow trade and travel, and could also have calamitous atmospheric and environmental impacts on planet surfaces. John-Dean Clifford, the Speaker for Earth in the council, defended the initiative during a recent meet-and-greet at his office on IA Prime.”
The round, doughy face of Councilman Clifford filled the screen, his straight, white, smiling teeth gleaming as he spoke. His down-home, good-time accent reminded Dash of a pie that’d been left in the sun too long.
“Now, see, I don’t know how they do things over on Rhyolar or Aphix or any o’ those other planets,” he said. “But where I’m from, we like a good fence. Good fences make good neighbors, and I tell you what, I want our member planets to be just a bit more neighborly—especially with these Frawgs flyin’ around, tryin’ to eat folks—”
Dash realized he’d been transfixed by Clifford’s highly punchable face, so he looked away from the display and glanced at his copilot. While beginning his navigation calculations with one pair of arms, Squix started tapping some controls with another—depressurizing and retracting the docking tube—prepping the Gremlin for takeoff. The hiss of the docking tube releasing its atmosphere and the whir of its retraction back into the ship complimented the newscaster’s monologue.
“You’re watching 75X-GNN, Galactic News Network,” said the anchor. “As more details arrive from the incident at the jump-drive manufacturing facility at Delta Pallas III, Alliance authorities still speculate at what might have transpired. Currently, investigators are theorizing on the causes behind the sudden destruction of the factory and the asteroid housing it, as well as its jump-beacon, located nearby. Several government officials have speculated about the involvement of a cell of Frawg insurgents in the incident, though conclusive evidence to support those claims has yet to materialize. No survivors have been found since the facility’s destruction was first discovered two days ago. When reached for comment this morning, Fleet Commander Gerald Sharp didn’t mince words.”
An older man appeared on screen, his silver hair cropped close to his head, the picture of military efficiency. “Our investigation is ongoing, but once again I ask that certain members of the governing council consider supporting the jump-chains initiative,” he said, a weary kindness in his voice. “The threat posed by groups like the Frawgs has only grown in the years since the Forger War, and I know ordinary citizens throughout the Interstellar Alliance would sleep better with the added security the jump-chains system would provide—”
Dash switched the broadcast off. He rested his chin on his hands and stared out the main viewport at the front of the cockpit. “What do you think made that girl ask that question?”
“Which girl?” asked Squix. “Oh, and which question?”
“Washington,” said Dash. “When Kenzie asked if we should investigate the gift shop thing.” He shook his head. “Investigate. Like that’s a thing to do.”
Squix tapped a tentacle on the console thoughtfully. Its suckers stuck and unstuck, filling the cockpit with a popping rhythm that would’ve been annoying if Dash weren’t so used to it.
“I dunno, Cap,” he said. “Guess she figured you were into that sort of stuff.” He thought for a second more. “Maybe she’s a fan?”
Dash shut his eyes and shook his head. A fan. Great.
The endorsement deals had dried up years ago. No one had invited him to a grand opening or a ribbon cutting in ages. And the sporadic royalties that came in from the book and the movie barely made a dent anymore. It was hardly enough to live on. These days, Dash’s only reliable sources of income were taking on shipping and courier jobs and the cadet-immersion program.
He’d figured out that charging parents to have their kids help him load and unload cargo made more fiscal sense than hiring an actual crew. For the first few years of the program, the memory of the Forger War was fresh enough that he had no trouble finding new cadets. After all, what kid wouldn’t want the chance to work with the famous Dashiell Drake, hero of Gantoid IV? Who wouldn’t want to meet the man whose heroic feats helped put an end to the war and usher in a new age of prosperity for the Interstellar Alliance? Who could deny the offer of an authentic spacefaring experience at semi-affordable prices? Who wouldn’t want to work with the guy whose name could easily improve the chances of acceptance for any potential cadet’s application to the Academy?
As time went on, the answer to those questions turned out to be “lots of people.” At first, Dash was kind of upset at how, with each tour, fewer cadets actually knew who he was. But it didn’t take him long to feel relief at the lack of recognition. The downside, of course, was that signing up new cadets got harder and harder—resulting in the cost of “tuition” going lower and lower.
Having another fan on board was something Dash was not prepared for. And not particularly excited about.
At this point in his life, Dash just wanted to take whatever low-stress jobs he could find, get paid, and forget he was ever the most famous man in the Interstellar Alliance. Was that too much to ask?
Squix flicked a row of switches in quick succession. His calculations were done.
“Ready to depart Arcadia Station,” he said.
Dash opened his eyes and sighed. He sat back in his seat and took the helm control with his right hand.
“What’s our first stop?” he asked. As he spoke, he turned up the throttle, and the Gremlin began its trip away from the space station towards the nearest jump-beacon.
Squix reached out a tentacle and pulled a display screen close.
“We have enough fuel to make it to the Kembar Colony,” he said. “They have some pretty good technicians there, I think. So we can probably get the docking tube’s pressure valves fixed, maybe even upgrade the internal sensors like you mentioned.”
Dash nodded as he flew the ship to the entrance lane of Arcadia Station’s jump-beacon. There was a fair amount of traffic—which he’d planned to avoid, had it not been for the unexpected field trip to the medbay that kept him docked for an extra hour.
These jump-beacons—sort of like manned space-buoys—dotted the Alliance’s territory. They gave ships safe, easy passage to and from each star system when they traveled through the galaxy via jump-space—the alternate layer of spacetime allowing ships to move faster than light without smearing their crews into paste. Before the Alliance implemented the jump-beacon network, traveling between planets was chaos. It was nearly impossible to know when ships would jump in or out, where they’d come from, or where they were going. Unpredictable, unregulated jumps among the galaxy’s different civilizations was part of what led to the Precursor War.
But with that war’s end came the formation of the Interstellar Alliance. And from that, came the jump-beacon network. The beacons were a sort of interstellar highway, since each one communicated with all the others throughout the network. When a ship traveled to another system, the journey was logged in the system, the destination beacon knew to expect a ship, and intergalactic commerce blossomed.
And that meant that people like Dash always had a job hauling crap from one planet to another. It made owning a functioning spaceship a more important quality than, say, having any discernible life skills.
Dash sighed at the thought of his rapidly fossilizing ship. And that led to thinking about the bank account he and Squix shared to run the business—and how it might actually be on the full side with three new recruits aboard.
“Did the cadets’ tuition clear?” he asked, suddenly feeling bright.
Squix tapped and swiped on his display. “Yes!”
Dash stopped smiling.
Squix tapped a few times on the screen. “Uh-oh.”
“Uh-oh?” said Dash.
“Yeah,” said Squix. “Looks like I spoke too soon about those sensors.”
Squix tapped a few more times. “And also the docking tube.”
“Um,” said Dash, guiding the Gremlin in behind a blue Drook freighter as they headed toward the jump-beacon.
Squix tapped again. “It says here we have a negative balance in our account.”
The ship lurched as Dash turned to his first mate.
“What?!” he yelled as he wrestled his ship back into its lane.
The cockpit speakers pinged, and a voice piped over the comms.
“Pilot of the Earther transport ship Gremlin, do not deviate from your course, or you will be ticketed and fined,” crackled the voice of the beacon’s traffic agent.
“What do you mean, ‘negative balance?’” said Dash.
Squix turned green, curling and uncurling his tentacles reflexively. “Well, it looks like Arcadia charged us for another day’s docking fees. For that extra time we were, uh, docked.”
“Another day? We were docked for like an extra hour!” He switched on the comm dialer. “I’m calling Arnon.”
“Arnon doesn’t like you, Cap,” said Squix.
Dash held the helm steady with his right hand while punching in the code for Arcadia’s station manager with his left. “How do you know that?”
“He told me today while I was in his office, signing out our cargo,” said Squix. “He said, ‘I do not like your captain, Dash Drake.’ I’m like ninety-nine percent sure he was talking about you.”
“Well, I think he’s a bug-eyed freak,” said Dash, “but I can still do my job without screwing over everyone who breathes.”
Arnon’s voice buzzed through the speakers, his insectoid face already on Dash’s hanging display. “And who is this ‘bug-eyed freak’ screwing over today?”
Dash closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Then he smiled and looked at his screen.
“Hey, Arnon,” he said, trying his best impression of a person who did not want to fly his ship directly into the sun. “It’s Dash. Dash Drake. How you doing today, buddy?”
“You’re calling about the extra day I charged to your account,” buzzed Arnon. It was hard to tell when Aphids smiled, what with the mandibles covering their mouths. But Dash could hear the joy dripping in Arnon’s voice.
“Yeah, I was kind of wondering about that, because—”
Arnon cut him off. “You signed an agreement when you docked saying you were aware that we charge a daily flat rate. You exceeded your reservation without notice, so we had to add a surcharge.”
Dash attempted a good-natured laugh. When it exited his mouth, it distinctly resembled the sound of someone choking on his own rage.
“Well, sure, I know we went a little over, but we also had a medical emergency, as my ship’s records clearly indicate,” said Dash. “I know my doctor sent that over as soon as he activated his first-aid protocols.”
Dash watched Arnon lean back in his chair in his office on Arcadia Station. Behind the Aphid was a computer display that read, “Medical Emergency Report: Gremlin.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t get any report,” said Arnon. The station manager clicked a few keys, and the report disappeared from the display behind him. He’d deleted it.
“You stinking, mantis-faced—” said Dash.
Arnon tapped his headset. “Sorry, what was that? You’re breaking up, Captain.”
Dash nearly missed his turn to keep up with the beacon traffic ahead of him, so he swerved hard to compensate and narrowly avoided hitting the craft to the ship’s port side. A Crag coupe pulled up next to him to flip him off, just as the speakers crackled with the voice of the traffic agent once more.
“I’m warning you, Gremlin, stay in your lane or you’ll be fined!”
“Maybe you want me to take over the stick, Cap?” said Squix.
“What’d I ever do to you, Arnon?” Dash pointed at the display. “Why are you giving me this crap today?”
“I think you suck,” said Arnon without hesitation. “Your book sucks, your movie sucks, and that sandwich they named after you gives everyone on the station gas.”
Dash considered this.
“Okay, all of that’s true,” he said, “but why are you giving me such a hard time now? I’ve docked at Arcadia dozens of times the last few cycles, and you usually keep your repellent personality to yourself.”
“Earlier today my nephew was detained by Arcadia Station Security,” said Arnon, the smile gone from his tone. “One of the cadets aboard your ship accused him of stealing merchandise from a gift shop.”
Arnon blinked his eyes’ outer membranes, then continued: “It was extremely embarrassing for my sister.”
With that, the Aphid cut the connection, and the display went black.
Dash turned to Squix, who by this point had scrunched himself into little more than a ball with eyes.
“Kenzie Washington,” he said.
Dash stared back out of the main viewport. The Drook freighter next to the beacon made its jump, blinking out of sight in a flash of bright red.
“Okay, Gremlin, you’re cleared for jump,” said the beacon agent over the comm. “Next time you come through here, keep the drunk flying to a minimum, huh?”
“We’re broke,” said Dash.
The Gremlin’s viewport flared bright red, and the ship was gone