Chirwa gnashed his teeth and cursed and banged on the control panel. “Dammit,” he shouted. Khopesh jumped in her seat and glared at him. “How many hoops do we have to jump through?” he asked.
She shot a look at Dactyl, who shook his head and returned to the map of the Nu Fornacis system on his screen. “It’s fine,” she said to Chirwa. “We just have to …” She paused and scowled. “This is backward,” she said, and pointed to him. “You’re supposed to be the calm one.” She gestured at herself with her thumb. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be cursing and pounding stuff.”
He waved a hand and reconfigured their trajectory for the third time. “I can understand a few extra steps, but this is absurd.” He let out an angry breath. “Bastards.”
Dactyl chuckled. “Doesn’t seem very zen of you,” he said. “I thought you were supposed to be — ”
Chirwa raised a hand. “You misunderstand,” he said.
Dactyl waited. After a moment, he said, “What?”
“Eh?” Chirwa kept his eyes on the trajectory readout.
“What don’t I understand?”
Chirwa smiled. “Perhaps I can explain another time.” He gestured to the screen. “When we’re not trying to secure a dangerous package.”
Dactyl sighed furiously and took a swig of Cherry Nitrous.
Their comm system crackled; Khopesh had set the audio to ambient, so they could all hear. “Obsidian,” the voice said. Their contact in Nu Fornacis had a thin and watery tone, almost hissing through the void. For over an hour it had shuffled then across the system, tagging coordinates and demanding information.
Khopesh tapped a button on her headset, unmuting herself. “This is the Obsidian,” she said, allowing her eyes to roll a little. “Go ahead.”
“Please state your password designation hamzah-nine.”
Chirwa glared at the speaker near him on the control panel. “Our what?”
Gorf spoke up. “Eskendereyya, Fustat, Samannūd.”
Khopesh smiled. “Did you get that?” she asked into the headset. I sure hope so, she thought, because I have no idea what it means.
“Affirmative,” the voice said, and paused. “Next item: Your contract contains a selection of encryption protocols. These typically appear two-thirds of the way through the document.”
Chirwa brought the Nimbus X contract onto the main datascreen where they could all see. He scrolled through it and found a set of tables, filled with numbers and symbols, labeled Encryption Protocols.
“Yeah,” Khopesh said. “We’re looking at it.”
“Please provide the nineteenth code in the seventh quadrant.”
Chirwa moved through the tables and located the seventh quadrant. He used the indicator to mark the codes in fives, and circled the nineteenth.
“Okay,” Khopesh said. “It’s ‘Black Tortoise — ’”
“Backwards,” Gorf blurted, cutting her off.
Khopesh looked up. “What?”
“My instructions specify that contract encryption protocols are to be relayed in reverse.”
“This is ludicrous,” Chirwa said.
“Okay,” Khopesh said, and started at the bottom of the list. “It’s ‘Vermilion Bird of the South / Xīng’. And then ‘Azure Dragon of the East / Jiăo’. And then ‘Black Tortoise of the North / Shì’.”
There was a pause. “Thank you, Obsidian,” the voice said, followed by a longer pause. “Please stand by.”
They waited. Chirwa closed his eyes and listened to the hum of the engines as they idled.
“Thank you for your patience, Obsidian,” the voice said. “We have confirmed your legitimate verification. Welcome to Nu Fornacis.”
Khopesh could feel the relief spread through the cabin. She sat back in her chair and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.
“Please proceed to Fortunato-7,” it said. “Coordinates and a planetary terrain projection are being sent to your data frequency now.”
“Woah,” Dactyl said, as he patched a navigation screen onto the main display. Khopesh and Chirwa muttered their own admiration as a globe appeared, and was wrapped in a map. On the far side of the planet, a green spot pulsed slowly. “That must be where we land,” Dactyl said, pointing. He returned to the navigation panel and entered the coordinates for their final approach.
“Fortunato-7, huh?” Chirwa asked. He turned to Dactyl. “If anyone offers to show you fancy wine in their basement, don’t go with them.”
“Huh?” Dactyl shot him a confused look, but Khopesh chuckled and shook her head.
“Hmm,” she said after a moment. “Isn’t that kinda what we’re doing, though?”
Chirwa looked sideways at her and then gazed through the viewscreen as the planet came into view from their left.
Fortunato-7 was a planet of lush blue meadows and forests, gentle black mountain ranges, and serpentine red rivers. The crew of the Obsidian marveled at the herds of animals romping across the fields — one cluster of large and slow oblong behemoths here, another gaggle of nimble and quick critters scampering around them. The sun of Nu Fornacis poured glowing orange through the atmosphere, saturating the terrain with a hazy aura.
And then their landing zone came into view. Still pulsing as a green dot on the projection map, it was a silver grid of silicon cut into the planet. The square of pure silver radiated sterility in the mid-morning light, coated in a hive of chemical tanks and processing centers. As they approached the hangar bays, they watched hundreds of vehicles and workers swirling around the facility.
They set down and stepped out into the harsh light of day, intensified by the stark brightness of the surface beneath them. It was silicon all over; a solid blanket of silver reaching across everything in sight. The holding tanks were white; the roofs of the buildings were covered in solar panels. The walls were light grey. Everything else was silver.
“Welcome to Fortunato-7,” the familiar thin voice declared. They looked toward it and blinked with dissonance. A muscular green creature, almost eight feet tall, strode purposefully toward them on four legs. They almost rotated as they moved, cycling through support and propulsion. Hard to believe such a large person can move so quickly, Khopesh thought. It wore a dark red uniform with a molecule logo marked “ZPC” inside a shield on the chest. Long antennae cascaded from the top of the creature’s head to halfway down its back, its hide covered in black stripes. Two pairs of arms — sinewy but lithe — swung as it moved. A variety of weapons were strapped to a pair of belts along its midsection. Three eyes across its face glared with a strange sense of determined calm. A pair of smaller pink spheroid individuals trailed behind it; one clutched a tablet computer, while another had a pair of black metal cases clutched in its hands, each emblazoned with the ZPC logo.
“Thank you,” Khopesh stammered, and murmured to the others: “I did not expect him to look like that.”
“Yeah, really,” Dactyl said.
“It,” Chirwa said, nodding. “Or them.”
“Yeah,” Khopesh whispered. “Right.”
“The Zonite Products Corporation is pleased to be working with you,” the creature said. As it reached them, it placed its top right palm against its bottom left, and vice versa, then bowed. Khopesh and the others returned the gesture as best they could. “I am Fetu,” it said. “Chief of security in this facility. I will be supervising this acquisition.”
“I’m Khopesh,” she said, and gestured to the others. “This is Chirwa and Dactyl.” She watched as one of the pink assistants typed furiously into the tablet. It supported the device with a middle arm while two larger limbs pecked furiously at the keypad with three fingers each. She looked around the complex. “This is quite a location,” she said.
“Yes,” Fetu said, and held up a hand. “I can tell you about it, if you wish. But first I wish to begin loading the cargo.” It glanced at each of them. “Is this acceptable?”
“Yeah,” Khopesh said. “Sure.” She glanced at the others, who shrugged.
Chirwa gestured with his thumb. “Lemme show you the cargo hold.” He walked toward the rear of the Obsidian.
Fetu chirped at the second assistant in a language that was half-whistle. It mimicked Fetu’s bow as best it could with the cases, and scurried after Chirwa.
“The process of loading will take about one hour,” Fetu said, smoothing its antennae down along the back of its head. “I imagine you wish to use the time wisely.”
Dactyl shrugged. “We’ve been flying for a week,” he said. “We’re not in any rush — ”
Khopesh raised a hand. “We appreciate your efficiency,” she said, and gave Dactyl a look. He rolled his eyes and took a swig of Cherry Nitrous. He stuffed his other hand into the pocket of his black cargo pants. The second assistant emerged from the hangar bay and called out to its companion. Khopesh peered at them; they each had five eyes, and their mouths had no teeth. The creature gestured to its tablet computer and exchanged a few whistle-words with its associate. Sounds tense, Khopesh thought. But who knows? Eventually they scurried back into the facility and Chirwa rejoined the group.
“How do they move so quickly?” Khopesh asked, gesturing after the creatures.
Fetu wiggled its antennae and gave a tiny smile. It lifted one of its feet and displayed a thin sandal strapped over it. Khopesh and the others crowded around to see. The bottom was a silver-green circuit board with a galaxy of tiny components. Fetu pointed to the floor. “These devices allow workers — all of us — to move 31% more quickly, improving efficiency and lowering costs.” It raised a finger. “And,” it continued, “this allows the workers to enjoy more of their meal times and leisure breaks.”
Chirwa raised an eyebrow. “Yes,” he said in a deadpan. “A more efficient workplace usually means a better life for the workers.”
“Absolutely,” Fetu said, nodding. Chirwa exchanged glances with Khopesh, who shook her head a little. Maybe they don’t use irony, she thought. We should drop it.
Instead, she asked: “How long have you been at this location?”
“About three months,” Fetu said.
Khopesh froze and traded looks with the others. She scowled at Fetu. “I’m sorry?”
Fetu nodded. “Yes.” From behind him, a line of pink spheroid creatures emerged. Each one was pushing a black crate almost as large as itself. The ZPC logo was emblazoned on the front, and Khopesh noticed that each one rested on a thin plank of silver-green circuit board. Just like their shoes, she thought. Clever.
Fetu motioned for the first one to stop, and undid a small seal on the top of its crate. It gestured for the pink creature to step back, then beckoned Khopesh and the others to approach. They peered inside to see a clear cylinder surrounded in the corners by foam padding. A viscous aqua-grey fluid rested inside.
Fetu removed a polyethylene stopper from the center of the cask and produced an eyedropper, which it held toward Khopesh. “For your approval,” it said.
She glanced at the others. “Uh,” she said.
Chirwa’s eyes were wide with anger. “Absurd,” he said. “That’s all we need.”
“What?” Dactyl said, scowling at Chirwa. “Why not?”
Chirwa blinked in disbelief. “Why not?” he repeated. “What do you think this stuff is?” He gestured into the cylinder. “What do you think it will do to you?”
“How should I know?” Dactyl said, spreading his arms. “Isn’t that part of the fun?”
“Fun!” Chirwa said suddenly. He looked sideways at Fetu, who was still trying to offer the eyedropper to Khopesh or Dactyl.
Dactyl looked at Khopesh. “Isn’t this what you do?” he asked. “Sample the merchandise?”
“I don’t know,” she hissed, giving Fetu a brief weird half-smile. “I’ve never bought drugs before.”
“Well I have,” Chirwa said. Khopesh froze and stared at him. “And the first rule is: You don’t take anything you can’t identify.”
“So have I,” Dactyl said, “And — ”
“What the hell?” Khopesh said, throwing her hands up. “Since when am I travelling with a gaggle of drug addicts?”
Dactyl jabbed a finger at her, then Chirwa. “And the first rule in my experience is ‘Thou shalt not harsh everybody else’s buzz.’” He snatched the eyedropper from Fetu, who smiled. He jostled it with his wounded hand, the missing finger causing a bit of difficulty. He steadied it and moved toward the cylinder’s opening.
“I might suggest,” Fetu said, raising a hand gently, “the minimum possible dose.” It gestured to the fluid. “Our products are known for their extreme potency.”
“Do customers usually dilute them?” Khopesh asked.
“Very much,” Fetu said.
“Whatever,” Dactyl said. “They don’t call me Mad Dog Dac for nothing.” He drew the eyedropper one-third full and squirted it in his mouth.
“Not the mouth,” Fetu said suddenly, its eyes wide.
“Why not?” Dactyl said — or would have, if his mouth and voice had not frozen halfway through the “not” and stretched out and held themselves in the air. He started drooling and slumped over onto the ground, still crooning the vowel sound of “not”, even as he breathed in and out.
“Fecal fornication,” Khopesh said, dropping beside him. “Are you okay?” His eyes had turned the same aqua-grey color as the fluid, and the drool flowed at a steady trickle onto the silicon ground. She looked up at Fetu. “What should we do?”
It blinked each of its three eyes in turn. “About what?”
“About what?” Chirwa repeated, flailing a hand at Dactyl. “Does this not concern you?”
Fetu spread its top hands. “His breathing is steady and his voice is resonant.”
“Hooray,” Khopesh said. “He’s singing.” She raised a hand to her ear. “Listen to him hold that note.” Dactyl continued sounding the vowel of “not”.
“Why are you upset?” Fetu asked Chirwa, who blinked and stammered.
“Our friend here is catatonic and drooling on himself,” he said.
Fetu extended all four hands toward Dactyl. “He has never been in a more euphoric state,” it said.
“Well,” Khopesh asked, “what the hell does a negative reaction look like?”
“In the 0.13 percent of customers who report negative interactions,” Fetu said, “cardiac interruptions and inverted neural cytosis are the most common symptoms.”
“His heart could have stopped?” Khopesh yelped.
“Or his … ” Chirwa peered into the middle distance, then at Fetu. “What is ‘inverse neural … ’ whatever?”
“A very unpleasant brain trauma,” Fetu said with a blank face, “followed quickly in 99.4% of cases by death.”
Khopesh removed Dactyl’s hat and ran a hand through his dirty brown hair. She sighed and listened to him continue his vowel sound.
Fetu looked from her to Chirwa. “You seem upset,” it said. “Allow me to summon a medical xenophysiologist.” It turned and spoke to one of the pink creatures, who scurried off into the facility.
After a moment, another of Fetu’s species joined them. It wore a white uniform with a variety of red icons — a cross, a crescent, a star, a hydrogen atom, and several others — across the lapels. It clutched a pair of cases, each marked with the ZPC logo.
“Alisi is an expert in twelve species,” Fetu said as the medic set the cases down. “Including humans.” It gestured toward Dactyl and spoke a few whisper-words.
Alisi opened one of the cases and removed an oblong device. It waved the stick near Dactyl’s forehead and it beeped. “Thirty-seven point two four degrees,” it announced, and looked up at Fetu. “The voice is resonant.”
Khopesh and Chirwa exchanged a look. “Yeah,” Chirwa said finally. “It sure is.”
“You sound worried,” Alisi said.
Khopesh flailed a hand. “He doesn’t usually drool on himself and make this noise.”
Alisi looked to Fetu. “What noise does he usually make?”
Fetu said a few whisper-words and Alisi nodded. It said a few back, but Fetu shook its head. Fetu said another whisper-word, which Alisi repeated loudly. It looked at Khopesh. “Why did he put the fluid in his mouth?”
Khopesh sighed. “I guess your study of humans didn’t get to the part where we ingest most things through the mouth.”
Chirwa nodded to the cylinder. “How is this usually taken?”
“After dilution,” Alisi said, glaring pointedly at Fetu, “it is most commonly applied to the back of the hand.” It pulled at one of Dactyl’s eyelids. “The pharynx conduit increases significantly the potency of the dosage.”
“So how long will he be like this?” Khopesh asked.
In one quick fluid motion, Alisi slid one hand under Dactyl’s head, shoulder, waist, and leg. It hefted him into the air and then placed him gingerly back on the floor. It exchanged some whistle-words with Fetu, then looked at Khopesh. “Nineteen more minutes,” it said. It put the wand back in the case, and produced a hypodermic needle.
“Woah,” Chirwa said. “What is that for?”
Alisi pulled a small vial from the case and began drawing from it with the needle. “A mild allylnoroxymorphone derivative,” it said. “This will … ” It looked to the side as it found the word. “Soften the jolt of his awakening.” It injected Dactyl’s arm and stashed the needle and vial, then glared at Khopesh. “Do not allow him to ingest any more of this substance through his mouth,” it said.
“Don’t worry,” Chirwa said. “In fact.” He walked to the cylinder, took the stopper from Fetu and sealed the cylinder. He closed the lid and latched it shut, then waved at the pink creature waiting nearby. “Load it up.”
Fetu nodded to the pink creature, then waved at the others. They began shuffling the crates toward the Obsidian’s cargo hold.
Dactyl rubbed his eyes and groaned. “Holy crap,” he said, and wiped at his soggy cheek. “What happened?” He glanced around, his vision blurry. “Khop?” he murmured. “Is that you?”
“Yeah,” she said, and closed her book. “Don’t try to get up.” She stuffed the book in a pocket of her dark green pants and knelt beside him.
He glanced around and rubbed his eyes. “Where am I?”
“We’re on Fortunato-7,” she said. “In the hangar bay next to the Obsidian.” She gestured to the ship, where a stream of small pink creatures were hauling crates toward the rear of the ship. She cupped a hand to her mouth and hollered: “He’s up!”
“Okay,” Chirwa said from inside the ship.
Dactyl pushed himself up into a sitting position and stretched his legs. “What’s this thing?” he asked, pointing to the canvas tent overhead.
“Fetu had it placed to protect you from the sun,” she said. “The medic said it wasn’t necessary, but Fetu insisted.” She leaned closer to him and dropped her voice. “I think maybe he thinks we’re from Nimbus X.”
“Hey,” Dactyl said, shrugging. “Let’s go with it.”
Chirwa approached with a tumbler of water. Dactyl took it, peered inside, and gave Chirwa a look.
“Drink it,” Chirwa said. His face was dirty from working in the cargo hold.
“Give me some — ”
“Drink this first,” Chirwa said, his eyes deadly.
Dactyl sighed. “Fine,” he said. He drank quickly, emptying the tumbler, and belched. “Oof,” he said. “I needed that.” He handed the cup back to Chirwa, who raised an eyebrow and hesitated. Then he pulled a canister of Cherry Nitrous from his vest pocket and handed it over. “Ahh,” Dactyl said, and released the carbonator.
“So,” Khopesh said. “What was it like?”
Dactyl wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He thought for a moment. “Intense,” he said finally. “Hard to describe.” He glanced around. “Is that container still open?”
Khopesh glared at him. “You cannot be serious.”
“I’m gonna dilute it,” he said, gesturing to the Nitrous.
She looked at Chirwa, who shook his head with a smile. “Unbelievable,” she said, and stood. “You’re never touching that stuff ever again.” She pointed to the cargo hold. “Show me,” she said to Chirwa. They wandered off.
Dactyl watched the pink workers lug crates past his tent. One of them, riding an empty conveyance device like a skateboard, slowed as it got close. Dactyl realized it was looking at his hand. “Oh,” he said, flexing the remaining fingers. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Lost it in a fight with some tentacle aliens.” He smiled.
The creature glanced toward Fetu, who was distracted by its assistants with the tablet computer and cases. Then it looked longingly back to Dactyl.
“Oh,” he said, realizing where the creature’s eyes were locked. He held up the container. “Cherry. Nitrous,” he said, trying to enunciate without being loud. Little guy’s obviously timid. Maybe he’s worried about getting in trouble. He held the canister toward the worker. “You wanna try?”
It gave him a surprised look and stepped off the conveyance device. It dropped to its knees and held all three hands out in an odd prostration.
Dactyl shrugged stood up. He put the Cherry Nitrous into its middle hand. The creature snatched it and began chugging. “Hey!” Dactyl said, and moved for the drink. The creature jumped to its feet and dodged, gulping and sucking it down. “I said you could have a sip.”
Fetu raced over and said some whisper-words as the creature handed the canister back to Dactyl. “What is this worker doing?” Fetu asked.
Dactyl shook the empty canister. “I gave this guy a sip of my drink and he guzzled the whole thing.”
Fetu’s eyes shot open and it drew a large blaster from its belt. The pink worker scurried behind Dactyl, who scowled with wide eyes at Fetu.
“Woah,” he said, holding his hands up. “What are you doing?”
“Removing this pest,” Fetu said, genuinely confused. It held the blaster to the side. “I should have asked you to avoid interacting with them.”
“You don’t have to kill him,” Dactyl said, and patted the worker with his left hand. “Can’t you just give him a warning or something?”
Fetu leveled a patient look at Dactyl. “The Zonite Products Corporation has a very clear policy on employee-customer relations,” it said, and gestured to the worker. “This … individual has been trained comprehensively in that policy. It knows very well what the consequences are for deviations.” It followed this with a string of whisper-words, which caused the worker to moan in response.
“Well,” Dactyl said, his mind spinning. “I want you to leave him alone.” Hey, he thought. This guy thinks we’re from Nimbus X, right? “We’re not … uh, if my … employers find out a worker was killed during this pickup, they’ll be really mad.” He tried to stand up straight.
Fetu cocked its head. “The contract sent to us explicitly declined the production morality clause.”
Huh? Dactyl thought. What the heck does that mean? He blinked. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know what they told you, but they were very clear with us.” He turned a little and pointed to the creature. “You are not to hurt this worker.”
Fetu made a strange expression that Dactyl couldn’t read. It said a few whisper-words and waved its two left hands. The pink creature scooped up its conveyance device and ran back into the facility.
Fetu looked at Dactyl with a cool gaze and nodded. Dactyl nodded back.
“How much is that?” Khopesh asked as they watched the workers trudge past with crate after crate of the product.
Fetu held up a hand and the line stopped. Fetu exchanged whisper-words with the assistant clutching the tablet computer, then pointed to the first worker and gestured for it to move again. “This is 79.2,” it said, and pointed to the one after it. “Point four.” And the one behind it: “Point s — ”
From around them, explosions erupted on all sides. Laser blasts tore through the air and the little pink creatures began screaming. Fetu pulled two weapons from its belt and began firing toward the facility. It managed somehow to scream whisper-words into the air, and the pink creatures broke into two groups — one headed for the Obsidian’s cargo hold, the other back into the ZPC facility. Fetu waved for Khopesh and Dactyl to join Chirwa in the ship. “Inside!” it called.
“What’s going on?” Dactyl asked, ducking down and waving smoke away. A laser blast caught one of the pink creatures in the side and it spun around, its conveyance device sliding away. It fell to the ground, motionless. “Holy crap!” Dactyl shouted.
“Onto your ship,” Fetu barked. “Go now.” It blasted toward the facility and pushed Khopesh as a beeping device flew past her. It landed ten feet away and exploded. Dactyl held up an arm against the flying debris. They hustled on board and turned to see Fetu just outside, staring down two others of its species.
“Chirwa,” Khopesh shouted toward the cargo bay, slamming controls on the command console. “We’re taking off. Close it up!”
“Already closing,” Chirwa called back. Khopesh ran through the launch checklist at double speed and motioned for Dactyl to shut the airlock.
“Hang on,” Dactyl said over his shoulder. “Dude’s got his foot in the door.” Khopesh glanced over to see one of Fetu’s legs was in fact pressed against the side of the outer door.
Fetu suddenly shrieked in a register even higher than normal. It spoke in a burst of syllables and glottal stops, and the other two responded the same way. They shrieked over each other a few times, and Fetu kept one blaster trained on each of them. The tension built as they swapped weird alien words. Then Fetu blasted the one on the right and dropped it with a scream. The other one blasted back, but Fetu dipped into the Obsidian and an explosion outside rocked the ship.
“We have to leave the planet,” Fetu said, gesticulating to Khopesh.
“Hang on,” she said, and stared at the cargo bay door indicator. It finally flashed green and she fired the ignition. With a lurch, the Obsidian leapt skyward and tore off into the sky. They could hear blaster fire slamming into the shields.
“We don’t even have the full shipment,” Dactyl said, throwing his arms up. “They’re not going to pay us for a partial delivery.”
“Perhaps we’ll receive a partial payment,” Chirwa said, wiping his hands on a grey towel as he emerged from the hold.
“Or,” Dactyl said, and raised his wounded hand, “maybe they’ll partially dismember us.”
“Neither of those things will happen,” Fetu said, and collapsed into Dactyl’s navigation chair. “I can assure you.” It smoothed its antennae down over the side of its head and took a deep breath. “I will serve as collateral for the remainder of the shipment.”
“Sure,” Dactyl said quietly. “You can sit there.”
A few minutes later Khopesh set the Obsidian into an autodrift toward the Nimbus spirals. “Okay,” she said, turning to face Fetu. “What in the hell happened back there?”
“I had hoped to prevent you from this unpleasantness,” Fetu said. “Things have gotten messy, and you’ve landed in the middle of it.”
Khopesh scowled at the creature. Its huge frame was an absurd mismatch for Dactyl’s chair, and it sat slumped with a resignation unsuited to its usual military bearing. “The middle of what?” she said. “We signed up for one delivery.” She raised a finger and pointed it about. “In, out, done.”
Fetu looked at her with an odd mix of pity and intensity. “That is no longer an option, I’m afraid,” it said. It looked the same way at Dactyl and Chirwa. “I hope you didn’t have any plans.”