The Fate We Share by Bridget A. Natale

Eya Borges was in trouble as soon as she started the ignition sequence, and it wasn’t just because she was a demolitions expert and didn’t actually know all that much about piloting. Antiss tech was never designed with human pilots in mind. The shifters and levers were built for insectoid claws, not fleshy mammalian hands. Attempts at audible commands were useless, as Antiss communicated via releases of aromatic pheromones and tonal mandible clacking. The computer would not process vocal cord vibrations shaped by soft mouths and tongues. Eya flipped the switch to enable the Human Accessibility Protocol. She pulled on thick leather gloves to protect her palms from the manual controls as they shifted to a more manageable configuration. Even with HAP, the edges were still far too sharp for human hands.

The green light in the top left corner started flashing, indicating HAP was complete. “Enable liftoff sequence,” Eya commanded, being careful to snap her teeth on the consonants.

“Ignition sequence initialized,” the computer confirmed. The shuttle shivered as the magnetic engines were unlocked and the hangar bay airlock depressurized.

Eya hopped out of the pilot’s seat and tiptoed to the window, peering back at the corridor access. “Come on, come on,” she muttered under her breath.

“Not able to process command, please repeat.”

“Uh, disregard.” Eya took one last glance at the corridor. Nobody. Not even a shadow. She darted over to the command console and strapped herself into the pilot seat. Which was still far too big, even after running HAP. She tried to lean back completely, but the neck rest hit the top of her head instead of the back of her neck and pushed her cranium forward. “Shit,” she muttered. “Spine’s gonna be out of alignment.” There was nothing she could do about it, except endure the inevitable sore neck whenever she landed.

“Not able to process command, please repeat.”

“Disregard!”

The hangar bay doors slid open. Slowly. Way too slowly. Eya craned her neck to check the corridor just in time to see the big, black bug eyes of the night guard blinking at her before scurrying off. Too late. She settled back and grinned. By the time the drone was able to rouse the rest of the garrison, she’d be in the nebula.

Finally, the magnetic locks decoupled and she punched the thrusters to full bore. The shuttle hurtled out of the hangar, headed straight for the unmapped swirling cloud of astral dust, gaseous eddies, and planetoids.

“Enable the secondary scanning array, find me something we can land on.” Eya checked the standard scanners. Clean.

“Understood.” The computer began pinging softly as they slipped into the nebula.

Eya gripped the yoke and prepared to dodge the bigger asteroids. The plan was simple. Land. Plot a course out to the nearest human zone. Avoid recapture long enough that the Antiss decided she was more trouble than she was worth. Head to safety.

The worst thing that could happen is the Antiss might find her and execute her. Fine. Anything was better than rotting in a POW ship for the rest of her life.

Anything.

***

The next ten hours passed without major incident. There were a few false positives that turned out to be just clusters of useless asteroids, and a few close calls when the proximity sensors missed other clusters of asteroids until they were nearly bumping against the hull. But then the sensors picked up something Eya didn’t expect.

“Distress beacon, bearing mark 658.34.8.” The computer reported in the usual monotone, like that wasn’t the single most stunning piece of information either had ever heard.

“No shit, really?” Eya flipped the switch to pipe the distress call over the audio.

“Not able to–”

“Shut up.”

The signal was weak and choked with static. Eya course corrected for a closer path. “Computer, do what you can to restore the audio. Probably some kind of radiation interference.”

Gradually, the signal stabilized enough that Eya could make out the words. A human voice. Female. Older. Weak. “Stranded. Ran out of e-rations… name is… don’t know how long… please help. Completely alone…”

Eya weighed her options. Whoever set the beacon was probably dead. Leaving the beacon active would help throw the Antiss off her trail. But could she really abandon another human this far into Antann space without even a cursory check? Besides, if that woman was able to survive long enough to set a beacon, it was probably a decent place to land.

“My name is Yira… Don’t know how long I… please, anybody, help me. I am completely alone…” The message repeated. This time the woman somehow sounded even more desperate.

“Damn you,” she muttered under her breath as she course corrected again, preparing to descend to the surface of the planetoid.

“Not able to process command–”

“Prepare landing sequence.” Eya sighed and tightened the straps on her restraints. “We’re landing on that planetoid with the distress beacon.”

“Affirmative.”

***

Eya rubbed her aching neck before settling the helmet over her head and securing the gasket around her throat. The readings all indicated an unusually high concentration of oxygen and nitrogen, enough for her to breathe without carrying her own air. But it didn’t make sense that a planetoid so small would have that solid of an atmosphere. So she wore the suit, just to be safe. Her friends would laugh if they saw her being so cautious.

The shuttle wasn’t designed to make it easy for humans to climb in and out. Eya crouched at the side of the hatch and peered down. It was a good seven foot drop to the surface, which looked to be comprised of a greenish-gray loose gravel. Seven feet wasn’t a guaranteed broken leg, especially at 0.8 gravity. But it was likely.

For the second time in no more than an hour, her better judgment won out and Eya lowered herself out of the hatch with a tie-line.

Still sore from the poorly-designed pilot seat, she stumbled on the gravel before she managed to catch her balance and look around. The greenish-gray gravel spread out in all directions, meeting a steel gray sky at the horizon. There was no sun in the nebula, no single source of light. Instead, various gaseous eddies waxed and waned creating an ever-present, ever-shifting gloaming.

Eya could spy the emergency beacon on top of one of the ridges to the starboard side. If Yira was around, that was a good place to start looking. Besides, she had to shut off the beacon before the Antiss picked it up. She took a moment to double-check her oxygen supply before she set off.

The place was dead. The only sounds were her footfalls on the gravel, muted through her exosuit, and her breath inside the helmet. There was also a persistent, high-pitched pinging sound in her ears, probably from her body adjusting to the different atmospheric pressure of the planetoid. Her stiff neck and the face guards limited her peripheral vision, causing her to turn around every time she felt a prickle on the back of her neck. “Keep it together, Borges,” she muttered under her breath. “Nothing here but dust and rocks. And maybe a person.”

It didn’t take her long to reach the beacon. Or maybe it did. She didn’t feel tired at all, maybe a little winded, and very hungry. The light was no help, no way to tell how much time had passed. “Remember to bring a watch next time,” she reminded herself. Out loud, because it felt more permanent.

The beacon itself was old, and constructed of the cobbled together remains of a myriad of different species’ tech. She could see Human, Densi, Bedivite, Maqabite, and Antann all strung together with metallic tape and copper wire. The thing was a hodgepodge of power sources and emitters, stretching about twelve meters high with a big, flashing bulb at the top. “No wonder the message was all garbled.” It would be easy enough to blow the thing up, but that felt wrong, somehow. Like destroying some piece of folk art. She followed the wires down to the batteries and carefully disconnected each one, brushing off corrosion at the connectors where the dust had collected.

Soon enough the flashing bulb went dim and the beacon was dead. Eya breathed a sigh of relief. If the Antiss were going to find her, they’d have to do the work themselves.

She sat down on the ridge and rested a moment, looking out over the valley and the gravel dunes on the other side. There was something that tugged at her about this place. Something oddly alluring in the gray dust and gravel and the gray sky above. Her friends would laugh at her if they knew. She was always a lake country girl.

Her friends. The thought slipped away like a handful of fog. “Kells. Alek. Renny. Bram.” She recited their names under her breath, proving that she still could. She’d see them soon, when she left this rock and got back to Human space.

She stood up and set off back to the shuttle, at an even quicker pace than before. As if she could escape the sad feeling that haunted her at the thought of leaving.

***

Time passed. How much, Eya didn’t know. It could have been a few hours or even a day or two. Probably not more than that.  Every time it occurred to her to check the time, she got distracted. One thing was unavoidable, however. The shuttle was not equipped with enough e-rations to support a single human for more than a week. There were plenty of Antann e-rations, of course. But it would be a while before Eya was desperate enough to attempt to choke down bone cubes and freeze-dried loam. And Antiss never needed much water.

“I need to get going soon anyway,” she muttered to herself as she gnawed her second-to-last protein bar. Then hissed and winced at the sudden, sharp pinging rang in her ears. “Be nice when that stops.”

After eating as much of the protein bar as she could manage to stomach, she brushed her hands on her pants and looked out the windshield of shuttle. Yira, or what was left of her, was still out there. The planetoid wasn’t that big. She could complete a thorough survey and still have enough rations to last her until she mapped a route out, if she was careful with the water. At least she had something to do while lying low.

She checked the life support readings. The shuttle was drawing air in from the planetoid with minimal filtration. The biggest problem was scrubbing out the dust. She decided to save her air tanks this time, in case she had to make some kind of emergency spacewalk later, and tied a bandana around her mouth and nose.

Lowering herself down on the tie-line again, she took a deep breath of the air. It smelled dry, like crushed stone, with the faint, unexpected undercurrent of something earthy and sweet. After making a cursory attempt at orienteering she discovered her compass was useless. The planetoid might be big enough to have a gravitational field, and a breathable atmosphere, but it was far too small to have a magnetic pole strong enough for the needle to settle on a direction. She watched it waggle lazily from side to side just long enough to get frustrated before tossing it in the gravel.

She climbed up to the beacon and turned her back to the shuttle. Maybe it was because she had acclimated, or maybe because she wasn’t wearing a helmet that time, but as she looked out over the plain she was struck by how beautiful it was. The rocky surface shimmered grayish-green and grayish-purple as the gaseous eddies flared and faded in the slate grey sky. The sort of view she could look at forever and never get tired of.

“Won’t get the chance to get tired of it,” she reminded herself as she set off down the other side of the ridge. Her ear started to ring, and she rubbed it absent-mindedly. An alluring red glimmer caught her eye and she headed toward that. Yira might have seen it, too, and been just as interested.

***

Time was deceptive. Distances were deceptive. Eya kept stopping to spin around and glare at nothing but the grayish-green plain stretching out behind her. There was nothing there, despite Eya’s creeping feeling that something was watching her. Something very, very interested in her.

She rubbed her neck. “Damned PTSD.” That long on a POW ship was enough to leave all kinds of scars. “Kel. Aleks. Benny. Ram,” she recited under her breath, trying to fill the silence with something other than the sound of her footsteps on the gravel. A breeze stirred her hair against her cheeks, but made no sound.

Eventually, she reached the source of the red shimmer. Or at least, the ravine where the red shimmer had been. Eya crouched on the edge and peered down. Nothing but crumbling shale walls furred with pale lichen. Whatever she thought she had seen was gone. Or maybe it had never been there in the first place. A trick of one of the gaseous eddies, flaring at a different temperature than the others, sending a sliver of radiation to the surface that was then refracted by the slate into a shimmery pool of red light.

There was a pile of something at the bottom of the ravine, different from the other grey, crumbly slate that made up the planetoid. Something white and smooth and gnarled, like driftwood or coral. She tried to look closer, but her eyes wouldn’t focus and the ringing in her ears returned full bore. She cried out in pain as she crouched and clasped her hands over her ears until it faded.

Trembling, she stood back up and brushed the gravel from her exosuit. “So that’s where that’s coming from, huh.” She tried to look over the edge again and immediately started gagging. Closing her eyes and covering her mouth with her hand until she choked back the wave of nausea, she turned her back on the ravine. “Must be the radiation.”

A few staggering steps away from the ravine, her nausea cleared up entirely. “Where are you, Yira.” She rubbed her eyes and squinted at the area surrounding the edge of the ravine. More gravel, with the occasional outcropping of shale. She pulled her canteen off her belt and shoved her bandana down before swallowing a mouthful of water, cleaning the last of the acid out of her mouth.

It wouldn’t take long to get back to the shuttle, and she really wanted to get away from the ravine. She located the derelict beacon and started heading for it again.

A scrap of fabric wedged under an outcropping of shale fluttered in the breeze. Something she missed on the way out. A bit of unnaturally bright flourescent green reflective fabric, the type used on Human-made exosuits. The kind designed to be easily spottable in an emergency. And this one would have been easy to spot against the monochromatic background, if it weren’t camouflaged by a thick carpet of lichen.

“Yira!” She jogged over, her heart thundering in her chest. She had water and half a protein bar left. She could help Yira, get her back to the shuttle and then leave.

Ignoring the pinging in her ears, she knelt by the outcropping and tugged on the scrap of fabric. “Yira!” Sobs tore at her throat and she yanked the fabric. “I’m here! I’ve come to rescue you!”

A dry, cracking sound sliced the air. The fabric and the bone and skin underneath it all snapped and crumbled. The arm separated from the rest of the body.

Eya sat, staring at the arm in her lap as the soundless breeze ruffled through her hair and the lank grey hair of the long-dead corpse.

***

The hand was dropped somewhere between the ravine and the beacon. Eya managed to find the energy to run up the ridge and then stumbled down the other side, nearly falling as the gravel shifted under her feet. Her heart beat faster, and her mouth was dry as toast.

She knew she should conserve what she had left. But her stomach was cramping and her neck was sore and the dehydration was getting hard to bear. Finally resting underneath the shuttle, she drank the last of her water. “Just get out of here. Get water somewhere else.”

The pinging in her ears was so loud it made her dizzy as she climbed back up the tie line. Her fingers were clumsy, her body stiff. “Just leave. Find your way out.”

The pinging in her ears got louder. She clapped one hand to her ear while she fumbled with the controls. The sharp edges cut into her palms.

“Engines!”

“Not able to process command, please repeat.”

Eya almost sobbed with relief at the calm, familiar, disinterested computer. “I need you to… to…” The pinging rang so hard in her ears that her teeth began to ache. “We need to leave. We need to leave.”

“Not able to process command, please repeat.”

“Computer I need you to–” she gritted her teeth and grabbed the controls with both hands… The edges cut into her palms deep enough to bleed. “The protocol. To move. To… liftoff?”

“Not able to process command, please repeat.”

“The liftoff sequence!” She curled her hands to her chest, the blood staining her exosuit.

“Not able to process command, please repeat.”

Eya bit her lip hard and squeezed her eyes shut. “Don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry,” she whispered to herself. There was no water to spare. “Computer. There’s a sequence that makes the shuttle fly. Can we start it?”

“Do you wish to initialize liftoff sequence?”

“Yes!” Eya nearly sobbed in relief. “Yes, initialize liftoff sequence.”

The computer chimed in affirmation.

“Oh, I could kiss you.”

“Not able to process command, please repeat.”

“Forget it.” She buckled the restraints over her chest and tried to focus through the constant ringing in her ears.

The shuttle shivered as the magnetic engines unlocked. Eya let out a whoop of elation.

“Not able to process command, please repeat.”

Eya laughed out loud. “We’re getting out of here, baby! Just head for the horizon, I’ll take care of the rest.”

“Not able to process c-c-com…mand… please…. Repeat-t-t.” The computer’s vocal interface faded as the shuttle shuddered and came to a stop.

“No.” Eya stared at the console as the lights began to fade. “No!” She slapped the console with the flat of her hand and shrieked when her wounded palm made contact. “No don’t! I don’t know how to fix you!”

There was only silence.

***

It took some time for her to force herself not to cry. With no water and no way off the planetoid, she needed to think clearly.

“Elka, Benny, Karam…” She mutters to herself as she clambers down the tie line. “There was another… Yira.” A wave of grief for Yira nearly brought her to her knees.

The beacon. If she can reach it, she should be able to get it to start working again. It might bring the Antiss down on her, but right now the POW ship didn’t seem so bad. At least they have water.

She choked on the dust before remembering to tie her bandana over her mouth and nose. The beacon. Up on the ridge. Shining in the glare of a flaring eddy, the light forming a golden halo around it.

She half-climbed, half-crawled up the ridge. The gravel shifted and slithered under her feet. She nearly fell more than once, but did not falter. “For Yira. They need to find me and Yira.”

She staggered to the beacon and began reattaching the wires to the batteries, pounding the generators and adjusting the angles for the best chance that somebody might pick it up. Her numb fingers remembered everything she never knew. Memories of hands rose in her mind, hands that were smaller and paler than hers. Hands that built the beacon. Hands that belonged to somebody else. “Yira must have shown me,” she whispered to nobody as she fed the power from the largest battery to the main housing, careful not to overload the circuits.

The beacon hummed to life, heat from the wires warming her hands, light from the signal shining on her face. Eya sat, cross-legged at the base of the tower and looked up in wonder until she fell into a deep, peaceful sleep at the base of the tower, curling around one of the legs.

***

Eya sat on the ridge, leaning her back against the base of the beacon, staring at the sky. “Please, please, please,” she whispered, her lips cracked and dry. Each flicker of the eddies caught her eye, and each flare lit hope in her heart that help was on the way. And each time she was disappointed as the light faded.

Until one flare didn’t fade, but got bigger and bigger and bigger. A shuttle. Somebody had heard their plea and was coming to rescue them!

Trembling, she pulled herself to her feet. She wanted to run down the ridge to them, to scream in relief, but she stayed frozen to the spot.

Her saviors, six of them, disembarked from their vessel and swiveled their eye stalks, taking in their surroundings. Tall, angular, the dim light glittering on their carapaces. Familiar chittering clacked against her eardrums. Antiss.

This triggered a feeling, deep inside her. She tried to grasp it, but it slipped away. “Hey!” She waved both her hands over her head. “Over here!”

Twelve eyestalks swiveled in her direction and the Antiss chittered excitedly. Again, she wanted to run down the ridge to meet them, but something held her back, like a giant fist around her. They started moving up the ridge, toward her, hissing commands and gesturing sharply with their forward legs.

“Yira,” she whispered to herself. They needed to get Yira. The Antiss wouldn’t know she was there, they would assume Eya herself had made distress call. “There’s another! This way!” She spun on her heel and ran back down the other side of the ridge, toward where she had seen Yira.

The Antiss followed. Eya could hear their hindlegs scrabbling at the gravel, their thoraxes dragging on the downward slope. She could see ahead of her a flash of green fabric, a tumble of gray hair.

“Yira!” Eya shouted. “They’re here! They’re going to help us!”

The Antiss behind her chittered and hissed. But Yira did not turn around. Instead, she walked into the dark abyss of the ravine. She was moving so slowly, but Eya could not catch up.

“Yira!” Eya screamed. She ran as fast as she could, faster than she thought she could. “Yira!”

Yira disappeared into the ravine and Eya followed without hesitation. A flicker of fear trembled inside her, like a candle on the other side of a window. Memories of what had happened the last time she went to the lichen-furred ravine flitted hazily through her mind. Even hazier were the memories of what had happened the last time she was on an Antiss ship. Both thoughts slipped through her mind like sand through her fingers.

The red light had returned to the ravine and it was so beautiful, Eya could cry to look at it. She paused and looked up, the light shimmering above her. Light dancing like water. The Antiss skid to a stop behind her, clustering together and gesturing angrily at her.

“No, we need Yira, too,” she insisted. “She’s in here.”

The tallest one darted forward to grab Eya, but she was too quick. She dashed away and bolted further into the ravine, where Yira must have gone.

“Help me!” A voice called from deeper in the shadows. “Please!”

It was Yira. “I’m coming!” Eya’s breath came in ragged sobs, her legs trembled beneath her. But she could see Yira right ahead, standing on a pile of bones.

“Help!” Yira reached to her.

“I’m here!” Eya scrambled up the pile of dry, clattering bones, the snapped-off ends tearing into her hands, the smooth skulls shifting under her feet. “I’m here!”

The Antiss hissed sharply. And then began to shriek as the ground shook and a deep, rolling rumble could be heard.

Yira began climbing the ravine walls, and Eya followed close behind. The crumbling stone offered precious little security, but Yira knew each handhold, every foothold. Eya followed close behind.

The rumbling got louder. A sticky, viscous, slithering sound followed and the Antiss began to scream, scrabbling at the wall where Eya had climbed, unable to follow. Yira stopped on a ledge and beckoned to Eya, and Eya followed.

When she got to the ledge, Yira was nowhere to be found. It was a small outcropping of rock, just big enough for Eya to curl up, hugging her knees. She smoothed her hand over the entire back wall of stone, looking for the passage Yira had disappeared into.

Yira.

A thought. Eya grasped for it, clutching with all her might. A dry crack of bone and a crumple of long-dead skin. A scrap of green fabric. A lock of gray hair. Yira.

The screams of the Antiss were drowned out. The pinging started. Eya glanced down over the edge of the ledge. The ravine was flooded about twenty feet high with a translucent crimson colloid. It rippled and rumbled. Eya could see the shadows of the Antiss within it. Tearing at the viscous fluid, floundering, going still.

She covered her mouth with her hands. The sticky, slithering sound got closer and she watched helplessly as the red colloid stretched over the opening. She tried to scream, but no sound came out. There was nobody who could hear it anyway.

Pressing herself against the stone, Eya braced for the touch of the creature. But it never came. It just sealed her within the outcropping. She closed her eyes and wondered how long it would take her to die.

***

Some hours later, Eya was surprised by a warm breeze on her face. She opened her eyes to see that the colloid had left, and she could leave the outcropping. Cautiously, she peered over the ledge, down into the ravine. The colloid was still there. The bodies of the Antiss were still suspended in the colloid, their lifeless eyestalks staring up at her, their mandibles spread wide in silent screams. Their limbs stretched out, grasping at nothing. The pinging started.

She looked away and the pinging stopped. Looking up, she could see the handholds and footholds highlighted by the red bioluminescence of the creature, showing her the way out.

She reached the top. The air smelled earthy and sweet. And there, at the edge of the ravine, was a pile of lichen. Her stomach cramped with hunger, her cracked lips stung when saliva wet them.

She turned away. “Can’t make me,” she muttered. The pinging started. And got louder. And louder. And louder until she swore her skull would split with it. She looked back at the lichen and the pinging stopped.

She crouched and picked up a bit of lichen. It was crumbly and damp. She nibbled a bit. It tasted of blood and chalk. She could tell there was some kind of fluid in it, at least.

Enough to keep her alive.

She knelt and chewed resolutely, choking down the damp, fibrous plant matter as the pinging in her ears eased. “So you like it when I do what you want, huh?” She laughed dryly to herself.

There was no answer, pinging or otherwise. She turned and crawled to the edge of the ravine, grabbing fistfuls of the lichen and shoving them into her mouth. She stole a glance at the colloid. It was still digesting the Antiss. If it could get distracted, now would be a good time.

She ate until she couldn’t stand any more, and then set off toward the beacon. “I’m going to repair it,” she muttered to herself, focusing on the words coming out of her mouth and not the thought of what she was really going to do. “Make it better.”

By the time she reached the beacon, the wind had picked up. Hot and dry and reeking of the sweet, earthy smell of the creature, it whipped a dust cloud around her. “I’m going to repair it. I’m going to make it better,” she chanted as she grabbed some discarded, rusty tools and started to work.

It was her own hands this time, her own memories. Reroute the power back to where it came from. Overload circuits, start a fire so hot there’s no stopping it. Especially not on a planet so dry. “This is the sort of thing that got you in trouble in the first place, Borges,” she laughed to herself. “All those Antann communication relays.” The pinging in her ears started, confused and distracted. It was too late.

The batteries glowed white-hot and hissed, sending bolts of electricity racing up the metal frame to the flashing relay bulb at the top. The pinging in her ears got worse. “I’m going to fix it! I’m going to make it better!” She laughed on the edge of hysteria and stumbled back several yards, trying to get out of range.

The entire beacon glowed, and the bulb flared so bright she had to close her eyes. The pinging screamed in her ears. She screamed back as the beacon exploded in a torrent of sparks and collapsed in on itself.

The pinging shrieked so loud her teeth hurt, and Eya collapsed to the ground, clutching her head and curling up. The smell acrid of burning metal and gravel stung her nose. The gravel bit into her skin through the exosuit. “Too late too late.” The pinging faded into a dying wail, and Eya laughed until she felt sick.

She pushed herself upright and grinned with sharp teeth at the still-smoking pile of blackened, twisted metal. “I’m all you’ve got, now. So you’ll either have to eat me or help me leave and try to get somebody else for bait.”

There was no answer. Just silence and the hot wind on her face.


Bridget A. Natale is a playwright and novelist originally from Pittsburgh and now residing in Seattle. Her most recent play, Bread of an Everyday Life, was featured in Freehold Theater’s New Play Lab Showcase and her stories have appeared in publications such as the Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Devilfish Review, and Daily Science Fiction. She also writes for Beyond Geek Culture. In her free time she enjoys dabbling in political activism, various entrepreneurial schemes, and teasing her cats.

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