Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 60
Stories
Dry Run
by Kurt Pankau
The Stowaway
by Stephen L. Moss
Mercy at Eltshan-time
by Stewart C Baker
Primum Non Nocere
by Caleb Williams
IGMS Audio
Primum Non Nocere
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Charity
by Julie E. Czerneda
Bonus Material
To Guard Against the Dark
by Julie E. Czerneda

Charity
    by Julie E. Czerneda

First published in When the Villain Comes Home
edited by Gabrielle Harbowy & Ed Greenwood
Dragon Moon Press 2012


Throughout the labyrinth of pods and corridor tendrils that was the Ship, strings hummed into motion at the 3rd divide of the 4th cycle, pulling denizens to their assigned tasks, drawing others home from their labours. The procession was orderly and swift, for denizens built well and with forethought. Tails wrapped or claws did. Those with burdens took advantage of hooks. Like commuters anywhere, some gossiped as they traveled while others buried their broad snouts in readers or dozed.

The journey was a full 8th longer since the new pods had budded, ready to be coaxed into useful structures, but no one complained. More housing was a now-urgent need. The oldest pods were hollow, unlivable shells; the Ship would soon shed them. The denizen population, ever-growing, had been prepared, about to expand into the next cluster of freshly prepared and furnished pods, but that was no longer possible.

Others lived there now. Others who found the pods to their taste, if not the strings connecting them. He'd see some if he looked in what wasn't down, but was away and dark and narrow, for the others traveled the corridor's machineway, clinging to conveyors and assemblers and fabricators like bits of lint.

1055th Sanitation Engineer Tissop snapped his thumb over the decel string, releasing his tail's curl around the corridor string with an instant's delay that spun his body towards the waiting iris of his home. The flashy move gained him askance looks from those speeding past in either direction, but they were ordinary denizens and unimportant.

The iris membrane let him through, absorbing his momentum so Tissop entered his home with the calm dignity of someone now far from ordinary and exceedingly important.

To be greeted by floating green balls.

"Children! Catch dessert!" Raekl gave him an apologetic look as she herded their latest litter in chase. "A good cycle, husband?"

Tissop dodged the leading edge of the swarm only to collide with the mass that followed. His uniform, spotless through an entire shift, acquired blobs of sticky green goo.

"Sorry, father!" Rus, Ssu, and Spel bounced and tumbled through the air in pursuit with the nonchalant grace of those raised in null-g, catching the errant food in open mouths; likely their plan all along. They were, he thought with proud exasperation, too clever for anyone's good. No leaving this set with a minder. They'd have the poor denizen tied up by his or her tail and locked in a cupboard in moments.

Gravity would help, but that required a home within a pod's gentle rotation, not blistered from a corridor. The Ship responded to such wounds with increased growth, so denizens took their turn living like this. That didn't mean they enjoyed it. Denizens belonged where they could use their pairs of strong legs and even stronger arms, where food could be lapped from proper bowls instead of sucked from bulbs, where bathing could be a properly luxurious soak instead of a process requiring a sack, scrub aerosols, and vacuum hose.

Soon, Tissop thought fervently. Soon.

"Your day?" Raekl reminded, gathering Ssu with her tail and eyeing the other two sternly.

Despite three litters and advancing age, she was handsome. Some silver on her magnificent snout and above those expressive eyes; a roundness to her shoulders and back from cycles spent at her consoles. Neither mattered. Raekl was exceptional in every way and much too good for the denizen he'd been.

Until now. At last, finally, he deserved her. "My day," Tissop proclaimed with satisfaction, "was--" He stopped short, nostrils flared at an unexpected, all too familiar scent. It couldn't be. It wasn't possible.

It was. Raekl dipped her snout in greeting as the other floated from the main room to join them in the antechamber. "There was a mix-up in the shifts," she explained. "I told Curtis you wouldn't mind."

He did mind. He minded each and every 5th cycle, when this two-armed, two-legged intruder in black arrived to share their table, but Raekl was only being kind. She worked with Curtis in the biolabs on the 5th cycle shift and the newcomer came for supper afterwards.

4th cycle, Curtis shouldn't be here. 4th cycle, Curtis belonged in a mid-cluster pod, with other refugees.

Oh, they had another name for themselves, albeit untranslatable, and polite denizens referred to them simply as newcomers, but the truth was what it was. They'd no home of their own--why, no one had explained. Rumour, that mainstay of news, claimed their vessels had been ludicrously ill-suited to deep space--yet, that's where they'd been, remnants of some disaster, adrift and desperate and alone, until the Ship passed by.

Or rather, here they were, for how could denizens ignore their plight?

Easily, Tissop grumbled to himself, glaring at Curtis. But those who guided the Ship hadn't asked the opinion of those forced to remain in substandard housing along the corridors while strangers took their promised homes. Yes, the Ship would grow new pods, especially, as was its way, having absorbed what it craved from the newcomers' vessels, but the process wasn't quick. By some accounts, the new pods wouldn't be ready until his latest litter needed homes for theirs. They'd be stuck in the corridors, exposed to null-g longer than any denizen should be.

Or so the rest believed, accepting their fate. Denizens were dutiful.

His skin tingled with pleasure, cilia rising along the insides of his arms, as Tissop contemplated the evening newsfeed. Oh, the uproar to come . . . the hasty explanations. How could such a thing happen?

Only he would know. Tissop the extraordinary. On the commute home, he'd fantasized telling his family what he'd done, imagined them sharing his triumph when all unfolded as he, Tissop, planned, but of course he mustn't. The result would be enough.

Of course, on the commute home, he'd been sure they'd be eating alone.

With Curtis somehow present--the matter of how being of considerable, if untenable, interest--the sour note in Tissop's stomach assured him anonymity was indeed best.

From Raekl's troubled scent, he'd been silent too long. "Why would I mind?" he declared with forced cheer. "Greetings, Curtis."

Curtis spread her lips, exposing flat, uninteresting teeth. She--for it claimed to be female despite lacking any feminine trait he could discern--hadn't learned this first, least lesson in courtesy, but then, the newcomers weren't ones for blending, Tissop thought with familiar irritation. "Greetings, friend Tissop. Clean any sewers?"

"Someone must." Tissop mimed her smile, ignoring Raekl's disapproval as he exposed the brilliant orange of his upper toothplate. It wasn't as if the newcomer could grasp the crudeness. "And you, Curtis? Cure any plagues?"

The creature laughed. The newsfeeds called it a fortunate congruence, that both races expressed humour in a similar fashion. Tissop had yet to be convinced Curtis's laughter had anything to do with amusement.

Shooing their wide-eyed children into the other room, Raekl slipped her tail into the crook of Curtis's arm as if to apologize for her husband's lack of manners. "I've made your favourite," she assured their guest. Tissop's stomach turned again. The offering that so pleased their foreign visitor gave him gas. "We can share our accomplishments at the table, husband," this with a hint of orange beneath her lip. "Once you change into clean clothes."

Cowed, Tissop ducked his snout in mute acquiescence.

Curtis smiled again.

Much as Tissop longed to access the newsfeed, given Raekl's mood, he dared not. He'd have settled for curling in his webbing chair with a bulb of fermented nectar to sooth his abused gut, but that small respite was denied. Their litter had learned a splendid new song in school today and nothing would serve after supper but the adults, including Curtis, stay hooked to the table to pay due attention to the performance.

Performance? Torture, as he'd feared. Rus was loud, Ssu tone-deaf, and little Spel, over-stimulated by their romp with dessert, sang faster and faster. With grim determination, Raekl kept her ears up and forward; every so often her eyes darted to check the state of his, in case he quailed.

Having noticed the high notes made Curtis wince, Tissop was more inclined to ask his litter for another song, but Raekl would have seen through it. She made sure he behaved as a proper denizen should and he was grateful, most of the time.

If only he dared tell her what he'd done for them all.

Just thinking of it, with Curtis in the same room, filled Tissop with a sneaky, inner warmth. Not sneaky enough, for Raekl's lovely nostrils flared with interest and she ran a thoughtful claw through the cloud of her mane in a way that suggested he offer to bath the litter and tie them in their sacks early.

"What shall we play?" Scent-blind and oblivious, Curtis pushed herself as deftly as any denizen from the table to the cupboard on the ceiling where Raekl stored the games. Not that corridor quarters had ceilings or floors, being without gravity, but the words were their own comfort. Denizens could be stubborn as well as clever.

Tissop sighed, the inadvertent exhalation sending him back towards the wall. He damped the motion with a stroke of his tail along the table edge and decided to make the best of it. The news would get out and these painful evenings end. "Anything but glantstix," he offered generously. The newcomer's squishy digits gave her an unfair advantage.

"It's Raekl's turn to pick--" Curtis began.

Suddenly the lights dimmed, both table top and ambient, then pulsed a painful, warning orange.

The children sailed to their mother, clinging to her torso, while she, fearing the worst, soared to the emergency cupboard with a powerful thrust of both legs.

"It's not a breach!" Tissop blurted.

They all, children, wife, and guest, stared at him. Raekl took hold of the cupboard egress, but hesitated, her mane adrift. "How can--"

The orange faded and normal lighting resumed.

"See?" he said quickly. "A system test." But surely it wasn't. As Tissop waited for the announcement to follow, he found himself unable to look towards Curtis. He didn't fear her; the newcomers were a puny race by denizen standards and Curtis small for her kind. The children were more than a match, let alone Raekl or himself.

But he wasn't ready to see her face when she heard the news.

"Tissop?"

"Listen."

The lights brightened once more, then normal lighting was restored. The voice he'd expected filled the air. The denizen who spoke for the Ship was always calm and confident, managing to blend the soothing undertone of a minder with the precise snap of a leader.

Until now. This voice shook and stammered, words pouring out in an alarming flood. "Fellow--fellow d-denizens. A d-disaster of unprecedented severity has taken p-place. We remain safe, thanks to the Ship and thanks to you, but we're not out of d-danger. 6th cycle shifts are cancelled, without exception. String m-movement has ceased. Stay within your homes or workplaces until further notice."

Schooling his expression as best he could, Tissop waited impatiently for the rest, for the explanation and his triumph.

But the broadcast ended there.

"Mark my words," Curtis said carelessly, "it'll be the plumbing. Always is, on ships." She opened the games cupboard. "Might as well play. Glantstix, was it, Tissop? I'll spot you the first couplet."

Freeing herself from their trembling litter, Raekl gave Tissop a meaningful look. He tried to give back one of his own, but she lifted her lip and he lost. "You're welcome to spend the night, Curtis," he muttered without grace, though why his home should be violated, only the Ship knew.

"An excellent suggestion, husband. I'll find a fresh sack." Having settled matters, Raekl was in her element as host. She eyed their guest. "I believe one of the children's will do. You're so nicely compact, Curtis."

The com panel blinked a summons. Raekl made to answer, then stopped. "Tissop, it's your code, Tissop. Marked urgent."

His? "I'll take it in our room," Tissop announced, trying to sound as though such summons happened every cycle instead of never. He pushed himself through the iris before Raekl could say another word.

His stained uniform floated accusingly in midair. Tissop used his tail to flick it aside as he passed, hands gripping the strings that made this and several actions feasible in null-g. At the panel, he took hold of the child-proof netting Ssu had dismantled twice, that they knew, and breathed on the intake to establish his identity. Steady, he told himself, his insides fluttering. He'd planned for this, planned for everything.

"All sanitation engineers suit and report to stations. 1st priority. Acknowledge."

A recording? His lips pulled back in frustration and the netting snapped in his claws.

"All sanitation engineers suit and report to stations. 1st priority. Acknowledge."

1st priority meant a threat, occurring or imminent, to the populous. Or to the Ship, which amounted to the same thing, since denizens lived no where else. Disconcerted, Tissop curled his tail and hunched into a ball, floating in front of the com panel. What he'd done . . . there was no chance of harm to his own. He wasn't bent.

"--Acknowledge."

The recording would continue, louder with each repetition, until he did. Tissop keyed in his code with a claw, silencing the voice.

What could have gone wrong?

He pulled out his biosuit and began the tedious process of donning it, playing every possible scenario in his mind's eye, as he had each waking divide of every cycle since forming his plan. There was no flaw. No point at which his protocols could or would spread to threaten denizens or the Ship.

Revolving slowly between bedsack and laundry, Tissop slipped his hands into the glove bulb, waiting for the liquid to congeal over skin and claws to form a flexible, protective shield, and thought harder.

He'd been careful, yes, he had. The sanitation process was a simple one, really. Inform the Ship a cupboard was ready to be purged, and the Ship would do so. Nothing more than a change in scale to empty a pod the same way. The trick had been to deal with those inside the pod, for the Ship would not knowingly take life. Even if it would, he could hardly expect the newcomers to remain quiet while every wall collapsed and every ceiling cracked open to space.

He'd been clever, oh yes, and responsible. No one noticed wastes; very few knew or cared where they went--not until there was a problem, then no engineer slept. He'd found a plethora of little tweaks and almost mistakes waiting to be made, each innocent of itself, but their sum? Oh, their sum wasn't innocent at all.

At a time when he, Tissop, was home and asleep in his sack, the sum of little mistakes had bled toxins into a specific air supply. By the time the eager cries of his and Raekl's hungry litter had awakened him, nothing could have awakened those in the newcomer pod.

Sanitation took place as scheduled; the Ship, ever hungry for materials, gleaned what it craved from the debris before resealing the pod. That it destroyed evidence at the same time hardly mattered.

What did matter was a well-contained--tidy, he thought with content--catastrophe, affecting only newcomers. One pod, emptied by seeming accident. There'd be an investigation or several, but there was nothing to find. Everything he'd done was, of itself, harmless and untraceable.

Like himself, one of the anonymous thousands working in the Ship.

If that first accident proved insufficient, another newcomer pod would be cleansed, then another, in order but at random intervals. He didn't want to exterminate them. That would be vile.

He wanted them off the Ship, that was all.

They'd run, he was sure, as they'd run before. They'd beg the denizens to put them off somewhere, anywhere. A dozen systems lay in reach, any one of which suitable.

And he'd have his Ship back.

So why a 1st priority alert?

Tissop removed his now-gloved hands and pulled on both pairs of boots. He dealt with his tail last. He could have wrapped it around his waist, inside the 'suit, but that was crippling for the sake of convenience. It was worth the time to run the glove bulb from base to tail tip, pressing the appendage into the coating material. Careful, responsible, and thorough. Like any denizen.

Like his plan. Tissop resolved to join the ranks of his fellow sanitation engineers, be one among many, and learn what had happened.

The strings hummed along the corridor, empty of all but grim, suited figures, late heading home. 1055th Sanitation Engineer Tissop dutifully transferred to the decel string well before the iris of his door, letting it slow him to a stop before he entered.

"Raekl, I'm home." No floating globs of dessert greeted him, though it was suppertime. Tissop removed his headgear, careful not to let it float free. Check everything, they'd been told, and he'd done his best for a full cycle. His eyes burned; his mouth felt like pipe insulation. He wanted nothing more than sleep.

No, he wanted answers.

"I don't need supper," he called, to forestall any offerings. The suit came with rations; he hadn't had the stomach for them, not once he'd heard the report.

Yes, a pod had been accidentally sanitized by the Ship, one of the newcomers.' How fortunate none of them had been inside at the time.

Fortunate? Impossible. He'd scanned the pod for biosign before tripping the first of the mistake sequences. It didn't take an expert to read a display that counted hundreds.

For nothing. Not one newcomer was missing. Rumour was rampant, but unhelpful. The most popular involved some newcomer revel, doubtless exotic, gathering them all in another pod.

It made no sense--"Raekl?"

"Greetings, friend Tissop." Curtis slipped effortlessly into the antechamber. "The family's asleep. They stayed awake most of the night, waiting for news." The newcomer, for once, didn't smile. "Is there any?"

"Why are you still here?" Of course she was still here. No unauthorized movement was permitted, not yet, in the corridors. Tissop calmed himself with an effort. "My apologies, Curtis. A long shift."

"I'm sure. Come. If you aren't hungry, then drink with me."

A drink would be welcome. Being invited to do so in his own home was not, but Tissop couldn't find a reply that wasn't churlish. "I'll clean up."

For no reason, Tissop checked on the litter first. Rus, Ssu, and Spel were clustered near the ceiling, their little snouts, wrinkled in sleep, poked from their sacks. He felt a sudden impulse to wake them, to be sure they were fine, but restrained it. Raekl would have had trouble enough getting them calmed to rest, being confined to their quarters all cycle with a houseguest on top of it, and wouldn't thank him.

Drifting close, he inhaled their living breath. At least one, he noted wryly, had neglected to scrub his or her toothplates.

Leaving the children, he went to the room he shared with Raekl. It was dark and chill, the atmosphere reset to their sleep preference, but she'd tethered her sack near the iris to catch him coming home. Tissop managed to slip beneath without waking her. He stripped off the biosuit, tucking the pieces into his sleep sack, breathing deep. Raekl's scent differed from the children's, more complex, tainted with worry and exhaustion, yet above all comforting. He wished to stay; should stay.

Would, but for the alien in his home.

The light within the table was brighter than the ambient when Tissop reentered the main room, casting disturbing, unfamiliar shadows. Curtis sat at one end, having slipped her too-small feet into one of the table loops. An array of clear bulbs clung to the table surface; his entire supply, at a glance. "I didn't know which you'd prefer," the newcomer said blandly, as if Tissop's belongings were hers. The play of light and shadow emphasized the strange length of her jaw and hollowed the sockets of her deep-set eyes. She smiled, teeth bizarrely white. "I like preehn liquor, myself."

Preehn being Tissop's favourite and hard to come by, he scowled and swept up two bulbs of common ale as he came to the table, sending one tumbling at his unwelcome host. Curtis caught it and pressed it to her mouth.

There was a bladder of something more substantial among the bulbs. Leftovers, no doubt. Warmed by the homely gesture, Tissop decided he might be hungry after all and reached for it.

"Something different, that." Curtis chuckled. "We left supper to the little ones while we worked." She took another swallow, a convulsion traveling down her narrow throat. "Kept them busy, but Raekl said to warn you mumpsweets were the main ingredient."

Tissop redirected his reach to another bulb of ale. They'd worked together, in his home. His wife and this--this creature who should, by his calculation, be grieving, if not dead. He drank deeply, then ordered the ambient to normal levels, pleased to see Curtis squint.

The newcomer didn't appear overly discomfited, taking another bulb, this of preehn, and letting her hairless head tip back. "Quite a day. Do you have a deity, friend Tissop?"

He managed not to spew. Despite the air scrubbers, Raekl would notice the smallest tinge of ale. Until the Ship had taken in strangers, only those denizens engaged in trade communicated directly with other races. They'd come on the newsfeeds to instruct the rest, warning that cultural differences could be greater than the physical, urging denizens that offense could be given without intent. Spiritual beliefs were not, under any circumstances, to be discussed by those unqualified. He found he didn't care. "Do newcomers?" Tissop asked boldly.

"Some do, some don't. I'm inclined to believe after what happened today." For once, Curtis read his expression. "What--didn't you hear the report?"

He'd been told the same as the rest: a pod sanitized by accident, disappointingly without casualties. A report given lower-ranked sanitation engineers might not, Tissop thought uneasily, be the one granted researchers like Curtis and his wife. "The problem was isolated," he said lamely. "An accident--"

"Then why the alert? Why--" with that rude smile "--am I still here?" Curtis held up her bulb of ale, appearing to study it. "What series of happy mistakes led to every inhabitant of that pod being assigned to other quarters on 3rd cycle? A god to thank would be convenient. Unless it was you, friend Tissop. Should we thank you?" Before Tissop could attempt to answer, the newcomer waved the bulb. "Or some faceless denizen, doing his or her duty less well or better than most. Ah! I have another notion--"

Curtis pulled herself closer to him and lowered her voice. "It was the Ship, protecting us." She spread her arms. "Thank you, Ship!"

No, it wasn't. The Ship was alive the way the sludge that ate denizen waste was alive. It didn't make decisions or take actions other than those dictated by the denizens within it. Ships without denizens lodged in asteroid belts, growing aimlessly, trapping hunks of rock to digest what they needed and ignoring the rest.

All of which Tissop kept behind clenched toothplates, abruptly afraid to match wits.

"Which does make me wonder," Curtis said next, seeming content to carry the conversation by herself. "None of us are missing. Why the alert, friend Tissop, unless--do you suppose?--some of you are?"

Fear fluttered in his gut, pushed a thick foul taste to the back of his mouth. The biosigns. Something had been in the pod. Hundreds of "somethings." It couldn't be . . . he swallowed, hard. "Nothing's been reported."

"There wouldn't be, would there?"

Because there'd be fear, like his. Those who controlled the Ship couldn't allow the thousands crowded in its pods and corridors to feel this. Denizens had lived on a world once, improbable as it seemed. Minders taught that their kind adjusted so well to life within Ships because they'd evolved from ancestors who'd tunneled in groups and stayed together and had no need for sky. That didn't make them incapable of blind panic or riot.

What kind had newcomers been, Tissop wondered for the first time. What world, what life, could have favoured such frail bodies, such sensitive bulbous eyes, hands like an unborn child's …

"My apologies. You've worked hard and need your rest," Curtis said, words that would have been kind from Raekl or another denizen, but weren't, not uttered through such thin, writhing lips. "I'll tidy here, friend Tissop. Hopefully tomorrow will see good news and the end of all this."

First frightened, then dismissed like a weary child. In his own home.

Instead of anger, Tissop felt lost and powerless. Without a word, he stuck his empty bulb to the table, unhooked his back feet, and pushed himself through the air. He'd sleep.

Tomorrow?

He'd try again. He had to.

The strings hummed along the corridor. Machines and newcomers slid along on the conveyors below, as many as before or more. The handful of denizens on the strings avoided looking at one another or down. 1055th Sanitation Engineer Tissop stared so intently at his snout he almost missed the decel string before the iris of his door and was forced like a fool to lunge with tail and hands to catch it in time.

He clung to the wall, loathe to enter.

Afraid, was the truth.

Oh, not of discovery. No one seemed to suspect him. But, no matter what he did, he couldn't trap a single newcomer. Another pod, the third, would be sanitized--accidentally--at the end of this cycle and he had no greater hope for it.

He'd tried. He'd brought an extra scanner, had dared pretend to be inspecting pod-corridor connection ports to use it from every direction, even stood watching as newcomers entered and left, smiling at him as if they knew.

There'd been a new report. The Ship had budded a bad cluster, that was all. It wasn't unheard of, though any flaws should have been caught during preparations. There'd be exhaustive tests run before the new pods were opened for habitation. Denizens were resourceful and resolute.

And missing.

If not officially admitted, the reason for the 1st priority could no longer be hidden. Denizens had failed to return to their homes. Had failed to arrive at work. Had vanished, so far as their neighbours knew, from the Ship. Three here. Two there. Heres and theres multiplied over and over until the numbers were appalling.

The restrictions on who could travel had been lifted; they had to be, denizens had to work, or crucial systems would begin to revert. The Ship must be tended.

Even if those who tended it were disappearing.

3rd divide, 7th cycle. The busiest time in a corridor. Shoulders hunched, Tissop made himself look along the homeward string. Made himself turn and look along the one heading out to the limit of the Ship.

He was alone. How could he be alone?

He made himself look down.

Newcomers looked up as they sped past in both directions. Offer our Shipmates space in your homes, the newsfeeds had urged last cycle. They've come forward to help in our time of need. Thank them.

What had he done?

Tissop thrust himself through the iris, desperate for the safety of home.

No dessert. The light--he blinked, wondering what was wrong, then knew. Curtis had dimmed the ambient to suit herself again.

"Raekl?" The word hung in midair, tenuous and fearful. Tissop took a deep breath then almost gagged at the smell. What was that? "Did you let the litter cook again?"

"Greetings, friend Tissop."

Curtis--but not. This newcomer was larger, with ridges above the eyes. Male.

"Who are you?" Tissop demanded. "Where's Raekl? My children?"

Curtis pulled herself into the antechamber, a hand on the shoulder of the male slowing her to a stop. She showed her teeth. "Don't worry. They've been assigned a new home. You've wanted to move into a pod, haven't you?"

A pod. "What pod? Where?" Not the one he'd--Tissop pushed himself toward the com panel to find it smothered by filaments, rebounded from that wall to the far one, grasping a string with his tail to stop. This had to stop. "You're doing it. Why? I don't understand!"

More newcomers joined them. Smaller than Curtis, larger. Thin and frail, but so many. His home was rife with them. All in black, living shadows with glistening eyes.

"What don't you understand, friend Tissop?" As Curtis spoke, they all smiled, teeth strange and white. "We're grateful, of course. You've saved us time and effort." She laid a hand on the wall. "The Ship is our home now."

It wasn't true. It couldn't be. "I killed you!" Tissop cried.

"You tried." Her smile widened. "One of you usually does. That's the beauty of it. Ships don't care what parasite infests them. We let you do the work for us, invite us in, then . . . take your place."

They'd done it before. To other Ships. To other denizens. And he'd helped, hadn't he? "Why didn't we know about you?" he whispered. "Why weren't we warned?"

Deep inside, he knew what she'd say before she uttered the terrible words. "Accidents happen, don't they, friend Tissop?"

Tissop curled his limbs against his aching gut. "Don't kill us all," he pleaded, thinking of his family, of what he'd done. "You don't have to."

"Oh, but we do," Curtis assured him. "Denizens are much too clever. Like you."

"Go now," the male said. "Die with the rest."

"Unless you'd like to stay for supper, friend Tissop." Curtis laughed. "It's the least we can do."

1055th Sanitation Engineer Tissop pushed himself out the iris of his home. He reached for the string that should have been there, that was always there, for denizens built well and with forethought, but the strings were of no interest to those who now called the Ship home and had been cut. He found himself floating helplessly down the corridor, tumbling head over tail.

With every tumble, he stared down into the machineway, filled with newcomers about their business.

They looked up at him, and laughed.


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