Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

All Times, All At Once
    by Laurie Tom

All Times, All At Once
Artwork by Kelsey Liggett

Angela loaded pads of dough with morsels of barbecue pork and pulled up the floury edges to pinch them into pouches ready for steaming. She had never been particularly proficient in making cha siu bao, and her grandmother always nagged her about being such a lousy cook. A year-long space expedition allowed time enough for self-improvement.

This wasn't for Grandma. It was her recipe, but Angela was making it for herself, not because it would impress Grandma.

The only thing she missed was Sunny's yipping. The shih tzu was probably the only one who appreciated it when Angela cooked. She'd take anything for scraps. Mom called her the fastest vacuum on four legs.

But Sunny was light years away now, staying with Angela's mom until the Starfish returned.

At least she wasn't with Grandma.

"Such a good little foo dog," Grandma had said about her.

"She's a shih tzu," said Angela.

"I know," her grandmother agreed, "but she looks a bit like one. And foo dogs aren't really dogs at all. I used to know a few. They always liked the bao I made them."

When Angela looked up what a foo dog was she found out they were the stone lions outside temples, and Grandma simply said, "They aren't really lions, either, but once you meet one you never forget. They don't bark or roar, and their voices rattle like bones in a cup."

Grandma was a little senile. Not enough that she couldn't live on her own, but enough that Angela didn't like to visit.

She set the first batch of bao in the steamer and glanced at the time. Julian would be here soon. After all, a cook needed someone to eat their food, and if anyone understood crazy Chinese relatives, Julian did.

They'd have something to talk about while waiting in orbit around Yuno. The Starfish was being diverted to assist after the frontier colony sent out an alert for technical assistance. Yuno paid into the emergency fund, so if anything went wrong, the nearest ship was obligated assist.

In this case it was the Starfish, and its crew would be compensated for their time when they returned, but it added another month to their expedition.

She'd heard the report.

Captain Vu had responded immediately, but now that they approached, no one was answering. The satellites seemed to be up, but that didn't rule out a problem on the planet's surface, so the first thing the captain did was send Marco and Priyanka down to make contact.

A chime rang out, and Angela's home assistant projected a two-dimensional holo of Julian standing outside the door to her quarters. His face was deadly serious, but that was almost a joke with him.

"Hey, Jules," she said. "Come in."

"Sorry, Ang," he replied. "I've been sent to get you. We're going down to Yuno."

The bao had barely finished steaming by the time Julian finished giving her the rundown, and she scrambled into the shuttle with her workpack in one hand and a piping hot pouch of pork buns in the other. Julian had already stowed the medical drone along with the portable workstation. The combined package fit in a waist-high crate on wheels.

"You don't want to leave those?" he asked, noticing the bao.

"Just in case," she said, finding a slot in her pack to stow them. The pocket bulged and barely shut, but they were secure and sealed airtight. She didn't know when they would get back, and she would rather eat these bao than the mealy, all-purpose work rations.

Priyanka's report said that everyone they'd found in the colony was dead, covered in some sort of blue goop. She and Marco were looking for signs of survivors, but no luck so far.

Julian was the Starfish's doctor, which was why he had been called. This was essentially going to be a mass autopsy.

As the resident biochemist, Angela's job would be to analyze said goop, but she'd expected to do most of her tests from the labs on the Starfish, not on any planet's surface. Field work was rare, but not knowing what this substance was, Vu had no intention of bringing it on board without an analysis.

The captain needed a thorough investigation so they could report their findings and discharge their duty as complete in order to get reimbursement for the detour. Colony Management would then take over, repatriate the remains, and discuss whether to recolonize.

Priyanka met them in the colony hangar, a landing space that could be completely enclosed and pressurized to Earth standard. Yuno had a thin atmosphere, which was still breathable by humans, but tended to wear out visitors who hadn't acclimated. Priyanka was wearing her pressure suit, helmet securely fastened. She probably hadn't taken it off since she arrived.

"Blue goop?" Angela asked.

"Best I can describe it," said Priyanka. "It's thick like syrup, and it's all over them. You can see for yourself."

She gestured and Angela froze, not expecting that the first body was as close as the nearest cargo bin. It was a woman wearing a white utility suit. She lay on her side, facing away, and a large quantity of blood had pooled beneath her. Her body was covered by a translucent blue gel; too vibrant to be natural.

"That's not the worst of it," said Priyanka. "The bodies are a bit . . . mutilated."

"You called us down when there could be a serial killer?" Julian's voice pitched up. "I thought we were looking at a chemical accident."

"No, I don't think that's it. And I don't think there's anyone running around stabbing colonists. It's just . . . the whole thing's weird."

Their suits were set up to catch and vacuum vomit, should the need arise. Angela hoped it wouldn't, but she had never been at a massacre before, and this was beginning to sound like one.

Priyanka took them into the corridors leading from the hangar and into the warrens of the colony. There were more bodies further in. If everyone was dead, this was going to be a large job. Yuno was a colony of five hundred.

People died with their arms stretched out, face down, and many them on floors rather than in beds. There was blood, and it looked like something had gouged them quite badly, but it was hard to be certain beneath the layer of ooze that coated the bodies.

"The colonists were aware something was wrong," said Marco. "It looks like they were trying to run."

He met them at the entrance to the school gym, where there was a broken barricade of benches and cabinets.

"These doors were closed when we got here." He indicated the previously blocked entrance. "Priyanka and I busted inside because we thought people might still be alive. If you look around, the bodies seem a bit newer, less decay. This was probably a refuge."

Julian slid a side eye at Priyanka. "No serial killer?"

"Come on," she said. "Do you think one person could have done this?"

"If it's more than one, we're worse off," said Angela. "We're not armed."

Julian turned to the drone that towed their portable workstation. "There're a few things we can use."

Of course Julian would consider weaponizing their equipment. He was practical, which was useful in most cases, but Angela did not like the idea of a fending off a maniac using a scalpel and forceps.

Fortunately, she doubted the colonists had died to a joint serial killer effort.

Biochemical agent was her guess. Something might have gotten into the ventilation system. People realized something was wrong, but were too late to do anything about it.

That didn't mesh with the furniture barricade, but if there were mental side effects then that might be answer enough. She disliked that they all appeared to have died violently, though; cavities, gouges. If a virus or a chemical was the cause of those wounds, it couldn't have been a pleasant way to go.

"While the two of you do your business here, Priyanka and I are going to look around," said Marco. "I doubt there's a serial killer, but keep your comms open in case anything happens. If whatever killed them gets to you, even through the suits, we need to know."

"Atmospheric balance is fine," said Julian, glancing at the display that lit up the clear bulb of his helmet. "No radiation, either. I checked the readings before we disembarked, and they haven't changed."

"Serial killers can still get you through suits," said Priyanka, but Julian ignored her as he opened up their workstation. Shelves and drawers folded out and the medical drone rolled free. He'd probably forgotten the joke now that their priorities were clear.

"We'll keep an eye out for those, too," said Angela. "Be careful."

The walls were lined with putty. It was a funny observation to make, but once she noticed she couldn't get it out of her head. Normally when someone wanted to childproof something they padded the corners where a child might bump them, but this was different.

All corners had been rounded off, where the floor met the ceiling, where the walls met each other. It was more than just furniture. Someone had wanted all sharp edges covered up, and wasn't picky about it. The putty was packed in uneven and lumpy portions against the wall, without any kind of shaping or smoothing, like something a child might have done in art class.

And they were in the gym, with the putty extending all the way up to the corners of the high ceiling. That took effort.

"Jules?" she asked.

He was completely immersed in an autopsy of a young man. This particular body had less damage than the others, limited to lacerations around the shoulder. Julian hoped that might narrow down the cause of death, assuming it wasn't from the wounds themselves.

"Did you find something?" He didn't look up.

She had a few tests running at the workstation, and the equipment hummed.

"No results yet, but there's something odd about this room."

"What's that?"

"Take a look around. I can understand the colonists blocking themselves in if they felt threatened, but why fill up the corners?"

Julian frowned and glared at the body, still focused on his work. He did not touch it directly, even with his suit, and relied on the drone to handle the operation, but he'd had cleaned away the blue slime multiple times already with a spray and knife. The stuff did not seem particularly sticky, but neither was it water soluble. Scraping was the best he could do, and the drone's toolset would have to be left behind, lest anything permanently contaminate it.

Before Angela could prod him, he lifted his head and took a cursory glance around.

"That's odd," he agreed. "You think they did this after they sealed themselves in?"

"It looks like a panic job. I don't think they would have done this before whatever happened."

Julian shrugged. "There are a number of hallucinogens that could trigger that kind of a reaction." He shifted his eyes towards the drone without entirely turning away from her. "Retrieve interior body samples, standard autopsy array for toxins. Avoid areas that might have come into contact with outside discharge."

The skin had been carefully peeled back from the body's torso so as to expose the muscle and organs without dripping the blue goop inside. Julian's drone swiveled away the contaminated arm and opened its body to reach out with a sterilized one.

If there were drugs, there might be traces of them.

"I'm going to take a look around," said Angela. "Not outside though, just in here."

The colonists had done a thorough job filling in the corners and edges of the room. Their work extended all around the gym save one stretch where the putty seemed to have crumbled. Blue slime pooled here.

"Ang," said Julian.

She looked around and saw that he had also walked away. He squatted by something on the ground.

"What'd you find?" she asked.

He pointed.

It wasn't the body at his feet that had his attention, so much as what the body was wearing on its head. Most of the corpses were dressed in casual and work garments, school uniforms on the children, and a few had caps, but this one wore an opaque visor, like the kind for watching movies, or playing games.

"If she was holed up long enough," said Angela, "she probably would have wanted some diversion to take her mind off things."

"Wouldn't she have wanted to remove it if she knew she was about to die?"

"Maybe she was the first one. And she didn't see it coming."

But Angela didn't find that likely. If she were to spin a wheel and guess from the number of people who had died in this gym, there was only a one in forty chance this woman was the first, and she was in the middle of the room.

The medical drone dinged, signaling the completion of its extraction.

Julian walked back to the autopsy. Angela stayed by the body a moment longer. The woman's head had managed to avoid being covered with slime.

Angela debated, then pulled off the visor. It was still powered on, surprisingly enough, and came away with no resistance. The woman's eyes were glassy and open as if in shock. Angela muttered a soft "Sorry" and walked away, taking the visor with her.

By the time Marco and Priyanka returned, she and Julian had some preliminary information to report.

The blue slime was organic, carbon-based. It appeared to be a bodily fluid of some kind, but Angela couldn't find any trace of enzymes.

She discounted the possibility that it was a byproduct of the colonists' demise. Their skin condition had not changed significantly where they had come into contact with the fluid.

Her conclusion was that the discharge came from an external source and had been poured on to them.

Which raised other questions, such as where it did come from, and how did it end up on them?

Julian was fairly certain this was closer to a murder than an industrial accident, or at least they had died in an act of violence. All the bodies sported injuries consistent with getting mauled by a large animal. That, he believed, was the real cause of death, and not whatever this proteinless sludge was.

No signs of drugs were found in the bodies.

"Except where is this large animal?" said Priyanka. "There are no tracks, no poop, no hair or shed skin. We should have seen something if there was a pack of large animals on the loose."

"There aren't any records of any either, native or imported," said Marco. "Livestock was limited to poultry and pigs."

Angela tried to picture a group of pigs doing this, but even if they were extremely large pigs it didn't seem possible.

"We saw a lot of those visors outside," said Priyanka, nodding to the one by Angela's workstation.

"Were people wearing them when they died?" she asked.

Priyanka grimaced and said, "Yeah."

"There was this one guy in the security station," said Marco. "It was weird. All the footage was being filtered into his visor instead of the monitors. I mean, there's no way a single person can take all that in. It's like he wanted to see everything at once. I was hoping to find footage of the tragedy there, but it's like it's all been erased."

"So we've got disappearing giant animals, a mysterious cover-up, and bodies covered in slime," said Julian. "Captain Vu is really going to like this."

"As long as Colony Management buys it," said Angela.

"Will they?" Priyanka looked skeptical.

Marco sighed. "I doubt it. But do you think it's safe enough now to take off our helmets? I'd like to scratch my nose again."

"I think so," said Julian, "but I won't."

Marco fidgeted, clearly weighing the fact Julian was their doctor versus the fact Julian himself wasn't going to participate, and in the end the need to scratch won out.

"The only thing I'm worried about is the slime," said Angela, "and as long as you don't touch it, I think you should be fine. It seems to be quite heavy, so even the small amount of it that has dispersed into the air should stay close to the floor. I wouldn't lie down, but you should be fine while standing."

"Good enough," said Marco.

"Can we narrow down what kind of animal could have killed the colonists?" Priyanka posed the question to Julian.

He shrugged. "I don't have a database that tells me the hallmarks of different types of animal bites and claw marks. But, I can tell you that the shape of the jaw is blunt. It probably has a short muzzle. Teeth are thick. And judging from the size of the bite, we're looking at a pair of jaws big enough to fit my head."


"No lions on the colony record," said Marco.

"Did you memorize that?"

He grinned mirthlessly. "I have a knack for remembering random trivia."

"I'm gonna find a place to eat," said Angela. "We're due for a break. Is there a room I can hole up where there aren't any bodies?"

"There are, but we really should stick together," said Priyanka.

While it was likely safe enough to eat here, this wasn't the view she wanted.

"Do you wonder what those people were looking at?" Marco picked up the visor and studied the power light.

"A bit," said Angela. "If people died knowing something was coming, why didn't they take them off? It'd be like playing games while the house is burning."

"Maybe we should take a look." He lifted it to his head. "This one's probably still connected to whatever was running when its user died."

"You can put that on, but not until after I disinfect it," said Julian, taking the visor from him.

"Might as well," said Priyanka. "I don't know what we can expect, but the captain isn't going to buy what we have so far."

"Maybe," said Marco, with a dramatic pause, "there was a classified bioweapon."

"I'm pretty sure it would be bad news for Colony Management if Yuno was slaughtered due to a bioweapon. People know there are risks with colonies, but they expect to survive. They brought kids here. It's not like Yuno was some secret base."

Julian offered the visor back, now sterilized, and Marco held it up over his head. "Well, here goes."

Angela watched as Marco slipped it on, frowning, and he turned his head from side to side, getting his bearings.

"Anything interesting?" asked Priyanka.

"Not yet," he said. "I'm looking around and there's no movie playing. No game. All I'm seeing is this room."

"So it's on, but wasn't set to anything?"

"It feels like it's set to something. I'm seeing the gym, just like I should from where I'm standing, but you all aren't here, and no one's dead. They're all huddled together, the kids and adults, and the doors are still barricaded. Everyone's looking at the edges of the room, right where you can see the plaster lining the seams. It's like a recording, but . . . that doesn't make any sense."

"Why not?" said Julian. "You said the guy at the security station was wearing one."

Marcus walked, turning and lifting his head as he peered carefully around them. Angela pulled him to one side to stop him from stepping on a body.

"You need equipment, multiple cameras to record all the different angles, so you can accurately reproduce a recording through the visor." Marco pushed aside a curved bench and peered at a stretch of puttied floor behind it. "But even places where there's no reason to film, where the visor would have to extrapolate, I can see things just fine. There's no way the recorder could know which way I want to go, where I want to look, or who I'm going to step around. There are moving people here and they look fine no matter which angle I view them at. Most of them are looking at the plaster now. The walls are shaking and I think some of it's coming loose . . ."

Marco staggered suddenly and shouted, "Holy shit what is that?"

"Easy, easy." Angela held his arm and felt him tense, ready to break away. "What are you seeing?"

"That thing's huge! It's almost like it sees me."

He gasped, and would have fallen over if both Angela and Priyanka hadn't grabbed him. Marco yanked off the visor and his forehead shone with sudden sweat. He panted, eyes wide, and gave himself a shake.

"What'd you see?" asked Priyanka.

"I think that's what killed the colonists."

Julian tilted his head, skeptical. "You're saying that woman watched a recording of her people getting massacred as she died, and it's on loop?"

"It was a big beastie. Mean looking," said Marco. The fans of his suit activated, drying the sweat. "I don't know what to call it. Four legs, bony chest, sharp teeth. It was drooling. Blue ooze." His gaze fell on one of the bodies. "That stuff. But thinner, more translucent."

"Let me take a look," said Priyanka, taking the visor. "If it's a recording, maybe we can learn more about it."

Julian gestured around the gym. "But where did it go? There's no evidence of a large four-legged anything leaving the room and you said the door was shut when we got here."

Marco shook his head. "It came out of the wall, from the crack where the plaster broke."

Angela walked over. There was only one place where the putty had come apart, and pieces of it were scattered across the floor as though someone had kicked the remnants underfoot, but behind where the plaster had been was bare and unpainted wall. Nothing could have come through here.

"I'm not seeing any monsters," said Priyanka. "Maybe it played past that part? But this is strange. I'm seeing the gym, but the bodies are so decayed they're almost skeletons. And the lights are dim, like the colony's on emergency power."

"Let me see," said Angela, and she removed her helmet.

Julian rolled his eyes. "Maybe it's not playing a movie. It could be an augment game."

"That shows how people died here?" Marco's voice shook.

"Did you change any settings before you put it on?" Angela asked.

Priyanka handed the visor to her. "No."

Careful not to touch the dial, Angela refitted the visor for her head and slipped it on.

It didn't feel any different from the ones she'd used before. Sometimes there wasn't enough space to watch a movie or play a game, or you didn't want someone else to stumble into your entertainment. She liked them for shuttle flights.

But there was no interface in this one. Just her surroundings.

The first thing she noticed was that the lights were on. She scanned the floor and there were bodies, fresh ones. She could see the sheen of blood, and the blue slime had not yet congealed.

No sound played with the visor. It was eerie.

Angela turned, catching a movement out the corner of her eye, and saw a woman curled up by the wall, shaking. She didn't remember seeing a body there.

When she looked around some more, she spotted several indistinct shapes, creeping like silent ghosts, like everything else in this vision. Large beasts, as Marco had said. Easily the size a horse with short, feral snouts and wicked fangs. They stalked through the gym with heads low like tracking hounds, but there was little canine about them.

Foo dogs aren't really dogs at all.

Her grandmother's words came back to her, making for the strangest connection.

"What are you seeing?" Priyanka's words pierced her concentration.

"Almost everyone's dead now," said Angela. "The hounds, the beasts, are finishing the few who remain. Their saliva is coating everything. But they're not eating anyone. It's like . . . business."

The cowering woman was grabbed by one of the creatures, shook violently in its mouth, and then tossed, and Angela was sure that when she removed the visor and looked, she would find a body where she landed.

"Maybe this is some new tech? I'm pretty sure this is showing what actually happened."

She removed the visor and Julian took it. "That doesn't explain what Priyanka saw," he said, "unless you mean to suggest she saw the future. In any case, I think we should take this back with us."

"My team can run diagnostics on it, see what kind of program it's running," said Priyanka.

Julian bagged it and put it on top of the workstation by the drone.

Angela wrinkled her nose. "I know this sounds like a strange question because we're in a room full of bodies, but does something smell funny to you?"

Julian's display flashed on the inside of his helmet and he shrugged. Nothing chemically dangerous then, but Angela thought she smelled sulfur, like rotten eggs.

"I smell it too," said Marco.

They turned around, looking for the source, and that's when they spotted the smoke issuing from the angle where the wall met the floor along the shattered stretch of plaster. Angela didn't remember a vent over there, but Marco reacted immediately.

"We gotta go! It's those things! I saw smoke just before they came out of the wall!"

Julian stared, and for a moment Angela thought they would have to drag him, but he snapped to on his own and grabbed the visor. He yelled at the drone to close up, emergency evac, and they fled the gym. Something moved in the billowing air, and they didn't wait to see what.

The corners, the angles. The creatures emerged through them. That's why the colonists had smoothed them out in their last place of refuge.

Marco barreled into the lead, Angela right behind him, Priyanka and Julian after her, and the drone in the rear.

"Tell the drone to stop that thing!" yelled Priyanka.

"It's not . . . built for . . . combat!" Julian spouted words between large gasps of air.

Smoke issued around them. There were angles everywhere now. The hallway was full of them. They couldn't possibly run all the way back to the shuttles before being engulfed, and Angela knew firsthand what these creatures could do.

Something dark, huge, erupted out of the angles of the corridor ahead of them. Its body was the color of old death, the limbs knobby like branches, and a mess of wrinkles, eyes, and fangs was its head. Its jaws parted, dripping a vicious blue, and a deafening rattle shook from its throat.

Angela backpedaled as the beast lunged. Marco screamed, disappearing beneath its bulk.

"Ang!" shouted Julian.

An eternity passed while Angela stood frozen, hearing nothing but Marco's voice rise to a shriek. Then a flash of white in a side corridor caught her eye. There was someone else here.

"This way!" she said, waving for Julian and Priyanka to follow.

She hadn't been through this part of the colony before, but if someone else was still alive, then there might be a sanctuary of some kind. The woman she chased was fleeting, a white blur slowing only to beckon Angela to hurry.

"Hey, wait up!"

Julian was flagging, but the creature hadn't followed them yet. Angela had no doubt that it would eventually, and even here there were still angles. But there were fewer of them. Some of them were puttied. The woman was leading them to safety. The beast could physically chase them, but there wouldn't be any shortcuts.

"Wait up!" Angela shouted again. She couldn't keep running, and she stumbled as she tried to catch her breath.

The woman looked back, her face laced with fear, and sprinted on.

Priyanka heaved herself alongside and huffed loudly as she bent over, panting and wheezing. Julian leaned against a wall, directing the drone to bar the door behind them.

"I don't know what you're thinking," said Priyanka. "Running like a crazy person. But we're close to the hangar now. I recognize this place."

"It wasn't me," said Angela. "It was her, that woman." She gestured to the open doorway where the fleeing figure had gone.

"You saw someone? I'm pretty sure no one else is alive around here."

A sharp cry pierced the air, coming from the passage the woman had gone, but Priyanka didn't even blink. She walked up to the door and Angela's head swam. The door was already open, yet Priyanka opened it--again?--and stepped through to the corridor beyond.

When Angela stared, the door remained open.

"Come on," said Priyanka. "We gotta go."

"But that monster is probably there."

"I think we have to take that chance," said Julian. He stumbled after her.

What kind of chance was that? A woman probably just died out there, and Priyanka and Julian didn't seem that concerned about it. They were afraid, there was no mistaking the tense, feverish lines about their faces, but there was no desperation or insanity.

She chased after them. They walked briskly now, rather than running, though she had to dance around Julian's drone and the portable workstation. She noticed that one of the tool drawers hadn't closed all the way. Ahead of her Julian was carrying a bone cutter and a micro defibrillator. It wasn't much, but he had been right about the weapons part.

The corridor opened up to the hangar and she saw the creature, crouched over the white clad figure who had been her guide, and Angela suddenly realized that she recognized her, or rather where the woman lay. She had been the body they'd seen coming off the shuttle.

The beckoning, the running, whoever the woman had been calling to, had been in the past. Angela reached up to her face, but she was no longer wearing the visor, and the hound lifted its head, pale marble eyes focused in her direction. It saw her, she was certain, and yet Julian walked straight through it without stopping. Priyanka too.

She tentatively stepped forward, uncertain if she could follow, if the beast was in the past or here right now. It stretched open its maw, almost like a yawn, and a bony rattle emerged from the depths of its chest and into its throat.

Angela couldn't risk it. She scooted carefully around.

"Good boy? Good girl?" She gestured for it to lay down, just like she would with Sunny. Could it hurt?

I used to know a few, Grandma had said. Dogs that were not dogs. Dogs that did not bark, but rattled deep in their throats.

"What are you doing?" said Julian.

The acrid scent of rotting eggs reached her nose, and it wasn't coming from the creature in front of her. She risked a glance and realized that there were angles everywhere. They hadn't worried about them on their way in, and none of the colonists had either the time or the will to putty an entire hangar.

When she'd worn the visor she'd seen more than one dog. This wasn't the only one! Her team members started, reacting to the smell, but they still did not see the one in front of her. The ethereal hound, the foo dog. It bent its head and sniffed at her.

Julian grabbed her arm. "We've gotta go!"

Smoke poured from the angles where the walls met the floor.

"No! Wait!" she said. "They might follow us on the ship. We have angles there. Give me the visor!"

Julian frowned, skeptical, but offered her the bag.

Angela didn't know what she was seeing anymore; the past, the present, but she wasn't seeing the future, and Priyanka had. The visor peered through time, and it might show them how they could escape.

"You can wear it, but you'll still have to run," said Julian, pulling her along. "I'll guide you, so don't fall."

She lost sight of the present as she put on the visor, the same way she had in the gym, though the pressure of Julian's hand and the shouts from Priyanka reminded her of when she really was.

Her eyes saw something else entirely, and at first she was disappointed to see their shuttle arriving. It was hers and Julian's, but on a closer look she could see that the rockets were firing too strongly to be landing. This was bright enough for lift-off.

The cargo bay door opened, and she saw herself walk out, backwards and alone. That made things clear. What she saw was time moving in reverse. She saw no sign of Julian and Priyanka, either by the ramp or on the ground. The foo dogs were not around either, startling her. She couldn't imagine they had driven them off.

No, they hadn't. The foo dogs emerged tail first from the angles as her future self continued to walk back to an earlier time. Priyanka and Julian came out from the depths of the ship, marching backwards to the edge of the cargo bay and turning to watch as she saw herself approach the lead hound. It was the largest, the one that had stood over the body in the past and was also there in the present.

"There are a bunch of them now," said Julian. "They aren't advancing. I don't know why, but we've got to take advantage of it."

A sweet smell reached her nostrils. Barbecue pork? That was now, not the past or the future. All that jostling must've opened the pouch with the cha siu bao. Her grandmother's recipe.

She didn't understand. The creatures could have crossed the distance and torn her and Julian apart by now. But somehow . . . .

In her eyes, the future, rolling back, she was in pouncing distance of the dogs. They were watching her. They knew her. She was wearing the visor.

"Let go," she told Julian. "Get on the ship, you and Priyanka. Like you said, take advantage."

"What are you going to do?"

"I think I have something they want."

In the future she walked the last few steps back.

In the present she walked forward, knowing where the dog must be.

One version of her turned around, hand reaching out.

The other lifted a hand, and said:

"We just want to leave."

And the hounds did too.

It was a painfully simple bargain.

Back on the Starfish, Angela was cooking again. Her head hurt, but something about making bao was soothing, reminding her of Grandma.

Captain Vu was understandably upset over the loss of Marco and the fact they would have to cordon off Yuno from further colonization due to the hostile creatures. Whatever Yuno had been researching, all the team had to show for it was a visor that ceased to work once removed from the planet's surface.

But they would get their duty pay for the diversion, that was for certain. The drone had come back with blood on its wheels and there were all the samples besides, including the strange blue saliva from a creature that had no need of enzymes.

Angela tossed a few scraps at Sunny, who caught the chunks of meat between her jaws and a deep rattle of contentment rose from her throat. She was glad to have a pet again, though she wasn't quite sure how the foo dog had gotten here. Time was a non-linear experience, if one thought about it. It was always possible to visit other times, whether remembering or envisioning what was yet to come. But seeing everything at once was . . . distracting.

Julian was here, Julian was at the door, Julian was dead.

She meant to have bao with him.

Sunny let out a throaty rattle and Angela patted her head, which was higher up than she remembered. Maybe the confusion didn't matter. She knew that they had escaped, and if anyone on the Starfish died, it would not be between the jaws of the hounds. She had been promised that much.

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