Dozens of lives I’ve lived now, as all manner of things that swim, run, slither, and fly, and it’s the same damn story every time. You may think you’ve found love of a profound and timeless nature, but that love will still swim away from you when the current is right. If you’re very, very lucky, it won’t happen until you die and get reincarnated on opposite sides of the galaxy.
I’d give three tentacles to be that lucky, just once.
Zaraell is the closest thing I’ve ever found to a soulmate, and the last holo message from Roptrango-A makes it clear that that’s over. Holo messages are slow. She recorded that one almost a full Trango year ago, which means that the ranch-style coral home we sang into shape together has already been dismantled, the seeds divided among our offspring. I can barely think about what must remain, my portion left sick and sinking into the shifting sand leeward of West Volcano Spaceport.
Better to think of happier times: our first launch together; the day our first clutch of offspring hatched and the pride we felt in the survivor of the post-natal melee; the last time we mated, Zaraell’s sinuous tentacles twined in mine until neither of us knew where ours ended and the other’s began— Actually, thinking of happier times isn’t helping either. My third stomach churns with sick bile. I can’t live with your choices anymore, Zaraell’s holo image had said, grainy image of zir head softly shuddering. Or is it that I can’t live without them?
I can’t live without zir.
So what am I doing on this heap of an interstellar trader speeding faster-than-light away from my truest love? I’ve been thinking about that a lot since I watched Zaraell’s latest message, and I still don’t know. All I know are three true things:
1) Illegal cargo is lucrative cargo. We’re going to make a cloaca-load on this trade, bringing lab-grown meat to the Tro’o, if we can steer clear of the Intra-Stellar Trade Organization (ISTO).
2) The universe is stupidly, laughably big. Even with the hummingest star drive, it would take lifetimes to get from one end to the other (assuming there are ends—I have a vague memory of an edge, a starless pool of nothingness I may once have seen, many lives ago, but you can’t really trust memories from toddler lives, so who knows?)
3) There is no such thing as a soulmate.
The InstaComm pings, reminding me that I’m lost in the space of my own head. Words scroll out on the console’s screen—a return message from the Tro’o, acknowledging our new ETA and providing new coordinates for the exchange. A moment later, a fresh sphere rolls out of the chute.
A shiny, rubbery sphere where a second ago there was nothing.
This new InstaCom unit has me baffled, and I’m the best engineer in this arm of the galaxy, if I do say so myself. To instantly—and I mean instantly, not at light speed or even faster-than-light, but right exactly now—send a message anywhere in the universe, you just type up a message, pop in a sphere, the machine does its thing, and the flattened disc that was the sphere comes out for disposal. When a message comes back, the machine spits out the message along with a fresh sphere to “fuel” your reply. It’s not any kind of matter transfer I ever learned in school, and I’m itching to take the thing apart and uncover its secrets. But there is a very serious warning label on the sucker, and if even half the rumors about InstaComm are true, it’s no idle threat.
Besides, these things are expensive. I’ve only been on two ships could afford one, and the captain’d have my beak if I broke this one poking about. So I shove off toward the stasis chamber to get the fresh sphere tucked away until we need it. You won’t believe what the rumor mill says could happen to us if I don’t.
Living on a little trading jumper like this one is tough for us Roptralians. I can hear everything that happens, whether I want to or not, vibrating through the hull and inner bulkheads and even the air.
So I know that Captain KrunZo, gruff and scaly in person, sings Kranellian arias in his grooming pod. I know that our pilot, Jorusz, wakes regularly from nightmares about his last life, in which he was an indentured guard for his species’ royal family, a great humorless flying thing who was kept chained at night and eventually fed to a clutch of royal fledgelings. All through his sleep cycles his shoulderblades twitch, phantom escape attempts from muscles where in this life wings do not attach. I try to make allowances for his recent trauma when he (frequently) lashes out. I know that Quonka’s calm and cheerful façade isn’t phony—that she dances to the happy tunes in her head anytime gravity allows, humming along with them even while performing surgery and scrubbing out infected wounds.
But the same overly sensitive tentacles that make crewmate overshares a certainty also make Roptralians great stardrive mechanics, so what are you going to do? I tune out what I can and I ignore the rest. When gravity allows, I spend as much time as I can floating in a ball; not touching anything really helps reduce the noise.
But it leaves me alone with my thoughts, which are presently mired in contemplation of the size of the galaxy versus the size of this growing unease in my hearts.
From our present location, if we turned around and burned hard, our little ship could make it “home” to the Trango System in about 1.3 Trango years. Not that KrunZo would do such a thing with a payday on the line. If I really want to get back, my best bet would be to jump ship at the Tro’o rendezvous. Who knows? Maybe I could get hired on by something faster, make it back home in less than a year.
Home. Is it still home if you don’t live there, and your partner has left you, your house un-sung and surrendered to the seas?
How did I let it get this far?
One cargo at a time, that’s how. One better payday than the last; one more puzzle to solve, carrying me a little farther along, then a little farther, then a little farther still.
I feel so small, a speck in the vast uncaring universe, going the wrong direction.
And then I hear a knock at the door.
It’s a testament to my preoccupation that I barely register the oddity of a knock on my hatch—the crew knows to leave me alone when I’m in my bunk—before I realize the knock isn’t at my hatch. I uncoil one tentacle, uncovering one eye, which happens to have a perfect view out my porthole.
I gasp involuntarily, tentacles splaying, air bladders inflating. There is a face peering in the window. A cute little mammal face, with white fur and whiskers not even frozen by the vacuum of space. So I’m hallucinating. But then the knock comes yet again, and then an adorable fluffy paw waves at me, pointing one digit toward starboard. Toward the nearest airlock.
This is how those scary holos always begin, I think. But I swivel toward the hatch anyway.
In case we are about to be murdered by the Thing From Outside, I swing past the captain on the way to the airlock. KrunZo is a FranKoporp, another species you’d think would want to avoid the spacefaring life at all costs. Mostly round, covered in thick scales with stubby limbs and a thick, thick head, KrunZo maneuvers in low-g like a bowling ball propelled by anger. Planet-like gravity makes the ship even worse for him, turning it into a mountain of ladders too big for those poor little limbs to climb easily. KrunZo stays on the bridge most of the time, or in his quarters, and uses Captain’s Prerogative to make the rest of us do his running about for him.
“Come quickly!” I say to him as I swim past his perch—a little running joke he rewards with the usual frown. “There’s someone at the airlock,” I continue.
“Funny,” he says. But his tone suggests he doesn’t think it’s funny.
“Permission to let zir aboard?”
“Of course,” KrunZo says with a barely perceptible wave of a forelimb. “It’s bad luck to ignore impossible things that cannot be happening.”
I choose to perceive only the permission and ignore the sarcasm. The airlock cycles, and in floats... something. It’s small for a sapient, a little smaller than me and maybe a third the size of the other crew members. It looks like a mammal, one of those fluffy little pets from Earth that are all the rage? A kitty? Except. It’s been a while since I was near Earth, but I’m pretty sure kitties don’t have eight legs. And I also suspect they can’t survive in vacuum. And their eyes aren’t vast purple oceans of intelligence and love.
Those eyes spark something in me I haven’t felt in lifetimes. Something I’ve been missing.
“What are you?” I blurt out, like some kind of mollusk who’s never left the shell. “And how are you? I mean, how did you get here?”
The ship AI’s security and medical protocols finish scanning the airlock’s contents, the various scanner beams and decontamination flashers cause a rippling blue-green light show to dance across white fur and ocean-gray walls, almost like a sunset back home. Then the inner airlock door hisses open.
The octo-cat doesn’t say a word, just rams zir head right into me and nuzzles, purring softly. I feel like I could almost understand the purring, if the frequencies ze used were just slightly more... cerulean? But I don’t need to understand it because I feel soothed by it, rocked in a gentle current that’s almost like the warm waters of...
Without meaning to I reach one tentacle up to just stroke the creature’s fur.
It’s still cold.
“Now hold on a second,” I say, pulling back and vibrating myself into a more alert state just as Quonka’s shiny horn pops into view.
Technically Quonka is the ship’s doctor, but her species’ calming pheromone secretions make her a useful asset in brokering deals. She also tries to be around when we get boarded by ISTO, which is more and more frequently.
The creature visibly relaxes as Quonka enters. “Who is your new friend, Astrill?” she asks. Anyone else on the ship would be mocking, but Quonka sounds sincere.
“I am...” the kitty thing says, looking around as if searching for the answer. “...just a traveler.”
“Um, no,” Quonka says, horn glinting and hair tumbling as she shakes her pretty head. “One does not just bump into random travelers in the vastness of space. Especially not travelers without space suits or supplies. The odds are, well, astronomical. And if we had just bumped into you somehow, at these speeds, the impact would have turned you into a splat on the hull—or into shards of meaty ice, since you ought to be frozen solid.”
The kitty thing backpedals in the air, all eight legs working, until zir tail touches the bulkhead and wraps itself around a handhold there. Prehensile tail. Do cats have those? The tail almost seems to lengthen as it grabs.
“At least tell us your name,” I say.
But again the thing looks around like this is a really hard question, zir violet eyes flicking back and forth. “Call me... Ennesta,” ze finally says.
“Okay, Ennesta,” Quonka says, reaching one three-fingered hand out in greeting. “That is a start.”
But Ennesta doesn’t seem to like that gesture. Ze launches off the hatch and into my tentacles, sending us both spinning.
As we spin, I see another new visitor in the area outside the airlock room. Jorusz is here, and as always he brings his aura of cold-blooded menace. Jorusz is like an anti-chameleon; he always uses his metachrosis to clash as much as possible, and therefore right now he’s an angry bright orange-red.
“Let me question it,” says Jorusz. “It’s probably from ISTO.”
“Ennesta does not look like an Intra-Stellar Trade Organization agent,” Quonka says, head tilted.
“And Ennesta isn’t an ‘it,’” I add, trying to prize Ennesta far enough away from me to look at zir. “Hey, are you—” Ennesta looks up, huge eyes wielded like a weapon. “Does your species have gender?”
Ennesta looks around at the three sapients in the small space like choosing from a menu. “Female?” she answers, but it sounds like a guess.
“That was convincing,” Jorusz hisses, rolling one eye while keeping the other fixed on Ennesta.
In the end, the matter is settled by KrunZo, who apparently found the commotion interesting enough to leave the bridge. He comes barreling in and almost crushes me and Ennesta (by now three of her four pairs of limbs are wrapped around me), but Quonka catches one of KrunZo’s forelimbs and swings him into a relatively stationary position.
“Are you a spy?” KrunZo demands.
Ennesta manages to squeak out a ‘no’.
“Then welcome aboard,” the captain says. “And Jorusz? Pull yourself together. You really getting bent out of shape over this slip of fluff?”
Jorusz flushes an even more glaring orange, and for a moment I fear he’s about to challenge the captain. But a moment later he skitters off, muttering so low that only I can hear him. “Slip of fluff that can live in space. That shit ain’t right.”
He’s right, of course. So says my brain, at least, despite—or even because of—how the newcomer’s purring tugs at the rest of me like a syzygetic tide.
Ennesta stays. The ship has empty cabins, but she commandeers mine, climbing into my hammock and leaving me to choose whether or not to join. I’m torn, so torn.
Her presence on the ship is suspicious. And it feels disloyal to Zaraell...
But the sting of Zaraell’s last message and the stingless absence of her tentacles are wounds that Ennesta’s eight furry limbs staunch to a surprising degree. I give in, and, wrapped in her desperate embrace, I sleep better than I have in many lunar tides.
But Jorusz does not pull himself together. Well before my next shift, his vibrations cut through Ennesta’s purring like a klaxon. Astrill, report to the bridge, Jorusz whispers. Don’t bring the hairball.
Jorusz is a deceptively mellow mottled teal shade when I get there, strapped in to the comms chair rather than his normal pilot’s station. He points to the screen as I arrive, then switches the display to holo. A life-sized Ennesta springs into the air, slowly rotating like a showroom model. “I found it,” he says, slapping one hand through the holo image for emphasis.
“Found what?” I croak. It’s too early for riddles.
“I found Ennesta’s species. If that is her real name. She’s a toyopop.” He says it like a dirty word.
“So,” Jorusz says, rolling his bulbous eyes, “it took me forever to find this out, and it’s a miracle I did at all, and you know why? Toyopops aren’t sentients. They can’t even talk. They’re pets engineered by the Argotenkers for their deep space workers.”
That wakes me up. A tingling chill rolls from my beak to my suckers like the ghost of a purr. “Wait, so...?”
“So she’s not what she appears.”
And then, of course, because we are talking about her, there she is, a silent presence that we nonetheless notice right away. “Oh, hi,” I say, waving a couple of tentacles feebly. I feel tossed like flotsam in a storm. All I really know about Ennesta is how comforting I find her. What if she really is a spy? What will Jorusz do to her if she is? What will he do to her to find out whether she is?
“I missed you,” she says, but her eyes are glued to the larger-than-life holographic version of herself as it rotates slowly in the silence. Its ears are different than hers, longer and thinner, and its paws look different too, less fingery.
Ennesta—the real Ennesta—looks from the holo to me with a question in her eyes that borders on accusation.
The InstaComm chooses that moment to ding, a message from the Tro’o scrolling onto the screen. Ennesta screams for about a millisecond before turning it into a yelp, while something like a shudder roils down her long body, making her look for a moment less than fully solid, like a thing about to explode.
A fresh message sphere plops out into the net.
“We’ll finish this conversation later,” Jorusz hisses, turning to the screen. He grabs the sphere and spins it to me. “Make yourself useful and take this to stasis.”
Ennesta is looking around the space in a sort of panic. One of her hands darts out toward the sphere as if to intercept it before it gets to me, but she pulls back.
“Aye-aye, captain,” I say sarcastically—Jorusz, as pilot, does not outrank me—but I wrap a tentacle around the sphere anyway, grateful for any excuse to get out of there.
Ennesta’s eyes burn into me as I grab the sphere, and her mouth opens as if to say something. I wait for a beat, but her words don’t come, and the terror in her eyes mutates into something more like despair. “You got something to say to me?” I ask, harsher than I mean to.
Ennesta dips her furry chin.
Her big sad eyes follow me all the way down to the stasis chamber, and if I go back to my hammock they’ll just follow me there, too. And then we’ll have to talk, and after talking is when folks usually start leaving. And I’m not ready to be left, not so soon.
So I take the fresh sphere to the ship’s smallest stasis chamber, open the door, and slot it into the new racks we installed in there, next to the scant half-dozen others we were able to buy. Then I head to the engine room to get an early start on the cycle’s routine maintenance.
I see Ennesta lingering in front of the stasis chamber, her eyes darting shiftily between the chamber and myself.
We start burning to slow our way to the Tro’o rendezvous, so gravity returns to the ship. Jorusz and Quonka are relieved, and they start the usual chatter about stretching their bones—I don’t really understand bones, but I guess gravity is good for them. KrunZo has bones and an exoskeleton, because evolution wasn’t messing around on his home planet, but though he loves planetary gravity, he hates the ship’s gravity more than anyone. I can hear his complaining loud and clear even over the roar of the decelerating star drive.
According to the info on toyopops that Jorusz dug up, Ennesta, as a standard-issue mammal, has bones too. But I have my doubts. Sometimes the way she curls up in my hammock makes her seem more sinuous than should be possible for something with a spine.
Despite almost constant togetherness, I still don’t know much about our new passenger. Though I’ve found myself telling her all about Zaraell and my journey out into the black, she won’t tell me where she came from, how she came to be floating in space, or how she survived floating in space. What she does do is listen, and purr, and on the rare occasion she speaks, it’s with a surprising depth.
When Ennesta’s not trying to weld herself to me—which I admit, I enjoy more and more—no one can find her.
I could find her, of course. I can feel and sort through every vibration on this ship when I wish. I don’t look for her at first because, well, I didn’t work as hard as I have for my whole damn career on politely ignoring my crewmates’ vibrations to violate Ennesta’s privacy.
Still. The computer logs Jorusz shows me are suspicious. Someone’s been scouring the star charts. For what? We can’t tell. But it’s happening during the times when Ennesta’s unaccounted for.
So okay, I listen for her. I pick up Quonka singing to herself in her cabin and KrunZo barking something to Jorusz, who’s climbing his way to the bridge, ignoring the ladder in favor of just suckering up the wall. With all those sounds accounted for, and the hum of the ship’s star drive, whatever’s left must be Ennesta. There isn’t anything left, not at first.
And then I hear a whispered voice command in one of the ship’s unused cabins: “One quadrant X-ward,” it says. “Systems with F2V stars.”
What is she looking for?
Ennesta is quiet, but I can be quieter still, even in the ship’s increasing gravity. I slink up to the cabin’s open door before she knows I’m there, and I see...
I’m not sure what I’m seeing. The creature using the computer terminal is clearly Ennesta—it’s all covered in white fur, and it still has eight limbs—but none of them are right. The topmost pair has dexterous six-fingered hands instead of paws, and the middle two pairs have shrunk to nubs, while the bottom have elongated into wobbly-looking legs that boost Ennesta high enough to see the computer’s screen.
A gasp escapes my beak.
Ennesta turns so fast her face looks blurry. She pulls her front hands off the controls even as they start morphing back into paws. She shrinks as her legs even out.
“What are you?”
Ennesta shakes her head.
“Well, you’re clearly not a toyopop. You lied to us,” I say, and it’s all I can do not to say You lied to me. The hurt I feel registers as an actual ache in my second heart. Figures, I think. You start to care about someone; you get hurt.
“No,” Ennesta says. She walks toward me on her hind legs, unsteadily, other limbs wiggling awkwardly, and it occurs to me that not only is this the first time I’ve seen her navigate in gravity, it also looks like the first time she’s ever tried it. Or at least the first time in her current form. “I just haven’t told you things.” All of her top six arms are held out placatingly.
“This whole body you’re in is a lie. What do you even look like, really?”
“I... can’t show you.” Ennesta’s face looks as sad as only a genetically engineered pet can look. Except there is real intelligence behind those eyes; intelligence and sorrow.
“Of course not,” I say, tentacles fluttering in frustration. “Look, Jorusz thinks you’re a spy for ISTO. I don’t want to believe him, but. What is it you’re looking for in our star charts? Why can’t you—or won’t you—tell us anything about yourself? Where you came from? What species you are? Anything?”
Ennesta is close enough to touch me, but she doesn’t. She turns over some of her paws and looks at them as if for the first time, then flings them out in a gesture of raw hopelessness. “I don’t know!”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
Ennesta slumps onto the deck like a shipwreck hitting the ocean floor. “I don’t know, not any of the answers. I don’t know what I am or where I came from or what I’m supposed to look like. I’ve never seen one of me before—not after metamorphosis, anyway.”
“Okay...” I say. “So you’re a shapeshifter.”
“But you don’t know what your natural form is.”
“I’ve never seen it. I’ve always just been—”
And she hesitates, then sighs and starts again. “I haven’t ever lived long enough to find out what I am.”
No kidding, I think, somewhat bitterly. Who has?
“I’d seen these toyopop things in previous lives, and everyone treated them with kindness. It seemed like a good thing to be...” She shrugs two sets of her fluffy arms. “I didn’t realize they were pets.”
I laugh, despite it all. “And the star charts? What’s that about? Just what are you looking for?”
That little word hits me hard, echoing through an empty place inside me: a coral house with no one home. Gravity, who isn’t looking for a place to hang that word on?
“Okay,” I say. “It’ll be all right. Come on, let’s tell the others. I bet Quonka will even help you look.” I extend a tentacle to Ennesta, who places one paw in it and stands on two legs.
She takes a few wobbly steps, then lets go of me and drops to all eight legs. “Hold on,” she says. She makes a couple circles on all eight, tripping herself a few times. Finally she bends her spine in a way that doesn’t look anatomically possible and ambulates on six of the legs, leaving the top two to function as arms. “Oh, that’s much better,” she says.
It looks completely unnatural.
“How do real toyopops walk?” I ask.
“They use all eight,” she admits. “But I can’t get the hang of it, and since my cover is blown anyway...” She shrugs with the top two limbs.
“Do you need all of them? May as well drop the middle two pairs.”
“Do you need all of yours?” She elongates a finger to gently stroke one of my tentacles, and then I can’t speak, all I can do is wait for the electric thrill to pass through my whole body, from beak to cloaca. A shockingly erotic thrum lingers there, and in the sensitive inner curve of the tentacle where Ennesta’s paw still explores.
This is madness. Am I really attracted to this creature in this false and somewhat ridiculous body, about whom I still know almost nothing?
Yes, I am.
“I can certainly use them all in interesting ways, if that’s what you’re asking,” I say when my voice returns, only a little quaver in it. “But, see, I’m not a shapeshifter. Mine aren’t optional.”
Ennesta drops her finger, which is a true tragedy. She looks at her body, her limbs, as if for the first time, standing on the rear ones to hug herself around the middle with the second and third pairs. “I like them,” she finally says. “They aren’t very practical, but they feel like a part of me. Even if they do trip me up sometimes.” She wiggles them suggestively. “Of course, I could be something else if you wanted.”
Madness or not, I give in, standing on six tentacles to match limbs six for six with Ennesta’s in a slow embrace. “I like you just how you are,” I say, and we go from there, and before long neither of us can say how many limbs we have, only that we need all of them to properly explore and pleasure each other.
Afterward, Ennesta gets her limbs tangled on the ladder up to the bridge, and I can’t help but chuckle when one of them slips off and bonks me lightly in the head. I use a spare two tentacles to guide her paw back to the ladder, and she pushes off my head up into the bridge with a little more force than is strictly necessary—a gentle poke.
“Well, if it isn’t the stowaway,” Jorusz says, scales throbbing between red and purple. “What do you want?”
“Ennesta’s a shapeshifter,” I blurt out. “She isn’t sure what her species is supposed to look like. Tell them, Ennesta.”
The InstaComm pings, and Jorusz mutters at the screen.
She’s left my side, running almost all the way up to Jorusz before seeming to remember she’s afraid of him. Her eyes are wide and full of fear.
The InstaComm ejects a fresh message sphere, and Jorusz casually tosses it into a bag of them. Clearly the Tro’o are being their usual high-maintenance selves.
Ennesta’s eyes are glued to the bag of message spheres. Or maybe it’s the bag of flattened, used spheres she’s eyeing, in stunned horror. Jorusz touch-types something into the InstaComm, head swiveled to look away from the screen toward us.
“Stop,” Ennesta says. “Please!”
“Stop what?” KrunZo asks. He hits the blue button and the machine pings cheerily.
And Ennesta looks at him with such hurt and rage that I recoil from her.
The flattened message sphere pops out of the InstaComm console. Jorusz makes to toss it into the bag with the rest of them, but Ennesta holds out one trembling paw. Jorusz looks to KrunZo, who grunts a confused assent.
Ennesta takes the oblong disc in one paw, then holds it in both before her, reverently, as though it’s not just a bit of trash destined for the matter reclamator but something very precious. She holds it up to her face, looking closely, then sniffing, and after a moment during which none of us breathe, she takes a deep breath and releases it as a keening, piercing howl.
For a long while none of us move, shocked into inaction by Ennesta’s uncharacteristic, unrelenting loudness. KrunZo, as befits a captain, is the first to recover. “What in Gravity’s name are you doing?” he demands.
“She’s mourning, you idiot,” Quonka says mildly, climbing up into the cockpit. She kneels beside Ennesta, placing one hand on the place where Ennesta’s back bends unnaturally upright. “There there, sweetie,” she says. “You want to tell us why the message sphere makes you so sad?”
Ennesta quiets, nodding. “It’s dead,” she says. “Dead again and again and again.”
The machine births me, as usual. The ping, as usual, is the first thing I remember. And then the words of a message, as they’re squeezed from me. They slip away, leaving little behind. In larval stage, my senses are not sharp. I feel movement, textures against my exterior. I sense light, though I have no eyes.
Then a flash of cold, and nothing.
I wake back in the machine, again. Words are stabbed into me, a destination, the sharp-sweet-rotten smell, and then the crush, the pain. I expect the momentary nothing pause and then the ping of a new life. But the crushing goes only partway. I hear the ping, but it’s a different one than before, and my senses are alive like never before, alive with pain.
I am grabbed. I am in a hand, and the voice attached to the hand is weary and grumbling, and I tumble into a bag with other refuse. For I realize that’s what I am. They do not know I am alive. I am lucky garbage.
For a kilosecond or two I can’t move. I am too young, too wounded. But we grow fast. I consume the other refuse and by the time they throw us all into space I am a fat sphere again, lucky garbage of lazy ship.
In larval stage, I have no need for air. I float, I tumble like asteroid.
I am lucky a third time, because you shoot through my space. I have just enough strength to end larval stage and choose a form and hold onto your ship. And here I am.
We stare at her, waiting for the punchline. Ennesta lifts the flattened sphere of the most recent message sent in one paw.
“This is what I should have been. The machine should have killed me; sent my soul to the other end to be birthed with the message.”
After a moment of silence, Jorusz is the one to break it. “You’re trying to tell us you’re a damn message sphere?”
Ennesta shakes her head. “No. I’m trying to tell you that the message spheres are the same as me.”
Jorusz’s scales pulse brighter and brighter orange. “That’s impossible! It’s a damn machine. It doesn’t birth any larvae.”
“How do you know?” Quonka asks, still kneeling next to Ennesta.
In response, Jorusz only flashes a ripple of colors at her.
“It’s a fair question,” I say, the concrete puzzle of a mechanical question snapping my mind back into focus. “I’ve worked on just about every kind of machine there is, but never on an InstaComm. No one has. It’s common knowledge that you just can’t even think of opening one of those things up, but did you read the warning on the unit closely? Punishable by memory wipe. So for all we know it does birth larvae.”
“That would explain a few things,” Quonka says. “I’ve always wondered how the messages are transmitted so fast, faster than anything else in the known universe. If they do run on reincarnation...”
KrunZo, still as a mountain in his captain’s chair, does his best to steeple his stubby arms. “Well, sure. Reincarnation is instant. But it’s also random.”
Ennesta looks alarmed. “It is?”
“Isn’t it?” I ask.
“It isn’t for me. For my people. The machine controls it, and now that I am free from the machine I could control it.”
“Gronkshit,” Jorusz grumbles. “There is no such thing as a species that can control its reincarnation. We’d’ve heard about it!”
“That’s what you’ve been looking for, isn’t it?” Quonka asks, ignoring Jorusz even though he’s strobing between black and orange.
Ennesta blushes her furry face somehow—she must be changing the color of her fur. “I was born into the machine. I don’t remember where home is.”
“And you want to find it so you can die and be reborn there?” Quonka asks.
And my third heart sinks like a stone. Of course. She’s just waiting for the right current to swim away from me. Stupid of me to have thought otherwise, for even a nanosecond. “Now hold on,” I begin, but—
“This is nonsense!” Jorusz interjects. “First of all, you’re all listening to a wild yarn from a stowaway who’s probably an ISTO spy. And second, if it is true, then we’re probably all going to get disappeared for violating InstaComm’s terms. I can’t believe what a ship of fools I’m on.”
“I can prove it,” Ennesta says quietly, and it only takes following her gaze to the bag of fresh message spheres to figure out how. According to InstaComm, they must be put into stasis within four kiloseconds or one standard Galactic Hour. But what if they weren’t?
“Let them grow up,” she says.
“Astrill,” KrunZo asks, “what’s the penalty for that?”
It takes about another few days—as I reckon them—to reach the Tro’o rendezvous, a jungle moon of the system’s third planet. Needless to say, we send no more InstaComm messages. Luckily, we’re close enough by now that holos really will do just as well, even for the anxious Tro’o.
The gravity lovers—including KrunZo, who takes any opportunity he can to ambulate on flat land—shuttle the cargo down, while Ennesta and I tend to the brood of message spheres whose number increases with every transmission from the Tro’o. We’ve been feeding them table scraps and anything else otherwise headed for the matter reclamator that Ennesta deems suitable. It’s unnerving how they absorb the food into themselves. The spheres are getting big; the first ones we freed from stasis are almost half the size of Ennesta, who, now that I think of it, also seems to be growing. She’s about my size now, and I wonder if she’ll end up towering over me the way the other crew members do. I’m sure even she has no idea how big she’ll get.
Over the holo from down on the moon, the Tro’o are stomping around on their feathery hind legs, roaring at KrunZo and Jorusz and Quonka and waving their clawed hands. While most of the Tro’o take pride in their reasoning, the sect we most often deal with behaves like the monsters they resemble. It’s only a matter of time before they demand not just lab-grown meat but murdered meat, and then live animals to hunt. I’d bet any quantity of the finest Kranellian snapps on it.
I mute the holo display. How am I supposed to know if negotiations are about to turn south, when the Tro’o bellow like that to say hello? I enlarge a scanner screen tracking nearby ships. None of them squawk ISTO, but then they wouldn’t, would they? I scroll through the ships’ actual images one at a time.
In the unused cabin we’ve turned into a message sphere nursery, holographic dinosaurs stomp and spaceships fly. And a non-holographic sphere wobbles, cracking open like an egg with no shell, stretching and unfolding tentatively. I’m breathless to see what Ennesta’s species looks like, even more to see her finally see it too, but no. Limbs emerge (four of them); a head stretches into shape. A tail extrudes from what is now the creature’s posterior, and proportions adjust to account for it. After a long moment the newly born... whatever Ennesta’s species is called... claws zir way out of the bunk’s netting and opens zir toothy mouth to roar. Congratulations, it’s a Tro’o! Clearly this former sphere’s choice of form was influenced by the holo.
We’ve done our best to research Ennesta’s species, with no luck. There is no record in the libraries of either a shape-shifting species or one that can control its reincarnation—only legends of feats performed by acolytes of the Collective, none with provable results. My theory is that a species with that kind of control might never choose to leave their home system; perhaps none have ever been reborn as something else, somewhere else.
It sounds like paradise.
I’ve had more lives than anyone else on this crew, having bounced all over the universe since the days of the fifth Galactic Empire. I’ve ended up in regions so remote that there was no interstellar trade, even been planet-bound a couple of times. I’ve been mammalian, reptilian, avian, heptopod, and almost every other kind of thing there is, with no connecting thread that I can discern. Yeah, it’s exciting. Variety is the spice of lives, right?
It’s also lonely. I’ve never been reunited with any past loves. Or past friends. Or acquaintances. A person starts to feel like love is pointless at best, counterproductive even.
We’ve also been trying to research InstaComm. How was the miraculous technology developed? How does it work? All we’ve found are more legends and conspiracy theories. Was the Lost Generationship of the Pro’oco steered into a star because they knew too much? According to the lead-hat wearers, yes.
All official inquiries lead to the same result—a form allowing one to place a request to purchase a system or to request technical support. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.
By the time the shuttle is back on board, three more of the spheres have hatched. One looks like a kind of bat-winged bird, one looks like a miniature Quonka, and the third can’t seem to make up its mind, shifting between two legs and four and six, experimenting with skin and scales and fur.
Peering into the net they’re incubating in, Ennesta’s arms twined with my tentacles, I can’t help but think of my own offspring, swimming the various seas of the Trango System. Each one was hatched from a clutch like this; each was the lone survivor of a brutal post-birth scrum. Ennesta assures me that these babies won’t start murdering and devouring each other, but I’m not sure how she knows that.
Looking at them, each certainly possessed of a soul, I wonder for the first time about my offspring who didn’t make it through the melee. Roptralian wisdom holds that they have no souls, that only the survivor is imbued with one. But what if we’re wrong? What if each of them lived a brief, violent life? Born to die, never even named, mourned by none.
All of Ennesta’s lives have been like that.
I stretch my tentacles to pull her closer to me, and she purrs. She’s nothing like Zaraell, but we feel like new parents.
None of the “children” the memory spheres have become know what their species should look like or where the home planet is. Yet they have memories—or at least fragments of memories—dating back almost a terasecond. Tens of thousands of Roptralian years. Further back than the first life I can remember. Messages mundane and critical have passed through them to all parts of the galaxy—for those who can afford InstaComm’s rates.
Zaraell is not one of those. Zir messages come as holos, bound by the universe’s speed limits. One is here now, and the computer asks me if I want to view it now. Why not? The meat deal is done and the crew is back on board. The dinosaurs have stopped stomping and turned to their cargo, presumably. At any rate, they’re no longer my concern.
Zaraell’s face appears much larger than life, and Ennesta momentarily starts, then goes back to chatting with the newly hatched message spheres and hovering over the younger ones, waiting.
Zaraell sits in a peach-colored coral house I’ve never seen before, that opens behind zir to a stunning vista of clear water and lovingly sculptured kelp gardens and the rolling hills of Roptrango-A’s trendiest city. It’s rendered in 2D, of course, but I still feel the punch I know Zaraell intended—why else spend the extra to render the background at all?
But despite the perfection of zir setting, the lines around zir beak betray worry. “I can’t imagine why you haven’t responded to my last message,” ze begins, and I quake thinking about the distance that separates us. I did respond, though there wasn’t much I could say about it, but we are just so far away that Zaraell won’t get that holo for another dozen lunar tides—most of zir solar year. Ze’s probably about to get one I sent five jobs back, before I ever heard ze wanted to split up, and I can’t imagine what ze’ll make of its sunny long-distance love platitudes now.
“I decided not to wait, as you can see. I moved. I really like my new apartment—there’s even a sundeck on the top floor that’s dry at low tide. You can see the stars. I still look at them at night and wonder which direction you’re off in.”
Zaraell’s image sighs, bubbling out tiny, pretty spheres that I feel I could almost touch. Ennesta sidles up to me, nuzzling. Her eyes are as wide as oceans.
“Please message me back,” Zaraell says. “I want to see your face.” And the holo flickers off.
I slump to the cabin floor. We’ve started burning away from the Tro’o on to the next adventure, and gravity is as high on the ship as it ever is, but that’s not what’s weighing me down. A heavy lump sits on my second heart, and it’s made of the distance from here to home.
“That was your home system?” Ennesta asks, with surprising intensity. Her six legs are all dancing like she has to pee.
I gesture yes with the roll of a couple tentacles.
“What is it called?”
“Trango,” I say, and Ennesta yelps, covering her mouth with her paws. “Zaraell lives on Roptrango-A, the first planet, but they all look pretty similar.”
Ennesta squirms, looking anguished in a way that I’m pretty sure isn’t jealousy. I don’t know what it is, and that sinks me with worry.
“Why do you ask?”
Still, Ennesta stalls. “Is it really that beautiful there?”
I laugh. “Can you breathe in water? You probably can. Yeah, it’s really that beautiful. But I’m biased, you know? It’s home.”
Ennesta is quiet.
“I guess you wouldn’t know. Sorry. We’ll find your homeworld someday.”
There is a look dancing in her purple eyes that I cannot place.
“Why are you asking about Trango? You wanna go? I’ll take you there, but it’s far...”
“I can get there very fast,” Ennesta says sadly. “I have to tell you something. I have horrible news.”
Research Vessel H6Alpha to Trango System defense.
Disaster imminent! Misfired gravito-stellar beam on intercept course with Star Trango, ETA M141 K498 H122 S020. Trango System will be obliterated unless you build and deploy capture array by M133.4. Instructions for array follow.
The message is so brief—before devolving into schematic instructions, that is—that I can barely understand it. It seems so clinical for something that will wipe out my entire solar system. I imagine a laser blast, shot into space, traveling forever at the speed of light. I imagine myself, behind it, trying to shield my family (because they are still family, Zaraell and the kids, despite everything) from something I can never get in front of, no matter how hard I try.
How soon is M133.4? I’ve never been a natural with Universal Standard Time, so all I know is that it’s soon. Sooner than we can get there. Is it sooner than a holo can get there? Where’s that conversion chart?
“Is there still time?” I ask, when I can think enough to form words. How long will it take to build the capture array?
Ennesta shakes her head. “I don’t know. I’m just the message.”
I look at her, really look, deep into her sad purple eyes. “You’re a lot more than that.”
She shakes her head vehemently, pulling away from me even as I reach for her. “Am I? All I’ve ever been is a message. From here to there, life after life. Never a person.”
“You’re a person now. A person who I...”
“Who you what?” Ennesta is so still, not even breathing.
“Who I...” The words stick in my throat. “Am very glad to have met.”
Ennesta sits, heavily, folding limbs in ways I suspect real toyopops can’t. “I think I’m lucky garbage at best. Or maybe not-so-lucky garbage. If I’d stayed a message, your home would be safe.”
It’s true, isn’t it? True in a way that nothing else about Ennesta is: from her name to her gender, to—I fear—her affection for me, she’s making it all up as she goes along. So I find no reply I can make to comfort her.
Worse, a part of me wants to ask the unthinkable from her: for her to deliver the message after all. But stars, what would that mean? She’d have to die, and when she was reborn, it would be back into unending slavery, countless cycles of life and death that would take her Gravity-knows-where in the universe—and away from me forever. Not only can I not ask it, I’m not even sure I want it, even with every other thing I’ve ever loved in the universe on the line.
Ennesta doesn’t offer.
M133.4 is only eight lunar tides from now. Less than half a Trango year. Not even a holo can get there that fast.
Thoughts whirl in my mind like fish darting through tidal eddies. Can the doom beam be stopped any other way? Sometimes I convince myself that it’s no problem at all; surely the research station would have sent more than one message, right? Right? Even Zaraell sent more than one message to break up with me. Although, the second message wasn’t sent until after going ahead and leaving me.
So maybe it’s not safe to assume another message was sent.
I keep circling around the thought that since only an InstaComm message can get there in time, only Ennesta can save the Trango System. But that’s not really true, is it? There are other former message spheres on board the ship, seven or ten or a dozen of them now, all matured out of their larval stage into whatever form struck their fancy. They’ve made themselves at home, filling the extra cabins and taking up almost all the computer’s time on the star charts searching for home. They’re piecing together their bits of knowledge, looking for a binary system, perhaps, or something with a nebula view. They’re also plotting something that they think I don’t know about: a plan to free the rest of their species from the evil machinations of InstaComm.
But the point, the one I don’t want to admit, is that any of them could be used to send a message.
Or maybe not. They don’t fit into the slot on the InstaComm anymore, so I’m not sure how we’d encode the message onto one of them, let alone the coordinates for rebirth. I’ve tried to get the information out of Ennesta, and all that her evasive answers seem to imply is that it could be done.
Of course, it would mean murdering a sentient being. But just one. One little life, to save Zaraell and the kids. One little life to save all the beaches, all the coral homes, all the clear waters and the schools of colorful fish and the gardens. One murder to save all of it, the star and the planets and the tides that whisper songs of home...
If it was only a murder, maybe I could do it. Death is not forever. One life ends and another begins. But the new life I would be sending that being into would be a life of slavery, again and again and again.
I can’t do it, and not only because I don’t know how. There’s also Ennesta’s big eyes that light up when she sees me coming through the nursery hatch, and her eight furry limbs that intertwine with my tentacles like they were engineered to do it, and her soft rumbling purr when I wake with her nestled asleep under my beak. And something else: a feeling that though the shifty tides of the universe brought us together, I can’t let them pull us apart.
The InstaComm pings. Ennesta and I both jump almost out of our skins, and Jorusz rolls his bulbous eyes and flashes a lizardy green. When the fresh message sphere pops out into the cockpit he tosses it toward Ennesta, saying, “Here’s another new friend for you.”
Then he turns to the screen and fades a sicker shade of green. “Oh shitballs,” he says. “ISTO.”
Intra-Stellar Trade Organization. This means evasive maneuvers, maybe boarding, maybe a fine, confiscation of our current cargo, which is probably illegal. I’ve lost track. I just scoot toward the engine room, anticipating trouble from whatever crazy shit Jorusz is about to ask the star drive to do.
Ennesta follows, message sphere in one hand, and, despite the danger of ISTO and gravity suddenly slamming us both into the wall as Jorusz sends us hurtling through space, I have a thought. A terrible thought.
A fresh message sphere. One I can still use.
I know all the details of the message Ennesta carried. Sending it would be as simple as typing it into the InstaComm and pressing that blue button.
And getting the new sphere (which I am trying hard to think of as a thing, a tool, definitely not a sentient being with a soul) away from Ennesta.
And murdering zir—no, it—and returning it, and all its future reincarnations, to an eternity of slavery.
I try to focus on wringing power out of the ship’s star drive so we can careen and duck through this system’s asteroid belt and shake ISTO off our tail.
But during the cilia-raising escape, our scan detector sirens more than once, so even though we once again make it out with our lives (in time for dinner, even!), now ISTO knows exactly who and what we are. It’s only a matter of time before they find us again, surround and board us, and then the best we can hope for is that their memory wipe leaves us with some of the things we hold most dear. Zaraell, I think, twisting three tentacles into a wishing pose. Ennesta.
After fixing the minor damage Jorusz’s evasive maneuvers did to my star drive, I climb into my hammock next to Ennesta—may as well call it our hammock by now—noting the small sphere maturing in a bit of netting beside us. It’s visibly bigger than earlier already. But I think it’ll still fit into the InstaComm’s slot. If I act soon.
I wait until Ennesta’s asleep, purring heavily with six of her limbs wrapped around me. I peel them off one at a time, once again, and creep out into the night. No one is stirring, not even Jorusz, who should be on watch after an ISTO sighting. Not a single one of the former message spheres. Not the one wrapped in two of my tentacles. It feels for all the world like a rubber ball. Maybe slightly warm. Maybe with the slow, almost imperceptible beating of an alien heart.
I get as far as the InstaComm console. I type in the message. I input the coordinates. I burble something like a prayer to the sphere cradled in one tentacle, pressing it up against the hole it’s just slightly too large to slide easily into. I tell myself it’s not much. Just a little push. Just a little more pressure. Then push the blue button. Then, ping! The death and eternal slavery of a sentient being. But just one. One little being for millions. Surely that’s good math?
I have no idea how much time passes in that moment, in which all of my senses are directed inward, warring with myself. I’m so consumed that I don’t even hear Ennesta approach. I don’t notice her until a furry white hand comes into my view, delicately moving my tentacle away from the sphere stuck halfway into the slot. She pries it free, cupping it in a pair of hands, while other hands wrap around me. I turn into those arms, weeping without tears, a coughing, rasping wail that pulls up from the depths of my third heart only to be lost in Ennesta’s furry embrace.
“There there, sweetie,” she says. “It’s okay. I knew you couldn’t go through with it.”
I weep, shuddering in her many arms.
“It’s okay,” she repeats. “Let’s go back to bed.”
“I can’t,” I say, pulling away. “I may not be able to kill anyone, but I can’t live with letting Trango die either.”
I guess I can’t live at all, then. The idea hits me like the jolt of an electric eel. I wrap my tentacles around Ennesta’s wrists, gripping hard.
“Teach me,” I say. “I’ll deliver the message. Just teach me how.”
Ennesta resists for days, as doom races toward Trango.
“What if it can’t be taught? What if it only works for my species?”
It’s a risk I’m willing to take. “Worst-case scenario, I end up reborn somewhere else. That’s what happens.”
“Do your people mature fast enough for you to remember the message in time?”
Honestly, no. Even if Roptralian lore is correct and only one offspring has a soul (and that would be me, right, by default?), it takes time to prevail against one’s soulless clutchmates. And that’s if I could even bring myself to devour them this time around, and if I didn’t have the hearts to go through with it, they’d surely make short work of me. And even if I did make it through the melee, it takes time to grow enough to understand the world and remember past lives, and even more time to be respected enough that the message might be heard.
No, it won’t do at all to be reborn as a Roptralian. I’ll have to be born as whatever Ennesta is. But that means...
Ennesta knows exactly what it means. “If you end up in the machine...”
This is the true worst-case scenario, being caught in the life-death cycle of Ennesta’s enslaved people. And yet, it’s also the best-case scenario. It’s the only thing that will work.
I run a tentacle lovingly down the side of her worried face, and she covers it with a paw. “Well, then it’s up to you, my love.”
Ennesta nods sadly. Perhaps she would never have become a crusader on her own, but there are a dozen-some of her people, freed and angry, onboard the ship now. And they haven’t just been searching for the homeland so they can go back there and keep hiding. They won’t rest until they free every one of their kind. And if this works, that will include me. I think they can do it, too. It’s only a matter of time before they bring the whole InstaComm system crashing down.
“Who knows how long it will take us, though,” she says. “Who knows how many lives you’ll go through, and where you’ll end up? What if I can’t ever find you again?”
A tear falls from her eye, landing on one of my tentacles. I look at it, test it between two suckers, feel the silky saltiness of it, just like the real thing. Just like a drop in the oceans. How does a shapeshifter do that?
Well, maybe I’ll find out.
“You found me once,” I say. “Something tells me you can do it again.”
“I will,” she says.
It’s part biofeedback, I learn a little at a time from Ennesta over the next few days. You tune into your... she lacks the word... home center, you know, in the... the bluest part of your soul. Maybe it’s in your brain?
I almost give up a thousand times, every time the logical, mechanistic part of my brain stops me from achieving clarity in what Ennesta assures me is a simple meditation. There is no manual for this process.
On the third day, a breakthrough—she teaches me how to purr. Not faking it with janky breathing through my lungs or gills, but an honest-to-gravity vibration that originates from... I have no idea where. But I’m controlling it with my thoughts. Within hours I’ve got it down to an almost unconscious control, almost as natural as breathing.
“Okay,” I say, resisting the urge to write up the process in a bulleted list. “You get your purr on, and then what?”
Ennesta laughs, two fluffy paws held demurely in front of her mouth. “Oh no, purring is not part of the reincarnation control.”
And I almost strangle her. But she talks me down by continuing on, showing me that it’s a similar type of control. In another day I think I’ve located my “home center” and know how to program in the coordinates for Trango.
Ennesta and the other grown spheres have synthesized a chemical compound to help adapt my Roptralian physiology to the process, and now she hands me the syringe, big eyes wet with something like tears. “You are as ready as you can be,” she says.
I guess that will have to be good enough. I take the syringe. It’s so light! Another small thing that will change everything. “You don’t have to watch,” I tell her.
“Please don’t leave me,” she whispers in reply.
Then she shakes her head, nuzzles me, reassures me. “I don’t mean that. I know you have to go and I won’t ask you not to just for little me. But... I don’t want you to leave.”
Someone’s always leaving, I think, chiding myself for staying bitter to the bitter end. At least this time it’s me doing the leaving.
I kiss Ennesta, then inject myself.
The wave of vertigo is somehow still a shock. I swoon into Ennesta’s many arms, and she catches me like she was made to do it. I want to tell her that, that and other things. There are words I’m finally ready to say. I open my mouth, but speech is already beyond me, and only a croak leaves my beak.
My brain tastes like paprika spilled on a long-forgotten tidepool. I focus on that, on water, on tides, on Trango.
I remember to breathe, and, even though it’s not part of the process, I start to purr. I focus on the mantra of numbers running through my mind as they merge, programming my soul, Gravity willing.
Vision fades, sounds grow echoey and strange, and my purr degenerates into spasms, but I can still feel the soft fur of my lover’s arms and the silky tears as they splash onto my face like ocean water. Home, I think. This is home.
I want to tell her, but it’s too late.
Maybe in my next life.