There was complete silence on the Resolution’s observation deck. The three hundred and sixty degree windows gave a clear view of all of the surrounding space. But the entire crew was focused on one point. The point where the tiny, ramshackle ship, the Tahlia Mae, had disappeared into the wormhole a few seconds ago.
Amelie couldn’t help craning her neck like the rest of the Resolution’s passengers, even though she wasn't sure what anyone expected to see. Folly, pilot of the Tahlia Mae, had assured them that this test jump would take at least half an hour, and she should know better than anyone. She was the only person alive who had ever travelled through a wormhole.
Amelie just hoped it worked. Folly had only been on board for a few days, but already she had worked her way into everyone’s hearts. The plucky little survivor from the desolate planet of Semala had pinned all her hopes on proving the wormhole generator her father had built worked. She’d be devastated if it failed.
So would everyone else. They were out of other options, since the planet they’d planned to settle on, Semala, was already occupied, and the occupants wished to remain part of the Colonies. The idea that they could create stable wormholes and travel from one side of the galaxy to the other in under an hour seemed preposterous. Amelie hoped it worked anyway.
As the sky in front of them remained blank, people began to shift impatiently. A baby began to fuss, and its mother, Amelie’s friend Marlee, jiggled her in her arms distractedly. Her eyes didn’t leave the window in front of them, despite the fact that it showed nothing but blank space with a smattering of stars. There was really no reason for everyone to stay, especially those in the later stages of pregnancy, or those with young families, but no one moved.
Pregnant women leaned on their partners, all eyes full of hope. They were all looking forward to a new life together, as a family. A life they never would have been able to have if they hadn’t left the colonies.
A life none of them would have a chance at if they didn’t find a new home.
Even if the Colonies would allow them back in, the issue that had caused them to leave, the overpopulation of all the habitable planets within range of their ships, still existed. The Colonies weren’t going to change the ruling restricting anyone with a criminal record from having a baby. A ruling that made almost all the newborn and unborn children on this ship illegal.
Amelie, of course, wasn’t at risk of having an illegal child, even if she hadn’t been single. But as a Space Force doctor, she’d been tasked with aborting one of these illegal babies. Little Isala, in fact, safe now in Marlee’s arms.
A task she just couldn’t complete. So she’d joined the rebellion, headed by Marlee and her husband, Tyris. And here she was.
Being on a ship full of pregnant women and babies was the last place she’d ever expected to end up. Constantly surrounded by the one thing she couldn’t have seemed like the ultimate torture, but though it certainly had bittersweet moments, mostly, the opposite was true. Helping these women, who would have been denied their babies because of the Colonies’ stupid laws, somehow felt right.
Which was a good thing, because she’d certainly burned all her bridges when she left. Amelie couldn’t help a twinge of nerves at that. She never would have guessed she’d do something so rash, so defiant, as to get involved with rebels and leave the Colonies. It wasn’t like her at all.
That’s what her parents and sister had thought when she’d called to tell them she was leaving. They’d just stared blankly at her. When she’d asked if they wanted to come with her, they’d asked why. Why would anyone want to leave the nice, safe, secure, Colonies?
She tried to tell them that the Colonies weren’t as safe and secure as they thought. That if they didn’t find more anysogen, and what they were mining on Zerris would barely touch the edges of that need, that they would all starve.
They just laughed, and refused to believe her.
No one ever had. She was a little relieved they hadn’t elected to come. She was better off without them. Better off alone than with their disapproval.
Amelie was used to being alone. She’d accepted it as her lot in life. She’d found other ways to be a productive member of society. Especially of this society, where they had welcomed her with open arms. These people here were more her family than her real family had ever been.
Despite all that, despite the welcome, and even the friendship, of Marlee and Tyris, there was still a portion of Amelie that would always be alone. Her job as a doctor set her apart from all of them. Alone in a sea of people.
She wasn’t the only one. Another woman stood alone near the edge of the group, rubbing her pregnant stomach, her brow furrowed. A single mum, she’d never mentioned her baby’s father. Amelie picked out a few more like her.
They wouldn’t be alone for long though. Soon they would have an infant who depended on them for everything, and who they could lavish their love on.
She turned away, ignoring the sadness that threatened. As she turned, her eyes fell on the dark, silent alien standing in a space of his own at the window.
No one wanted to be close to him. Another alone in a room full of strangers.
Even more alone than she was
Her eyes lingered on his dark shape. The alien’s strangeness just as unlikely, and just as intriguing, as the possibility of wormhole travel. After a hundred years of exploring the galaxy, humans had come to believe there was no other intelligent life here.
The alien had a humanoid shape, bipedal and upright, as scientists had theorised intelligent aliens would, but that was where any similarity to humans ended. He was far taller than even the tallest man in the room, and bulkier too. Though his black, armoured wings were folded behind his back and the large spurs that extended from behind his wrist were sheathed, his presence was still intimidating. The black armour and lifeless eyes just looked ominous.
There was no telling what he was thinking behind all that.
Was he waiting on the results of this space flight as eagerly as everyone else? He had to be. He wanted to get home as much as the rest of them did.
Maybe more so. He, at least, had a home to go to.
The question was, how far would he be prepared to go to get there? That was what everyone had been whispering for the last couple of days, ever since Kerit had made friends with him and brought him aboard the spaceship. Kugah, Kerit had said his name was. Or at least, that was as close to the alien’s guttural utterance as they could come.
He didn’t even look at the people around him as they took seats on the lounges scattered in the middle of the room. He just stared out the window, his eyes locked on the space where Kerit and Folly had disappeared.
Raised voices caught Amelie’s attention over the hum of regular conversation. A young couple sat near the doorway, their eyes on Kugah. The woman looked frightened, her hand on her distended stomach. Her partner’s face twisted in a scowl. Amelie’s forehead furrowed, trying to place them. She’d reviewed all of the Resolutions three hundred crew members in the last few weeks, but it was hard to keep their names and faces straight.
Talah, that was the man’s name, and his wife was Elma. They’d seemed very quiet and unobtrusive when Amelie had examined them.
Not so much now.
Kugah’s head turned too.
“What are you looking at?” Talah demanded, glaring at Kugah. He squeezed his wife’s hand.
Kugah just stared. He knew only one or two words of their language, he probably had no idea what the man was saying.
Amelie felt a little sorry for him, the feeling surprising her. It was hard to think that an armoured super soldier could be vulnerable. But emotional pain was different to physical pain. Far more agonising. She headed towards the couple, in case she needed to intervene.
“Is there a problem?” Tyris stepped in before she got there, his voice placating.
Amelie was relieved at his intervention. As the captain, he had more authority than she did. And as a man who had given up everything he’d ever had to save his wife and baby, he had the entire crew’s respect. Surely Talah would listen to him?
“He doesn’t belong here,” Talah said flatly, stabbing his finger in Kugah’s direction. “You’re risking everyone’s life by letting him stay. What if he attacks us?”
Amelie’s eyes were on Kugah. Did she detect a slight flexing of his muscles? He was certainly staring at Talah, so he couldn’t have missed the gesture. But did he understand it?
She winced. Aggression was one of those things that seemed to translate well, even without words, but the poor alien wouldn’t even know what had drawn the man’s ire.
She reviewed his armoured body again. Then again, maybe he did. He must realise how intimidating he looked to the weaker humans?
Movement from Tyris drew her attention back. He glanced sideways at the alien, and Amelie didn’t miss the flicker of uncertainty on his face. It was gone by the time he turned back to Talah. “Kugah has shown no signs of attacking anyone since he came on board. He has been nothing but peaceful, so how about we do the same?” His voice was calm and controlled.
Amelie heard the warning.
Talah didn’t. Or his fear overcame common sense. “You weren’t there when he attacked us out there on Semala.” His voice shook. “When Kerit asked for help evacuating the people before they started the terraforming, of course I volunteered. I wanted to help everyone as much as the next man. I figured the sooner we got everyone off the planet, the sooner the terraforming process could kill that alien. We were only half way through when he showed up, and…” Talah swallowed.
The abject fear in his voice sent a shiver down Amelie’s spine. She’d been inside at the time, helping Marlee give birth, but she could only imagine how the angry alien flying straight at those stuck outside would have felt.
“We all ran for the Resolution,” Talah continued, his voice shaking. “But before we could get there, they started closing the doors. They were going to leave us out there with that alien.”
Amelie winced. The feeling of being abandoned by those who he had trusted to help him, had obviously had a lasting impact on Talah. And she couldn’t blame him. Even though she knew that Kerit had had no choice in ordering the hatch closed to protect those already inside, and had, in fact, been stranded outside himself, she could imagine how awful it would feel. Everyone outside must have been certain they would die.
But that wasn’t how it had ended.
“And then Kerit talked to Kugah, and convinced him that he didn’t have to attack us to get help,” Amelie pointed out. “I know the experience was frightening, but we have an agreement now. Kugah isn’t going to hurt us.”
“He didn’t stop because Kerit convinced him not to hurt us,” Talah shot back immediately. “He stopped because he could see a way into our ship. Why settle for the tiny Tahlia Mae when he could have the Resolution? He’s just waiting for a chance to kill us all and take it.” He waved his arms wide to include the whole room. “Everyone here is thinking it, I’m just the only one willing to say it.” His voice rose higher with each word until he was practically shouting. Impossible to ignore.
The man’s fear had obviously overcome all reason. Kugah didn’t even speak their language, his chances of understanding how their ship worked by himself were remote. It made far more sense for him to cooperate with them.
As long as he didn’t become convinced they weren’t going to help him, which this hostility just might do.
She glanced back at Kugah. The alien’s fists clenched, the movement causing the tips of the sheathed spurs to slide out from behind his wrists.
Amelie’s heart rate sped up. Was he about to attack?
Was there anything they could do if he was? No one had any weapons, and even if they did, they might well be useless against the alien’s armour.
The only person who’d had any luck communicating with the alien, Kerit, was on the spaceship that had disappeared into the wormhole.
Why did Talah have to make an issue of this right now, in front of Kugah? Couldn’t he have raised it in private with Tyris later?
Tyris was obviously thinking the same thing. “Why don’t we step outside…”
He broke off mid-sentence, because Kugah was moving, far faster than his size would suggest was possible.
He appeared to be heading straight for Talah, but Amelie could see his eyes were fixed past the man, on the doorway behind him. He just wanted to escape.
Amelie could sympathise. That would be her reaction in the same situation.
She stepped back out of his way.
Tyris followed suit.
Releasing his wife’s hand, Talah pushed Elma behind him and stepped towards Kugah, his fists automatically rising. “Leave us alone,” he said angrily.
The alien swung at him wildly on his way past, his elbow catching the side of his head almost by chance. Talah screamed and fell to the ground as Kugah kept on moving out the door.
Amelie was torn. Her duty was clear. As the ship’s doctor, she needed to see to the injured man. Much as she wanted to know what was going on out in the corridor.
Somehow, she felt that the alien outside was hurting more than Talah was.
As soon as her path was clear, she rushed across and knelt down beside Talah. She tried to ignore his wife’s panicked questions as she examined the side of his head. There was no visible injury and his scream that had begun as soon as Kugah’s arm had connected with his head, and subsided into whimpers without a pause, meant he hadn’t lost consciousness. That was a good sign.
A quick physical examination showed that his skull was intact. Amelie pulled a torch out of her pocket, and shone it in each of his eyes. Good response. “How do you feel,” she asked, helping him to sit up.
“Like I just got hit in the head by a tree,” Talah said bluntly. He looked around the room. “Where did that thing go?”
Ignoring the man’s question, Tyris asked, “Is he okay?”
Amelie hesitated. “He seems to be, but I should run a scan to be sure.”
“That can wait,” Tyris said firmly. “First, you can help me find the alien and calm him down.”
Amelie swallowed. Her? Why did Tyris want her?
Silly question. She was the only other person on this ship with military training. And none of them had any real idea what they were up against.
She stood up and nodded, ignoring Talah’s protest. “Let’s go.”
Kugah stared up and down the corridor, his own heavy breathing echoing inside his skull.
He’d messed up again. Let his fear and anger control him and drive him to hurt someone. The human man had only been trying to protect his mate.
He was right to fear Kugah.
And Kugah had only proved it.
He should never have come here. He should never have let Kerit convince him to come on board the ship full of small, fragile, angry humans. He didn’t belong here.
He didn’t belong anywhere.
“Kugah?” A woman’s voice broke through his panic and rage. The voice was gentle, and almost soothing. She followed up the name with a string of words Kugah didn’t recognise.
They didn’t seem like angry words though.
Kugah turned and stared at the human woman, who stood next to Kerit’s brother. She was different to the others. He’d seen her watching him in the room, even though she hadn’t known he knew.
She’d been standing alone, just like he was, and for a second, he’d thought maybe she could understand.
Maybe she would have, if he hadn’t just injured one of her friends.
Despite that, and the fear he could smell emanating from her, she didn’t look angry. Her expression was compassionate.
Tyris though, frowned. He said something Kugah couldn’t understand, his words sharp.
The woman’s expression didn’t change. She put up a hand towards Tyris, and said something. Whatever it was made Tyris step back with a nod.
The woman made a motion with her hand, and then headed down the corridor.
Something about her drew him. So Kugah followed her. It wasn’t like he had anything else to do.
As he walked down the empty corridors, the scene in the room full of windows played out in his head. The expression on the man’s face had been a mixture of fear and anger, the strong emotions instantly recognisable, even though his species was entirely different from Kugah's.
Just like the expression on his grandmother’s face.
As soon as the thought entered his mind, Kugah tried to block it. But the harder he tried, the more the memories clamoured at his mind.
After his metamorphosis he’d been given permission to visit his home town. At first he hadn’t realised why the Gokak official’s face had showed so much humour when he stamped his papers. He knew he looked different, but he hadn’t felt any different inside. He’d thought that the people who loved him would be able to see past that. After all, they’d accepted the Gokak into their world and lives.
It wasn’t until he disembarked from the shuttle in the middle of the town square where he and his brothers and sisters had played as children, that he’d realised it wasn’t that simple.
They’d accepted the Gokak’s presence, but they had never welcomed them. The simmering dislike under the surface meant that people had shied away from his dark, forbidding form as soon as his feet had touched the ground. They had no chance to realise that he was the same person inside. He was so unrecognisable that they ran from him, even though some of them had known him since he was a child.
In desperation, he had walked through the streets to his home, having to bend at the waist to fit through the door. His grandmother had yelled at him to leave. Kugah’s skin tried to pull away from the armour it was attached to as he remembered her screams.
No, he didn’t want to remember. He had come all this way to try to forget.
But the memory would not be silenced any more than his attempts to tell her that he had no intention of hurting her had silenced his grandmother’s screams.
His voice had been so changed by the metamorphosis that she hadn’t even been able to understand what he was saying. She’d yelled at him to get out, that she would have no Ta-Sofana in her house.
She would never have accepted that he was her grandson, even if he’d been able to make her understand the words.
Once he had undergone the Gokak’s enhanced evolution modification, he could never be the same person again.
Kugah’s footsteps slowed, lost in the memory.
He had done it all for her even though she couldn’t see that. Without the treatment for her illness, she would have already been dead. But a price had to be paid.
His metamorphosis was that price.
That had been just the beginning.
This time, Kugah did cut the memories off. Following that path any further led to madness, and he had already come back from the brink once. He wasn’t sure he could do it again.
He wasn’t sure he would want to.
He forced his eyes to refocus on the woman walking down the hallway in front of him.
The humans were right to be afraid of him. If even his own people had feared him, how could these weak humans do any differently? He was a killing machine, designed to be perfect at that task. There was no physical weapon or ability that he lacked.
These humans didn't even carry a weapon. They were a peaceful people. Like his people had been. He didn't belong here.
It had been a mistake to let Kerit talk him into coming with them. He should just have accepted Folly’s offer of her spaceship. Then he would be long gone from here.
And these people would have no home.
He didn't understand why they couldn't have stayed on the planet he had been trapped on, but it was clear from the antagonism he could sense between those on the ship, and those who had remained behind, that they couldn't live together.
The area contained many habitable planets occupied by others of their species though. It shouldn't take them long to find somewhere to settle. Then Kerit had promised to help him find a home.
Why the gutsy human had decided to help him he wasn't sure. Certainly Kugah had given him no reason to. But for some reason, he trusted the human.
As much as he trusted anyone anyway.
He just had to ignore the humans’ suspicious stares and wait his turn. Then he could get what he wanted. He could live the rest of his life alone. On a barren planet, one where his weaponised form couldn't harm anyone.
Where no one could hurt him.
“I need two volunteers to watch Kugah,” Tyris said quietly into his communicator.
Amelie glanced at the door to Kugah’s room. With the door closed, she was sure he couldn’t hear them, but she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him anyway.
He hadn’t been trying to hurt anyone. He’d been afraid and running, only hitting Talah by accident.
But she couldn’t blame Tyris for wanting to keep an eye on him either. It was sheer luck Talah hadn’t been more seriously injured. Obviously something needed to be done.
If only she knew what.
After the men had arrived, both of them headed back to the observation deck, though the incident had dampened Amelie’s excitement over the test flight a little.
On the way, Tyris opened his mouth to say something, just as both his and Amelie’s communicators beeped. “The Tahlia-Mae has returned,” Nerris’s voice announced. “Can you come down to shuttle bay please?”
Amelie’s heart skipped a beat. Kerit and Folly were back. Did that mean it had worked? Her heart thumped harder. All the excitement was back in a second. They were all counting on this.
“We’ll be there immediately,” Tyris responded. He glanced sideways at her, and without a word, both of them broke into a run.
Amelie stood next to Tyris as the shuttle bay door slid open, only the force field holding back the emptiness of space as the Tahlia Mae slid in. The little ship looked so small in the cavernous space. Even smaller than their shuttle or Kugah’s alien ship.
Amelie stared at it, looking for any signs of mishap. Its frame was already quite battered from years stored in the caves on Semala, but to Amelie’s eye, it looked unscathed from its journey.
That was a good sign, right?
The door creaked open, and Folly appeared in the doorway, followed by Kerit. Both of them were beaming.
“Did it work?” Tyris asked sharply, almost before the young couple had emerged from the hatch.
“Yes!” Folly said jubilantly. “And it took far less time than we had predicted. Less than a minute.”
Amelie’s heart sagged in relief. She hadn’t realised until that moment how nervous she’d been about this flight. But the relief at knowing they had another option, that they could escape from Colonial space and never have to return, was enormous.
A tiny white streak, moving so fast Amelie could barely make out its shape, ran from a pile of boxes, over to Folly, and up her leg. Amelie couldn’t help a smile. Folly’s pet, a native animal from Semala called a skuttle, was shy and spent most of its time hiding, probably why she’d named it ‘Chicken’. But it’s huge ears and fluffy tail were adorable, and the few children already on board the Resolution had spent hours trying to tempt it out of her pocket with food, usually successfully.
“Fifty-three seconds, to be exact.” Kerit, Folly’s fiancé and co-pilot on this trip, was grinning from ear to ear.
“What?” Tyris's voice was sharp. He stared at his brother, shaking his head. “That's not possible.”
A happy go lucky surfer who had thrown his lot in with his brother when he faced opposition from the Colonies, Kerit was always joking about something. Not this time though.
“Travelling through a wormhole isn’t supposed to be possible at all, bro. At least, not according to all the scientists in the Colonies,” Kerit said, sweeping his long blonde hair out of his eyes and slapping his brother on the shoulder. “Why is the time it took us the impossible bit?”
“But…” Tyris looked from one to the other. “But when we were planning for this trip, you said it took a couple of hours, Folly.”
Folly shrugged, ruffling Chicken’s fur absently “I was a kid, everything seemed to take ages to me. I probably couldn't tell what was normal flight and when we actually entered the wormhole. It all feels just the same, unless you’re watching.”
Her explanation made sense. Or as much sense as everything else. Amelie knew little about the theories behind wormhole travel, which as Kerit had already said, was supposed to be impossible anyway, so it all seemed fantastical to her.
“Even so, you’ve been gone a lot longer than fifty-three seconds,” Tyris pointed out. “Maybe the wormhole travel changes the recording of time?”
Folly and Kerit both blushed. “We, ah, were spent a little time checking our coordinates and, ah, giving the wormhole machine a rest before returning,” Kerit said.
Tyris raised an eyebrow. “Checking the wormhole machine? That’s a new one.”
Amelie bit back a laugh. Folly and Kerit did make a cute couple, even though their closeness reminded her of all the things she couldn’t have.
“You mean the orp,” Folly corrected, her face deadly serious.
“Orp?” Tyris asked. He looked from Folly to Kerit, but his brother looked as mystified as he was.
“The Artificial Wormhole Projector,” Folly said. “The AWP. That’s what it’s called.”
Tyris looked taken aback for a minute, but the serious look on Folly’s face wasn’t open to any disagreements. “The AWP,” Tyris agreed.
“I need to give both of you a medical check,” Amelie interrupted, figuring Tyris needed help.
Folly frowned. “I feel fine.”
“You may right now, but if something goes wrong later then the readings I take now could be instrumental in diagnosing a problem.”
“And this isn't just about you,” Tyris reminded her. “We need to make sure the flight is safe for everyone on board this ship.”
Folly frowned, but didn't object further. She tucked the little creature back into her pocket, and stood patiently while Amelie pulled her stethoscope out of her bag, and listened to her heartbeat, checked her reflexes, and looked into her eyes. Then she did the same for Kerit. Finally, she took some blood samples just in case.
“You both look fine,” she pronounced. “But I’ll need to run some further tests before I can say for certain.”
Ignoring the last part of her sentence, Folly said, “I told you so.” She turned to Tyris. “So how soon can we have the device fitted to the Resolution?”
“Nerris thinks a week.”
A cold shiver ran through Amelie. That was awfully close. Somehow, it felt like they were rushing things. Back on Urslat, technology like this would be tested for months, if not years, before it was approved for commercial use.
Folly’s face fell. “A week? That's ages.”
“Never mind,” Kerit said quickly. “I'm sure we can figure out something to keep us busy while we wait.”
The subtle meaning in his voice was only confirmed by Folly’s blush.
“We have something more important to figure out right now,” Tyris said firmly.
Kerit raised an eyebrow. “What’s up, bro?”
“Kugah attacked a man on the observation deck.”
Kerit’s face went pale. “What happened?”
They filled him in on the way to the briefing room, where Marlee met them at the door, her face worried. “I sent most of the people back to their rooms, but the crew’s all here.”
Amelie looked around at the familiar faces sitting at the big table in the briefing room. The wealth of experience and knowledge of those Tyris had chosen to help him with running the spaceship and establishing their new colony, gave her a small measure of relief. Surely they could figure out a way to solve this problem?
Tyris’s opening comment wasn’t promising. “I think we need to consider taking him to the Colonies,” he said quietly. “They have more resources to deal with an issue like this.”
Kerit shot up out of his seat almost before he’d finished sitting down. “You can’t do that,” he said immediately. “They’ll want to experiment on him, surely you know that, Tyris? Tell him, Dr Benton,” Kerit appealed to Amelie.
Amelie hesitated, torn. Kerit had a point, but then, so did Tyris. Besides, her position here was to give her scientific and medical opinion. As well as her ethical one. “Our first responsibility is to the men, women and children on board this ship,” she reminded Kerit. “We offered them a new home. A safe home. We do need to consider the fact that this alien could be a threat to that.”
She said the words, but she couldn’t really bring herself to believe them. Despite his threatening appearance, she couldn’t convince herself that Kugah meant any harm.
But that was her personal opinion, not her professional one, so she kept it to herself.
“He certainly has the ability to,” Molly, the woman who had adopted Folly after her mother died, said. Her expression was interested. She’d studied alien animals on many worlds, but like Amelie, this was her first sentient one. “We need to keep that in mind at all times.”
“Well, I told Kugah that I’d help him find his home,” Kerit said stubbornly. “And I’m not about to retract that because some idiot had to freak him out. From what you’ve all said, Kugah didn’t mean to hurt that guy, despite the fact that the guy definitely provoked him. I don’t see that we have a problem.”
He looked around the room, his gaze challenging everyone. His eyes lingered on Amelie’s. “You can see that too, can’t you, Dr Benton?”
Amelie hesitated, but she always felt honesty was the best policy. “I don’t believe Kugah intended to hurt anyone, no.”
“But he’s quite clearly shown that he can hurt people without intending to,” Yasmyn said, her lips a thin line. “Even if he has the best intent in the world, we can’t ignore that fact.”
Kerit threw up his hands. “Fine, lock him in his room then, but don’t give him up to the Colonies. Please.” His last pleading request was addressed to his brother.
Tyris looked at Kerit for a few more minutes, then sighed. “I’ll see,” was all that he’d say. “For now, we’ll keep him confined to his room until I decide what to do. But I do think we need to prioritise finding him a new home, and getting him off our ship.”
Kerit looked like he was going to protest, but Folly’s hand on his arm stopped him. He looked at her for a moment, an unspoken communication passing between them, then he subsided in his seat, though his face still looked mutinous.
Tyris’s frown turned into a smile. “Since Folly and Kerit’s journey was a success, hopefully we’ll be on our way to our first possible destination soon.”
There were return smiles, reserved, but hopeful.
Amelie though, couldn’t help feeling more hesitant. “I don’t think we should rush this. We have no idea what sort of effects travel through the wormhole could have, especially on the unborn or young babies.”
Tyris frowned, and Amelie knew he was thinking of his own child. “I thought you said you hadn’t detected any negative effects from Folly and Kerit’s jump?”
Amelie shook her head. “I didn’t. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be. A new technology like this would be studied for years before it was approved for commercial use. There could be long term effects that we can’t even guess at yet.”
“We don’t have years,” Tyris said firmly. “Is it safe or not?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“We do have a long term study,” Kerit broke in. “Folly travelled from Urslat to Semala as a young child, and she’s fine.”
“One case study doesn’t guarantee anything.” They didn’t get it at all. Neither of them were scientists. This was far more complicated than either of them could imagine.
“But there are no signs of anything going wrong that you can determine, right?” Tyris pushed.
“No,” Amelie admitted unwillingly. “But I still think we need to be cautious.”
Tyris nodded. “We will.” His definitive tone said he’d dismissed that concern and moved on. “Glesin has picked our first destination already and given the time Folly and Kerit reported, we should be in the wormhole for less than a minute.”
Amelie felt a disproportionate feeling of relief. She didn’t know why, but the wormholes made her nervous. She'd done her share of space travel in her time, but this jumping from one place to another in a matter of seconds was just wrong. There had to be some sort of repercussions, even though they hadn't seen any yet.
“So what is our first destination?” Amelie asked. “Is it a potential home?”
Glesin shook his head. “It's still too close to the Colonies. Expansion would catch up to us in a generation or two. This is just a temporary jump, allowing us to see stars beyond our current range. It will give us the time we need to make decisions without rushing.”
The plan didn’t resolve all Amelie’s qualms, but it did help. “How long until the engine is ready to go?”
“A week at most,” Nerris said.
A week seemed suddenly very close. “I need to see Folly and Kerit every day, so I can monitor their health.”
She was pretty sure she heard Kerit give a sigh. Tyris though, just nodded. “Of course. Anything else?”
“No, that’s all. And if you have nothing else, I need to get back to work. I have a few mothers who need my attention.”
“Of course,” Tyris said promptly. “I think that’s all we have to discuss right now. We can’t do anything more until that engine is ready to go.”
Amelie thought that the subject was closed, so she was a little surprised when Tyris fell into step beside her just down the corridor. He didn't say anything for a few moments, until they had left the briefing room behind.
“Dr Benton, I have another assignment for you, if you don't mind.”
Amelie looked sideways at him. Why hadn’t he mentioned this at the meeting? Silly question, it was obvious he wanted to put the assignment to her privately. Her curiosity was piqued. “What is it?”
She wasn't mistaken. Tyris looked decidedly uncomfortable. He didn't hesitate though. “I need someone to find out more about Kugah. I know Kerit trusts him, but I'm not so sure. And this isn’t just about what happened today. Goodness knows, the scene Talah made was enough to annoy anyone. Kugah’s reaction did increase my concern though. We can barely understand what he's saying, for goodness sake, how can we possibly know he isn't going to turn on us when we least expect it?”
Amelie remembered the huge spurs and suppressed a shudder. If the alien turned on them, they would all be in trouble. “Why me? Surely there's someone more qualified for this job?”
“Who? One of the mothers perhaps? Or a refugee from Zerris?”
“I was thinking about Molly, actually. She has more experience at this kind of thing.”
Tyris frowned, and ran a hand through his hair, before shaking his head. “I’m sure she’s knowledgeable, but Kugah isn’t just an alien life form. He’s sentient. I think a doctor is going to be better at assessing that than a biologist. And besides,” Tyris said frankly. “I trust your judgement.”
Amelie bit back a sigh. Tyris had a point. “What am I looking for?” she asked.
“Developing some form of communication with him would be useful,” Tyris said. “But most importantly, we need a thorough understanding of the creature’s biological makeup. It could be useful if there are any further problems.”
Despite his roundabout phrasing, his meaning was clear. “That’s why you asked me, isn’t it? You want me to look for any weaknesses we could exploit.” Amelie stopped walking, and stared at Tyris, her hands on her hips. Didn’t he remember that she was a doctor? Her job was to help people. “Maybe Molly would be better at this after all.”
“Molly doesn’t have any military training,” Tyris said flatly. “She wouldn’t understand. But you and I both do. If that alien threatens anyone else, I need a way to take him down, preferably without doing any permanent damage.”
She stared at him, the completely open expression on his face irritating her. Tyris always seemed to do the right thing. It was so easy for him. His choices were clear and he never seemed to experience any conflict over them.
If only it was that easy. If only she couldn't see both sides of the argument.
Yes, Tyris had a responsibility to protect the people on this ship. They were under his care. But Amelie had a responsibility to her patients, whether they were human or alien. If she examined the alien, there was no way she could consider him anything but a patient.
Yet, he’d already shown the damage he could do without even trying. If he became a threat to anyone else on the ship…
“I'll see what I can do,” she said gruffly. “But I can't promise anything. Examining an alien isn't something I've had any training for. No one expected to have to do it. After all this time, the Colonies had come to the conclusion we were alone in the galaxy.”
Tyris nodded. “Do what you can.”
The knock at Kugah’s door was obviously a warning, not a question, since it hissed open almost before the sound had penetrated into the room. Kugah stood up as the two men came into the room. They been standing outside his door since the incident on the observation deck yesterday, he’d heard them moving around. He was pretty sure they were supposed to be guarding him. No one trusted him anymore.
He didn’t blame them.
Kerit had turned up last night with his dinner, and stayed for a while, looking glum, but he hadn’t said much.
The two men looked a little uncertain, but one of them waved him towards the door, indicating that they wanted him to follow them.
Kugah shrugged, and headed out the door after them. This time though, he resolved not to get angry, no matter how much anyone provoked him.
That was the plan anyway.
He had never been angry like this before the metamorphosis. He’d lived a normal life, spending a lot of time with his friends and family and working. His life had been calm and peaceful.
After the metamorphosis, well…
His stomach clenched and it was hard to stop his fists clenching as well. Even now, light years away from the Gokak, the memory of their smug confidence and the way they had belittled him and his beliefs at every turn still made him want to smash everything around him.
He shut those thoughts down as quickly as he could, before they could turn into action. They weren’t helping him stay calm. Instead, he focused on where they were going. They were heading away from the observation deck, and not to the shuttle bay. These corridors were new. He paid careful attention, noting every little detail.
The doors were further apart here, so not individual quarters. Storage rooms perhaps? Or training rooms.
One of the men pressed the button near a door and it slid open.
“Good, you’re here.” Though the voice was brisk and business-like, Kugah recognised it instantly. The woman from the observation deck. The one who had spoken gently to him. The one who had seemed alone, like he was.
She didn’t seem lonely here though. She seemed in her element.
Kugah forced himself to look away from her soft face and brown hair. He focused on the room, making himself concentrate on figuring out why they had brought him here.
This room was different to any he had seen on the spaceship so far, but in some ways, intimately familiar. It was filled with hard, shiny surfaces, although they were silver, not black. Machines and instruments, and cold, hard beds gave him further clues.
A science or medical room. His heart sank as he realised this meant the woman he had felt a connection to had to be a doctor or scientist.
He didn’t trust either.
She didn’t feel a connection to him. She wanted to study him.
Did she want to know how to protect her people from him, or how to make them like him?
Either way, he would not be part of it.
Kugah stopped in the doorway. A soft gasp of air let him know that one of the men had crashed into him, but he didn't even feel the impact.
“I will not be part of this,” he said quietly, even though he knew they wouldn’t understand his words.
The woman's head spun around, and she stared at him, her eyes wide. She held her hands out towards him, as though trying to placate him, saying words he couldn't understand.
Damn this communication barrier. How could he make her realise that he wouldn't be an experiment again?
He felt the anger rising, despite his best intentions. He fought it, trying his hardest to suppress the adrenaline flooding through him. The traitorous hormone tried to convince him he had to fight, that it was the only way to survive.
Kugah didn’t want to fight.
He didn't want to hurt these people.
But he couldn’t bear to let anyone use him again. Not for any reason.
The memories flooding his mind caused a low growl to form in his throat. The memory of the fear, panic, and hopelessness he’d felt when he’d lain in the Metamorphosis Device, feeling the change begin, threatened to overwhelm him. The fear threatened to let the anger out of the box he’d tried to trap it in.
He took some gulping breaths of air, but it felt stale and suffocating. It didn’t help. Nothing ever did.
Not since the metamorphosis.
He couldn’t do this. He needed to get out of here.
He backed out of the room, ignoring the humans, and began to stride towards the shuttle bay where he had come on board, glad now that he had paid careful attention to his surroundings. Folly’s ship would be there as well. That ship had the capability to travel to any planet he wanted. It had an even better range than his own damaged ship. The humans couldn't stop him taking it. They weren't powerful enough.
So long as they hadn’t already removed the machine that created the wormhole. That fear sped his feet faster, even though a few minutes would make little difference at this point.
The guards raced alongside him, struggling to keep pace with his long strides. They made loud, unintelligible noises.
Kugah ignored them.
Anyone in the hallways moved quickly out of the way, flattening themselves against the walls. No one even attempted to stop him.
He didn’t need to fight them. He just had to ignore them. Everything would be okay as long as he didn’t let go of the anger. So long as he kept it locked inside him, where it raced around and around, hurting no one but himself.
It took only a few moments for him to reach the door to the shuttle bay. He paused for a second, staring at the ships inside. There was the small shuttle Kerit had flown down to the planet in, useless for anything but very short range. Beside it sat his own ship, jet black and as shiny as his own armour. The damage to the hull still made him wince. Only his genetically enhanced strength and regeneration had allowed him to survive that crash.
Then there was the weathered and makeshift ship that Kerit’s female had flown. In appearance, it was the least valuable of the three, and yet he had seen it form and enter a wormhole with his own eyes.
Scientists on his world had only dreamed of such technology.
It would take him anywhere he wanted to go. But to do so, he would have to leave his own ship, and the technology it contained, behind. The ship itself, he didn’t care about. The Gokak craft meant nothing to him. The Metamorphosis Device it contained, the machine the Gokak used for their enhanced evolution, was his one hope of ever returning to who he had been. His momentary hesitation allowed the humans to catch up to him.
“Kugah, stop!” the woman called out.
They were too close, he needed to keep moving. He stepped through the doorway, and almost ran into the woman.
How had she managed to get in front of him?
“Stop!” she said firmly, holding up her hand. Even though he didn't understand the word, her meaning was clear.
Did she really think it would be that easy to stop him? Did she really think he was just going to sit there and let her poke and prod him? Rage almost blinded him.
He needed to get away, before he hurt someone.
He took a step forwards, expecting her to back away, as those he had passed in the hallway had done.
Instead, she put a hand on his chest.
Her touch was as light as a breeze.
Instantly, the anger cooled. Kugah stopped in his tracks, a shiver running through him.
When the men had tried to stop him, he hadn't felt a thing. His armour was designed to prevent any tactile sensations that might impede him in a battle. But sensors had been left for light touches, giving him information about the wind direction or the ground under his feet, to help him when he needed stealth.
Her touch was light enough that he could feel it.
If his eyes had been able to cry, he would have shed a tear. How many years had it been since he'd felt another sentient beings touch? He didn't want to even try to remember.
He looked down at her upturned face, his sensors registering that her widened eyes indicated surprise, possibly fear. Through the contact with her skin, he could sense her heart beating.
He automatically calculated that she didn't have the strength to actually prevent him from reaching the spaceship in front of him. She probably wouldn't even try if he continued to push his way forwards.
The guards grip on his arms, though stronger than hers, wouldn’t be enough to stop him either.
Through all the information flooding in from his genetically enhanced senses, his own mind registered the brown colour of her eyes, staring intensely into his, reminding him of playing in the rich dirt on his father’s farm as a child. They spoke of the innocence he'd lost.
They were the first real connection he'd had to another thinking, feeling being since his metamorphosis.
He didn't move, afraid of breaking the tenuous connection between them.
Behind him, the guards tugged on his arms, their angry voices breaking the moment, destroying his connection with the woman. He felt only a flicker of irritation, easily suppressed. All he wanted was to regain that connection with her.
She looked away from him, towards the other men, her face changing into an unpleasant expression. Her voice was sharp when she spoke to them, but they spoke back just as sharply.
He needed to stop them from trying to interfere, to bring the woman's attention back to him. He didn’t know why, in fact, some part of his mind warned him not to, that the connection to her was dangerous.
That the last thing he wanted to do was return to her medical lab and be a test subject.
But somehow, he couldn’t believe that she would hurt him.
Any more than he would risk hurting her.
He didn’t want to hurt any of the humans, but somehow, the thought of hurting this particular one didn’t just cause a stab of guilt, it seized his heart and squeezed it mercilessly.
“Kugah grop,” he said quietly. His mouth twisted on the strange words. He couldn't make the hissing sound the humans used. It was a struggle even to say his name the way Kerit said it. It sounded wrong, but the humans seemed to understand it better that way.
The guards didn't stop their tugging.
The woman spoke sharply to them again, pointing to him, then to them. He couldn't understand her words, other than the fact that she repeated his name, but this time it seemed to work. They released him and stepped back.
Kugah glanced at the spaceship again, but the thought of escaping had faded. He was probably making the biggest mistake he had made so far, but he couldn't leave without finding out more about these people.
Even stronger than his scientific curiosity about the human race, was a very personal curiosity about this woman. It almost felt like she saw something more than his armour and spurs. Was there a chance she could see the man underneath the weapon?
Did he dare hope?
As he followed her back through the corridors, the two men trailing behind, he realised he wasn’t even sure what he was hoping for. All he knew was that staring into her eyes had evoked the first positive emotion he’d had in a long time.
Once they returned to the cold, sterile med bay though, he wavered in his resolve. These people may think that them finding a new home was more important than him, but if they thought they could push and prod him, then they might just discover that they’d be better off without him.
The woman said something unintelligible. Why did she keep trying? Surely she knew he couldn’t understand her? He looked towards her, and she waved at the bed.
Did she really think he was going to just lie down and let her… do whatever she wanted to do?
Her brown eyes looked into his, as though searching for something. She frowned. Not a frown of anger or even annoyance. At least, not at him. She could see that the lack of communication was a barrier as well as he could.
Then she held out the instrument in her hands. Her words were slow and measured, and Kugah struggled to take them in.
It didn’t matter how slowly she spoke, her words were meaningless to him. Realising this, she broke off, and heaved a sigh, then muttered something under her breath.
She stared at him for a minute, then turned around and flipped a switch on one of the machines. Then she pulled at one of the cords, and pressed a small circle to her chest.
Immediately a low thumping filled the room.
For some reason, the sound was comforting. And he’d heard it somewhere before. He stared at the woman, and the instrument she held to her chest.
It was her. The sound matched the heartbeat he’d felt earlier, magnified by the machine.
The machine’s abilities weren’t that amazing. He’d worked with similar technology in a host of different circumstances. But for some reason, the sound it produced mesmerised him. He took a step towards her, then paused. What he really wanted to do was to put a hand on her chest, to hear the sound without the machinery in the way.
He didn’t think she’d be impressed.
She didn’t back away though, just took the instrument off her own chest, and held it out to him.
Her intention was clear. Kugah wavered. The machine seemed to just listen to his innards. He couldn’t see how it could harm him in any way, and she’d proved that by using it on herself. So it wasn’t that he was afraid she was trying to hurt him.
It was her motivations he questioned. Why did she want to find out more about him?
He had been a scientist, he understood about the driving need to know and discover. If that was what drove her, and there were plenty of reasons it could be, then he was more than happy to let her examine him.
But he couldn’t quite convince himself her motivation was purely scientific.
Objectively, he wouldn’t blame her if it wasn’t. He’d already proved he was a danger, a threat to her people. Any sane scientist would try to find out as much as they could about an alien as threatening as he was.
Torn between understanding her motivation, and not wanting to put himself at risk, he stared at her.
It all came down to what she planned to do with that information. He could hardly fault her for using it against him if he tried to attack her people. That was the last thing he wanted to do, but he couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t.
He remembered how she had looked at him in the shuttle bay, and how gentle her hands had been. She hadn’t tried to harm him, even then. She had told the guards to back off.
Even if their technology was extremely sophisticated, and nothing he’d seen so far indicated that it was, it would take months for them to learn enough to be a risk to him. He could walk out of this room now, go straight to the shuttle bay, and leave, and there was little anyone could do to stop him.
Even with all that rationalising, he found it hard to trust her. He’d been burned too many times before for it to come easy.
But he wanted to.
Her people were different. First Kerit, and now her. They weren’t put off by his outward experience. They seemed to be able to see past it, to really see who he was, not just what he could do.
He took a deep breath, and held the instrument against his chest as she had done.
He wasn’t sure what he expected to hear. Not anything like her own thumping sound, he knew that. But the alien hissing and clanking sounded foreign, even to him.
It occurred to him that if she worked with him, he could perhaps learn a little bit himself, about who he was now.
He shied away from the thought. Did it even matter? He was what he was, there was no going back, yet he couldn't accept what he had become. He didn’t need to know the inner workings of this strange body to know that it wasn’t designed with peace in mind.
How could he ever find peace with himself when his whole body was designed for war?
Why was he even still trying? He had hoped he could reverse the metamorphosis at one point, but he’d given up on that when he had discovered that the Metamorphosis Device was pin coded.
Was there any chance she could help him?
A sliver of hope carved its way through a minute crack in the black armour surrounding him.