"Kami. Whoa. Kami, uh, come look at this." Spirit looked deeply uneasy, but then he was usually worrying about something or other; the man was at least half mother hen. Kami grunted and dragged herself over, annoyed at having her landing procedures interrupted. This moon was small and marked as uninhabited, despite the unusually nice-looking atmosphere curling around it like intricate white lace, but it was a convenient resting point while they tended to their cargo and did some maintenance. More importantly, it wasn't a place where any Imperium troops would come sniffing around- still, she didn't want to hang around too long. It was just asking for trouble.
"Look." He jabbed with one shaking finger at the external camera's display screen.
Kami did an actual double take and a chill like the darkest depths of space gripped her spine. "Is that moss?" she hissed, nearly plastering her nose to the screen.
"Uh, well, you're the biologist, not me, but it's fuzzy and green and it's not supposed to be here," Spirit muttered, tugging on his collar. "And also, now that I'm paying attention, the atmo readings are not… they're not what we'd expect. This is a colony, Kami, it's got to be."
"Shit," she said blankly, mind racing. "How the hell did a colony ever get established without getting registered? Who terraformed it?" More importantly, and more ominously, where were the space stations that orbited every colony?
She got no further, because, with his usual impeccably eerie timing, their captain strode in, steps timed to whip his long black cloak about dramatically. "What's the hold up?" he said, not ungently. "I'd like to get our cargo cared for and get Razor's Edge back on the road in a day at most."
"Er-" said Kami, very eloquently.
"You see," Spirit said, marginally less shocked. "There's, uh, plant life. And an atmosphere that could almost support human life." He peered at the sensor readout display again, flicking overgrown red hair from his eyes- that was always the strangest part about waking up from coldsleep, the way hair grew while a person was out, even as the rest of the body stayed unchanged- and frowned. "Almost, anyway. I mean, it's breathable, but long term it'd be problematic. If I had to bet I'd say someone started to make this a colony and then failed."
Captain Death brushed nonexistent lint meticulously from his dark cloak and then strolled up to the external camera, edging Kami aside. "Green," he said softly, wolfish eyes widening in a way that was not reassuring at all. "It's so green. What a lovely surprise."
"Lycophytes," Kami said brusquely. "Club mosses. The very first tool in a terraformer's box of tricks. Spirit's right- there are people here."
Death began to pan the camera, slowly, humming under his breath all the while; Kami and Spirit exchanged nervous glances while they waited. "I think," he mused at last, voice rich with sorrow, "That there were people on this planet." He stepped smoothly aside, and there on the screen was a bulbous, yellow curve, pushed up like a fat mushroom among the thin greenery. It took Kami a long moment to recognize it as a human cranium.
"Fuck," she said, lacking anything else to say. It didn't make her feel better.
Spirit was even whiter than usual, but composed. A bright light was burning in his pale eyes as he began to pace, throwing sharp glances at the screen, and Kami knew exactly why; that skull was child-sized. "Should we send out a signal? In case there are other outposts on the rest of the surface?"
Death nodded. "It's a small moon- but yes, go ahead."
"On it." Spirit disappeared towards the radio room.
"Sir," Kami said, swallowing. "I'd like to-"
"Go take samples?" he said, smiling. "Yes, I thought so. Go on, then, but I still want to leave in a day, and we've got to water our own little green things." For a brief moment, unusual ferocity turned him cold and strange. "We were not circumspect enough at our last stop, and I'm afraid the Imperium might be after us. Make it quick."
"Yes, sir," said Kami, and she was wriggling into her hazard suit not five minutes later.
Stein materialized in the door. "Going somewhere?" he said, grinning.
She scowled at him. "Yes, actually, I'm going collecting." He blinked at her and raised a brow, which put the two pairs of safety goggles he'd forgotten about on his head dangerously askew. "There's bones," she added temptingly. "And moss."
"Ooh," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Failed colonies! There's always good data there. I'll get the others and be back in a jiffy." With that he vanished, ignoring her protesting yelp.
In the end, the whole crew but their captain stepped softly onto the rough soil of the little moon, the watery rush of their surface suits' air filters the only sound in their ears as they stared. "Whoever 'formed this place did a damn good job," Kami said into her radio, kneeling to gently pluck a sprig of moss with tweezers and place it into a vial.
"It's pretty," Marie said consideringly, looking around at the low swelling hills, and when Spirit pushed off his helmet, she was the first to follow.
"You two are careless," Stein said, shaking his head, even as he followed their lead, taking a deep testing breath of the thin, rather metallic air. "It'll get you killed."
"Oh, come on," Spirit said, grinning at all of them. "I double-checked the ship's readouts. We can breathe just fine for a bit. None of us plan on getting old anyway-"
"We're not here to stand around," Kami cut in sharply. "We're here to collect specimens, check those bones, and get the hell out before we've got soldiers throwing us into the vacuum, got it?"
Spirit's grin grew. "You're lovely when you boss us around."
She shook her head, watching Marie try and fail to stifle a laugh. "You're fifty-nine years old, Spirit Albarn, shouldn't you have matured by now?"
"I've been in coldsleep for thirty-five of those years, thank you," he said indignantly, scratching the crotch of his surface suit. Kami sighed.
Sid, who was wandering around on the edge of their group, froze, then coughed nervously and pointed. "I see bones. If anyone's interested."
"Ooh!" Kami deftly tripped Stein as he lunged and descended herself, tweezers shining ominously in one hand, the other adjusting the magnifying monocle clamped over one eye. "It's that skull," she said a moment later, prying it from the loose, rocky dirt with carelessness she'd never have used if there weren't five other bits of bone clearly visible not twenty feet away. In fact there were so many, now she was looking, that she had no fear of running out of samples. This place was like a battlefield, a slaughterhouse- or a dying ground. She was sweating and irrationally glad she'd kept her helmet closed. Had the others noticed? She blew out a breath, swallowed, and said, "Human. Er- wait. Shit. Maybe?"
"What do you mean, maybe?" Marie questioned, squinting suspiciously into the green-tinted yonder.
"I mean the teeth are strange. And the mandibular shape- oh, and the auditory meatus- sunspots!" Kami poked and prodded for a moment longer, then said with burgeoning wonder, "Human, but heavily evolved."
"That doesn't make sense," Sid said roughly, though his fear was still there beneath his scowl.
"Science usually doesn't," she mumbled, getting to her feet, the tiny skull cradled very carefully in both hands. "Let's keep looking. I'd wager there are ruins around here not far- this skull isn't more than a century old."
They found the stone toy first, a little long-necked, bat-like thing half buried in the dirt, traces of bright color still apparent on the spread wings. Marie, having grown up in the Imperium orphanages and thus with no exposure to Old Earth lifeforms, pulled it from the ground and said, "A ship?"
"More like a bird," Spirit said. "This is beautiful. Kami, look at this. It's like- it's like what you'd find in the museum."
She took it, looked it over, ran a thickly gloved finger over the tiny crystals studding the wings and the impossibly fine molding of the head. "This is Gliesean make," she said thickly, and the whole crew stiffened.
"Can't be," Spirit said faintly. "Imperium would never let them this deep in the system."
"Who says they let them?" Stein put in, taking the toy and tucking it gently into a specimen bag and then deep into his suit.
Marie, foraging further afield, gave a shout then, and they all hurried to join her. She pointed silently over the edge of the rise she stood on, and they stared for a long time, struck dumb by the incongruity of the sight before them.
It was obviously some kind of ship, but it was old, the metal rusted and coated with opportunistic green moss. Feathery things like ferns sheltered in its shadow, which nearly sent Kami into a full-blown fit with Stein not far behind her. Skidding carefully down the ridge, the low stone buildings came clearer, all of them cleverly built with clean square-cut blocks, but slowly wearing away under the burning winds and deep blue sky. There were red stone sculptures on every corner of them, strange carved things that looked like nothing, until the wind picked up and rushed past them, and a low droning hum rose that shook Kami's bones.
"Hello," Spirit shouted suddenly, hands cupped around his mouth, oblivious to the thigh bone that he only just missed with one careless foot. "Hello! Anyone!"
Stein and Kami, more practical, looked at each other with fear so strong it was nearly crippling. "The ship," she whispered at last, drawing him a little away from the others as they scattered among the ramshackle buildings.
"Not ours," he murmured. "Gliesean."
"But those bones were human," she burst out wildly.
He looked at her directly, levelly, as if she were a child. "You've read Old Earth works. They looked up at the stars and then beyond a millenium before they ever even reached out to touch them. What on earth makes you think the a race as advanced as the Glieseans didn't pay the big blue marble a visit at some point, hmm?" Then he laughed rather bitterly, murky eyes wide and wet. "It's not as if we'd know if they had ever dropped by Old Earth to pick up some… primitive human specimens, but we do know they had space travel long before we did."
"That's insane," Kami said numbly, from nothing more than habit; Stein's ideas usually were- at first glance, anyway.
"Is it?" Stein prodded.
She sighed. "Well, yes, but your most insane suggestions have an irritating way of being correct. Come on, let's catch up." She was still cradling the little skull as she walked, and Stein seemed far too fascinated with the tiny, perfect, pinprick teeth of the thing for her liking.
Shouts in the distance sped their feet, the tiny mosses sweet-smelling as they crushed them, and Marie greeted them at the entrance to the crashed Gliesean ship with her gun unholstered, white-faced and shaking. "There are boys in there," she said without preamble. "In something like coldsleep."
"There are- someone's alive?" Kami shrieked, and she'd darted inside before Marie could say anything else, heart pounding vicious overtime.
She followed the voices and the disturbances in the thick dust, old metal creaking beneath her feet, and skidded into the strangely shaped room where the rest of the crew waited. Spirit, his own gun in his hand, took the little skull and then pointed silently to the two glowing tables; when she approached, gritting her teeth to keep from gasping air, she felt a familiar chill just like that of a human cryogenic coldsleep bed, though these were constructed very differently.
There was a teenage boy on the first table, and a young boy on the second; if they'd been strictly human, she'd have placed them at about fourteen and eight, respectively.
They were not strictly human, however. They were terribly strange within the paper-thin polished quartz that arched protectively over them, golden-skinned, long translucent hair falling over their shoulders, with strong narrow noses. They were rather small for their ages- again, she reminded herself fiercely, if they were human- and altogether almost astonishingly beautiful, very long lashes lying like frost over flat cheekbones.
They were different, but they reminded her achingly of Maka in their precious sleep, and she had to shake herself before she could join Stein in examining the tables.
"Nothin' like I've ever seen," was his final judgement. "Judging from the technology outside, though, the animal motifs on those buildings, I'd say this ship picked up a few curiosities from Old Earth, not long after we figured out the wheel, and when it crashed for whatever reason, the humans got lucky and lived… for a while."
"Divergent evolution," Kami breathed.
"But they're… human?" Sid asked, moving over to look at the sleeping boys again, his dark skin glinting sickly blue in the light from the tables. When he bent down to blow dust off the quartz screens, the light only got worse.
Kami considered, taking another look at the boys, at their big hands and strangely pale hair, their large, slightly uneven ears- "Yes," she said gingerly, aware all of a sudden that she was sweating, and taking another look at the predatory teeth of the skull Spirit was holding. "In the same way a ratdog's the same species as a housewolf."
"Well, can you turn the sleep beds off?" Spirit said eagerly; everyone turned on him at once, aghast.
"You want us to wake up aliens?" Marie said tentatively, eyeing him worriedly, despite the fact that she really ought to be well used to his infamous impulsiveness by now. She was twirling a lock of golden hair around her finger in obvious agitation "Aliens that have clear Gliesean connections and have never been documented?"
Spirit waved a hand, hovering over the tables in a protective sort of way. "They're kids," he said repressively. "And isn't it obvious they're alone? Don't tell me you didn't notice the blood on the walls coming in here. And, oh yeah, the bones. Whoever put these boys here isn't coming back." There was a long, uncomfortable silence at that.
"They might be dead anyway," Kami said at last. "Can't hurt to try and wake them up."
"We might kill them if we do it wrong," Stein pointed out, even as he flexed his hands joyously over the children as if they were on dissection tables instead of alien technology.
"Or they'll kill us," Kami said. "Who knows what viruses they're carrying?"
"Oh." Spirit wilted. "But we're all vaccinated. And they're from Old Earth, after all, and I mean- what's a few thousand years?"
"In virus time? Easily enough to kill us," Stein told him grimly. "But I can scan their blood, if you give me fifteen minutes, and then we'll know for certain."
Kami considered, wiping palms that she'd only just noticed were sweating on her suit. "Even our sleep beds take a good three or four hours to fully wake up from, just from basic human biology. If you all want to risk it, I'm in."
"Unplug 'em, then," Spirit said immediately, grinning. Kami sighed and started hunting around, trying to figure out how the hell to turn off the Gliesean tech, while Stein, who was rather mad-eyed in the face of all these exciting, gory new discoveries, booted up his suit's portable scanner.
Sid was the one who figured it out, in the end. He took a step back, knocked his head on a hanging beam, gurgled, and managed to smack the corner of the older boy's table while trying not to fall. The quartz immediately slid away, with a puff of dust and icy air and a soft whirring sound, and the boy's long index finger twitched.
"Scan him! Scan him!" everyone yelped, crowding by the low, round exit opening; Stein spared them all an unimpressed glance and did so, deftly taking a quick syringeful of blood from a vein that thankfully seemed to be adequately human.
Fourteen minutes later, when the boy's eyes were rolling beneath his lids and his whole body shaking, Stein pronounced, "Safe. Nothing our vaccines can't handle. Guess the Imperium did something right."
"I'll bake them a cake," Spirit said dryly.
"Back up," Kami snapped at both of them, shoving them out of her way as she bent over the boy, who let out a low, rumbling groan. "And wake up the other one."
"Do what Sid did!" After some mishaps, they managed it, and the younger boy's quartz slid away too.
Kami didn't see that. She was bent over the older boy, taking his pulse- despite having no idea what would be healthy- and gently pushing his overgrown hair back from his angular face. Giving in to a moment of purely scientific curiosity, she lifted up his lip with one thumb; his teeth were bright, every one of them sharply pointed, and the canines even a little longer than her own, like the skulls of the extinct cats she'd seen in her studies. She lifted one eyelid, intending to check his color and response, and only tight self control built through a lifetime composed entirely of crises and danger kept her from shouting at the bright red that stared back at her.
"He looks healthy enough," she said hoarsely, letting his lid fall shut and stepping back, beginning to unhook the support systems wound around his limbs- at least she assumed that's what they were. "Unhook the other one."
They managed it without killing either boy, miraculously, and then they ran back to the Razor's Edge like all the Imperium soldiers in the solar system were on their heels. "They're malnourished," Spirit panted, holding the older boy in his arms.
"Or they're naturally smaller," Kami pointed out.
"Whatever. We're gonna have to feed the poor things up," he said. She regarded him with the near-pity, almost-love she always felt when he said things like that, so naive, so trusting and helpful and good. For a man whose grandfather had lived through the great Sky Wars, he really shouldn't be so optimistic.
Their captain reacted much as everyone had expected. "Aliens," he bellowed, cloak flapping as he strode up and down in the medical bay, watching ferociously as Spirit and Stein laid the boys, now stirring visibly and probably only hours from full consciousness, down on cots. "You brought aliens onto my ship? When we're already running from soldiers- do any of you happen to have any understanding of the basic term 'self preservation'?"
"They're just little boys, and we think they're sort of human, so, you know, not really aliens," Spirit pointed out, very scientifically, and then Stein launched into his 'Old Earth abduction' theory, and then the oldest boy rolled over and cried out with a keening noise like a storm wind before falling back into uneasy sleep; the hair rose on Kami's arms at the sound of it.
"They shouldn't be waking up like this, not so… hurting so much," Marie said uneasily, wringing her hands, suit only half-shed and hanging around her hips.
"Well, we could've fucked up the unhooking process," Sid said. "We don't know the first thing about Gliesean technology."
Captain Death paused, bright hazel eyes shining with the unnatural keenness he'd bought under the knife of a surgeon lacking both Imperium funding and morals. "Well. They are young, aren't they? They can't exactly harm us. We need to work on getting ready to leave; if anyone unpleasant shows up we'll just stow them in one of the hidden compartments." The younger boy whimpered and curled in on himself, crying musically; Death put a hand on his sweat-damp forehead almost automatically, just as he often did to Maka.
Kami, thinking of her little daughter, was silently glad that they'd left her in coldsleep during this stop. There was no need for the galaxy to age around her while she slept her life away in the long emptiness between planets, as it had for her parents, and yet there was no need for her to be exposed to these dangerous boys.
"Let's get ready to go, already," she said brusquely. "Time's wasting. Sid, Marie, stay here and watch the boys. Stein, you too. Spirit and the captain and I can do the prep work and check the systems."
She did her work anxiously, quicker than was possibly wise, mind caught between her daughter and the two almost-humans writhing in the bowels of the ship, caught in the throes of sleep sick like she'd never seen before. Nonetheless, it got done, and within eight hours they'd done all the necessary maintenance and were lifting cleanly out of the atmosphere, blasters roaring.
It was then that Spirit, watching the scanners, said quietly, "Captain. A ship."
The ship, an economical little cruiser, was the tell-tale shining blue of Imperium, and it docked forcibly, grappling onto them without asking while they drifted carefully into fuel-saving orbit; the crew, all choice gone, waited silently in the hold beside their Captain, hands hovering over their guns, listening with bated breath to the hiss of the passage airlocks engaging.
As expected, it was Imperium soldiers who marched aboard, heavy boots thunderous on the metal catwalks of the Razor's Edge. As expected, their commander began haranguing Death, and the absence of any visible illegal cargo didn't calm things at all.
They all saw it coming, slowly, edgily, like the first dawn on a new planet. The Imperium commander was having fun, was mocking them, and Kami was the first to break.
She stepped out of line, desperately afraid, and screamed, "Why don't you stop fucking around and tell us what you're really here for, you Imp scum?"
The commander considered that, then said, very calmly, "Good point, we're wasting time. Your ship has been confirmed as providing illegal terraforming services for excommunicated colonies. Among other things, including smuggling, but that's what we're putting on the paperwork."
Spirit joined Kami at that. "You bastards!" he hissed, hand fully and obviously on his gun now. "So we helped some colonists who needed it, so what! You're the ones who dumped them on planets that weren't prepped yet, without any of the things they need to establish properly! All because you only see money!"
"Still illegal," said the commander, and then, turning lazily and heading back to his own ship, "Shoot them all."
Kami, with the trademark uncanny speed that had kept her alive so long, got him between the shoulderblades, and she took down four more soldiers before she fell. Spirit managed to outdo her, for possibly the first time, and blasted seven. The rest of the Razor's Edge crew acquitted themselves admirably, and Death was a demon, earning his nickname all over again- but they were far outnumbered, and they all lay silent in the end on the blast-heated steel of their ship's hold, just as the Imperium had intended.
Before she died Kami did manage to blast the single door leading to the living quarters of the ship, where the children slept, and she melted it shut so well with that one shot that the surviving Imperium soldiers didn't bother to pry it open. They retreated, and the shining blue government ship detached from the battered Razor's Edge, disappearing into the blackness. It left behind the old warhorse to orbit forever in silence above the mossy little moon where so many strange people had died.
Many hours later, deep in the darkness of the ship, a red eye opened.