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Mystical Human Senses
Getting woken up by a face full of sunlight was something that I had expected to leave behind when I boarded a ship for deep space. Especially since the ship in question was crewed entirely by Tunnellers, the eyeless species that gets by on sonar. They hadn’t made the ship, but they had customized it, and that included covering all of the big windows with armor. Much to the disappointment of the human female who’d joined them.
But it turned out that they hadn’t covered the smallest windows. As I blinked and squinted up at the wall that was pouring floodlight brilliance into my room, I discovered that the circle I had taken for simply part of the wall was clear. Probably foot-thick plastic or transparent aluminum or some alien material made from space bee honey. Didn’t matter. It was letting in far too much light for whatever-o-clock this was, and that made it part of the conspiracy.
The ship seemed designed to prevent me from sleeping for a full cycle, no matter what I did. On my first night I’d found that the original owners had left their morning alarm set to “stupid early”: the lights blinked on at the buttcrack of dawn and refused to turn off. I’d asked other crewmembers about it and been soundly laughed at; how could they know if something keyed to my weird human senses was set in their own rooms? I’d left it at that, instead digging up a translator module for the language of the Hard Skins who’d made the ship, so I could figure out the control panel’s advanced settings. There’d been a bookshelf installed in front of the thing.
On my second night on the ship, I’d woken in the wee hours to discover that the innocuous tube over the door glowed a worrisome, flickering orange during warp jumps. I’d turned my bed to face the opposite wall, which is what led to the current, irritating, blast of morning sun.
I covered my face with blankets. But no luck; the damage was done. With a long-suffering sigh, I threw off the blankets and stared at the ceiling. A spot of graffiti that I hadn’t seen before caught my eye. My communicator was in reach. I keyed on the translator function and focused it at the alien text. Would it be a warning about the light timer? Maintenance tips about some quirk of the system?
No, it would not. The translator displayed “Ha ha, you can’t see this.” I grinned. That almost made up for the rude awakening.
I sat up to find proper clothes. As I climbed into my favorite jumpsuit of many pockets, the light started to fade. I blinked. No, the light was definitely fading. I zipped the suit and stepped onto the bed, peering out the porthole.
I expected to see a local sun eclipsed by an asteroid or a moon, or see signs that the ship was changing course. But the pattern of stars was stationary, and there were no sunsets in view. There was, however, the remains of a distant explosion. I saw the flaming gases spreading out and beginning to be quenched, while a traffic jam of shrapnel flickered in the reflected light. It was all so far away that I climbed down to paw through my duffel bag in search of my telescope.
Suitably armed, I hopped back up for a better look.
That was most definitely an explosion, of a camouflaged asteroid base unless I missed my guess. Most of the chunks had been launched away for parts unknown, but some had collided with nearby space debris and stayed within easy viewing range. They all had the glow of alien tech on the broken side.
Something flickered past my focus range, and I pulled the telescope away before looking back. It was a spacecraft, painted black and probably invisible when it wasn’t backlit by fire. A pretty distinct shape, though: one long spike surrounded by a ring of smaller ones connected at the base. Like a splash of water turned to icicles.
Like one of the enemy raiding ships.
I scrambled off the bed and out the door, only pausing to grab a forehead light in case more of the been-left-on-for-years illumination needed repair.
It was good that I did. The hallway panels were intact, but the phosphorescent moss in the one long stretch was finally being cleaned away.
I kept my exclamations of annoyance to myself as I jogged past the pair of workers. Also my unflattering opinion of their species’ appearance. Ever seen a Naked Mole Rat? Then you’re halfway there. These guys are a little more civilized: they wear clothes and trim their gnawing teeth and all that good stuff. They also have skin patterned in unpredictable calico splotches, which I am 100% certain they are unaware of.
These two were aware of me. They regarded me steadily as I approached, and at my verbal “Hi there,” they turned back to work. Tunnellers greeted each other with double blasts of sonar instead of a wave and smile. Saying something aloud was the best I could do.
I sighed at the loss of that oh-so-helpful moss and its pale green glow, but put it from my mind. Around the next corner was the medical center, home of the best lighting on the whole ship, and also the closest thing to a friend I’d made in the last couple days.
Lildy-Hrnt the lead medic had agreed to let me hang out and read in a corner after I proved helpful in diagnosing a Skamdilurian Spearnose bite. The poor fellow’s symptoms were the same as a handful of other ailments, except for that distinctive rash. Which neither he nor Lildy could see.
There were no patients in the front office now, just Lildy organizing medical supplies. Her back was to the door. She jumped at my “Hey Lildy.”
“Rrrobin!” she said. “You arrre so quiet! Maybe you could hum in place of sonarrr?”
“I think that would annoy everybody, including me,” I said, slightly out of breath.
“Maybe,” she admitted, setting down an armload of jars. “Are you herrre with morrre medical insights?”
“No,” I said, then the jars caught my eye. “But half of those have gone bad.”
“What? Arrre you surrre?”
“Yeah, pretty sure. That’s a mold pattern if I’ve ever seen one. You may want to check all of them. But that’s beside the point! There’s at least one enemy attack ship close by, and it just blew up something technological. I need you to get me to the captain. The security guys won’t listen to me alone.”
Lildy asked for details and I gave them, talking quickly and making more than a few wild gestures. She probably caught all of them; if previous interactions were any judge, she was probably sonic-mapping me continually. Got to keep track of those spindly human limbs and the tendency to move around.
When I’d finished convincing her that my mysterious sense of eyesight (“over-smell”) had detected, from a distance, a hostile ship of a sort that was always cloaked from sonar — and which had just destroyed something far enough away that the shockwave hadn’t reached us yet — then she was all set to help me convince the captain. If we were next on the target list, that raiding ship would know that only Tunnellers patrolled this region. They’d be counting on the visible explosion to be ignored. They might have allies arrowing towards us now, hard on the heels of that shockwave. Fully cloaked from sonar. And mostly from sight.
“We need ourrr shielding up fast,” Lildy said as she ushered me out the doorway and pulled a membrane from a wall to shut it. This looked like a transparent eyelid, just as gross as you think. She pressed the nanotech control panel to lock the door, and her hand sank past the wrist before withdrawing cleanly. Also pretty gross. “Can you detect oncoming ships?” she asked me.
I grimaced as I followed the brisk pace she set. “Maybe. If they happen to fly in front of that fire. Or a sun. Or I might be able to spot their shadows passing over stars, but I’ll have to be looking in the right place…”
Lildy waved it away. “The fact that you know the layout of the enemy lancerrr, despite not having boarrrded one orrr touched a model, should be enough to make the captain listen. He can activate the detection systems of the Harrrd Skins, then get it trrranslated. We have both the technology and the technicians.” She made a rude noise. “Just not the patience. But you did not hearrr that frrrom me.”
“Oh no, I’m right there with you.” My first and only meeting with the captain had started with the discovery that the lights on the bridge were all dead except for one flickering exit light. The captain had had little patience for his new human with extra senses shuffling forward blindly. My explanation never made it out the starting gate, and the conversation went downhill from there.
This time would be different. I had a senior officer vouching for me, and I had valuable information.
I also had a strong feeling that Lildy wasn’t leading me towards the bridge. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“To the captain’s homespace,” she said. “He won’t be awake yet. I’m only up because I had an urrrgent case.” Lildy shook her head as she hurried along. “It was nothing. But I am glad that I was therrre when you arrrived.”
“Me too,” I agreed. Then I smiled broadly. “And I get to wake up the captain! Won’t that be nice. It’s definitely his turn.”