by Ruth Nestvold

Cold. No date, no location. So cold, cold and hot, my fingers are burning. Where am I?

Devlin woke, jolting and in pain, and slowly opened his eyes. He was being carried on a stretcher through a white world: not the green-tinged paleness of the sleep chamber he had expected to see on waking, but a cold, earthly white with an orange cast, a white of muffled shapes and shadows. The people carrying the stretcher were bundled in heavy coats in shades of green and orange with hoods covering their heads and hems to their ankles. Furs and thick blankets of some soft material had been thrown over him.

He obviously was not on Jordan. Of course, he couldn’t be on Jordan; they had left Jordan, were on their way to Earth. After leaving the Epsilon Eridani system, the first shift crew had taken over and the rest of them had retired to sleep their way through the stars.

Something had gone wrong. Where was his crew? Where was he?

He decided to try his voice. “What happened?”

Two pairs of eyes trained on him, eyes so dark he could see no pupils in them, in faces coffee-colored like his own but hairier. Eyes that looked human but with an indefinable strangeness to them, other, different, in the middle of features that were familiar yet off somehow.

They spoke rumbling words in a language he’d never heard before. Overwhelmed, Dev allowed unconsciousness to take him again.

When he next woke up, at least he was no longer cold.

He opened his eyes. He was curled on a bed, facing toward a wall that curved upward into a low ceiling. Daylight filtered in through a row of small windows near the ceiling. The air, while not hot, smelled of steam, warm and moist.

He stretched, testing his muscles.

“Captain!”

Dev turned. A tall Viking of a woman emerged from the shadows of the low room.

He pushed himself up on his elbow. “Thank God, Lauren! And what’s this ‘Captain’ business?”

His second-in-command grinned, but before she could answer, another woman hurled herself around his neck, throwing him back onto the bed.

“Dev! You’re all right! We– we were afraid you might not wake up again.”

“Avis.” He returned her embrace, feeling tears start at the back of his eyelids. He squeezed his eyes shut.

Whatever had happened, wherever they were, the two people who meant most to him had survived: Lauren Gorenson, the woman who had accompanied him through three sleep runs between Epsilon Eridani and Sol; and Avis Singh, the AI specialist he’d hired on their last brief stay on Earth during the Water Wars.

He pushed Avis away and looked from one to the other. The women were very different, Avis small and dark and full of energy, Lauren tall and calm and blond. Lauren was the person in two solar systems he trusted above all others, and Avis … he wasn’t quite sure what Avis was to him. He and Avis had shared an artificially created night or three on the last voyage from Earth to Jordan before they had gone into the sleep bath, but they had never discussed what the physical intimacy might mean, if anything.

His best friends, in very different ways.

He pushed himself up on his elbows. “What’s going on? Where are we?”

Lauren shook her head and sat down on the edge of his bed next to Avis. “We don’t know. We don’t have any of our AIs.”

“And this?” he gestured around the low room with its small windows high on the wall, its furs on the bed and steamy warmth.

Avis shrugged. “We’ve barely begun communicating with the people who saved us. We’re certainly far from asking them where we are in the universe and what sun this is, assuming they even have any concept of that.”

“They have heating systems, luckily, but technology otherwise doesn’t appear very advanced,” Lauren added.

Dev leaned back in his bed again. He was beginning to feel dizzy. “This sun … ” he repeated.

Lauren rested her forearms on her thighs, allowing her hands to dangle between her knees, and leaned forward. “We are on a planet in a solar system with an orange sun that rides huge in the sky, apparent diameter maybe fifty percent bigger than Sol.”

“You should see the sunsets,” Avis added with a grin.

Calm Lauren agreed with a faint smile. “Farrel, Tanaki, and Kemp aren’t here in the village with us, so we’re afraid they didn’t survive the crash of the Aspiration.”

“And they were the ones running the ship, which means we can’t ask them where we were between Epsilon Eridani and Sol,” Dev completed the thought. He wouldn’t think about Farrel, Tanaki, and Kemp missing, probably dead, no, not until later, when he had more strength. He couldn’t deal with that now.

Avis nodded. “Right except for one thing.”

Before he could ask, Lauren continued. “We don’t think we were on the way back to Sol. There are incredibly bright twin stars in the night sky, one blazing white and one vivid red. And our sun appears to be an orange dwarf.”

Dev’s brain was too fuzzy to deal with all this: there was only one solar system at a distance within the ship’s effective travel range from Epsilon Eridani that fit her description, and it was unthinkable. But Avis and Lauren were obviously thinking it.

He stared at them. “You think we’re on a planet in the Keid system.”

The two women nodded.

“How the hell did we end up here?”

Avis shrugged. “We won’t know until we get back to the ship and find the log.”

“But the people who rescued us? If I wasn’t just dreaming, they looked human.”

“We think they are,” Lauren said.

Dev closed his eyes, trying to fathom it. “And who is here in the village with us?” his eyes still closed.

He could feel Lauren’s long-fingered hand wrap around his own. “The passengers Barbara Auckland, Mani Rodriguez, and Makena Mbogoh are here in the village with us, but none of the others.”

None of the others. Almost none of the dozen passengers he’d been responsible for, the people who’d had enough of utopia and wanted to return to Earth, even though everyone they had known in their past lives would be old or dead.

Now his passengers were probably the ones who were dead.

By the time Dev could stay awake for any length of time, Avis had learned a respectable smattering of the native language — enough, she thought, to arrange a guide for them to the crash site. She’d always had a talent for languages; not only had she grown up in a multi-lingual culture, her memory for words was astonishing, and with writing materials limited and AIs non-existent, she had become their dictionary and language analysis tool, picking up what the natives seemed to be trying to tell her faster than any of the others.

While he lay on his bed recovering from his concussion and broken bones, Avis tried to teach him at least some of what she had learned.

“No, no, Dev!” she said, laughing. There wasn’t much to laugh about in their situation, but Avis had a gift for finding laughter in everything. “It’s pronounced farther down in the throat, an aspirated velar fricative.”

“It’s a hell of a fricative situation if I can’t even learn how to say ‘yes.’ Since when have you become a linguist?”

Her easy laughter bubbled out again. “Haven’t you ever picked up odd bits of knowledge? Try again.”

“Kar’x,” he said, making a sound at the end of the word like he was about to hawk up a wad and spit.

Avis beamed. “Good!” She smoothed the furs near his arm, barely avoiding a gesture of intimacy. “You know, Dev, I’ve started to get the feeling that the society on this planet is some sort of matriarchy.”

He gave her a skeptical look. “A matriarchy? You know how unlikely that is.”

“Yes, but it seems like they all defer to me.”

Dev smiled — he feared a little indulgently. “Who else are they supposed to defer to? Mani Rodriguez? Besides, you’re the one who’s picking up their language best. Seems logical to me.”

Avis pursed her lips. “True. But I still feel like there’s something I’m missing.”

For his own part, Dev missed the AIs more than he would have expected; he hadn’t realized how much he relied on them for problem-solving, for simple thinking even.

Let alone figuring out an unknown language. He finally learned how to say “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” and ask someone to speak more slowly, in addition to asking directions, straight and left and right. (Or maybe north and east and west? Avis freely admitted that she couldn’t always figure out the exact meanings of the words explained to her.)

But it would be a long time before he would be able to hold up his end of a conversation without an AI to help him.

At least he still had the nanomeds in his body. And they had repaired his broken bones in less than two weeks. He didn’t know how they would measure that amount of time on this world, and neither did Avis — the concept of weeks and months was too abstract to explain with the basic vocabulary she had amassed until now, especially since the planet had no moon to make the concept clear. She had, however, learned that the people called themselves Elsen and their world (or country?) Elneg.

And in the night sky, next to the two distant suns of the Keid system, a fast-moving, new star had appeared — the Aspiration’s hull frames, orbiting the planet.

Dev wrapped his shoulders and head in long, thin pelts of fur over the thick, ankle-length cloak everyone on this world wore when they were preparing to brave the elements. At least most of the coats were colorful, spots of brightness to combat the stark white of the landscape. His was a boring matching white, but Lauren wore shades of green, and Avis’s cloak was a stunning red.

“Are you sure they understand that we want a guide to the crash site?”

Avis chuckled. “No. But at least they seem to have understood that we want to go for a walk. If nothing else, we’ll get to see something of their world.”

The cold outside of the steamy, half-subterranean house hit him like a fist, and he was sorely tempted to turn around. Instead, he shook himself and took in his surroundings. Their “house” was one of a row built against an incline and burrowing down into the ground to take advantage of the geothermal energy. The only structural elements visible were the wood and stone fronts. Above the doors and a few small windows, grass and peat “roofs” showed through thick patches of snow. A smattering of large buildings nearby were free standing structures of wood and stone, but most were burrows like the one he occupied with Lauren and Avis.

Waiting at the entrance of their house was a figure bundled in a thick orange cloak whom Avis introduced as their guide, Gelrun. The guide looked surreally human, even if his eyes seemed pure black and Dev could see little more than his face. He had more facial hair, dark down on his cheeks and forehead in addition to his chin, but other than that and the odd cast to the features that Dev had first noticed when he was being carried from the crash site, Gelrun looked like any dark-skinned native of Jordan or Mars or Earth.

The surviving passengers Barbara Auckland, Mani Rodriguez, and the professor joined them with a second guide, introduced as Eyk, and the eight of them set off between the low, semi-subterranean houses. Most of the streets in the village were clear, but in places the frozen snow crunched beneath their boots, while in others where the orange sun of morning struck directly, the paths were mushy with mud. Before another night was over, those paths would probably be frozen again.

“It is good to see you walking around, Captain,” Makena Mbogoh said, coming up beside him. The professor was a tall woman, with skin much darker than his, glossy ebony compared to his own milk-coffee brown.

“Thank you.” She should be heaping accusations on his head; instead, she was congratulating him on his recovery. “I am glad to see that you survived the crash without serious injury, Professor.”

“I had a broken arm, but my nanomeds repaired the damage quickly. A concussion is much more difficult for the meds to treat.”

Dev nodded. He still felt slightly dizzy at odd times and couldn’t concentrate well. “No kidding.”

“Perhaps we should dispense with the titles now?” she said with a wry smile, sweeping her red-cloaked arm out to take in the sunken village, the dark-eyed natives, and the steam rising from the hot springs at the edge of the town. Beyond, high mountains rose in the distance, with the typical cone shapes of volcanoes. “What am I professor of now, I ask you?”

He chuckled and held out his hand. “True. My name is Devlin.”

She took it. “And mine is Makena.”

He knew her story, of course–the story of almost all those who made the trip from Paradise back to Earth. Fleeing a crowded, warring world, dominated by the cultural imperialism of the Union of Democratic Republics, they had accepted positions on Jordan beginning a decade after they were hired. Passengers spent most of the twenty month voyage in the sleep baths, a journey of only a few months in experienced time. They arrived on Jordan to find a society making the same mistakes as on Earth, developing the same prejudices and the same cultural conflicts, leading to the same power struggles and all in a place that wasn’t home. Eventually they mortgaged their new lives to go back to their old, which would not be waiting for them when they returned.

When Dev bought the Aspiration, he too had believed in the idea of Jordan, of Paradise: ten years ago in lived time, seven years in the sleep bath, and over a hundred years in terms of the worlds he traveled between. Back then, Jordan symbolized a new start, its settlements barely a century old. Today, ideologies competed for supremacy, borders were being drawn, and political analysts even predicted war, the first the New World had seen.

Near the outskirts of the village, they entered a large building of wood and stone that smelled distinctly of excrement and wet fur. Dev stopped in his tracks, feeling dizzy again. Behind him, he heard a low, male chuckle. “Never been in a stable before, Captain?” Mani Rodriguez asked. Short and energetic, their surviving male passenger reminded Dev a little of Avis.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Dev realized that was precisely where they were — a stable for four-footed, hairy beasts that looked vaguely like skinny bears. Or furry cows. Livestock was not his strength, as Mani Rodriguez had so quickly noted.

Gelrun and Eyk led one of the bear-cows out of its cubicle and threw the packs they had been carrying on its back, while Avis babbled with the guides in the guttural Elsen language.

She stroked the orangish-white coat of the animal’s shoulder. “Gelrun says they’re called firin.”

“Furry cows,” Rodriguez said, nodding, echoing Dev’s own impression. Mani Rodriguez might know the inside of a stable better than Dev did, but a cow was still a cow.

Even when it wasn’t.

The guides led out the pack animals, and the rest of them followed. But before they could continue in the direction of the hot springs and the mountains beyond, Gelrun and Eyk stopped Avis and Makena with gestures that were unmistakable — they were to stay here. And then there were more Elsen beside and among them, taking the two women gently by their elbows.

Dev strode forward to Avis’s side. “What’s going on here?”

“If only I knew enough to ask.” Avis looked miserable.

“What kind of matriarchy restricts women’s movements?” Dev hissed.

“If they regard women as more valuable, it would make sense,” Lauren said.

He turned away, frustrated. As little as they knew, anything could make sense.

“Perhaps they want us as hostages for your good behavior,” Makena said, shrugging. “They have no real reason to trust us, after all.”

Beside him, Avis spoke haltingly to Gelrun. The rest of them watched, powerless.

Gelrun shook his head several times, slowly, not with the attitude of someone taking hostages. But what would they know? They were utterly illiterate in this world, in more than just writing.

“I think he’s telling me it’s not safe,” Avis finally said.

“Do you mind staying here without us?”

Avis shook her head again, trying to look brave, one long, dark strand of hair peeking out from the hood of her cloak. “We won’t exactly be alone.”

“Good.” Of course, it wasn’t good, but it would be stupid to force the issue with natives who until now had appeared mostly friendly. As their AI specialist, Avis would be sorely missed at the crash site, but he and Lauren could check the basic functions. And they had to get out there, see if there was any chance they could repair the ship and get off this planet.

He turned to Gelrun. “Hak nidram?” he said, hoping he had asked the other man to lead.

Gelrun nodded and smiled. “Yes,” he said in English.

Fields of deep, fluffy snow alternated with patches partially melted. Near the steaming hot springs, the ground beneath their feet and the air around them grew warmer, so that Dev began associating the sulphuric smell with something resembling comfort. The volcanoes and hot springs might well be one of the main reasons this world was habitable at all. Geothermal energy provided both heat and power for the surprisingly advanced plumbing system — on a world that had little technology otherwise. But it made sense: providing warmth was a priority on this cold planet.

Gazing at steam and snow, he wondered again why the Aspiration had been in this solar system, why she had gone down. There was no way they could have gone this far off course — someone had intended to come here. But why? He couldn’t remember what hobbies Farrel, Tanaki, and Kemp had, but whatever they were, they obviously had not been enough to keep at least one of the three sane during the long months of transit.

Lauren took his elbow, gloved hand against thick cloak. “Don’t think about it, Dev. We’ll find out soon enough.”

He chuckled. “You know me too well.”

She shook his arm lightly. “No, I know you just well enough.”

His chuckle turned to a laugh, and he felt much better, despite volcanoes and hot springs and snow; despite natives whose language he could hardly understand; despite dizzy spells and a world where none of them belonged.

Past the outskirts of the village and the warmth provided by the intermittent hot springs, patches of slushy snow were few and far between. The heat of the orange sun, big as it was in the sky, wasn’t enough to melt the white masses, at least not this early in the day.

With Lauren beside him, Devlin watched the landscape carefully as they tramped through snow and ice in the direction of the volcanic mountain range on the horizon: if he could remember enough about the direction and the landmarks, he could get back to the crash site in order to work on the ship without the need of native guides.

After maybe two hours, they reached the snow-covered foothills. Dev’s hands and feet were freezing, despite thick boots and gloves — he was not used to this kind of cold, with only a distant memory of warmth provided by the orange sun. But then there it was, a splotch of glinting metal and furrowed soil and rock and uprooted trees. His spirits rose. To judge by its shape, the Aspiration’s landing and command module was in one piece. If the self-repair mechanisms had survived the crash intact, then the ship might even be partly on the way to taking them off this planet again.

The closer they got, the more details became apparent. The module had plowed into the frozen side of a mountain, and half of it was covered with ice and snow, melting in places. Leading up to the crash site was a long, cleared trail; the pattern of destruction seemed to indicate an attempt to save the situation and make a controlled landing.

When they reached the crash site, Dev’s first impressions were confirmed. The damage to the outer hull of the Aspiration’s command module appeared to be superficial. He paced around the visible rump of the ship. Yes, here the snow was melting. He pulled off one glove and placed a hand against the metal. It was warm to the touch; the shape-memory metals were reasserting their programming. An excellent sign.

On the far side of the hull, he saw Gelrun and Eyk approach Lauren. After a few gestures and words were exchanged, Lauren nodded. The natives took the firin and slipped away into the frozen wasteland between the fat, stubby and oddly tropical looking trees of Elneg.

Dev returned to his inspection of the hull, while Lauren disappeared inside.

“Will we be able to get off the planet?” Barbara Auckland asked behind him. She was one of those types who never ceased to amaze him. A woman well past youth with long gray hair and a multitude of laugh lines around her eyes, she should have been enjoying retirement after all her years on the frontier, not returning to an Earth that could impossibly still be home.

“I don’t know,” he said, not wanting to lie. “The Aspiration is in better shape than I expected, but we can’t yet tell the extent of the damage.”

“Dev.”

Lauren was standing in the open door, smiling widely. Her smiles were never that wide.

He strode over to her, anticipation taking hold of him.

“I haven’t had time to check the mag drive yet, but the fuel gauge is working — it looks like there’s enough solid-bloc hydrogen to get us back to the engineering module with the back-up engines, even if the mag drive doesn’t work,” she said, her smile still unnaturally wide. “And at least one of the navigation AIs is undamaged.”

He could feel a matching grin breaking out on his face as they gazed at each other. The moment held a surreal joy, as if it were stretching out, like the suspended animation of waking from the near death of the sleep bath to realize he was still alive.

Then the strange moment was over, and Dev felt a whoop escape his throat. He leapt the remaining distance, his boots crunching in the snow, and snatched Lauren up in his arms to whirl her around in a circle. His sober second in command laughed so loud, it echoed among the stubby paintbrush trees around them. He almost tripped, but caught himself just before he fell. The after effects of the concussion made him dizzy enough, and now he had to go twirling around like a child.

He stopped, and Lauren slid down the length of his body to stand in front of him in the snow. Their laughter stilled and they stared at each other. Dev couldn’t believe the feeling that was coming over him. For Lauren?

Yes, precisely for Lauren, the person he trusted most in two solar systems.

“I assume that means we can fix it?” Mani Rodriguez said, somewhere outside the range of Dev’s immediate awareness.

He put a hand to his forehead, the other arm still around Lauren, and wrenched his gaze away from her blue, blue eyes. Why had he never noticed what a striking color they were before?

She stepped out of his embrace and turned, nodding. “It looks like it, yes. With any luck, I might still be able to get some of the self-repair mechanisms for the on-board tech started before we return to the village.”

“Perhaps I can help,” Barbara Auckland said. “I used to work in maintenance in one of the southern biospheres on Jordan. It’s not rocket science, but I am familiar with self-repair mechanisms.”

Dev watched Lauren smile, the sober smile he had been living with for so long now living with and not appreciating. Why hadn’t he seen it before? Just because she wasn’t the kind of cute young thing he had always thought he was attracted to? Just because he had been involved with others, decades younger? Just because they were asleep half, more than half, of the time they were together?

“Thank you, Ms. Auckland,” she said. “It would be a tremendous help.”

The older woman chuckled, shaking her head. A strand of long silver gray hair, only a shade off Lauren’s silver blonde, slipped out from under the hood of her cloak, and she tucked it behind her ear. “We are hardly passenger and crew anymore. Call me Barbara.”

Rodriguez stepped forward and stuck out his gloved hand. “My friends call me Mani.”

With their newly forged solidarity, they went to work on the wreck. Mani fashioned a broom out of woven branches and fronds from the trees and began brushing away snow on the side that had plowed into the mountain while Dev, Lauren, and Barbara inspected the internal damage.

“It seems odd that there’s no sign of the missing passengers or crew,” Barbara said.

Lauren nodded. “Perhaps our rescuers also disposed of the bodies somehow.”

Or perhaps they didn’t. What if some or all of the others had survived and were on their own out there?

There might not be any sign of Farrel or the others, but there was blood in the sleep chamber, and a lot of it. Dev drew a deep breath. Farrel had been with him longer than Avis. And the idea of the lives lost was too real in the midst of the blood and the shattered carbon fiber of the medical housings.

Dizzy again. He leaned against the wall, gazing around the room. When and if they were able to get off this planet, no one would be able to sleep through it: not a single sleep bath was intact. He didn’t know what the situation was with the magnetic induction drive either. At least they had the minimum crew for a sleep run, two, with one to spare. And three passengers.

He felt Lauren’s presence beside him before he heard or saw her, and he lifted an arm to lay it around her shoulders, drawing her to his side. She was of a height with him, and he was a tall man.

“You’re wondering if anyone will survive the monotony of the journey back to Epsilon Eridani,” she said.

“Close. We don’t know why we’re here, after all. Maybe someone went stir crazy.”

She nodded. “I’ve wondered that too. Let’s try to fix the generator, get the log running. I want to know what happened.”

He took back his arm. “So do I. Come on.”

Once he heard what the log had to tell him, he almost wished they hadn’t found out.

Tanaki and Kemp had intended to find this planet.

Lauren leaned into his shoulder as they trudged through the snow on their way back. “I interviewed Tanaki too, Dev. It’s not all your fault.”

He gave a snort which crystalized into a cold fog in front of his face. “But it’s my ship and my responsibility. I didn’t do my background checks thoroughly enough.”

“Don’t kick yourself too much for it,” she murmured.

But he did and he would. The guilt was acid in his stomach, guilt on so many different levels. What the log had told them was that Tanaki and Kemp had been part of the New Utopia faction that wanted to settle the earth-size planet astronomers had found in the Keid system. Not only had his background checks been insufficient, he had put the two new crew members on the same run as Farrel.

And they had murdered her.

“I can blame myself as much as you, Dev. Me and my phobia.”

“No, Lauren, don’t.” Lauren had once owned her own ship, but after an accident she refused to talk about, even with him, she was unable or unwilling to command a sleep run. As a result, she was always his second-in-command.

“See? What we need to concentrate on now is getting out of here.”

She was right. Dev looked around at the world the New Utopians had pinned their hopes on, a world cold and volcanic and unwelcoming. “They might still be out there, Lauren.”

“No.” She gave him a critical look. “How would they survive here?”

“Smart suits? Other rescuers?”

Lauren still looked skeptical, but Dev was determined to check the inventory the next time they went out to the ship.

And make sure he picked up a flechette pistol or two.

Gelrun and Eyk had some small furry beasts slung over the firin’s back, as well as one larger fat animal with no fur at all. Dev found it hard to imagine eating anything that fatty, but for all he knew, he already had. And none of them had become ill from the food yet.

Dusk was falling by the time they returned to the village, the twin white and red stars growing brighter in the sky. Avis had told them that the red star was called Saalsro, “woman,” and the white one Saelben, “man,” but Dev still thought of them as Eridani B and C. The distant Keid system suns were also visible in the daytime sky, but only faintly, the way the Moon could sometimes be seen during the day on Earth.

Dev was grateful for the sight of the town; he was tired and almost dizzy again. He hoped the effects of the concussion would wear off soon; if he could he would travel out to the crash site every day to inspect the progress of the self-repair mechanisms and finish digging the ship out of the snowy mountainside.

Avis was waiting for them in the dugout common room of the house he shared with her and Lauren. The seats and benches and tables were mostly carved out of the earth itself and covered with wooden seats, furs and thickly woven blankets.

“How does it look?” she asked.

“Tanaki and Kemp were trying to come in on the mag drives, but something went wrong — the automatic system kicked in, using the hydrogen-bloc thrusters.” Dev took the steps down into the carved-out table area and sat on a bench paneled in wood. “There’s some damage to the hull, the power units and the navcomms, but I think we’ll be able to fix it.”

Lauren followed, sitting down next to him. “The damage is within reason, and the self-repair mechanisms are working.”

Avis’s gaze rested on the spot where Lauren’s shoulder touched his own and skittered away again. “Were you able to find out why we’re here?” she asked.

“We were hijacked,” Dev said. “Tanaki and Kemp were members of the New Utopians.”

“Shit.”

But like the rest, she refrained from accusations. Dev found himself wishing someone would blame him the way he blamed himself. Instead, they were all pulling together, trying to do whatever they could to get off this cold world, the place that Tanaki and Kemp had hoped would be a new paradise.

“We salvaged some AIs.” Lauren dug around in the pack on the floor between her feet and pulled out a wrist unit, handing it to Avis. “They should help us communicate with the natives.”

Avis grinned, the wide promising smile that had caught him back when he first hired her. She glanced at the two of them again, and her expression froze. It seemed she’d interpreted more into the couple of artificial nights they’d spent together than he had. He’d never promised anything, but her disappointment now made him feel guilty.

Avis rose. “I’ll start right away teaching the units what I’ve learned of the language so far. With the data and their built-in language analysis tools, they should be able to learn much faster than I can.”

“Did you ever figure out why they kept you here?” Lauren asked.

Avis shook her head. “They just kept telling us how dangerous it was. But everyone was very kind to me and the professor, deferential even. If we were hostages, then they sure are nice to their enemies here.”

“Where is the professor?” Dev asked.

“She returned to the other house.” Finally Avis’s ready laughter echoed again between the low walls of their dugout. “She was pretty tired after the hot tub.”

Lauren sat up straight. “Hot tub?”

Avis nodded. “If I understood the natives right, they call it the ‘steam room,’ but it’s definitely a hot tub. Or rather, a series of hot tubs. A huge steaming bath, like the ones the ancient Romans had on Earth.”

Lauren whistled. “When can we go?”

It was several days before Dev was able to try out the steam room himself — after the hike out to the crash site and back, he was unable to get up from his bed without dizzy spells. He was desperate to get back out to the Aspiration, but the others wouldn’t allow it.

“We need you, Captain,” Makena said in what he suspected was her professor’s voice, pushing him back into the blankets and furs. “You are not hiking in the snow today. Your skin looks even more like a white man’s.”

He gave in with relatively good grace.

Once the others declared him recovered, he and Lauren spent the next few days at the crash site, sometimes with Barbara, sometimes with Mani, sometimes with both, sometimes alone — all the while steadfastly ignoring what was happening between them. Instead, they dug the snow out from around the hull with shovels they had obtained from the Elsen, checked the progress of the self-repair routines, cleaned the shattered carbon fiber out of the sleep chamber, and gazed into the sky at dusk for a glimpse of their ship’s other half, orbiting the planet.

No smartsuits were missing, but Dev salvaged the flechette pistols anyway, just in case. The riot guns weren’t rifles, but they could still do damage if need be.

In the evenings when they returned, Avis was nowhere to be seen.

One late afternoon as they were trudging back through the snow, alone this time, Lauren grabbed his elbow and stopped him. “How long do we have before autotermination of the nanomeds?”

“Shit.” An intense, orange sunset was bleeding across the snow on the outskirts of the village, and the blood-red and white stars were growing brighter in the sky above.

With all the other things to worry about, Dev had forgotten the failsafe built into their nanotech — and what it might mean for them on an undeveloped planet. In order to ensure that the nanotech replicators wouldn’t go wild in a natural, uncontrolled environment, the nanomeds’ operation was dependent on authorization codes transmitted from the controller in the engineering module of the ship. And without authorization updates for a period of thirty days, all their nanotech would shut down — nanomeds, self-repair mechanisms, everything.

For all he knew, the only reason the food here hadn’t yet made them sick was because of the nanomeds.

“It didn’t occur to me before either,” Lauren said. “Normally, we never have to think about it.”

Dev drew a deep breath. “Thirty days.”

“And we’ve been here over two weeks.”

“We need to talk to the others.”

This time, Avis was in the common room when they entered the house, sitting at the sunken table area with the others over steaming cups of something at least partly alcoholic, judging by the smell. Cooking odors came from the fireplace at the far wall, but Dev had little appetite. He found it impossible to associate the scent of simmering foreign animals and unusual spices with enjoyment of food and only ate because he knew he had to.

Avis gave them a faint smile. “We learned something new today.”

“Maybe it can wait,” Dev said. “We have to get off this planet as soon as possible — the nanotech is going to shut down in another ten days or so, give or take a few.”

“Shit,” she said, echoing his own reaction. “The backstop against mutation.”

Barbara pulled her gray bangs back from her forehead with one hand. “Of course. I never had to deal with autotermination because I only worked on permanent installations, but we learned about it when I was in training.”

Mani looked from one to the other of them. “What are you all talking about?”

Dev and Lauren and Avis explained the nanocontroller and the potential consequences for their little ship-wrecked party while they ate an odd-tasting Elneg beast stew.

“What was your news?” he asked when they were finished.

Avis and Makena glanced at each other, their expressions serious.

Their AI specialist drew a deep breath. “If I can trust the translations from the wrist units now, Makena and I were instructed in ‘our duties’ today.”

“And what might those be?” Lauren asked.

“Basically, produce offspring and keep them alive through the winter.”

Dev stared at her, too surprised to say anything.

“It appears it will soon be spring on this planet,” Makena said in her finely articulated voice. “Which means we must begin with the business of reproducing, so that the children will be born in the next spring when they have the best chance of survival.”

“We have already been introduced to a number of prospective fathers for our prospective children,” Avis added, her expression grim.

“Wow,” Lauren said. “I wonder why I was spared.”

“So do you still think the social system is a matriarchy now?” Dev asked Avis — an unfair question, he knew as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

Avis shrugged. “It was mostly women who were doing the talking. But yeah, I think I might have misread some of the signs. None of this fits together.”

Dev pushed back his plate, unable to eat another bite. “I’ve lost my appetite. I think it’s time I finally tested the hot tubs. Any takers?”

Mani, Barbara and Makena declined, but to Dev’s surprise, not only did Lauren want to join him, Avis agreed to go along.

Even after dark, the traffic in and out of the bath house was impressive — it never seemed like there were this many people in the village during the day. The entrance to the large building in the center of town was framed with elaborately carved beams, and a wide flight of stairs led down into an underground chamber. At the bottom, they entered a vaulted room containing a series of steaming pools crowded with naked bodies; the Elsen were curiously unselfconscious. “Seen like this, they sure as hell look human,” Dev murmured. Lauren nodded.

In front of the pools was a wide vestibule with rows of pegs on the wall for hanging up cloaks, clothing, and undergarments. Since it appeared to be what everyone else did, they stripped right there and descended the steps into the hot water.

Dev slipped into the pool to his shoulders. Soon he could feel his muscles relaxing and the shock of the past weeks beginning to recede, the bubbling pool massaging away at least some of his fears and confusion. It had been a very good idea to come to the steam room — even if he wanted to touch Lauren and couldn’t, even if Avis projected resentment.

“Maybe this isn’t such a horrible world after all,” he said, his head resting against the edge of the pool. The kinky hair at the back of his neck was wet, and beside him, a smiling Lauren took his hand under the water.

Then he saw Gelrun.

He sat up straight, water splashing around him. Lauren and Avis looked at him questioningly.

He nodded toward the woman walking between their pool and the next. “Isn’t Gelrun supposed to be a man?”

Avis gave him a puzzled look and glanced in the direction he indicated. She started. “I thought … that does look like Gelrun …”

The woman noticed them and came over, as naked and as obviously female as she had never been in the cold spring of Elneg and just as obviously the Gelrun who’d tramped through the snow with them. She exchanged a few words with Avis and moved on to join friends at the far end of the pool.

“Did you ask why she’s not a man?” Lauren asked.

“No,” Avis said, her voice angry. Lauren blinked but said no more.

“Why did you think she’s male?” Dev asked, unable to leave the question alone.

Avis dragged the hair out of her face with one wet hand. “All I know is that Gelrun is a different pronoun than I am, whatever she is. I assumed that meant male. A natural enough assumption.”

“Huh.” Dev’s head was spinning. “Are there more than two pronouns for people?”

Avis stood up, water dripping from her steaming, naked body, looking to Dev like a dark haired Botticelli’s Venus. A mad one.

“Look, I only ever heard two, and if there are more, I didn’t think to ask.”

Lauren shook her head. “No one’s blaming you, Avis ”

“And no one’s asking you, Lauren.” With that, their AI specialist stomped up the stairs from the shallow pool and back to the pegs where their clothing hung.

Dev took Lauren’s hand under the water.

“I didn’t mean to make her angry,” she said.

“She already was angry.”

Lauren sighed. “It’s because of us, even though we’ve backed off.”

He ran his thumb over the back of her hand.

“Maybe we shouldn’t…”

Dev cut her off. “I think maybe we should. It doesn’t seem to make any difference anyway.”

“True.”

When they returned to the dugout house, there was no sign of Avis. Dev could feel Lauren untense and knew she too was relieved. They would have to face the consequences, but not tonight.

Dev took Lauren into his arms. She leaned into him, examining his face in that serious way she had.

He drew her closer. “I’ve been so blind,” he murmured against her temple.

To his surprise, she chuckled. “No you haven’t. Avis is much easier on the eyes than I am–and so were the rest of them.”

Dev let out a surprised bark of laughter just before she pushed him through the door and into her room.

Devlin rolled out of Lauren’s bed the next morning, confused on a number of different levels but not how he felt about her.

Avis and Lauren. Men and women. Pronouns and gender and language. Problems personal and political. A society where the women weren’t always women.

And then there was the little issue with the nanomeds.

He rose, stretching and shaking his head.

“What is it?”

Dev turned. Lauren lay on the bed, her hands laced behind her head, her short, silver-blond hair sticking out in every direction. Memories of the night before hit him like a fist to the gut, and he drew in a deep breath.

“Let me see — you? Avis? Gender confusion? Nanomeds?” He resisted the temptation to dive back into bed and began to collect his clothing. Behind him, he could hear Lauren pushing the furs back and getting up.

She wrapped her arms around his waist from behind. “Well, at least we can’t complain that life is boring.”

“No, we certainly can’t.”

When they came out of Lauren’s room, Avis was sitting at the table in the communal area, bent over the tiny display of a surviving wrist unit. She looked up, her expression suspiciously blank. “Morning.”

“Morning.” Dev wandered over to her, while Lauren put some water on the fire. “I’m going to the crash site again today. What are your plans?”

“I’m meeting with Itin, one of the Elsen leaders,” Avis said. “I have to make her finally understand that we’re leaving as soon as we can get the command module to work again.”

“Good idea. Will we see you tonight?”

“Maybe.”

He had to be happy with that.

Gelrun and Eyk joined them at the outskirts of the village. Maybe with the help of the AIs, they would even be able to have a conversation. Despite the inability of the units to function independently — Avis gave them the affectionate nickname Artificial Stupidities — having a unit again, with all his own databases and the personality he preferred, made Dev feel like his mind had been returned to him.

He trudged next to Gelrun. “Can you explain something to me?” he asked the woman he had once thought a man.

She gazed at him with large, dark eyes — in the middle of a hairy face. “Kar’x.” Yes.

“Avis told me you were a man, like me, but in the steam room yesterday I saw that you are a woman.” Lauren walked beside them, alternately listening and consulting her AI.

Gelrun gave him a puzzled look, shaking her head. “Ter.” No. “How could you see that in the steam room?” his AI translated for him.

This was getting embarrassing, but the need to know was stronger. Dev gestured towards his crotch and then towards hers, saying the word for “woman”: “Saalsro.”

She chuckled, touching his arm and then her own. “Saelben.” Man.

They were at an impasse. “I don’t understand.”

“I don’t think the AIs are going to help us here,” Lauren murmured.

Gelrun was speaking in an undertone to Eyk — whose gender Dev no longer knew. It was unsettling how irritating that was.

Gelrun turned back to him, her expression serious again. She pointed from Lauren, to Dev, to herself, to Eyk. “Saelbenta.” Men.

“What?!” Lauren said.

Gelrun pointed at herself again. “I was once a woman. Now I am a man of the first rank.”

Dev could barely follow — his shaken brain couldn’t seem to handle the concentration this conversation required. Did they reward some women with the rank of “man”? What did “man” and “woman” even mean in this culture?

That of course was all too difficult to ask, so he contented himself with a simpler question. “What ranks of men are there?”

They were passing the sulfur springs which fed the heating system of the village. Steam rose to their right, reminding him of the fog in his head.

Gelrun pointed at him. “You are a man of the third rank. He…” — pointing at Lauren — “…is a man of the fourth rank. Unless he has borne a child?”

Lauren shook her head. “Ter.”

So a woman who had born a child became a man of the first rank? But why was Lauren regarded as a man?

Gelrun was now pointing at Eyk. “He is also a man of the third rank.”

The third rank — like Dev. And his cloak too was white.

They indicated gender with clothing color?

Dev pinched the thickly woven material of his cloak between gloved fingers. “Ogestri huszig?” Third rank?

Gelrun nodded enthusiastically and pinched the sleeve of her own orange cloak. “Gintri huszig.” First rank.

Dev wanted to turn around and return to the village, lie down in the warmth of the dugout house and retreat into dream. But no, they had to get off this planet before their nanomed failsafe kicked in; he couldn’t afford to hide away from this foreign world, as much as he felt like it.

At least they were soon able dispense with one of their original fears. Before Gelrun and Eyk continued on their hunting expedition, they showed them a row of graves in the woods beyond the crash site.

Dev and Lauren stood next to the spot where the pristine white had been disturbed, and he heaved a sigh of relief. “All accounted for. One less thing to worry about.”

They returned earlier than usual that day; Dev had a headache again and was finding it hard to concentrate.

When they reached the outskirts of the town, they caught sight of Avis, hurrying forward to meet them — seeking him and Lauren out rather than avoiding them.

Dev barely had time for surprise when she was at his side, taking his elbow, her expression worried. “Good that you’re back. I need you to meet with the leaders of the Elsen as soon as possible.”

“What happened?”

“They insist we choose mates, now. Makena is waiting at the government house. This seems to be a matter of major importance to them — their whole city council, or whatever it is, is there with her.” Despite the seriousness of the situation, she gave him a wry smile. “And they’re all women.”

The building was near the baths and almost as large. Mostly above ground as opposed to the vast majority of the residential buildings, it was free standing and had an impressive carved entranceway. The interior was painted in shades of red and orange and white, and more carvings resembling wainscoting decorated the halls at irregular intervals.

Finally, they reached a set of double doors flanked by guards wearing long white and green tunics of thick, woven material–men? women? both? The guards stopped Lauren at the door, but waved him and Avis through.

Lauren shrugged. “I’ll be fine on my own.”

He pressed her hand and followed Avis into the room.

Here, everyone but him wore shades of red and orange. The room was warmer than he was used to, and the women wore tunics of a finer material than any clothing Dev had seen on this planet. Except in the baths, the natives had always been wearing numerous, bulky layers, hiding what to him were primary sexual characteristics.

But on Elneg, the divisions he made automatically were immaterial.

Makena was seated on a low, blocky-looking chair piled high with furs at a table in the middle of the room, looking uncomfortable. Here in this free standing building, the seats and tables were constructed of wood and stone rather than carved out of the earth, as they were in the submerged houses.

He smiled at Makena, but she had no answering smile.

Avis put a hand on his arm. “Dev, this is Itin, the leader of the Elsen.”

The woman was generously built with streaks of gray in her dark hair.

And she wore red. As did Avis. As did Makena.

Dev crossed his arms behind his back and nodded. “Erd helte ang ha’x tilker.” I am happy to meet you.

Avis then introduced the highly pregnant woman next to Itin as Vikkel, Itin’s daughter. The rest of the names went by in a blur; he only hoped his AI had noted them all, just in case.

Was this really their governing body? Not a single man? Except of course in their terms — as he had learned, orange meant “man of the first rank.”

“What is this all about?” he asked Itin.

She frowned. “It is not yet your place to speak,” his AI translated. She then turned to Avis, settling her in a comfortable chair, and left him standing at the side of the room.

The Elsen women questioned his AI specialist at length, occasionally consulting Makena, but paying as much attention to him as to a decoration or a piece of furniture. He’d gotten it all wrong. As strange as it was, Avis had been right. The reds and the oranges were the ones who ran things; becoming a man of the first rank was a demotion rather than a promotion. But if childbirth was so important in this culture, why would that lead to a lesser rank?

He followed the discussion as well as he could on his AI, the talk of “women” and their duty and the snow melting and babies, feeling strangely superfluous. Although he’d never thought he held much store by the cultural advantage of maleness, it was there anyway, in his being, his outlook, his assumptions, his expectation that people would pay attention to him because of the figure he cut, captain of a merchant sleeper ship, one of the few independent commuters between the stars — and male. Now that the biological advantage of birth was taken from him, he realized he was used to potential clients deferring to him before they knew he owned the Aspiration, even when Lauren was there, who also had a captain’s license and was older.

Losing his status was almost as disorienting as the strangeness in his head from the concussion.

Itin was speaking to him now, but he understood little with his meager vocabulary. He consulted his AI again. We understand you will be mate this spring for the women of your group.

That couldn’t be right. Dev looked from Avis to Makena and back again.

The two of them drew him aside. “We need your help, Dev, desperately,” Avis said. “With the first patches of snow melting on the northern slopes, they want us to move into a ‘mating house.’ They won’t accept that we’re leaving, and they’re very serious that it’s our duty to produce offspring.”

Dev’s headache was becoming unbearable. “But there are all kinds of pregnant women in this room. Why you?”

“Everyone,” Makena said.

He thought of Lauren, locked out of the meeting. “They aren’t insisting Lauren do her ‘duty’.”

Makena nodded. “They don’t think she’s capable of child-bearing. She wears green, after all.”

“Maybe it’s the color of her hair,” Avis said. “To them, it must look gray.”

Of course. The Elsen were dark-haired and dark-skinned; only the oldest had anything resembling blond hair. Lauren wasn’t young either, and her face was etched with years of experience in two solar systems, a life spanning centuries.

“Will you help us, Captain?” the professor asked.

Devlin pinched the bridge of his nose. “What would I have to do?”

Avis smiled the contagious smile he hadn’t seen from her in days. “Move into a mating house with us. It will only be until we get off the planet.”

“They must believe that we’re doing as they ask,” Makena added. “Otherwise they may force an Elsen male on us.”

“Put that way, what choice do I have?”

Makena smiled now too, and he realized how tense her expression had been before. He had to go along with the pretense. Lauren would agree it was necessary, he knew. They could hardly allow anyone under their protection to be raped by procreative design.

As Dev had predicted, Lauren encouraged him to make the move. “We’ll have all the time in three worlds once we get off this planet,” she told him with her slight smile.

Dev was helping Lauren carry her belongings from the house they had shared together to its subterranean twin next door, when something that sounded like bells began to ring throughout the village.

They stopped in their tracks. Dev looked at his second in command, shaking his head. “I didn’t even know they had bells.”

“Neither did I. It sounds like a call to worship.”

As they stood between the two houses, not sure what to do, doors opened here and there on all sides of them, and quiet Elsen emerged, heading in the direction of the center of town.

“Maybe we should find out what’s going on,” Lauren suggested.

Dev lifted the box he held. “Let’s get rid of this stuff first.”

When they came back out of the house, the well trodden pathways that served as streets between the buildings were full of people, and they joined the throng. Where had everyone come from? The streets were never this full. The solemn masses led them to the square between the bath house and what he thought of as the government building, the only sounds the shuffle of heavy-booted feet and the bells that still tolled.

Whatever brought them here, Dev doubted the news was good.

They soon found Avis and the others, and together they worked their way toward the front of the crowd. In the center of the square, Itin stood with Vikkel and several reds. Vikkel’s face was tear-streaked, and she held a small bundle against her chest. Was the baby dead? If so, why had they gathered here? Couldn’t they allow her to experience her grief in private?

They waited, quiet, until the bells stopped tolling. Itin said something his AI either didn’t catch or didn’t understand, and Dev glanced at Avis.

“I think she said something about witnessing,” she murmured under her breath.

Vikkel gave the bundle to her mother. Itin unwrapped the blankets and lifted the baby above her head. It was a small boy, but deformed legs grew at wrong angles to the rest of his body, ending in stumps.

At the shock of cold air, the baby started to wail, and Vikkel’s tears fell even harder, a sob escaping her throat.

Someone in green came forward. Taking the screaming boy from his grandmother, Green began to lead the crowd away from the baths and the government building, Itin and Vikkel close behind. The solemn procession wound its way through the low buildings until they came out on a flat plain. In the distance, a number of firin grazed where the snow had melted in patches.

The green cloaked figure stepped to what looked like an altar of mortared stone a little above waist height, with dark splotches near the top.

Dev began to feel sick.

Sure enough, the executioner placed the baby on the altar and drew a knife, slitting its tiny throat with a single slash. The baby’s cries stilled, and the mother’s pierced the orange tinted sky. Avis leaned on his arm, shuddering. Behind him, Barbara made choking sounds while Lauren and Makena murmured to her.

“What the –!” Mani said.

Dev could feel tears streaming down his cheeks. He couldn’t remember the last time he had cried.

The Elsen in green lifted the baby to his/her chest. “Erdae saalsro hoeging eysvit. Erdae saalsro viga’x.” We woman give life. We woman die, his AI translated.

He looked at Avis, but she shrugged, wiping her eyes.

“Sael derg Elneg,” the executioner continued. Something returns to Elneg.

“Blood,” Avis murmured. “Sael must be blood. Saalsro and saelben, the bleeding and the bloodless. I never made the connection before.”

Of course. Bleeding was the sign of being able to give life, and on this harsh world, that was the distinction that mattered.

As they watched, the small body was placed on a pyre and the fire lit as the Elsen began to sing, a mournful sound, sadder than anything Dev had ever heard, full of harmonies in minor keys, a musical form of mourning. Even Vikkel’s sobs finally ebbed as she began to sing her sorrow.

Lauren came to the house he now shared with Avis and Makena early the next morning, Barbara and Mani in tow. “We’ve been taking tests,” she announced. “The water, the air, the soil. Looking for anything that might cause birth defects.”

“And?” Avis asked. There were dark rings under her eyes.

“UV radiation,” Lauren said. “I suspect the ozone layer on this planet is a lot thinner than on Earth or Jordan.”

Makena lowered her mug of piss flavored tea. “The volcanoes.”

“And we’re closer to the sun.”

Dev nodded. “A reduced magnetic field would affect the van Allen belts, too. That might explain why the mag drives didn’t work when Tanaki and Kemp tried to land.”

“How dangerous is it for us?” Mani asked.

“We aren’t being exposed to it from birth, and we have our nanomeds,” Lauren said. “For the moment, we should be safe.”

Avis rose, pushing back her breakfast. “We have to leave here.”

“The self-repair mechanisms aren’t finished yet.” Lauren said. “The shape-memory metals of the hull have completed their routines, but the navcomms still aren’t fully functional.”

“What about you two?” Barbara asked, nodding at Avis and Makena. “Last time you tried to go out with us to the ship, they wouldn’t let you leave the village.”

“They need their breeders,” Makena said simply.

Dev wondered how far the seemingly gentle Elsen would go to keep their potential mothers.

On the way back from the crash site the next day, he and Lauren leaned into each other almost involuntarily, and Dev found himself in a mood of physical desperation. Mani and Barbara left them to themselves, giving them a semblance of privacy, but it wasn’t enough; he wanted intimacy.

Lauren glanced at him with an understanding smile.

As they neared the village, bells began to sound.

“No,” Barbara said. None of them wanted to witness that again. But before they even reached the first buildings, they could tell this was different. Laughter filled the air, and the normally reserved Elsen clapped each other on the back, exchanging hugs.

“The bells are ringing faster,” Lauren said.

She was right; the tolling this time had a merrier sound to it.

In the central square, Itin stood next to the proud mother. This time, the witnessing revealed a perfectly shaped little girl. Afterwards, the inhabitants of the village filed past the baby’s mother to congratulate her.

“I think now would be the perfect time to do a little celebrating of our own, don’t you think?” Dev whispered in Lauren’s ear.

She nodded and took his elbow.

Dev gathered Lauren to his side beneath blankets and furs and held her tight. She snuggled into his shoulder. “Another two days and the ship’s self-repair routines should be complete.”

He nodded against the top of her head. “Not a moment too soon.”

Then they heard running feet in the hallway outside, followed by pounding on the door of Lauren’s room. “Dev, Lauren, come quick! Something’s the matter with Barbara!” It was Mani.

They jumped out of bed and pulled on clothes. “What happened?” Dev asked as they rushed from the house together.

“She collapsed during the party in the city square.”

It was dark now, and the distant suns, the Bleeding and the Bloodless, shone bright in the night sky. Nearby, the Aspiration glittered like an empty promise.

The square between the steam room and the council chambers was full of people, laughing and singing and drinking. Off to one side, the rest of their party and two Elsen huddled around a prone body.

Dev knelt next to the motionless figure of Barbara. Across from Avis, an Elsen in orange checked for vital signs.

“Any idea what it is?” he asked.

Avis shook her head. “She wasn’t drinking any of the strong stuff.”

Lauren knelt on the other side next to the healer. “If it was some kind of intolerance, her nanomeds should be taking care of it, shouldn’t they?”

“Didn’t you say our nanomeds would soon stop working?” Makena asked.

Dev nodded. “After thirty days without the authorization broadcast from the nanocontroller in orbit. But that’s still a week away.”

“What if we miscalculated?” Avis said. “Have we actually measured the length of the days here? What if they’re longer than twenty-four hours?”

Silence answered her. None of them knew how well they would survive in this environment without the help of their tech, and none of them wanted to think about it.

The next morning, Barbara remained unresponsive, although she was breathing normally.

“You were like this too,” Avis said, pacing the common room. “Only then we had a pretty obvious reason.”

“If the nanomeds are already shutting down, why aren’t the rest of us getting sick?” Makena asked.

“It could be an allergic reaction,” Lauren said. “Perhaps something she ate at the festival.”

Dev clenched his hands between his knees. “And we don’t know for sure it’s the nanomeds. It might be some medical problem so serious they can’t handle it.”

“We won’t know until we return to the Aspiration and can check the nanocontroller,” Avis added.

“We need to leave this planet,” Mani said. “Now.”

Dev sighed. The self-repair routines still weren’t complete. He turned to face Lauren. “What do you think? Would we have enough command module functionality if we left tonight?”

Lauren shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

He rubbed his forehead. Were the navcomms functioning well enough to get them back to Jordan? At least the hydrogen-bloc fuel was sufficient to reach the engineering module.

Avis stopped pacing and stood in the middle of the room, her hands clasped behind her back. “For Barbara’s sake, we have to try. We have to go tonight.”

The Bleeding and the Bloodless illuminated the night sky like small, pale imitations of moons. In the faint light, their party tramped through the snow, trading off carrying Barbara’s stretcher. She continued to breathe evenly but never woke, even when one of them tripped or stumbled. At least they had been able to steal out of the village without incident — there was no one lurking in the streets in the night cold. Dev wished they weren’t either; his cheeks tingled from the freezing air.

Spring. Right.

Snow crunched beneath their boots, slick and hard, partially melted and refrozen. With the dangerously slippery, refrozen snow and the dark and Barbara to carry between them, their progress was slow.

Much too slow.

Before they even reached the foothills, orange light from the rising sun spread out across the snow, illuminating the mountains in front of them.

Avis, on stretcher duty, stopped. “I can’t carry her anymore. Someone else has to take over.”

Dev stepped forward. “I’ll take her again.”

“So will I,” Lauren said.

They continued on, colder and more tired with each step, as night turned to day, and the likelihood increased that their flight would be noticed.

They had nearly reached the foothills when a sound like an approaching stampede came from behind. Dev’s stomach bottomed out. Laying his end of the stretcher in the snow, he turned and drew the flechette pistol he had retrieved from the command module.

There were only six of them, one unconscious, and at least twenty Elsen. On firin. With bows and arrows and slings. He had never seen the cow-like beasts move so fast. The weapons would be nearly useless against charging firin, but what choice did he have?

He dialed the flechette several clicks to high velocity, narrow dispersal, and took aim. Lauren and Avis followed suit. There was a hiss and the crack of the needles. One of the firin stumbled and fell, and another, from Lauren or Avis’s weapon. The weapon noticeably lighter in his hand, he took aim again, but before he could do more damage, he felt a piercing pain in his shoulder and dropped the riot gun. Dev gripped his injured shoulder, cursing regulations that made it illegal for civilian haulers to carry high-powered assault rifles.

Beside him, Lauren cried out. She too had been shot in the upper arm, disabling her. He could see the pain on her face, reflecting his, as she clenched the wound with one hand to stop the bleeding.

Were their nanomeds still working?

He leapt over to Lauren and took her in his arms as the Elsen surrounded them. Avis brought another firin to the frozen ground before she too was disabled. He hadn’t thought to arm the passengers, Makena and Mani.

Stupid. But what difference would it have made?

The Elsen dismounted and approached Avis, their attitude deferential and apologetic. Avis was one of the Bleeding — one of the valuable ones, the hope of the next generation, whereas Dev and Lauren were dispensable.

His strong, dear Lauren buried her head in his shoulder, shuddering. He held her tight and tried to follow what the Elsen were saying to Avis.

“Erdae ha’xae terf ginna vigber kamer,” an Elsen in white said to her. We can’t let you go, Dev’s AI translated.

“If we don’t go, we will die,” Avis said in the language of Elneg.

The Elsen shook his head, not believing or not wanting to. “We will take care of you.”

Avis started to cry. “One of us is sick. We need to get away.” She pointed at the sky.

“He can go.” The Elsen in white nodded towards Barbara. “You two stay.” He gestured at Avis and Makena.

For a moment, no one spoke. The rising sun glinted in shades of orange and red and pink on the snowy landscape around them.

In his arms, Lauren gritted her teeth. “I think the nanomeds may already have stopped working. Wouldn’t they be providing us with pain killers under normal circumstances?”

Dev nodded. He’d noticed the same thing.

Makena moved to Avis’s side, her expression bleak but determined. “We have to let them go. Barbara might die.”

Dev could see the exact moment when Avis made her decision. Her small chin went up, and his heart turned over.

She dried the tears on her cheeks. “You’re right.”

A long sigh escaped him as they stared at each other.

“You have to take Barbara back to the Aspiration,” Avis said, surrounded by a dozen armed Elsen warriors, Makena beside her. “We don’t know how much longer she has without the nanomeds.”

Lauren’s shudders stilled and she straightened, wincing at the pain from the arrow still stuck in her upper arm. Strange — Dev had forgotten his. Lauren’s expression reminded him, and the pain came back in a surreal rush.

“Then we can go?” Mani said, breaking the silence.

Dev took a deep breath and pushed Lauren back, gazing at her dear face. “I can’t leave them here alone.” Alone to face repeated, institutionalized rape, possibly for whatever was left of their lives.

Lauren nodded.

“I know how you feel about commanding a sleeper, but –”

“It’s all right, Dev. I can do it.”

“Are you sure? You can get Barbara and Mani to the Aspiration without me?”

Tears pooled in her deep blue eyes, and she nodded again.

He placed his hands on either side of her face and kissed her forehead. “Thank you.”

“We’ll be back for you,” she said with something of her old spirit.

He smiled. “By that time, I’ll be older than you.”

Lauren shook her head. “No, we’ll come back with the command module as soon as we can.”

“You can’t, Lauren,” he said quietly. “There’s enough fuel to get back to the main ship, but you can’t use the mag drives on this planet, or the same thing will happen to you that happened to Tanaki and Kemp. The fuel isn’t enough to climb out of the gravity well if you return. The Aspiration isn’t equipped for repeated take offs and landings.”

“I know.” Her expression was stubborn.

If she couldn’t come back for them now, it would be over thirteen years before they could be rescued. Assuming they had enough built-in, natural immunity to survive that long.

At least — given the pain in his arm — he was still alive without nanomeds. That would mean there wasn’t anything inherently poisonous on this planet for them, despite Barbara’s reaction.

Perhaps they could survive here after all.

Lauren lifted her chin. “I’ll cut the nanomed controller from the engineering module and drop it to the surface in a cargo pod.”

Dev shook his head. “Lauren, you and the others have a year of radiation in deep space to deal with.”

“And we have the Aspiration and all her equipment and medical facilities.”

“Only the facilities that survived the crash.” He traced the line of her jaw with one finger. “You know what you have to do.”

Lauren swallowed, the tears running freely down her cheeks now. “Shit, Dev.”

“Thank you, Lauren.” He gave her a light kiss. “I love you.”

She swallowed a sob and turned away.

Dev stepped over to join Avis and Makena. Together they watched as Lauren and Mani took up the stretcher and continued towards the foothills and the crash site.

Making their way back to what was left of the Aspiration — and hopefully some kind of home.
___

Copyright 2010 Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold is an American writer living in Stuttgart, Germany. Her work has appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov’s, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons, and several year’s best anthologies. She has been nominated for the Nebula, the Sturgeon, and the Tiptree awards. In 2007, the Italian translation of her novella “Looking Through Lace” won the “Premio Italia” for best international work. Her novel Flamme und Harfe (Flame and Harp) appeared in translation from Penhaligon, a German imprint of Random House, in 2009.