My name is Oichi Angelis, and I shall always be a worm, regardless of where I go, because of where I have already been.
I was born and bred in the endless tunnels of a generation ship. All my life I have plotted and maneuvered. I have killed and I have avoided being killed. I have communicated with three ancient spaceships on a planet called Graveyard. Now I will have to negotiate with the powerful Weapons Clan who made us.
What seems like negotiations to some, plays out more like war to others. Perhaps that’s why I told the emissaries from the Weapons Clan to dock their ship in Lock 212. It has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed.
She was a sleek little craft, called Merlin, probably named after a bird of prey rather than the wizard. She sat complacently while our scrubbers removed toxins generated by her thrusters. Medusa and I abided on opposite ends of Olympia; our link allowed us to spy together on Merlin’s crew, through their security systems and their intercoms, even through the big view window on her bridge. They hadn’t seemed alarmed about where we told them to dock. That was because they didn’t know what Medusa and I had done to other people inside Lock 212.
The name Merlin had me thinking about sorcerers, so the score for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice played in my head as she was towed into Lock 212. I loved the music by Paul Dukas, and its accompanying images from the animated movie Fantasia—the marching brooms and their unrelenting bucket brigade. Two flutes and piccolos, two oboes, two soprano clarinets and bass clarinet, and three bassoons and contrabassoon (instruments that are underused, in my opinion). Four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, and a collection of timpani, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, and strings. Do I imagine the perfect tones of a celesta in there? Lending bright magic to this sorcerous collaboration? All of them marching together with a tum-te-tum te-tumpetty-tum?
The scrubbers, our version of the ensorcelled brooms, scurried from their cubbies to clean every inch of Merlin’s surface. It was a job they had not done very often, so I imagined they wanted to be extra diligent.
People peered out of Merlin’s view windows and into our lock, but I doubted they could see much. A few emergency lights were on; I kept the main lights off for the time being. That made it easier to see into Merlin, whose interior was brightly lit. Communications Officer Narm spent the most time looking out, along with a pale young man named Wilson, who was one of the engineers, and a tiny woman with white hair and skin the color of dark plums. The lady was named Cocteau; the ship’s roster identified her as another engineer.
<Two engineers,> I remarked to Medusa.
<Do you suppose Cocteau is a descendant of Jean Cocteau?>
Medusa referred to the director of another of our favorite movies, La Belle et la Bête. That bumped Dukas’s apprentice out of my head and replaced him with Georges Auric’s score for Jean Cocteau’s film, which was far more romantic but still appropriate. The score is played by a full orchestra, including a choir, and it lends La Belle et la Bête an emotional potency to complement its gorgeous images. <There may be thousands of Cocteaus,> I mused. <Millions … >
<They should have their own planet,> said Medusa.
When the last minute of the decontamination period expired, Narm sent a message. “Our captain and Representative Lee are standing by for your directions as to where and when the meeting will take place.”
“This is Oichi Angelis,” I replied. “I will rendezvous with your captain and your representative inside the lock.”
I messaged Medusa. <It’s time.>
Merlin’s crew sat in front of the observation windows as if engrossed in a movie, watching Olympia’s scrubbers take one last spin over the exterior of their ship. I continued to surveil them and listen to their conversation through the open link. Perhaps it would get more informative, now that our meeting was imminent.
“Anyone show up yet?” said Captain Thomas.
“Nope,” said Mirzakhani. She was a medical tech whose roster profile stated she could also do field surgery. “It sure is dark out there.”
“Maybe they have better night vision than we do,” said Narm.
Engineers Wilson and Cocteau both shook their heads. “These folks thought they were alone out here,” said Cocteau. “They conserve energy where they can.”
I heard a rustle in the hall behind me and turned to see Medusa moving around the corner. She was the Prima, the Queen of the lightning-fast death blow, my superstrong biometal friend.
She joined me at the pressure door and flowed over me. Her suit sealed around me, her face settled over mine, and we became one. Now I could hear with her sensitive ears. I could see with eyes that could stare into the heart of a sun without blinking, yet also see the movement of a bee gathering pollen on a distant flower.
I stretched her tentacles luxuriously. <I’ve missed you. We don’t do this as much as we used to.>
<You would prefer to go back to the days when we skulked together on Olympia’s hull, plotting the downfall of the Executives?>
I felt an unexpected stab of longing.
<It’s showtime,> I said.
The scrubbers crawled off Merlin and scurried to their cubbies. I opened the pressure door.
Inside Merlin, Mirzakhani let out a little gasp. “There’s a light!”
We stood in that bar of light, and because the source was behind us, our dark twins stretched far ahead of us.
“Are those tentacles…?” said Narm.
Our shadows moved toward Merlin like a sea monster reaching for prey.
* * *
<We may have overdone it a bit with the shadowy tentacles,> said Medusa after we had been waiting for a while and no one came out of Merlin’s air lock.
I sighed. <I should have killed the lights in the hallway first. Oh well. Lesson learned.>
The outer door of Merlin’s air lock opened.
“It smells okay.” I heard what I assumed was Representative Lee’s voice. “Feels drier than I would have thought, considering they have a big habitat for crops in here.”
Captain Thomas peered down the ramp and past the light that lit a path into the air lock. We had moved out of it, trying to diminish that whole tentacle-monster effect. Medusa waggled the tip of an appendage, hoping to capture her attention.
Thomas whispered to Lee, “Did I ever tell you how much I admire your calm?”
“It’s a complete sham,” he replied sotto voce.
“I admire that even more.”
It wasn’t a sham. We could hear Lee’s heartbeat. It remained slow and steady. Captain Thomas started to move down the ramp, but Lee put a restraining hand on her arm. “Some things I say or do may not make sense,” he said in the same low voice that he apparently didn’t know we could hear.
Thomas kept a straight face. “And that’s different from the usual—how?”
“Good point.” Lee withdrew his hand.
The two of them descended the ramp. Lee’s heartbeat continued steady, while Captain Thomas fought to stay the same. She used her breathing to get control. I admired her for that.
When they were within ten paces, I stepped into the light again.
They stopped abruptly. The captain spoke in a steady voice. “I’m Epatha Thomas, captain of Merlin, and this is Representative Lee. Thank you for allowing us to dock.”
I selected a voice from my database that resembled the tone and cadence of Captain Thomas’s speech patterns. “I’m Oichi Angelis. And this is Medusa.”
I didn’t realize how baffling that sounded until they frowned.
“I’m wearing Medusa,” I explained. “We are two people, though at the moment, we appear to be one.”
Medusa pulled her tentacles in closer. Fully extended, they can stretch six meters in all directions. They could have broken our visitors’ necks before either of them had a chance to register alarm.
“You came from the Weapons Clan ship?” I said. “The one at the outer edge of the Charon system?”
“Yes,” said Captain Thomas.
“How long did it take you to get to us from there?”
“About three weeks.”
“Weeks. We don’t use that term. My records indicate it’s from Old Earth. It took us a year to cross the same distance. Our drive is primitive compared with yours.”
“If it is,” said Thomas, “nothing else about Olympia is primitive. Your ship is a marvel.”
I didn’t answer. Medusa’s tentacles coiled and uncoiled languidly. We watched Captain Thomas’s autonomic system wreak havoc with her pupils.
Yet her voice remained steady when she said, “Merlin is locked down according to your security specifications. As we discussed when you gave us clearance to dock, my crew numbers six people, including Representative Lee and myself.”
I focused on Lee. His pupils, heartbeat, and respiration betrayed no nervousness. I wondered what made him so confident. Was it experience? Or did he have some advantage we weren’t guessing?
Medusa’s lips curved in a faint but perceptible smile, and we heard Captain Thomas’s heart stutter.
“I will introduce you to the Security Council,” I said. “You may relay your message to them. Do not attempt to share it with me as we make our way to the House of Clans. Please follow me.”
Medusa and I pivoted and walked to the outer door. Thomas and Lee followed in our wake.
When our backs were turned, we heard Captain Thomas taking another deep breath. I suspected she would need to do so again.
Because she was about to see more tentacles.
Copyright © 2019 by Emily Devenport