Chapter 4 of Neohumans
Back on the bridge, Bex had hopped into the leaning console that served as both desk and chair, the array of screens visible as Nod took the pilot's chair.
"Systems check. What are we running, Skae?"
"Hot burn. Some stress fractures on the thrusters from the Jump. We have only one or two more of those left until we can get repairs in Zora."
"Any other problems?"
"If there were, Captain, I would have notified you."
"Thank you, Skae."
"I am doing my job, the same as you, Captain."
She closed the connection and looked out at the specs of light streaming past, the stabilizer injection working to keep down her nausea.
"Delphina," she said, speaking to the ship. "Get me visual on Whims."
A hologram screen showed Whims in the mess, a cluster of children on the floor around him, telling a story that required the flagrant waving of arms. The kids had their mouths open, laughing.
"Whims," she said over coms.
He paused, putting one hand to his ear. "Uh, yes, Captain? Kinda in the middle of a..."
"You left the rest of them alone?"
His voice dropped, and he stepped away from the kids down the hall, smiling at them reassuringly, holding up one hand for them to wait.
"I'm impressed you can make them laugh, Whims. They don't even know what you're saying."
"They just think my voice is funny," Whims whined. "It happens a lot. Look, about the other kids...I think we should wake up Kase. Some of them don't look so good."
"Thanks for the suggestion, Whims. Get back to your story."
He waved at the camera and then it flicked off.
"He's got a point," Nod mentioned from the cockpit, face reflected in the glow of jumplight on the viewscreen.
"I know he does. Kase is our best medic."
"But he aggravates you."
"He doesn't aggravate me," she said too quickly. "He undermines me."
"I already know he gets under you." She didn't have to look at him to know he was grinning.
"That's not--" she began and flushed, hot at being caught in his bait. "Fine, okay. I'll go wake him up."
"Say hello for me," Nod said, waving.
She ejected his tank, the cold tendrils of fog rolling off of it, and pressed the green-colored button to wake him up.
His wounds weren't visible anymore, the nanites doing their job efficiently and unseen to patch him up. His core began rising, temperature control monitors adjusting his skin and reawakening his mind.
And then he sat up. Every muscled inch of him, naked. Bex stared past his shoulder.
"How long?" he asked, eyes staring intensely at her, beard looking more scruffy than usual.
"A Zoran cycle, give or take a few hundred hours."
"You went without me?" his voice was soft and brooding, but she could feel his simmering anger radiating off of him, the wet steam from cryo evaporating all the faster.
"Yeah. But we made it."
"You had no right. You promised me you would take me every time. You promised you would wake me every time! What if this had been the last time? I'm going to die in my sleep, like I've gone back into the Womb? Or maybe the Takers come in here, wake me up, put me back inside again? No!" He began climbing out of the pod. His eyes were bloodshot, and he panted almost as if hyperventilating.
She took a step back, hand going to the pistol at her hip. "I made those promises before you kept almost getting us killed. You were injured, and now you have cryo sickness. I shouldn't need to tell you that. You are not thinking clearly, and if you're not careful, you're going to put yourself into sick bay, and I am not the best medic. You are. We need your help. We rescued some kids."
"Females?" he asked, eagerly.
"Girls," she said, sternly. "And no, they were boys."
"You risked us for boys?"
"You're a boy, too, you big idiot."
"And Zora needs girls! That was the mission. We have plenty of men already, we need women. How can we survive without women?"
"Women are still being born on Zora, Kase."
"But not enough to deal with the influx of men we, and the other ships keep bringing in!"
"They don't guard the males as closely as they do the women, not to mention the girls. It's a suicide mission."
"It's a useless gesture. We're doing it out of principle, then, is that it? The Takers don't give a shit, and you know that! That's just to make us feel good about ourselves! A vanity project!"
"They are children, Kase."
"That we don't need! Save a few, or save no one. We need to save the few that Zora actually needs. We're rebuilding the human race here, aren't we?"
She felt a loathing in the base of her stomach for him. "You are so cold."
"I am a scientist," he said.
He quelled her with a hard look. "I don't work like most scientists, I know. But I have the knowledge. I care about knowing. I care about solving things. I care about fixing problems. Hands on, if necessary. Preferably, hands on. And we're looking at the long game here. The rebuilding and survival of the human race. Every action we take should be tactical, not driven by emotion. I don't want to just make gestures, Bex," he said, walking closer to her. "I want to win. I want to beat them. For good."
"Now who is talking about suicide?"
"If we're going to go down fighting, at least let us fight smart. The stakes are pretty high. They are smarter than we are. They should have adapted to us already. Why haven't they?"
It had been bothering her as well.
"Because they don't care," he said. "Because we're not hurting them. If we are born male, they just want fat little slaves they can chop up and eat before we can grow too big. Unless you're one of the big eunuchs like Whims. But if they are women..." and his stare was too intense for her to meet.
"A fate worse than death," she breathed.
"Human milk is in high demand. So are more children for their farm. But we did it once. Nod rescued you. He went through hell to do it, too. But we needed women, so he did the job."
"And they adapted. Changed their sentries, reinforced everything."
"Yeah, and also pushed all the males near the entrance we always use. As bait. And we've done--what? Six or seven runs this way? They don't care. Not enough to shut us down completely."
"You're saying we've been a little too lucky."
"I'm saying we should have been doing something different all along. A run of luck like this makes no sense, unless it's not luck. If we got away at this point, and I didn't die in my sleep, that's because they wanted us to get away. If I was a lot smarter than I actually am, I'd just realize that it's going to take us another Zoran cycle or two to get back to them, or a ship like theirs, and do the same thing. Meanwhile, they continue harvesting generations of us. We're plucking stars from a galaxy here. Drops from an ocean. We're not solving anything. We're doing exactly what they expect, and they are fine with it."
She did not like what he was saying, but did not argue with it.
"So fucking hooray," he said. "We rescued a few kids. I'm happy about it, don't get me wrong. In my own way. I'm just tired of us doing what they expect, and meanwhile millions more will die until we can get back to them. We're not hurting them. And I really want to hurt them. You know they deserve it."
She sighed. "Fine, Kase. Then what are you suggesting? What would you do, if you were Captain?"
He grinned like a rashrati, teeth white with vengeance. "I'm suggesting that instead of taking a few people off of their Taker ship...why not just take the whole damned ship?"
She started to laugh. "Wow, Kase. You really have been under too long."
"We took this one, didn't we?"
"This ship is an ant compared to a Taker farm ship! Especially the last one, Kase. It was the biggest one yet."
"So crawling out of our ant, we snuck into it like nanites and took a handful of nanites out of it. Meanwhile, oceans of blood are being spilled in the ship above. We're not changing anything. We climb up and out their shithole, and they replace everything ten seconds after we leave, and we all almost die. Every time."
"That's better than actually dying."
"I'm not so sure it is. Yeah, I don't want to throw my life away. But I don't want to skulk around like a coward around the monsters who made us slaves and turned us into food. Sneaking out like scum."
"We're years away from being able to do what you're talking about. We need more research, more time..."
"Come on, Bex. You think the Takers are going to give us time to evolve? You're not thinking. And I mean this with all the love I have for your amazing body--"
"Watch it, chief."
"You've been staring at mine the whole time. Don't act coy. After we get this argument out of the way, the two of us are going to fuck like we always do. But we don't have more time. They already know there's a group of us out there, some of their food, having the audacity to resist them, to take their food away from them. They know how we operate, and should have thought three steps ahead of us by now. But for some reason they haven't. Why would that be?"
"It's a clever approach," she said.
"Was a clever approach," he corrected. "The first couple times we did it. But we only had success once we started doing the unexpected. Something we'd never done before. So let's take over their ship. It's never been done before. They'll never see it coming."
"At first, maybe, but once they do, they'll crack down on us with everything they have."
"Then we fight. We don't need to carry anyone to safety if we make the whole ship safe. And we bring back to Zora enough people that we can live free and happy forever, far away from all this Taker bullshit. We have a ship that can go toe to toe with one of theirs. How is this a bad thing?"
"We don't have the crew for something like that."
"So we get a bigger crew! Why not?"
"It's impossible, that's why."
"Everything we've ever done was impossible, until we did it. I'm not convinced."
"I'm still Captain."
"Not open to debate, is that it? Dammit, do we have cigarettes?"
"Why would you want to resurrect that past vice?"
"Because, like all of the other lost history of ours we've been able to unscramble, it was ours, once. It was a thing we did. It's a tribute to those that came before. And they were on to something. Cigarettes help you cope with life."
"Funny, I cope just fine."
"You sure about that, Bexy?"
"Stop it," she said. "You know I hate that name."
"That's why I say it," he said, as he grabbed the back of her neck and moved in close, and kicked the door closed behind them.