When stranded by a damaged ship in the middle of a nest of space leeches, always have a plan B.
Toxic smoke clogged the intakes, blaring alarms destroyed her concentration, and the engine Andra built to withstand every contingency groaned in agony.
She wiped the stinging grit from her face and the console screen, zeroing in on the strange culprit floating outside the ship. A bulbous space worm, slimy mass pulsating, slurped up the warm energy trail from the core, and its emissions interfered with the central processor.
Sparks scorched her fingers each time she touched the main grid switches, but she knew the engine. The Valiant was a scrappy little ship, and Andra wasn’t about to let some overgrown galactic slug be its demise.
She hadn’t been the first choice, second, or even third. From the day she was born, for all her twenty-five years, she reached for one goal, mixing her best with blood, sweat, and tears, and Earth’s International Space Association ranked her a pathetic seventh. When six of her peers declined, they solidified her determination to prove that seventh was better than first.
“A dozen more of those things are headed our way,” Marty Scroop said through the narrow corridor up to the data center. She pictured him hunched over the navigation console, clinging to it like a precious lifeline to Earth in the recesses of deep space.
Marty shouldn’t have been the first choice for navigator, but his father was head of the ISA Mission Operations Division, so the scruffy, middle-aged former addict bounced right to the top of the shortlist. For all the praise his father lauded on him, Marty seemed just as clueless as the rest of the crew about what they were dealing with.
Andra twisted a valve on the overhead coolant line and ducked, avoiding the blast from a hiss of steam.
“Engineering, what’s our status.” Even in the worst situation, the captain’s voice never wavered. Ian Dalton was not only the first choice to lead the mission but also the exceptional and popular choice. The press loved him. Women flocked for a glimpse of his chiseled jaw and roguish charm, but he never let it go to his head. Andra liked all three crewmen but had a soft spot for the charismatic captain. Everyone did.
“I can give you thrust, but core power is offline. Whatever those things are, they are drawing all our juice the instant I switch us on,” Andra said.
“Are we in trouble here, doc?” the captain asked.
Andra redirected the fuel lines to the thrusters as she listened for the answer.
“No signs of anything toxic. Whatever those creatures are, they don’t seem to harm human physiology.” Dr. Oswald’s voice came from the corridor opposite Marty’s. “In fact, they seem to be blasting the ship with nutrients. Everyone’s vitals just boosted.” Dr. Oswald came from the upper echelons of the medical world, respected by his peers for his long and distinguished career.
“Why do I find that good news unnerving?” Ian asked, keeping his tone light. He was good at ensuring no one lost their head in a crisis, and Andra appreciated that more for Marty’s sake than hers.
She ripped open the skin on her hand as she wrenched loose a stuck bolt and ignored the pain and blood, focused on completing the task.
“Permission to take us through the field of space slugs,” Brady Rivers said, and the captain approved. Rivers declined the mission at first, worried about leaving his young family. He was the only one with that concern, but the ISA dangled an impressive paycheck in front of him, and voilà, he became their pilot.
The thrusters sputtered, and the ship stalled, but not for long. Not on Andra’s watch.
She abandoned her attempts to bandage her hand and adjusted the fuel lines again. The thrusters roared to life and died out. She cursed and tried re-routing power from the medical pod, though she knew the doctor wouldn’t like that. The thrusters ignited again, and the ship moved forward.
“Great job, Andra,” the captain shouted from the cockpit in that obnoxious optimistic tone. His faith in her was welcome, but she wished that just once something could come as easy for her as it seemed to for him.
The ship bounced through space, the outer hull squeaking like nails on a chalkboard, when an unnatural thud made Andra snap her gaze overhead. Something was very wrong.
She flew to the console, hit a few keys, and the outside camera feed returned. A sucker latched onto them, digging razor fangs into the alloy, while a muscular body flopped against the ship’s inertia.
One elongated worm became a hundred, attracted to the disturbance as Rivers piloted them deeper. The mammoth leeches, some up to six feet, weighed on the ship, messing with the delicate balance of mechanics required for space travel that Andra maintained with tireless fortitude.
“Captain,” Andra said.
“I know. Rivers, get us out of here.”
“Trying, Captain.” The pilot’s strained grunts sent a shudder through Andra.
Time to create a plan B, but she was used to thinking on her feet. Plan B was where she lived. Her ex told her that—used it as his excuse for breaking it off right before she left Earth.
The ship overturned under the onslaught, contents of the engine bay scattered, and Andra bashed her head against a water main. She came to lying on her side. Not bothering to stand, she crawled over the metal grating and tore the overlay from a junction beneath the engine.
“Are you seeing this?” Rivers asked. On her back, taking the full blast of heat from the core, Andra relied on her ears for orders and her hands for salvation.
“A ship graveyard?” Dr. Oswald had a fascinated but horrified inflection in his voice.
“Let’s try for that one. Andra, we need to get these leeches off the ship,” the captain said.
“On it.” She wedged a screwdriver between her teeth as her nimble fingers twisted wires and rearranged circuit boards.
“These things like our taste so much; let’s give them what they want,” she muttered.
“You re-routed power from medical!?”
Andra grimaced but ignored the doctor’s objections.
“Brace yourself. Here goes life support,” she admitted, sparking two wires together.
A blast outside the ship rocked them again, but not enough to keep Andra from scrambling to her feet. Two lunges took her to the console. The creatures abandoned the hull to feed on the bubble of core energy just beyond, giving them time for escape.
The Valiant ripped through space, across the graveyard to—Andra caught only a glimpse before malfunctioning inertial couplings threw her against the wall.
The image was burned in her mind—a massive alien ship, at least the size of twelve football stadiums, stacked one over the other. Unlike the dead starships, a single beacon of light glowed from the large one—a lighthouse against the horizon.
“Thrusters are out. We’re not going to make it,” Rivers said.
Andra wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, not realizing a smear of soot trailed behind. She sighed and crawled back under the engine.
“You only get one shot at this, so let’s see you earn that paycheck,” she told Rivers and hotwired more connections. The rocket turbine ignited this time, and the Valiant spiraled into a new trajectory.
Andra grabbed at any pipe or oscillator that seemed sturdy enough to withstand the impact she knew was coming. Oxygen turned stale, and a chill crept in—confirming life support was fully offline. Her quick thinking either killed them all or…
A thunderous roar consumed her. Andra banged into consoles and engine stacks in an endless tumble, like a cat caught in a washing machine. She blacked out, and the thunder faded into a distant ringing. Whether they were still moving or dead, she couldn’t tell.
She blinked until her vision returned, sensing painful bruises across her limbs and rib cage. Fresh gulps of oxygen cooled her burning lungs, but the taste of blood came from a cut on her lip. She crawled to her feet, knees nearly buckling, stood, and turned to meet a fireball of debris sailing at her.
A body slammed into her. They fell out of a gash in the ship’s hull, the impact knocking the needed air from her lungs.
She rolled to her side and found the captain sprawled beside her. The tips of his dark hair were scorched, and his uniform was torn at the shoulder and chest. He propped himself on one elbow and gave her a look he probably gave all the girls.
“You injured?” he asked.
“Only my pride. Look what I did to the ship.”
The cockpit was strung across a minefield of debris, scattered thirty feet out in all directions. Marty limped out of the wreckage, supporting Rivers with his shoulder and arms.
“You saved our lives,” Ian said, pulling Andra to her feet.
A piece of metal slipped from what remained of the aft section of the ship, and the doctor crawled out.
Ian and Andra hurried over to assist him.
“Where are we?” The doctor asked once he was freed from the destruction.
“Stranded,” Andra said. Ian gave her a pointed look.
“Alive,” he countered.
“Guess whoever lives here breathes the same kind of O2 as us. Right, doc?” Rivers asked. The pilot’s eyes were rimmed in sickly yellow, and blood oozed from a deep wound in his thigh.
Andra helped Dr. Oswald rummage through the debris until they found enough medical supplies to patch up the pilot. After a moment to recover, the crew left what appeared to be the docking bay.
All three men were over six-foot, forcing Andra to take two steps for each of their strides, but she didn’t mind. They were just the kind of armada she wanted around her in the bowels of an alien ship.
Rivers walked beside her with his injured leg, face gaining back some healthy pigment.
“They’ll never believe this back home,” he said.
“Yes, they will,” Andra gave him a sly glance, “they all secretly want to believe.”
Fifteen-foot mirrors lined the corridor, reflecting all the cuts and bruises littered over the four moving bodies. Andra’s beige hair sprung from its tie in wild fuzz that resembled Albert Einstein’s. She tore it loose, ignoring the soot lodged in the strands and the smell of rocket fuel.
The mirrors led to an observation deck with a massive glass dome that spectacularly displayed the graveyard and surrounding galaxies above them. Mirrors lined the walls along the walkways—a bit overkill, Andra thought, and she mentally labeled the alien ship the Narcissus.
“They must have a secondary vessel or escape pod,” Ian said, infusing a bit of hope onto the faces of a weary crew.
A shadow broke free of its confines between the mirrors and launched at them. It attacked Oswald, shoving the old man toward the mirrors, blade pressed to his neck.
“Looks like we have some fresh meat.” The voice sounded human, but his translucent skin revealed a tangle of veins and tissue, pumping life into his body.
Rivers and the captain tried to intercede, but they were stopped by the barrel of a strange gun pointing at them.
“I wouldn’t,” another creature said. The alien had green pigment in his skin and two rows of lizard-like horns running along his skull.
“Drop your weapons.” Another came forward, but the armed men hesitated to follow the command.
Cloaked in long robes, the third creature pulled back the hood. This man looked human, save for a few lines of extra cartilage across the bridge of his nose.
“Do you not see? Vessia, the goddess, has returned to us.”
All three aliens looked at Andra, and their jaws went slack. The translucent man let go of the doctor, and the lizard lowered the barrel.
“I beg your forgiveness, my lady. We thought you were invaders.” The cloaked leader dropped to one knee and bowed his head. Andra wiped her greasy hands on her uniform and glanced at the captain. He lifted his shoulders, shrugged, and his eyes told her to just go with it.
“You’re forgiven?” She hadn’t meant it to sound like a question, but it came out that way.
The alien lifted from his knee.
“Pray, do you remember me? I am Kalibor of the Adite system.” He inclined his chin toward the translucent man, “This is Lepidus of Demtar and Gobbo, the Grithrian.” The lizard man bowed, but the translucent one narrowed his eyes, visible veins in the sockets swelling with blood.
“You mortals all look alike to me,” Andra said, trying to settle into her unexpected new role.
“Who are these men you travel with?” Kalibor asked.
“Her royal convoy,” Ian said, “We’ve come to learn more about your operation here.”
The captain was so smooth. Andra half wished he’d been the chosen deity; he would be a natural.
“A disaster, I’m afraid. Perhaps, you have come to save us? The Nullites have trapped us here. Killed our women. Only a handful of us remain.”
“Nullites?” Rivers glanced out the viewing dome, “You mean the giant space leeches?”
“Have you not seen their beauty?” Kalibor extended his hand over his head to the observation dome. A swarm of Nullites gathered, their elongated bodies emitting gases, painting space with more spectacular colors than in the sunsets Andra liked to watch from the park near her apartment.
Kalibor went into some kind of trance as he stared up at them. He licked his lips and dismissed his crewmates with a single nod. Where the other two trotted off to with such haste and giddiness, Andra didn’t have time to wonder.
“Come, my lady, let us fit you with a gown worthy of the heavens.” Kalibor’s robes dragged behind him as he approached one of the many corridors shooting away from the observation deck.
“Where she goes, I go,” Ian said, stepping between Andra and the alien leader.
Kalibor’s thin lips curved into a smile.
“I assure you, the goddess will come to no harm in my care.”
Kalibor and Ian stood at an impasse, glaring each other into dust, and Andra feared it might come to blows. Her crew were outnumbered and outgunned.
“I will be fine, Cap-uh-slave,” Andra put her hand on his arm. He growled but stepped aside, and she felt her eyes boring into them as they walked away.
She glanced over her shoulder, catching one last glimpse of the crew as she was led into the unknown.
Kalibor took her to a brightly lit, stylish room with sleek walls and counters. A female robotic automaton watched from the corner of the room. Andra stumbled over a chair when the android spoke.
“Kalibor, what is your wish?”
“This is the goddess, Vessia. Prepare her accordingly.” Kalibor bowed, and the door closed behind him.
He sounded ominous like she was being prepared for sacrifice. Still, as the android let her to a mouthwatering wardrobe, Andra decided perhaps whatever universal translators were at work inside the ship misconstrued Kalibor’s meaning.
She was treated to a shower, a facial, and a two-hour pampering session that left her feeling refreshed and hopeful.
The android helped her climb into an elaborate gown, moving her before one of the many mirrors inside the ship.
She spun, and the precious stones weaved into the fabric glittered under the alien lights. The wages of three lifetimes probably wouldn’t cover the cost of such a gown. Strands of her hair were weaved with artificial precision and somehow glowed with new radiance. The android’s make-up job was nothing less than miraculous.
Andra gasped at the reflection—at the stunning goddess inside her. The android and Kalibor set her free. The sight scrambled her brains with a giddy avarice she wasn’t used to. But, oh boy, could she ever get used to it.
The door opened, and Kalibor stepped inside. Grinning like a hungry wolf, he offered his elbow.
Andra tugged on the gown’s high collar, adjusted the diamond necklace sparkling across her collarbone, and exhaled as she took Kalibor’s arm.
The banquet hall was fit for a goddess. Pillars lined the inside, carved with various unfamiliar symbols in the finest craftsmanship. Robotic attendants stood at each corner of the banquet table, their chromium bodies glistening with the reflections of grandeur.
The aroma of a table stocked with familiar and unfamiliar fruits and meat drew guests, including Andra, eagerly to their seats. Golden coffers and silver platters spilled over with riches both eatable and monetary.
The three crewmen sat at the head of the table, surrounded by humanoid males of all different species. No sooner had the absence of women bothered Andra than her thinking skills were lulled into submission by bowing heads and worshipful glances.
Painted tapestries fluttered above her as she passed, able to distract her from a feeling of empty dread in her stomach. She took the chair to the right of Kalibor as if she had always belonged there.
Marty, the ship’s navigator, gorged himself in the spectacle, juices of alien animal meats streaming down his chin as he reached for more. Rivers and Dr. Oswald ate with a politeness Andra had witnessed at the professional dinners leading up to the launch date.
Ian did not eat. The comforting grin often affixed to his face had vanished, and he sat, arms folded, scowl deepening with the passing hours.
Never had someone peeled grapes for her, android or otherwise. They worshiped her with compliments about her great beauty and intelligence. Lavished their attention on her as if she were the focal point of the universe.
She ate and cajoled them and wondered if this was how it felt to be number one. While living her best life, the plan B side of her reared its ugly head. A golden fork called to her from the table. A fork was suitable for eating, engineering, and… No, Andra told herself. No more living for plan B.
After the merry-making, an android brought her to a suite better than the best room in a five-star hotel. The ISA treated her to a five-star room once, and back then, it had made her uncomfortable—all those frills and tipping for something she preferred to do herself.
She crashed into cloud-soft pillows and drifted into sleep, contented with the gifts dropped in her lap without a moment of effort.
A tickle across her lips woke her. Ian watched her in the dark, hand pressed gently to her lips, his index finger touching his.
“Time to get out of here,” he whispered. He glanced at the android in the corner, power cells switched off for the sleep cycle.
“Something isn’t right. It feels like our new friends are playing with their food before they eat,” he said and flipped away the most comfortable sheets she ever slept in. The sheets must have been cozy because she was still wearing the itchy but elaborate gown of a goddess with a fork tucked in the sleeve.
“We already ate.”
“The doc didn’t listen. Rivers didn’t listen. I don’t know where Marty is. You’re different. We have to go.”
Andra sat up in bed, head reeling with memories from the banquet.
“They think I’m a goddess. They’ve given me all this. Why would I want to leave? For the first time, something good came easy.”
Ian stood in silent thought, his gaze filled with more wisdom than the twinkle of billion-year-old stars.
“Nothing good ever comes easy. You know that better than anyone. Better than me. I can tell you, the bigger and better the thing you simply get, the more it messes with your head.”
Ian’s jaw locked, and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed an ugly gash above his brow. It pulled her back to her senses.
She thought of the Valiant, torn to shreds in the docking bay, all her hard work instantly lost.
But it was her hard work. Her loss. She folded her arms in acceptance of the grief and the return of plan B.
“Nice speech, Cap. I’m a sucker for a good speech. So, what now?”
“I’ve been scouting the ship. I think the escape pods are on the lower deck. Let’s go get the others. You might be able to convince them.”
Never leave a man behind; that was Ian—a pure hero, and it made following him easier.
She left the fantastic bedroom with its life-changing wardrobe and crept beside him through the dimly lit corridor. He took her through a dozen bulkheads and tunnels, giving her time to recover from leaving all the shiny, pretty things behind.
He opened a narrow hatch and climbed a metal ladder. Andra unhooked the cape at her shoulders, lamenting the fantastic gemstones so carelessly tossed to the floor.
Ian waited for her to climb out of the tunnel, and she found herself on a catwalk looming over a strange twenty-foot orb. The room’s walls were covered in mirrors, so they had to stay in the shadows to avoid making reflections.
Below them, Kalibor stood at a console in front of the orb, and Gobbo and Lepidus each kept hold of one of Brady Rivers’ arms. Dr. Oswald looked on from the ground, nursing a welt on his bald head.
“Let go of me, you overgrown iguana!” Rivers yelled.
“You have no idea what you will soon do for us, my friends.”
Gobbo let go of Rivers and wrenched Dr. Oswald off the ground.
“Your woman is not a goddess, but we are gods,” Kalibor said, overplaying it like a stage actor.
“Get a load of this guy,” Andra whispered, and Ian grinned.
In unison, Gobbo and Lepidus pushed the doctor and the pilot at the mirrors. Up against the mirrors. Inside the mirrors.
Ian flinched, and Andra felt the same urge to help their friends.
“We remain immortal thanks to your sacrifice,” Kalibor said, robes falling to his elbows as his hands worshiped the orb.
Every mirror around them changed into a view screen with hundreds of images of Dr. Oswald and Rivers and their bodies floating into space.
Andra squeezed her eyes closed, unable to watch, when a flash of lightning drew her attention. The two human bodies, passing through the mirrors and into the space outside the ship, began transforming. Limbs elongated, screaming faces melted away into gaping mouths filled with sharp teeth. Bodies bubbled into tissue and muscle that twisted together until a pulsating familiar image took over the screens.
The space leeches. Nullites.
Oswald and Rivers were different from the others. Their bodies glowed so bright Andra shielded her eyes.
The star shine was funneled from space to the ship, and the twenty-foot orb in the room filled up with light.
Kalibor, Gobbo, and Lepidus clinked golden chalices together and poured the liquid from the orb into each goblet. They drank, and the beings that used to be the crewmen swam away into the recesses of space.
Ian clenched his fists in a rage, and Andra dropped against the wall.
“Mother always said, when things appear too good to be true, they always are. Everything here is a lie,” she said.
“Not everything,” a familiar voice came from behind.
Andra and Ian turned to the tunnel to find Marty blocking their escape, alien gun pointed.
“Marty, we have to go,” Ian said.
The navigator shook his head.
“Immortality. That’s no lie. That’s real,” Marty said and cocked his head toward the stairs leading down to the orb. “I just have to prove I’m one of them.”
“The price is too high,” Andra said, gutted that her friend betrayed them.
“What good is immortality without a soul?” Ian asked, but Marty growled and gut-punched him with the gun.
The navigator marched them down the catwalk.
Andra whispered to Ian, “You never believed the lies. Why?”
His capable arms were lifted in the air as they spiraled into the pit of death.
“A few things. Kalibor said the Nullites killed the women. If that was true, how did you make it aboard the ship? The Nullites drew us in on purpose. Damaged us without killing us. That couldn’t have been a coincidence.”
“Enough chatter!” Marty said and bashed Ian over the head with the butt of the gun. Ian dropped to his knees but grabbed the railing to break his fall. Andra bent to assist him, a soft smile on her lips drawing a puzzled look from the captain.
She flashed him a glint of the golden utensil up her sleeve.
“You are a goddess,” he said as she helped him stand.
His strong hand felt warm and heavy on her shoulder. He was magnificent. Forget the gown, the banquet, and the room. His praise would never fade, not like those other things did.
Her spirits lifted even as Marty forced them to confront Kalibor and his minions. The three aliens stood as shadows against the light of a glowing orb.
“All Nullites give lasting life, but the fresh ones,” Kalibor licked his lips. “They are something special, and you, my lady,” he cupped her chin between his fingers, “I have a feeling you will be especially delicious.”
“Touch her again, and I’ll kill you,” Ian said. Gobbo flung his hand out and hit Ian across the chin.
“She’ll go first so you can watch,” Kalibor said, and Gobbo and Lepidus pulled Andra toward the mirrors.
Ian struck at them, kneeing Gobbo in the gut and landing a right hook across Lepidus’ translucent cheek. Andra didn’t stop to watch the blood vessels gather beneath his skin. She plowed into Kalibor, stabbing the fork into his chest. The action stunned him, but the weapon was too crude to kill.
She thought on her feet and resorted to plan B.
With one violent, wild shove, she sent Kalibor stumbling backward. He screamed and passed into the mirror.
“It is forbidden for those who drink the light to cross the veil,” Gobbo hissed at them, got to his feet, and raced up the stairs faster than a rat on fire.
A siren scream pierced the ship, and a dozen mirrors cracked. Kalibor’s body was suspended in one of them. Flairs shot from his body, piling and piling into hundreds of tadpoles of colorful light swimming away. Kalibor’s body shriveled into shadow until nothing remained but a wisp of space dust.
Ian pushed Marty out of the way and grabbed Andra’s wrist. They raced through the corridors, ignored by an alien crew busy repairing the damage Kalibor’s unexpected journey through the mirror caused.
Through another maze of tunnels and corridors, Ian finally stopped, leaned down, panting, and glanced into the darkness.
“You think you can get it up and running?”
Andra looked at the escape pod and the control console. It would take some thinking on her feet, but that was where she lived.
“Give me ten minutes.”
In six minutes, the engines turned on. At minute eight, they were both strapped in. The pod propelled them through a launched tunnel, lights streaking as the acceleration built.
They burst from the Narcissus into a nest of Nullites.
“I’d rather be killed by them than become one of them,” Ian said.
“They won’t kill us,” Andra put her hand to the cold glass of the port window. “Look.”
Two Nullites guided the others, each pumping their emissions into the void. Clouds of swirling space gases spun together, conglomerating in a mass that transformed before Andra’s eyes.
The swarm parted to reveal a wormhole and a glistening view of Earth on the other side.
“Oswald and Rivers must still be in there,” she said.
Ian punched commands into the alien computer, and the escape pod roared forward.
The wormhole closed behind them faster than it appeared, but the loss of the doctor and the young pilot left a lingering sting.
“When we get home, what will you tell the ISA?” Ian asked.
Andra didn’t mind being plan B. In fact, she preferred it to all-out worship, but she’d have to tell the ISA something they could understand.
“I’ll say we forked the evil alien leader of the space leeches, and Oswald and Rivers gave their lives to save us. How about you?”
With the familiar grin affixed to his face, Ian said, “I will tell them, seventh is better than first.”
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