Theresa had more than crossed the line into Shishab’s personal space: she had actually commandeered a corner of his chair to sit on, and her whole back pushed into his side. He didn’t know what to think about it, but she had asked first, quietly, and he had told her to go ahead, so he couldn’t complain. And it was nice, oddly, to have a human cuddled up against him.
Theresa, had anyone asked her, would have insisted that she was sitting with Shishab because his seat had the best access to the instrument panels and the best view out of the windows. And it had nothing to do with being just a little bit freaked out by the giant scorpion-looking alien that had been following her around for the past half hour, peering at her and making small talk with her crew.
Skaalt was his name, and he was getting on her nerves, with his constant questions and insight into their plans that scared her a little. He had even started suggesting that they build more and more powerful explosives. He offered to teach them recipes to make them.
Theresa would never admit it, but she was grateful for Shishab’s quiet, contemplative presence between her and the other creature. It was nice to sit in silence with someone for a change.
“There,” Shishab said, jabbing at a screen, “that’s a hoard-ship. It will be easy for Wendell to get it open.”
Theresa sighed. “Well, we should get on with it then.”
Behind them, the rest of the humans and Lorak were already dividing up into individual battle parties. The Lorak were still not going anywhere near combat, but they were open to piloting the captured ships after the Canteron had been dealt with.
“The humans are your soldiers,” Skaalt said from right beside Shishab, making him slide his antennae along each other and made a sharp shrieking noise. Theresa had heard him coming, so she just scowled up at him.
“What?” Shishab said.
“The humans are your soldiers,” Skaalt repeated.
Theresa craned her neck to look at Shishab.
“Yes,” He said, “they are. Also, one of them is our brood-mother’s tender.”
That was probably Markus. “Tender” must be the Lorak’s way of saying, “live-in boyfriend.”
Skaalt’s eyes and mouth did something like widening, and the dark fur around his neck fluffed up. “And that hasn’t caused any issues?”
“No,” Shishab said blandly, “it’s working very well.”
Skaalt rumbled deep in his massive chest. It was contemplative, Theresa thought. “Well,” he said, “plenty of time for that after we deal with the ships. Are you certain the humans can take them all down?”
Theresa jumped as Shishab put one of his lower hands around her as if to hold her steady. A moment later, the Quick Sliver tilted faster than the artificial gravity could compensate for, and everyone else was forced to grab for support while it adjusted. A Canteron shuttle shot past them, spinning wildly. It touched Earth’s atmosphere and caught fire.
“Is anyone else attacking them?” Skaalt asked, watching it.
“Not yet,” Shishab said. He removed his hand from Theresa to steer the ship back into position.
“Hmm,” Skaalt said. “Odd.”
“We should get going soon,” Theresa stood. “How many Lorak are coming?”
“Three,” Carrie answered, “everyone who knows how to fly a ship.”
“Perfect,” She stood, instead putting a hand on the captain’s shoulder. “Humans, two of you stick with every Lorak. We’re gonna head for the biggest ship first, so we may meet some resistance.”
“Armor on,” Markus said, standing up and slotting his helmet on. “So no more laser blasts for us. Do you think they’ve started guarding against physical attacks now? Should we think about that?”
“Maybe,” Theresa said, “but we know they haven’t stopped anywhere for supplies or updated weapons, so I don’t think we’ll have a real problem on that front.”
“How do you know they haven’t stopped anywhere?” Skaalt asked.
“None of the people who have been tracking them across the galaxy have seen them stop for longer than it takes to fuel up,” Theresa said, “and none have stepped out of any ship.”
“That is strange,” Skaalt said. “You would think even the Canteron would get bored only talking to each other on a ten-month journey.”
“I don’t know,” Carrie said, “I talked to a bunch that we captured for like six hours, and they didn’t seem interested in socializing at all.”
“I haven’t ever met one,” Skaalt said, “so if I am wrong, it’s not a surprise.”
“Well, that’s a refreshing amount of open-mindedness,” Carrie said. She put on her own helmet and stood tall, looking up at Skaalt through the visor. “Let us show you how to fight the Canteron,” Her voice was made strange and robotic by the air filter around her mouth.
Skaalt stamped his feet and swung his spiked tail so hard it banged the wall behind him. Without saying anything, it was clear what he was saying: “I don’t need your help to do that.”
Theresa fastened on her own armor while they divided up into groups. She was left with Carrie as her human partner because Markus was going with Wendell to guard him while he fought his way through whatever computer systems the Canteron had.
They loaded onto the shuttles, one for each small group. They’d been scavenged from wreckage on the way over, and they weren’t much to look at, but they could do the job. Skaalt insisted on going with Theresa, Carrie, and Gjol in their small shuttle, so it was very crowded.
Theresa bit her tongue against the irritation rising inside her. They had to be nice and hope that he really was as fierce as he looked.
Gjol gave the okay to Shishab over the intercom and the shuttle dropped away from the ship. They all went weightless against their restraints as they left the tiny gravity bubble around the Quick Sliver. Theresa breathed deep against the nausea that always came along with the sensation and focused on the task ahead.
It only took five minutes to reach the Canteron warship. The shuttle shot across space, accelerating faster than any vehicle could ever hope to in an atmosphere. Thousands of miles slid past, but the Earth barely appeared to turn below them.
Then the ship they were aiming for loomed out of the darkness, and Gjol slowed the shuttle as they approached. They turned, and initiated docking procedures.
The shuttle crouched like a fly on the side of a horse.
Carrie was by the communications terminal, waiting for the inevitable call from the warship. But nothing happened, and when Gjol attempted to initiate docking, the override code worked without any complaints from the Canteron’s computer.
A creeping chill went up Theresa’s back. Something was very wrong here.
“I’m opening the airlock,” Gjol said.
“Wait,” Theresa said. “Carrie, up here,”
Carrie unclipped her harness and hopped over to the door. She pressed herself against the wall beside the door and waited.
Theresa nodded to Gjol, and he unlocked the door.
It hissed open. On the other side, the war ship was still and empty. No Canteron were waiting with their guns drawn. Nothing was thrown at them. Nothing moved at all.
Slowly, Theresa crept into the ship. It was still and dark. No lights, no airflow.
“What the fuck,” Carrie whispered from beside her.
“Yeah,” Theresa said.
“Hey,” Markus’s voice carried to them across the room. “What the hell is going on? Where are they?”
Slowly, all the humans emerged. Some came from down the halls. Some simply opened the doors to their shuttles and popped out.
Gjol popped his head out the door curiously.
“Stay in the shuttle,” Carrie told him, “you too, Skaalt.”
“I’m staying away from any laser weapons,” Skaalt assured her.
Theresa stalked to the next door and opened it, peered in, but there was no one there either. Her breath rasped in her ears through the mask’s filter, but she did her best to listen, but there was nothing. Not even the rumble of the engines.
Sight and sound had failed her, but Theresa remembered that the Canteron had a smell, a strong one. If they couldn’t hear or see them coming, maybe they would be able to smell them.
She reached up and listed the helmet, breaking the airtight seal around her neck. She lifted it off and took a tentative sniff, looking for tannins.
Instead, the stench of rotting meat rolled over her.
Theresa stumbled back, trying not to gag and failing. She turned and braced herself against the wall and retched.
“What is it?” Carrie asked.
“Something is dead in here,” Theresa said. “A whole lot of something. God, that’s awful.” She slipped the helmet back on and breathed a sigh of relief.
“The Canteron?” Markus asked.
“How would that happen?” Carrie hissed.
“I don’t know, but we should go check, right?” Markus said. He looked back at the three Lorak and Skaalt who were poking their heads into the ship. “Something is very wrong,” he said, “you all need to go back into the shuttles and close the doors.”
“If we’re not back in ten minutes, leave,” Theresa added, “and tell Earth something is seriously wrong.” Her mind was suddenly showing her a very different alien than the ones in front of her. This one was sleek black and had acid blood and would have torn through the Canteron like they were a buffet.
She knew xenomorphs didn’t actually exist, of course. Hopefully. But what if the Canteron had decided they wanted an exotic pet and picked up something highly dangerous without realizing?
So they raised their weapons as they moved forward, ears straining to hear any sign of movement, eyes wide inside the helmets. Theresa was struggling to remember the small amount of combat training she’d had before leaving Earth, but couldn’t recall anything except for how to sweep a room properly.
The first door they came to led to an empty store room. The next led to a deserted lab. The third opened to some kind of common space.
The furniture was covered in loose plastic packaging and stains. Theresa recognized the stains as vomit, the plastic as packages of topical antiseptic from medical kits. They were speckled with blood.
“Oh God,” Carrie said softly.
“Shit,” Markus said.
Theresa privately concurred. And in the back of her head a thought bubbled: did we do this?
They hurried onward now, throwing open doors, almost frantic. They searched until, finally, Markus opened a door to a sleeping chamber.
He recoiled, turned away, but was smart enough not to pull his helmet off.
Theresa pushed her way into the room behind him.
Ten or more Canteron bodies lay tangled together, their many limbs locked together in places. Their mouths were smeared with blood and phlegm, and open sores still oozing covered most of their skin. Their strange, bulbous bodies were twisted in agony even in death.
Theresa closed the door. Her heart was pounding even harder than it had been. Her throat was itchy and her hands were shaking. None of them spoke, but she thought Carrie might be crying.
“What happened to them?” Carrie whispered, barely audible through the suit.
“I don’t know,” Theresa said.
“Are they all dead?”
Markus answered, “Maybe not, but we can’t worry about them. If the Lorak get exposed to whatever did that—”
“We can’t just leave them!” Carrie cried.
“We have to,” Theresa said.
“We have to,” Markus echoed more firmly.
“We can’t handle this,” She said, “we’re soldiers. Not…”
“Doctors,” Markus said, “or a hazmat team. Whatever disease they died of—”
Carrie sobbed, “Disease!” And turned back down the hallway towards the shuttles. Tyler seized her arm and held her in black until Alex got a hold on her too and they immobilized her.
“Easy,” Alex said, “easy. Don’t go running off.”
Carrie stopped fighting them. She just stood there and cried quietly.
“Let’s leave,” Wendell pleaded, “please.”
“Yes. Let’s go. Before we catch whatever killed them,” Markus insisted.
Theresa nodded and turned towards the shuttles.
When they returned, they found the Lorak waiting patiently in their shuttles and Skaalt pacing the room.
“We’re leaving,” Markus announced, “back to the Quick Sliver.”
“What’s happened,” Skaalt asked as the Lorak turned as one to the controls.
“The Canteron are dead,” Markus threw himself into the shuttle.
“Sanitize your suit!” Theresa yelled after him. She took Carrie from Alex and pulled her towards their shuttle. She was still crying.
Once in the shuttle, she let go of Carrie to rummage through the emergency supply kit until she found the disinfectant spray. It was nasty stuff, over 20% bleach, but it was absolutely certain to kill anything that was hanging out on their suits. She turned the can on Carrie and went over her from the top of her helmet all the way to the bottoms of her boots, then did the same to herself. Then she sprayed the floor of the shuttle where they had stepped.
She turned to Skaalt, who was looking more than a little alarmed by her behavior. “I need to spray the bottoms of your feet,” she said. “There’s been a plague—”
“It wasn’t a plague!” Carrie shrieked suddenly. “It was me, Theresa! I did that.”
“Don’t be stupid.” But her stomach had dropped out of her body, or so it felt. “It could have been any one of us.”
Carrie just sank to the floor, shaking with sobs.
Skaalt, quiet at last, let his feet be disinfected before entering the shuttle. He strapped Carrie into her seat when she was having trouble.
They returned to the Quick Sliver. As soon as they docked, Carrie sprinted out the door. Theresa followed more slowly, trailing her to the medical room.
The little purple scholar and his human companion stared at Carrie, still in her full armor, digging through the cabinet beside them. Acharya’s ears were twitching frantically, like they could hear more than just Carrie’s ragged sobs. And the human woman, Sandra, looked at Theresa when she came in like she already suspected what had happened.
“What’s going on?” She asked anyway. “Why are you back so soon?”
“There’s nothing to fight,” Theresa pulled off her helmet. “They all died of a plague.”
“A plague?” Acharya repeated.
But Sandra blanched, like Theresa knew she would, and jumped to her feet. “Was anyone exposed?” She asked.
“I don’t think so,” Theresa said, but Sandra was already spinning back around.
“Acharya, you need to put on gloves and a mask right now!”
“I’ll be just fine,” Acharya turned as much as they could with their immobilized leg to watch Theresa. “What sort of plague?”
“How should I know?” She asked. “none of them are alive to tell us.”
Carrie straightened up and finally pulled off her helmet, then immediately covered her mouth with a medical grade mask.
“Something,” she said, slightly muffled and nasal, “that they probably caught from talking to me for too long.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Theresa told her again, “it wasn’t you.”
“Oh,” Sandra said though, quietly, and then louder, “What is it? What do you have?”
“I don’t know!” Carrie practically yelled, and then she fell over, sobbing.
For the first time since Theresa had met them, Acharya looked confused.
Sandra leapt up and went to Carrie. She sat beside her and sat her upright. She hugged her through the armor and rocked her.
“What are they talking about?” Acharya asked.
“Carrie has a bacterium in her system that none of us have,” Theresa explained with a sigh, “and she thinks that’s what killed the Canteron.”
“Ah,” Acharya said, and then shut their mouth tight. And with that silent judgment, Theresa knew that they agreed with Carrie. And, she thought, they were probably right.
How on Earth were they going to explain they hadn’t just won a war in one battle, but had killed an entire species in the process? And where, if anywhere, were the Canteron who had survived the plague and the invasion?”