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Jenny Perata sat in the cockpit of the FTL Stagecoach Mary, watching the stars fail to move. She didn't need to be up here. The ship basically ran herself, but this was one of the only rooms where you could get a good view of the universe. Reason ship designers never wanted their passengers to see the vast expanse of space. It had a tendency to give people perspective and empathy, and those were two things that no one needed in the Reason.
After getting a taste of faster-than-light travel, being in a sublight ship made Jenny antsy. Her life had become one endless and boring night, punctuated by occasional moments of abject terror when pirates crossed her path.
And she'd failed to account for the effects of chronic pain. The healing unicorn blood she'd been given a few weeks ago was just enough to reawaken her nerves, but not repair them. She was still unable to move her legs but now they buzzed and jolted like a live-wire dancing in the street. On the worst days, bolts of pain shot down her legs and her lower back seized up completely.
She'd tried heat, cold, exercise, massage, even alcohol, but nothing worked consistently except painkillers and those were in short supply out here in openspace. The Pioneer Deluxe Interplanetary Settlers Package she'd picked up in Fort Jaisalmer contained enough supplies for a small group of explorers but she'd quickly blown through all the painkillers in the medical kit. Most days she curled up in the captain's chair, swaddled in a blanket, staring blearily at the stars until she dropped asleep from exhaustion.
"You're dehydrated again," said the ship's AI. When Jenny didn't answer, the ship tried again. "You should drink some water, captain."
"What are you on about now, Mary," mumbled Jenny.
"You need to hydrate," said Mary.
"I'll get up later," replied Jenny. She'd found a position in which the stabbing nerve pain had subsided to a low jangle. She wasn't going to move again unless she absolutely had to. Even if it meant muting Mary's nagging voice for a while.
She used to have such pleasant company on these trips. Her wife, Kaila, always stood by her chair, a cascade of lush dryad leaves falling over both of them as they looked out at the stars and wondered which ones might be good for putting down roots, both real and metaphorical. But Kaila was gone – whisked off to some gorgeous human-free utopia with the rest of the magical Bala six weeks ago. On the one hand, she was safe from the authoritarian Reason regime, who had stripping her down for magical parts. But on the other hand, Jenny's chest ached from missing her wife.
The all-powerful Pymmie had moved the Bala to keep them safe from human exploitation. Not even Jenny, who had been in the room when the Bala had decided their fate, knew where they'd gone. Kaila might be on the next planet, or two systems away, or on the other side of the universe. There was no guessing what the omnipotent, omniscient Pymmie did with them.
Which meant that the search for Kaila couldn't even start in earnest until Jenny found some unicorn horn to power her faster-than-light engines. Without FTL she might fly for decades in one direction and never even find a single habitable planet. She didn't even know which direction to look in. That was no way to find your wife.
The plan – and, whether good or bad, Jenny Perata always had a plan – was to find a piece of unicorn horn on one of the ships trawling around out here in openspace. The bug-eyed Pymmie had said that she was a necromancer, which was a human who had the ability to use Bala magic. But that didn't seem right. Necromancers were wizardy types who could cast bolts of purple lightning strong enough to tear a ship in half. Sure, she could do a few tricks, but not reliably. She'd been working on one specific skill during her interminable weeks with Mary. The main one was teaching herself to track magical items.
The Pymmie had relocated every Bala artifact that was not vital to the functioning of a human body. Exterior spells and prostheses disappeared, but all kinds of implants and transplants had been left behind. She'd been scouting these items throughout the system for weeks. So far she'd only found a pirate with a selkie skin graft and and an arms dealer with the heart of a clockwork boy.
Tucked into her blanket, Jenny searched the area for anything magic. She closed her eyes and let her awareness of nullspace energy come to the surface. Off to the left she saw the faint impression of a red glow. That was the selkie pirate, whom she'd left tied up in his quarters on her way out. Someone would find him. Eventually. Hopefully.
She pushed her heightened senses further. She could see humans in there too – like it or not, they too coursed with at least a little bit of nullspace energy – but they were dim and difficult to dinstinguish from the velvety black background of openspace. A white glow in the distance made her sit forward and take notice. Her lower back twinged. She sucked in air and let it back out slowly.
"Hey Mary, what's that below us?" she asked, snaking a hand behind her to rub the throbbing spot above her tailbone. Her fingers met the raised scars from countless surgeries. And the rubbing didn't help one bit.
"There's a ship in that direction about 600 kilometers away. It's near the locator beacon in the lower right quadrant of this system," said Mary.
"Were you planning to mention this ship or just let us sail on by?" asked Jenny.
"I didn't bother telling you because it's one of those ancient generation ships that tend to be bad news," replied Mary.
That's where the white glow was coming from.
"Bugger all, I was hoping for a nap," said Jenny, unwrapping herself from the blanket and shivering. The air in the cockpit was as warm as she could get it without spending fuel recklessly, but it was still always a touch too cold.
She tapped the console and zoomed in on the signal. It was a typical friendly beacon indicating all was well and inviting contact from nearby travelers. Standard protocol for a non-military generation ship flying in peacetime.
Except that they weren't in peacetime. After the Pymmie had whisked the magical beings off to their new Shangri-La, the Reason regime had devolved into chaos. With free and plentiful Bala labor suddenly gone, factories and food service shut down, sanitation stopped, and farming ground to a halt. In the face of rising prices and shortages, human beings rioted.
The Reason government – long accustomed to using military might to enforce policy – sent its troops into the streets to beat people back into their homes. And that was before they realized all the unicorn horn had disappeared too. With no fuel left for FTL drives, every human being was trapped on the planet they happened to be on when the Bala disappeared.
Stranded ships raced toward the closest planets at sublight speeds, but most didn't have supplies for a journey of weeks, let alone years. They certainly didn't have greenhouses full of plants and holds full of dry goods like the generation ships of yesteryear. Piracy became rampant. People justified it as survival. The old Reason chant of 'Manifest destiny, and the survival of man,' had taken on a new and more visceral meaning. It wasn't unusual to pass the wreckage of a ship with bodies spiraling away from it like a nebula of death. Or to find a wake trail of frozen humans leading to a perfectly operational ship. People were a drain on resources and crews were determined to run lean, no matter what the cost.
This friendly little ship, out quite a distance from the safety of Jaisalmer, should have been in stealth mode instead of inviting attention. Jenny sensed a trap, but the possibility of finding unicorn horn was just too tempting. She double-checked that her beacons, broadcasts, and even her running lights were shut down. No sense inviting trouble before she was ready.
It galled her that the Stagecoach Mary had been painted a hideous shade of solar yellow with – she could barely bring herself to say it – racing stripes. No one but teenagers painted their ships so garishly, but Mary had been cheap and ready to leave on a moment's notice. And her last owner had cleared out a few compartments for smuggling contraband, which was always helpful when transporting magical items. Beggars couldn't be choosers during the apocalypse.
"Tell me everything you know about that ship," said Jenny.
"It's a generation ship from Earth, a smallish one. Privately owned and old. Designed for sublight speeds. Which means it was built by people who weren't powerful or connected enough to get their hands on unicorn horn."
"The losers," mused Jenny. Faster ships from Earth had gotten out here in a fraction of the time, leaving lumbering beasts like this one to limp across the galaxy at their own pace. It made for some pretty awkward reunions when your great-great-great grandmother finally showed up on a stasis ship and she was younger than you. You always had to be careful who you ended up hooking up with.
This mysterious generation ship wasn't part of the Reason Space Force, which was a plus. Reason ships out here in openspace would confiscate everything you owned and leave you starving and drifting – if they didn't just throw you out of the airlock for funsies.
Jenny tapped on her tablet to zoom in on the ship. It was cylindrical but not spinning, which meant their gravity was off. The welcome signal pinged her alarm bells, but pirates usually went one of two routes. They either broadcast a distress beacon and then raided the ships who fell for it, or snuck up on you without warning. A cheerful invitation to visitors was a trick she hadn't seen before.
"Any indication they've seen us?" asked Jenny.
"No, and we should leave before they do. We can't hide from a ship that big. They have sensors plastering half the forward decks. If they decide to come after us, we're fucked," said Mary.
Jenny made a mental note to turn down the belligerence level on Mary's AI once they got clear of this enigma. Mary's snarky retorts were making her anxious.
She tapped her fingernail on her teeth, deep in thought.
"You're not thinking of going over there, are you?" asked Mary.
"I see something. They might have horn," said Jenny.
"Not likely," said Mary. "They'd be in FTL if they did."
True. Jenny closed her eyes again and damned if that white glow didn't look brighter. Like it was calling to her. She could be back in Kaila's arms in days.
"I know what you're thinking and stop thinking it," said Mary.
"It might be horn," said Jenny.
"First of all," said Mary, with a slight edge to her voice that might have been calculated to show ire but might have also been Jenny's imagination. "Any ship that has unicorn horn and isn't using it is having major problems. Second of all, you aren't sure that's even horn. You'll waste a literal ton of fuel getting over there just to find a pixie dust suppository. And, third of all, you are operating on dangerously low levels of sleep. Ignore this ship, get some rest, and trust that I am handling it."
Jenny drummed her fingers on the armrest touchpad, accidentally turning off airflow to the cargo bay. She tisked and turned it back on. She still wasn't used to this newer ship design with no single dashboard in front. Everything was controlled on armrest touchpads, which felt like a very silly way to command a starship. She felt very old and very tired.
Her mind suddenly flashed back to her previous partner, Cowboy Jim, the way he used to complain about long stints in the co-pilot's chair. Younger Jenny had always rolled her eyes at him. He was a ridiculous old fool who couldn't see space for the exciting place it was. She now understood why he'd always been so antsy to get his feet back planet-side. The beds were always better on the ground.
"I'm just gonna wait and see what they do," said Jenny.
"Sure you will," said Mary.
"No. This time I really will. I'll wait until they cross our wake and see if they notice us or make contact. Otherwise, I'll stay quiet," Jenny assured her. She was also going to dip back into nullspace and see if she could get a better idea of what the glow might be emanating from. But her ship didn't need to know that.
Mary laughed mirthlessly. Jenny wondered if the laughs were preprogrammed or if the ship combined sounds on the fly to make them. Either way, it ticked her off.
"You're a jerk," said Jenny. "Just let me do my thing."
"You can change my settings if you like," replied Mary curtly.
Jenny wrapped herself back into the blanket, adjusting her legs under her by pulling on her jumpsuit. Fireworks of pain hit the bottom of her foot and she held her breath while putting pressure on it with her hand. That didn't actually do anything, but in the moment you had to go through some kind of pantomime until it passed on its own.
"You can go into stasis," said Mary, her volume down by about twenty percent in her version of a gentle suggestion. "Just go to sleep and wake up wherever you want to be. I'll even get you up for all the good pirate fights."
After six weeks of this discussion, Jenny was still not having it. "I'm not going to be an icicle," she said. Mary made a sound that could have been a scoff, or might have been nails down a chalkboard. Jenny made a note to edit that clip out of the sound files.
"We're out of critical medical supplies," said Mary. "Even a short stint in stasis would drop your cortisol levels. You'd be pain-free for as long as you slept."
"You can't guarantee that," said Jenny.
"No, but we could try. Sleep for a week and tell me if you feel anything."
It wasn't a terrible idea. She could have Mary wake her any time they encountered trouble. The only problem was that she hadn't programmed in any particular destination. She had to be awake to dip into nullspace and search for unicorn horn. They wouldn't get to Kaila in Jenny's lifetime without finding it.
"Can I go into stasis for eight-hour shifts, just like normal nights?"
"Oh boy, that sounds like a bad idea," said Mary. "The cryo process is hard on the body. The manual recommends no more than four sleeps in a month. You'd be doing six times that much. They don't even let combat soldiers go through the sleep/wake cycle more than twice in a week."
Jenny knew that already. She'd been on Reason transport ships during the war, slick with vomit from a hundred troops who'd just been through their third sleep/wake cycle in as many days. You could push a human body to do some incredible things but it would always come back to bite you in the ass later.
She watched the magnified image of the friendly ship grow on her view screen. It probably had a full garden with live crops. Maybe even livestock. Those ships were little time capsules meant to subsist indefinitely without outside intervention. How this one had gotten so far through Reasonspace without being dismantled piqued her curiosity.
"Do you think they've been commandeered?" asked Jenny.
"I think they're a ship full of starry-eyed Earth colonists who've made it through openspace with a lot of luck and who are now awestruck at my sleek racing form," said Mary.
"No, it's true. They're watching me," said Mary, preening.
"How could you possibly tell that? We don't have bioscanners."
"They're at the windows, Jenny. Dozens of them. Looking out at us."
Jenny's heart beat faster as Mary zoomed in on the side of the generation ship. Silhouetted shadows stood at the windows, watching them.
"I guess they know we're here," said Jenny.
"I'd say so," replied Mary.
"We might as well accept their invitation to board." Jenny tapped in a course toward the friendly ship.
"I knew it," said Mary.
"You don't get points for being a smart ass," said Jenny.
"How do you know? Maybe all of us AI ships have a secret contest to see how right we can all be about our crews' stupid decisions and I'm currently winning because you are utterly ridiculous."
"Belligerence down to five percent," said Jenny.
"Really?" asked Mary, horrified.
"No, not really."
Jenny pulled her wheelchair closer to the captain's chair and hoisted herself into it. She set her feet carefully on the footrests, ignoring the pins and needles. Fuck part-unicorns and their half-assed healing. She'd been better off before. At least then her legs had been numb and she could get through her day without feeling like she was constantly on the verge of screaming.
Besides the possible horn, this mystery ship probably had a pharmacological lab with raw materials enough to medicate hundreds, maybe thousands of people.
"They might have medical supplies to spare," she said out loud.
"Your desire for medication is coming perilously close to addiction," said Mary. "After this encounter, we should talk about other pain management techniques."
Excerpted from "Five Unicorn Flush"
Copyright © 2019 T J Berry.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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