Indrani slept long and hard, waking only when he turned awkwardly onto his left wrist, a spike of pain to shooting up his arm. He hissed and rolled off his bed, tumbling to the floor with a thump. “Lights!” He snapped petulantly, clutching his wrist. His cabin illuminated gently, and he squinted in confusion for a moment, not realizing where he was. He’d dreamt of being home at the monastery, scrubbing the worn stone floors in the meditation chambers. It was tedious work, but satisfying to see the grimy dark tiles scoured back to their rich emerald hue, the color of the moon they’d cobbled their temple from. A small knot of regret and homesickness hollowed his stomach out. How were the High Curates faring? Were the acolytes caring for them well enough? How far along were the other Curates on their own Paths?
Indrani sighed and brushed the nagging questions off, pulling on his clothes and drawing his fingers through his mussed hair. The small screen on the door said it was evening on the ship; he’d just make it to the evening meal if he hurried. Maybe he could dine again with Sun if he was quick and see how far they had to go to reach the fallen gate. Indrani splashed his face once, smoothing out his brows and grimacing at the stubble building up on his chin and his bare neck. The tunic reached just above his clavicles which wasn’t nearly high enough for his liking. Hopefully they’d find a supply dock soon and he could stock up on toiletries and another outfit, one that was less plain and revealing.
He exited his cabin into the corridor and walked briskly towards the dining room. “Sun? Are you awake?” he asked into the empty air, assuming the captain would be notified of their passenger’s movements.
“In the common room!” Sun broadcasted, fabbers already whipping up a fresh meal. “Still some dinner left. You hungry?”
“Yes, please!” It didn’t take the curate long to get to the common room, drawn in by the scent of richly spiced food wafting into the hall. Indrani smiled cordially at Sun as he entered, folded himself across from the captain at the small table. “Did you finish eating already? I apologize for oversleeping, I didn’t think I was that exhausted…” He eagerly spooned himself a serving from the familiar arrangement of small dishes, glancing up at Sun. “How’s the ship? I can help with repairs. If you give me some instruction, of course,” he added sheepishly.
I could get used to this, Sun thought, and beamed with some sincerity this time. “I might take you up on that later. The worst of it’s been fixed, but it’d be nice having some company while I work.” They nodded at Indy’s scoops of curry. “You like the red ones best, huh?”
Indrani nodded emphatically, mouth already full of it. “S’not a flavor ‘r—,” a loud gulp. “Not a flavor our fabber has downloaded back at the monastery. Most of our food is quite plain so we don’t get distracted from our work.” He dabbed at his mouth quickly before sipping a chilled, fruity tea, its bright, citrusy flavor spiking wonderfully on his tongue. He sighed, his face melting into a rather hedonistic expression. When he set it down, he saw Sun watching him and blushed. “I, eh, am hoping if I indulge quickly I’ll be less distracted and tempted to indulge later,” he said, chuckling.
He scooped another mound of curry, paused, and then spooned it onto the plate in front of Sun with a sudden frenzied bashfulness. “I’m so rude, I should have offered to serve you first! I’m sure you’re starved from all the repair work. Eat, eat!”
“Oh, uh — “ Sun started, preparing the usual lie, I already ate, don’t worry about me, but losing motivation before they could commit. They didn’t want to decline and disrupt this streak of pleasantness from Indy. He did have some charm, when he wasn’t being so blindingly self-centered. Sun ran through their options and smiled.
“Thanks, I think I will have some more.” They raised their chin, nodded at a square game table directly behind Indy, expression deliberately brightening with interest. Get him to glance behind him. “And then, hey, after that, how about a game?”
Indy gave a full-mouthed hum as he looked over his shoulder inquisitively, his head snapping back with a grin as he swallowed his food. “Yes, I would love that! Have you played Liar’s Pact? Or The Queen’s Diadem?” He asked, watching Sun intently. “We played that often on Malakar. What games do you like to play?”
Sun brought the holographic spoon they had conjured to their mouth, and took a moment to pantomime chewing, savoring, and swallowing the scoop of holographic curry. “I don’t think I’ve heard either of those names before, but I may have played a variation of one of ‘em. You can travel outside your fragment and find people playing what’s basically the same game you grew up with on your home planet. Or station or ship or whatever.”
They glanced at their spoon, keeping their voice casual. “Before you came aboard I’d gotten back into Heptagrams. I’m a little rusty, but still pretty good.” They looked back up at Indy. “But I liked learning new games, if you’re up for teaching me.”
“I’d love to teach you the monastery games! Heptagrams sounds entertaining as well,” Indy said, watching Sun with a pleasant smile. Sharing a meal was one of the few regular activities his fellow monks participated in as a group, and was considered a sacred time to share and engage in fellowship with one another. That Sun was willing to eat with him was both an honor and served to soothe his homesickness.
Indrani chewed thoughtfully as he watched Sun take a bite, a smatter of curry landing beneath the corner of their mouth. “You have a little something—” he said, grinning, reaching out to Sun without a thought, hand outstretched to thumb the little droplet of food from their skin. His hand passed through Sun’s cheek and into their head, fingers clipped away by holographic light.
The moment was an eternity. Sun saw the action in progress and could do nothing. No human motion was remotely fast enough to stop Indy’s hand, or utter more than a single inadequate word.
Indrani was frozen, arm still stuck straight out, hand lost in Sun’s warm cheek. He blinked, confusion filling his face. Then, slowly, horror sank in as his hand retracted, brows drawing into a troubled knot. He held his hand to his chest, grasping it gently as if it had just been burned. “What… what is this?” he said quietly, searching Sun’s face.
He straightened up, leaning away rigidly from the captain with a grimace. Indrani had seen holo projections before, but none as vividly real as Sun’s. The monastery’s holo projector was a grainy mess, the light bleeding into the surrounding environments, pixels fuzzing in and out. The fact that he was still staring at Sun, trying to find the seams that would give away their false form, was alarming. This ship’s technology was already far beyond what he’d experienced. Slowly, his eyes dropped down to Sun’s hand, and a chill crawled up his spine. The holographic spoon was still grasped in their hand, complete with a smear of curry the same color he’d served to them. They were…trying to trick him?
“Why would you…why are you projecting yourself? Why are you pretending to eat? Pretending to be here!?”
“Indy, I can explain — ” Sun attempted in their most soothing voice, but they could already tell it wasn’t going to do the job. Being found out was bad enough, but Indrani was such a hayseed that he probably didn’t understand the implications of what Sun was doing. He’d get no satisfaction from his discovery; only confusion, hurt. Revulsion.
The hurt punctured through Indrani’s confusion and surprise, fell between them, fully formed and palpable. His mouth was dry as he got unsteadily to his feet, arms folded protectively against his chest. To Sun, he looked like he was trying to comfort himself. “Then explain,” he said, a tremble in his voice betraying his embarrassment and frustration at being so thoroughly fooled. “Why are you doing this? Who even are you if not— not that?!” he barked, gesturing roughly at Sun’s projection.
Sun sighed, straightened, the spoon dissolving from their grasp. They passed a second in silence, blinking and breathing, or a close enough simulation to it, gazing levelly at Indrani.
“The most important thing for you to know,” they began, “is that I am a human. I have everything that constitutes a human body and brain. I just…have more to me than that.” They spread their arms, gesturing to the room, and beyond. “I am The Sun Clouded Over.”
Indrani remained mute for a few moments, squinting hard at Sun as their explanation sunk in. It left him only more confused. He hadn’t been questioning their humanity, only their identity; but now…now that was also in question? “What do you mean you’re…you’re human and the Sun? Like you’re synced up or something as you pilot it?” The curate grimaced, confused. “Do you look like…like this, or no? I don’t understand.” A pause, his features softening. “Can I see you?”
Oh sweet merciful fuck no. Sun shook their head gently. “You could say that I’m synced up to the ship. It’s such a strong connection that the ship is essentially an extension of my body. I pilot the ship the way you’d move your arm. I sense malfunctions the way you’d feel pain or discomfort.” They gazed levelly at Indy. “But the connection is so complete that I can’t really be…untangled from the ship. I can’t just walk down here and show you what I look like.”
Idrani’s shoulders bunched up around his shoulders, chastened. “You mean to say you’re never…disconnected from the ship?” The curate was quiet as he mulled over the implications of this—both in regards to Sun and to his own dire lack of knowledge around this sort of technology. He felt suddenly young and foolish before Sun. Lost. “Then may I come see you?” he asked, a hopeful edge to his voice. In the moment, he didn’t know why he was so furtive about seeing Sun but he instinctively felt the need. Sun must have felt it too, if they were so thorough in projecting themself with such uncanny accuracy into his presence. “Have you always been like this?”
“Yes,” Sun said, and despite their level of control over their form, their voice wavered involuntarily. “I was…born for this. This avatar” — they gestured to their hologram of an entirely typical, appealing human body — “is easier for most humanoids to wrap their heads around.”
They looked back up at Indrani’s guileless face. Don’t let him lose the last shred of respect he had for you. He’ll leave. You’ll never find the labs again. “I’m afraid,” they resumed, “that you wouldn’t find my physical form very appealing.”
Indrani’s composure seemed to lighten a little at not being denied outright. He knew he was being pushy, but his curiosity and unease was getting the better of his manners. They were born as part of this ship; the very concept was something out of the distant pre-fragment past, a concept from old Imperial technology that read like mythology in their archives. “I don’t care how you look, Sun. I’d just like…to know you. If you’d allow me. You saved my life, now more than once. You’re helping me follow my Path,” he said, voice gently encouraging.
“You’ve…worried me with this—this deception.” He gestured vaguely at Sun’s projection. “But I trust you, Sun. I hope you’d trust me as well.” He hadn’t saved Sun’s life, not even close, but he’d shared with them his most treasured possession: his maps, the base of his Path and foundation of his Purpose. Perhaps that would count for something with Sun.
Sun ran through countless scenarios, desperately searching for the option that was the least catastrophically bad. Indrani sure didn’t seem repulsed — his curiosity was oddly sweet, even — but that wouldn’t last. They had to cut this off now — they had to say no. They had to say no. They had to say no.
Sun rose from the table, gestured with a flick of the head towards the lift. “Follow me.”
Their ride down to the navigation level felt significantly different this time around. Indrani was no longer stricken with terror, for one thing. But despite puppeting their avatar to give off the same casual politeness as usual, Sun felt almost overpoweringly, almost physically sick.
Indrani had brightened considerably, looked to be on the edge of saying something, but was intent on holding himself back. It felt as if saying anything right now would break the brittle resolve between them. A single innocent word might drop like a meteor between them, leave a hole unable to be filled again. He bit his tongue and let the elevator’s hum fill the silence.
He held himself stiffly upright, watching Sun out of the corner of his eye like a curious bird. Sun’s body language was so natural and specific. Was it learned by experience or observation? Indrani mulled the thought over as the elevator finally stilled its descent, the doors parting with a soft whoosh. The curate swallowed drily.
The warm hallways of the navigation level drew them back in to reenter the control room, like an artery leading to a heart. But this time Sun walked past the seats and the consoles to the far wall with the fortified door.
“My body — my original, biological body — is through there.” They turned back to look at Indrani, struggling to keep their voice level. “Are you sure about this? You can change your mind, and it won’t offend me.”
Indrani blinked at Sun, startled out of his quiet anticipation. “I’m sure! Very much so,” he said, a small smile drawing up the corners of his mouth. He reflexively moved to offer comfort by touching Sun’s shoulder. He froze, perception fooled once again, and drew his hand back quickly with a blush, clutching his own upper arm nervously. “It would be my honor,” he said quietly, glancing up at Sun’s projected face through the fringe of his lashes, “to have you share this with me.”
Sun allowed themself a moment to linger on Indy’s face, to cling to the memory of the attempted touch and the different, but far less unpleasant anxiety it had induced. Then they nodded. “Okay.”
The door irised out, like a rock-hard flower bud, and the two figures squeezed single-file down the narrow, dark hallway beyond.
The low light coming from the end of the corridor picked out pipes and ducts lining the walls, and the dull murmur of flowing water dampened all other sound. As they proceeded down the hall, Sun in front and Indy behind, the light grew stronger and defined more edges.
The corridor opened into a round chamber veined with pipes. At its center was a large glass tank three meters on every side. Small movements were visible behind the glass of the opalescent cube, and Sun imagined that once Indy’s eyes adjusted to the light, he would realize the tank was filled, almost entirely, by a singular large mass. It twitched and rolled occasionally, but had no defining features other than its soft, fleshy surface.
Indrani felt a cold frisson go through him as he moved tentatively towards the tank, mind trying to parse the contents of the container. He glanced at Sun briefly in question before pressing a careful hand against the thick, warm glass, squinting at the amorphous form twitching vaguely within. Was this all that was left of them? Or were they born like this? The curate waved the questions away, felt them too harsh for this moment that was so delicate, fragile as the membranous surface of Sun’s body before him.
“Are you…comfortable in there? Does this part of you feel?” he whispered, letting his fingertips drift down the glass. “You’re not like anyone I’ve met before,” he said absently, eyes locked on the soft flesh, the hint of vein and nerve beneath the surface.
“There aren’t a lot of people like me,” Sun replied, and they were startled at how much it sounded like an exhalation. They had no awareness of the man standing only inches from their body, but the sight of him gently running his hand along the barrier separating them filled Sun with a sensation that was hard to classify. Relief, probably. He wasn’t repulsed by them, not yet.
“Across the fragments, we’re mostly known as Ships.” They emphasized the capital S. “More properly, I’m a peak-imperial orgcore tactical vehicle, but only pre-fragmentation history nerds would call me that.”
They walked around the tank, surveying the featureless mass. “My nervous system was cultivated to connect to the OS of a ship — this ship. My brain’s in the tank, but I was never meant to move this body or see through these eyes. I don’t even know if — nope.” Their limbs and face were buried too deep to be seen from outside the tank.
Sun’s avatar glanced back at Indy. “Whatever I see is through my ship’s sensors.” Their readings on the visual spectrum were supplemented by readings of Indy’s body heat, respiration rate, and electrodermal activity. “That’s how I’m seeing you right now.”
Indrani stared at Sun, eyes wide. “You’re…” He paused, brow furrowing thoughtfully as he turned back to look into the tank. “Sun, you’re amazing. A singular wonder of the galaxy,” he murmured, and there was a fondness and awe in his voice even he couldn’t deny. For a moment, Indrani’s sense of self shrunk down to a pinpoint inside himself, and he could feel what Sun might perceive of him; nothing more than a mote of a soul within Sun’s expanse, a trivial microbe in the sea of their body.
He let his hand fall away from the tank as he stepped back, glanced at the wall of the room. “Do your ship sensor’s act like human senses at all?” He leaned in to run his palm along the dense collection of pipes and tubes that covered the walls like capillary filigree as they fed into the tank. “How you see and hear makes sense, but… touch and smell? Do you experience those? And do you actually need to eat?” he asked, an impish smile on his face. “Not to imply that I’d want you to stop having meals with me.”
For a long moment, Sun was at a loss for what to say.
“I wouldn’t want to stop, either,” they began, then cursed internally, and tried again. “I get more out of the social interaction of a meal than the nutrition pumped to me from the nav level’s fabber.” That sounded even worse. What’s wrong with me?
They tried to collect themself, fixating on Indy’s hand resting on a pipe. “It’s not a sense of touch, exactly, but I feel impacts on my hull and pressures exerted in my hallways. The organism rooting around on the passenger level felt…uncomfortable. My mechanical limbs give me feedback during delicate work. But even now, without camera feeds, I can tell where you are, y’know —” They dared to glance up at his face for a second. “ — inside me.” Kill me.
Out of pure embarrassment, their avatar pivoted a hundred and eighty degrees, and glanced up at one of the chamber walls. “Sometimes I wish it weren’t so complicated.”
“I can’t imagine,” Indrani said quietly, surprised to see Sun’s back to him and wishing he could place a hand on the tense line of their shoulder. Both forms seemed secret and lonely, bravely glowing against the dark of the chamber. He canted his head curiously at them, suddenly feeling like a very paltry being besides their projection and the tank that held the vestiges of their fleshly form. “You’re a person but also…like a home. Your own home. And a shelter to others. It must be such a privilege to be able to be that to people…” He paused, ran a hand along the tank’s glass again, following the flow of submerged flesh.
Something flickered in his eyes then, a glint of realization. He bit his lip, a barrage of questions fighting to leave his mouth. “You were made during pre-fragment times. You’re…forgive me, but you’re incredibly old! Do you…do you know how—” he cut himself off, redirected himself away from what was probably an unsuitably blunt question about Sun’s intended lifespan. “Are you healthy? You seemed in perfect shape from what I saw outside of your hull. Your interior is quite flawless as well. Are you, ah, young for your kind, or old?”
“You’re right; I’m pretty spry for a hundred years and change.” Sun glanced back at Indy and chuckled. Didn’t want him thinking they’d taken any offense. They settled their avatar into a lean against the glass wall of the tank. “I came into the picture right before the fragmentation. The circumstances that made the empire deploy Ships like us for its wars were ultimately what brought everything crashing down. To be honest, I don’t know everything about all of my functions, or what my operating limits are. There aren’t very many of us Ships left to compare notes.”
They gestured with an open hand towards Indy. “That map you found, with the lead on peak-imperial medical technology. Where we’re going may hold answers for me, the same way it may hold answers for you.”
“Of course it does,” Indrani said with satisfaction, the open assuredness in his face obscenely bright, glinting in those deep green eyes. “That’s why we’ve met, why our Paths have crossed in such a way. We’re meant to achieve our Purpose together side by side.” He placed his hand against the glass affectionately, a triumphant set to his smile.
Indrani felt something filling him from toes to crown, a rushing wind of faith and anticipation that hummed just beneath his skin. He felt he might float off the ground with the strength of it. “Whatever we must do to fulfill your Purpose, it will be done. I believe our Paths aren’t just intersecting…no, they’re braided,” he said, the words rushing quickly out of him. “Our Purposes are woven tightly together, Sun. That can be the only reason for our meeting.” He knocked a fist gently on the glass as the epiphany vibrated through him. “We’ll find this medical center together!”
The smile spread across Sun’s face, and they dipped their head bashfully as they walked a few steps forward. “I’m sure we will. I’m more sure than ever.” And it felt true. The possibility of finding what they were looking for and achieving their oldest desire seemed within reach, for the first time in a very long time. The idea of what it might be like to experience the world—without hiding behind a camera lens or a polymer hull or a pane of glass — felt close enough to touch.
The light in the chamber seemed to grow denser with man and Ship’s hope, suffusing the very air with the intensity of it. Indrani held his breath as he imagined what they might do, what they might find, his visions of their future so strong he felt he could will them into existence simply with the force of his want. And yet a second thing floated just as brightly in the room that thrilled and heartened him in equal measure; the newborn trust between him and Sun, delicate as starlight and just as precious. The light in the room pulsed again and absently, he noticed his heart beating in time with it, rhythmically nested. A heart within a heart, a life within a life.