Entry: 006

The Sun Clouded Over maintained a steady pace as they cruised through the fragment serving as their base of operations throughout their ersatz career as a longhauler. They detected and took note of reliable landmarks, sliding through their waypoint systems. They had plenty of time to reminisce about favorite passengers and the stories they’d told of where they were from and where they were going, recognizing the names of certain stars or worlds as they passed them by. They had a single passenger now, and a single immediate destination, albeit one originally plotted out of spite.

Only one jumpgate had ever been charted in this fragment, and any detailed information about its function had been lost in the generations since it stopped functioning. It was a ruin now, and an obscure one at that.

Sun had now tried several times to educate Indy on the inevitability of what they would find—with little success. They hoped that once they arrived and he saw it for himself, their developing rapport would allow for the two of them to plot a more reasonable course of action to reach the imperial labs. Hopefully.

But like all outlooks founded on faith, Indrani’s expectations didn’t wane. Whether the ruins were as dilapidated as they sounded or not, it didn’t change the fact he believed they needed to go there, that it was a key, if not a door to pass through on their Path. 

In his quarters, Indrani listened to the push of water against piping, the hum of electricity and the lulling buzz of Sun’s machinery. He was in mid-stretch, a seated half-twist that he’d been practicing every day to ease the stiffness in his bruised ribs. His arm had recovered for the most part, though the skin still sustained a purple mottling. It had been a week ship-time since he’d finally, properly, met Sun, and now they were quickly coming up on the jump gate. Excitement sizzled beneath his skin. He tried not to think about how from this moment on, his whole life would change, leading him closer to enlightenment on his Path.

“Sun? Are we there yet?” he asked into the air, helplessly chipper. Many of his mentors at the monastery had privately counseled him that he should cultivate a more solemn disposition when it came to holy matters. He often found himself reprimanded for his jovial nature when spurred on by some novel or exciting turn of events. He had tried to temper his mood for Sun, but they didn’t complain, and despite the awareness that he might be maddening the poor Ship, he couldn’t contain himself. 

Five hours since the last ask. Sun checked against the unofficial tally they’d started after guessing that Indrani’s interruptions were increasing at an exponential rate. They hadn’t been far off the mark.

For a week, Sun had responded by telling him about their speed and distance covered, then by pointing out their progress on the holographic map in the common room—but really, the scale was hardly adequate. Even as their body propelled themself through the vacuum thoughtlessly, the sheer amount of space they covered in even a second was absurd and difficult to wrap their mind around. The bipedal hominids Sun descended from evolved on a planet with a circumference shorter than the distance their body traversed in the time it took for Indrani to speak his question aloud.

 They had about a hundred and ninety-five minutes to change their strategy before he struck again.

“Almost, Indy,” Sun replied, in a tone they hoped was placating but not patronizing. “Actually, I had an idea. Remember the archives room? Why don’t you meet me there? You can get a good view of what we’re coming up on.”

“Yes, coming!” Indrani jumped up from his stretch and pulled on his tunic, splashing his face quickly to clean off the sweat. He jogged down the hall, a smile pinned on his face. They were so close! As he hurried, he took in the expanse of Sun’s hall; now everywhere he went was a new marvel. He was moving inside Sun, running through their halls like a blood cell in their veins. It was endlessly fascinating, and Indrani wondered if he’d be allowed to explore them further soon. He’d seen Sun’s physical form…perhaps he’d be allowed into their more intimate atriums and chambers. Maybe he’d even discover something about Sun they didn’t already know about themselves. 

“Here!” Indrani said as he turned the corner into the archives room. “You can see it already?”

Sun’s avatar stood in the middle of a seemingly massive starlit expanse. They had set the walls, floor, and ceiling to project a convincing display of their surroundings in miniature. A few stars slid along the walls like raindrops on a windshield.

“I thought I’d try porting the visual readings from the sensors all across my exterior hull,” they said, gesturing broadly above and below them. “Better view than your typical window view, huh, Ind— oh. Are you okay?”

Indrani was quiet and slack-jawed as the doors shut behind him, sealing him into the illusion. The blurred starlight streaked past in an expanse of dimensionless ink at all sides, a consuming darkness filled with the diamond glint of distant worlds. He felt impossibly small, and his chest constricted with the wonder of it. 

“Wow,” he breathed, head swiveling around to absorb the scene. A blink, and he was looking at Sun, his smile bashful. “Sorry, yes, I’m fine! Better than fine! Do I not look fine? I mean, Sun,” he spun slowly in place, staring up at the ceiling where more stars blinked by, “this is incredible.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Sun smiled, gesturing toward Indrani to join them in the center of the room. “This is what’s all around us, right now, as distantly as I can see. Or y’know, pick up readings from. I have a broader definition of ‘seeing’ than most.” 

They glanced at Indy, eyebrows raised in friendly challenge. “How far out do you think I can see things? What’s your guess?” 

“Oh! Hm…” Indrani scratched thoughtfully at his chin, peering at Sun like he could discern the answer if he looked at them hard enough. “Ten….no, one hundred…par…secs,” he asked hesitantly, an awkward smile crooked on his mouth. The curate was well aware he was scientifically challenged; he much preferred the study of spiritual matters and the human heart and mind over astrophysics and engineering. “Wait, no…a thousand?”

“Well, give yourself some credit first,” Sun said, trying not to make him feel too embarrassed at his effort. “On your own, if you were looking out a window, or maybe outside hanging from my hull—” Sun considered the tiny but significant sensation of Indy tethered to them, gripping their outer plating—“you could already see stars five hundred parsecs away. One thousand six hundred trillion kilometers; think of that.”

A ripple of light washed over them, radiating from where they stood at the center of the room outward in all directions, a modestly sized bubble of light that encased them before fading away. Sun nodded at the room beyond the boundary of the sphere. “My range is a bit broader. Several million parsecs.” Another ripple stretched out, reaching the edge of the room and illuminating every object coming into focus on the wall screens. One point of light hovering within the room twinkled persistently.

“That’s incredible,” Indrani breathed, his awe palpable. To be able to hold that much of the universe in your mind’s eye, brush against the vastness of the galaxy—galaxies!—with a flick of their attention. He couldn’t imagine it, and when confronted with Sun’s grand nature, he felt miniscule. Insectoid. A lucky flea that had somehow hitched a ride on a stellar leviathan, swimming through colossal depths he could never fathom to on his own. 

“Ah! Is this it?” The twinkling caught his eye, and he walked to it, flicked his fingers outwards to enlarge the point of light. A brightness blinked the room entirely white for a moment, making the curate shut his eyes from the glare of it. When he opened them, their destination engulfed them, mammoth and glorious. 

The jump gate floated in the liquid black of space, a series of six concentric rings staggered outwards like a cross-sectioned horn. The rings glistened, their structure composed of some foreign crystalline substance that caught the drifting starlight in its pale facets. Each delicate ring was a spiderwebbing lattice, branching fractals too numerous and complex for Indrani’s human eye to find a pattern. Some rings had retained their structural integrity, but others were fractured, some sporting full breaks.

“I’ve…I’ve never seen one in person. Just images, descriptions,” Indrani whispered, drawing his index finger along the shape of the largest ring in the air. “Is this your first time seeing a gate? Or have you seen more?”

Sun’s avatar went rigid, taking in the sight.

“It’s the same,” they murmured, voice low. Their eyes unfocused, flicking to and fro as if doing a quick sum in their head, then nodded with new understanding, if not reassurance. “Of course. We’re thirty-three parsecs out. A hundred and seven light years.

Sun met Indrani’s quizzical expression. “We’re travelling faster than light, you know. Still not very fast when it comes to crossing the length of the old empire. But light’s speed is constant, and something I see from far enough away might only appear as it did a long time ago.”

They stepped forward a pace to join Indrani at the projection, framed by the great rings. 

“This is how it looked the last time I was here,” they said. “One hundred and ten years ago. Just after Fragmentation.”

“Amazing,” Indrani said, biting his lip thoughtfully. He tried to imagine what it was like for Sun, to see the space outside of their hull blistering by in a liquid rush of light. Light that still held ancient images, imprints of time already dissolved by its passing. 

“Do you remember what it was like? The Empire?” he asked, paused, fidgeted with the hem of his tunic. “Do you remember…your family?”

As the distance between them and their destination shrank, the projection did its best to compensate for years’ worth of reflected light streaming from the ruined gate. The rings in the magnified image began to drift, a process of decades happening over mere minutes.

“What kind of family do you mean?” Sun asked. “Parents? Direct ancestors? I didn’t have any. I’m pretty sure I just came out of a special embryo bank, engineered for the chassis they developed for me.” They chuckled hollowly. “Custom made.”

Two rings smacked together, flinging some of the delicate lattice into space at hyperspeed. “The Empire was so big. I really saw very little of it. The training I got since I was a—well, I guess you could call me a child—imprinted on me that it was incredible, and worth fighting for.” They sighed, and it felt less of an affectation than usual. “But I think it was my passengers who convinced me of that more than anything else.”

Indrani nodded stiffly, half-ashamed to have unearthed a topic that seemed bitterly tender. For him, family was also a sour subject; he’d been unceremoniously dropped off on an old star barge, at a traveling orphanage filled with a slew of other orphans. He remembered only vague experiences from that time in space, of the rusty industrial interior, the wan yellow lighting, and the musky smell of over-sanitized metal. A memory pushed front and center from that time: the entering and exiting long stasis sleeps between drop-offs at stationary orphanages, of standing in line to get hosed off by their caretakers and shuffled off into a crowded bunks. 

He’d never gotten properly adopted. Two groups of potential parents had declined him from his transcripts alone; another family interviewed him but decided on another younger child. Eventually, the orphanage pawned him off at the monastery, who hadn’t seen a child in decades. He became their ward. Nothing familial about it.

The curate swallowed down a sigh, tried to focus on Sun and the great gate coming into a more present visual state. “You must’ve met so many interesting people. Who stands out in your mind? Anyone famous? Strange? Alien?”

A grin spread across Sun’s face as they started remembering years upon years’ worth of passengers walking through their decks, sharing meals, talking, waiting out their journey. They wondered where to start.

“There was an abbess, I remember, from the Kvaldite order, looking to found an abbey in a part of the fragment that hadn’t seen any Kvalds for almost fifty years. She traveled with a whole entourage, and there was a lot of fanfare for the mission when she left. Very dignified. Very good at picking her nose when she thought no one was looking.”

They glanced at Indy and winked. “I got a batch of posties once. Post-humans, or so they say, anyway. Wore their veiled suits the whole time, never a face or an uncloaked hand. Spooked the rest of the passengers at first. But they put on a show in the common room doing feats of strength or speed and magic tricks, the usual kind of postie show. The kids on the ship warmed up to the performers fast enough. They always regrouped in the baths, where I wouldn’t have a camera on them. I always wondered if they clocked me for what I was.

“Oh, and speaking of kids,” Sun added, animatedly, “one time, an Elevation prodigy was on board. She was traveling to a tournament with her mom. Couldn’t have been more than eight. Every day she’d sit—”  Sun took a seat on the floor “—in the common room, cross-legged, just like this, lay out her cards, and go through her forms. One day, an older guy from another group learned about her, came up to her, and challenged her to a match. Wanted to see how good she really was. He used to be sapphire rank, you see.” Sun raised their eyebrows with this last declaration.

“No,” Indrani gasped, eyes widening. Posties and Kvalds he had little idea about, but Elevation was a game he was familiar with. “Don’t tell me…he lost?” he said, hanging on Sun’s every minute expression for a clue. “He lost, didn’t he!”

“Spectacularly.” Sun clapped their palms on their thighs, amused at the memory. “Most of the other passengers stood around them, watching. One by one, they started to see the trajectory of the match. The murmurs got louder with every laid card, like the game exuded an energy that the crowd amplified. Her mother saw the shape the girl was building towards, an advanced Divine Ladder, and gasped. From that moment, I studied every face in the crowd, looking for the moment where they also saw, and understood.” 

They chuckled. “When her challenger saw it, understood there was no way he could elevate past her shape, he crumbled and admitted defeat. And this is the best part. The girl was a professional, after all. She didn’t smile or cheer or clap, since gloating is disrespectful to your opponent. So I watched this guy bow his head to an eight-year-old with the most severe, stone-faced expression I’ve ever seen.” Sun attempted the expression, brow furrowed, eyes dark, mouth set in an unbreakable straight line. “It was the closest I’ve gotten to entirely losing my shit.”

A delighted laugh escaped Indrani, and he rocked back on his heels, shaking his head in disbelief. “I wish I could have seen that! What a game.” He scratched at his chin in thought. “I’m not much of a strategist myself. Sadly, most of the games I play, I lose. But back on Malakar, one of the other Curates was in a week-long game of Serpent’s Tapestry with a High Paragon—” he held his hands up, as if warning Sun to brace themselves for the twist, “—with the condition that they fast for the duration of the game! They were delirious by the end of it. Making crazy moves, hallucinating different board patterns.” He chuckled, thinking back to the ridiculous game, of High Curate Lussena’s green eyes swimming in their head. It wasn’t unusual for Curates to undergo tests of endurance, but a week of testing the body and mind in such an intense manner was impressive, if not unsettling.

“Finally, of course, the Paragon won, and the curate passed out immediately, like they’d flipped a switch in their brain, turned their mind out. They fell backwards and immediately started snoring. The Paragon didn’t even flinch! They just bowed, thanked the unconscious curate, and walked back to their quarters alone. She was almost two hundred years old then,” he said, affection tinged with sadness. He pressed his lips together, felt a sudden onrush of homesickness. He missed them, missed Malakar.

Something twinkled near the ceiling at the top of one of the Gate rings, floating stationary next to one of the fractured sections. It didn’t look like a ring fragment; it was too symmetrical, tethered strangely to the structure by what looked like jointed arms. 

Indrani blinked, distracted from the slow wave of nostalgia that had crept up on him. “Sun? What is that?”

Sun turned their avatar’s head in response to the question, but they’d caught the change a few microseconds earlier, and started a more intensive scan. Their shipself was catching up with the light far closer to the source of its reflection now—this object was a recent development.

“A ship, I think,” Sun murmured, magnifying the projection as far as they could go. “It hasn’t been there long. Is it looking for scrap?” After all this time, what could possibly be left, that anyone alive could actually use? 

The image shifted again, and the ship, barely a fleck of light, resolved into more clarity. It was a featureless orb, its hull hinting at a mosaic work of panels. A dozen grappler arms sprouted from one of the hull’s open panels, latching them securely to the gate’s splintered shell. Indrani squinted at the projection. “Have you ever seen a ship like that?”

Another moment, another rush of new light, and with it, something strange. Where the ship was anchored, the Gate was turning green. “Whoa,” Indrani muttered, straining up on his tiptoes to peer at the strange bloom of color on the ruins. 

Sun scoured their memory for anything remotely close to what they were seeing now. “The ship appears to be a construction vessel for zero-g manufacturing,” they offered blandly, but didn’t know where to start on the color spreading out from it. No attempted jumpgate repair they’d ever witnessed looked like this. The mass accumulating on the shell looked almost…vegetal.

“We should be careful,” Sun said, trying to regain their air of expertise as they straightened up and smoothed their avatar’s clothes. “This could be a wild experiment underway, and we don’t want it to blow up in our faces.”

“It looks like…the topiaries we kept at the monastery,” Indrani whispered to himself, in awe of the sight. “How is it surviving out there, Sun?” 

As the scan updated second by second, it was clear there was some translucent membranous layer stretching across the damaged gate, containing the sprawl of vegetation that seemed to be growing denser and darker, sprouting out through increasingly more distant deteriorated spots on the gate. Second by second, more progress, more greenery. Soon, all of the wrecked parts of the structure exhibited some touch of the flora, thick vines snarling around exposed circuitry, banding together glassy Empire hull fragments in an arboreal embrace. It almost looked…whole.

Sun slowly shook their head as they stared. Was this ship… reconstructing the gate? Repairing it? They’d never encountered technology like this before, and felt uncomfortably out of their depth. There were few things in the fragments that they’d never heard of.

But if the gate had truly been repaired…

 “Go get ready,” Sun turned to Indrani. “We’ll be in communication range soon, and then we’ll see who we’re dealing with.”

Entry: 005

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.

“Fuck.”

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.

Entry: 004

The light airiness of the passenger level was missing here, closer to the heart of the ship, but the ambient warmth and muted glownodes should still provide comfort to any human who had been permitted down here. Hypothetically — for Sun had never dared let a passenger walk these hallways before. It felt too close, too intimate, and Sun felt a prickle of anxiety having Indrani here, even with his naiveté about the vehicle on which he traveled. 

But nothing felt fuzzy down here, no invaders this deep into the core. That was something. Sun navigated down the small hallway, stopping at a door that pulled open as their avatar approached. Beyond it was a chamber lined with consoles and screens, punctuated by a heavily fortified door on the far end. 

“Have a seat,” they said, glancing at Indrani as the two of them entered the room.

Indrani tugged at his collar, pulling the zipper at his throat down as sweat started beading at his neck. The air was minimally warm, but his body heat had spiked from his panicked sprint, sweat dampening a diamond through the fabric on his back. He wondered how Sun could be so collected, body undisturbed by the attack; they hadn’t broken a sweat at all. 

The curate sat as instructed, eyes wide as he took in the nav room. The chamber was aglow with readouts and star charts, gauges and calibrators of all kinds, some layered into impossible geometries. He felt anxious just looking at the graphs and matrixes, tucked his feet up on the chair unconsciously to make himself smaller. Sun wasn’t kidding; the room felt dangerous, miscalculations just a single wrong digit away.

“You…run all of this?” A hesitant pause, realization inching up to the forefront of his mind. “By yourself?”

Sun settled the avatar onto another chair, taking some comfort in the hologram’s realism as they glanced mildly at him. “I do all right. The system’s more intuitive than it looks.” 

A glimpse and a nod at the nearby screen, which bloomed to life. For Indrani’s sake they called up a hallway’s camera feed, one from the passenger level. The hall was overrun with cleaner drones, crawling over one another trying to pin down and contain one of the organisms. Even vastly outnumbered, the creature slipped and slithered through any crack within the net of hexapedal legs. Sun flipped through different light spectrums with the camera. On infrared, the creature’s low temperature made it almost impossible to detect at all. Insects banding up against a ghost.

“It barely gives off any heat,” Sun murmured. “It doesn’t want heat. It’s hunting for water.” Sun glanced at the perspiration forming in the hollow of Indrani’s throat. Anything to avoid looking at the door.

“It’ll burrow anywhere it senses moisture, but maybe we use that against it.”

Indrani peered hard at the screen, fingertips tapping his lips in thought.  “What happens when it gets to the water? Is it dying and needs to drink? Or…nesting?”

The curate stood, glancing between the various screens and feeds and then at Sun, who seemed to be studying him. An audible gulp. “Can I help somehow?”

“I think so,” Sun nodded. They pulled up a map of the passenger level, with controls for atmo balance and ventilation at their command. “We suck all the humidity out of that level, it’ll go for any big bag of water we bait it with. And if the bait takes it to an airlock — ” They clapped their hands emphatically. 

Indrani’s smile had widened, confidence building as Sun explained the plan. A pause, his face falling. “If the bait takes it. The bait as in…me?” Surely, they were confused; there was no way Sun was thinking of sending him back out there with that thing.

“That’s right,” Sun said patiently. “You’ll have protection, of course, and a fresh space suit, and I’ll be keeping an eye on you the whole way —”

“Oh no, haha, no,” Indrani waved his hands in front of himself, chuckling nervously. “You’re joking, no? No? No, I can’t go out there. I can’t! That thing will gulp me down in a flash! I’m very hydrated right now!”

The curate stood, started backing away from Sun to pace in a circle. “We just need to think of a-another way, right? There has to be!”

Sun still had their hands out, palms up. “I really think this is the most efficient way to do this. And the faster we do this, the better.” As Indrani passed the door in his orbit, Sun shook their head. “If the organism continues to breach through the decks and hit this level, it would be very, very bad.”

Indrani leveled a wounded glare at Sun. He felt cornered into his own cowardice with only one way out. Sun’s way. The curate slumped, biting his lip before gesturing angrily, “Fine. Fine! If you’re so sure then…I’ll do it!”

He stalked over to Sun, squinting suspiciously. “What’s so crucial with this level anyway? A loss of water can’t be that troubling to a ship this large.”

With less than a meter between the two of them, Sun took a step back. Too close. Everything about this was too close. 

“All of the most essential operations for running a passenger vessel happen here. Powering the engines, storing matter for the fabber — ” another step back, “ — and recycling water and atmo for the passengers and crew. You can’t just replace water you lose in the middle of a voyage, it’s rare.”

Sun raised their eyebrows empathically. “Or contaminated.”  They furtively scanned the short, sweaty man, checking the body language and heart rate. They had to be certain he wouldn’t try touching them. They were running out of room. Sun tipped their head a little.  “Thank you for doing what’s necessary to keep this ship going.”

Indrani crossed his arms, all stubborn, scrawny angles, but was temporarily pacified by Sun’s preemptive gratitude. He was going to perform a necessary, nay, a life-saving gambit for the entire ship and all onboard. Perhaps it was only the two of them, but maybe… maybe this was the Path: he could prove himself to Sun, that he was worthy of their support, worthy of being followed. This ploy would build their confidence in Indrani, and by proxy, his Path and Purpose. Of course he needed to do this. It was fated.

The curate brought his hands akimbo, grinned knowingly at Sun. “Of course! It’s why I’m here, after all. This was meant to be!”

“Sure thing,” Sun nodded tolerantly. “There’s a fabber back out in the corridor, Indy. Let’s get you suited up.” Just don’t shit in it when you face that thing again.

It didn’t take long to get Indrani in a sealed spacesuit—or for him to lose his brief bravado. The curate scrubbed at his face, trying to will his focus to the forefront of his mind. 

“So, once more. I lead the creature to the airlock. Throw the water pack in. You trap it and jettison it…Right?”

Sun allowed themself a second to internally cuss up a storm. “You have to make sure it enters the airlock. No matter what. So if it wants your water more than the pack’s water, you’re going in the airlock, too.” 

They gestured to the safety display emblazoned on the wall, as it could be found in virtually every hallway of the ship. “Look for this color on the wall. That’s for vacuum safety. In the airlock, it marks the emergency breather pack, the suit tether, and some handholds. Grab literally anything painted this color, and you’ll survive an open airlock.”

Sun gave him an appraising look as he stood before the elevator doors. “You can do that. It was meant to happen, right?”

Indrani poked at the orange symbol on the wall, lips pursed, clearly unconvinced but resolutely withholding his doubt. “O-of course,” he chuckled weakly, adjusting his helmet. “I’m…I’m ready.”

As Indrani began his ascent back to the passenger level, Sun shed the holoimage once more and expanded their focus over the entirety of their ship, their greater body. A few spots of unsettling un-sensitivity crawling within their hull, but nothing had breached the passenger level. Not yet. 

If this was going to work, they had to be thorough. Sun targeted the decks breached by the organisms and began all-systems emergency vents. Any of the decks that had airlocks saw them open, flushing away the atmo inside. Any that didn’t were strategically pressurized, forcing the invaders forward, to the collection point. 

As they did it, Sun flinched instinctively. At any other time,  such an extensive vent would be flagged as a catastrophic error, something that needed immediate correction. But the fuzzy spots were moving, or fading away to normal readings. Sun recalled a passenger describing the sensation of the “pins and needles” that came from blood flow returning to a limb under pressure. Any discomfort was worth the revival of a sluggish limb to your control. 

But Indrani wasn’t one of their limbs. They only hoped he would just hold it together for a few more minutes and get the job done.

The elevator opened with a hiss into the main hallway. The lights were still flickering on and off from the damage done by the organism. Indrani peeked his head out of the elevator doors, squinting hard down each direction. He vaguely hoped he’d see the creature so he had an excuse to smash the ‘close’ button and descend back to Sun’s side. But nothing moved. Just silence choking the hall like a toxic haze. He let out a hard exhalation, a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Okay, Sun,” he whispered into his comms, trying to steady his breathing. “I’m here.”

He stepped into the corridor, whole body whipcord taut. On his back was a large container of water shoved unceremoniously into a pack. Even as he attempted to move without jerking the liquid around, it sloshed loudly behind him. He squeezed the straps tightly, tip-toeing towards the designated airlock Sun had pointed out to him. The flickering lighting was giving him a headache, so he pinched his eyes shut for a moment, grunting a little. 

And then a rattling ahead, something hard and hollow clacking against the metal of the ship. Indrani froze, a cold pit forming in his stomach. “S-Sun? Is that it?”

They glanced deeper into the corridor, cameras set to infrared, something dangling from the ceiling but with a neutral heat signature. They clicked back to visible spectrum. A cleaner drone was suspended from wires torn out of the ceiling, deactivated and haplessly swinging in midair, clanking against the ceiling panel. As Indrani inched forward, they checked on infrared — not a moment too soon.

“They’re on the move,” Sun whispered evenly but firmly through the suit’s comms. “They’re in the walls two chambers behind you. Go forward, now.”

“No no no,” Indrani whined as he lunged into a sprint, fear prickling up his spine. He was being hunted, tracked, he could feel it like a sixth sense; this was how it was on natural worlds, primitive planets unaltered by civilization. How did anything survive with this sort of fear coursing through their veins like acid, turning his insides into a hollow, nauseous pit. 

Indrani rounded a corner into an alcove and slammed his back against the wall. The water splashed loudly in the container and the noise seemed to echo louder than even his heaving breaths, his heartbeat knocking in his ear. “I-is it coming, Sun? I can’t see anything.” The curate peered out to look in the direction he’d come. “I can’t hear anything either.”

“Keep going,” they pressed, more firmly. The invaders were crawling through the walls, deadening Sun’s sensors. “One chamber. You’re almost there.” 

A clatter rumbled down the hall as the creatures shifted from the ventilation system to right behind the walls, breaking up panels and letting them drop to the floor. Like subterranean creatures burrowing beneath the ground, or a pod of fish rising to breach the surface of the placid water.

The cacophony of destruction jarred Indrani from his hiding spot, sent him sprinting down the hall. There was more hissing and clanging behind him, vibrating growls bursting through the seams of the walls. Panting, he finally saw the flickering red light and the bright orange symbols of the airlock door. Indrani sucked in a breath, pushing himself in this last stretch, the creature’s hiss turning into a sizzling roar at his back. 

Indrani skidded to a halt and tore the water pack off his back, flinging it into the airlock unceremoniously. It hit the door with a loud spatter, the lid bursting off with a pop, its content splashing onto the ground. The curate was already running away down the adjacent hall. “There! Is it in, is it in!?”

The organism had undulated down the wall, picking up speed towards the point he had thrown the pack. At that moment, like a braid of cables, it split, one twisting section sliding into the airlock and gorging on the spilled water, expanding in size. The other half was fixated on the remaining prize.

“It wants you,” Sun murmured. “You have to get in the airlock, too.” One of their limbs snapped out of the walls, over the head of the man, extended toward the remaining organism.

“You have to trust me, okay? I’ll protect you.”

There was a choked pause as Indrani ran. It wanted him. Him. Could he survive another stint out in the vacuum? Could Sun really protect him? Indrani pinched his eyes shut, panting hard, the fog of his breath steaming the inside of his helmet. He couldn’t do this, he couldn’t risk his life, not when he’d just gotten his first lead to fulfill his Purpose, now that he’d just met Sun— 

His footsteps slowed, petered out until he stopped. He breathed hard, doubled over with exhaustion.

“…okay.” He clenched his fists at his sides, teeth sunk into his lip. “I trust you.” He forced the words out of his throat, disbelief throttling his breath. He didn’t believe what he was saying, but he needed to say it, to start somewhere, even with a lie. His gaze locked on the ground in front of him, not looking up at the mechanical arm above, not looking ahead. “I trust you, Sun.”

He took a slow step, then lapsed into a jog, keeping his eyes on the ground in front of him; one step at a time, one stretch of walkway at a time. He built his speed up into a sprint, arms pumping as he aimed for the glow of the airlock, the sounds of splashing and hungry hisses. “I trust you, I trust you, I trust you—” he muttered the words to himself like a mantra, like he could will that trust into existence with sheer repetition. 

The creature’s head was in the airlock, its black body streaming out down the hall behind it, plated scales curling in the air almost weightlessly. He rounded the corner into the airlock, smashed himself against the wall. Its dark mouth split open into a toothed star, sucking up every ounce of liquid it could get. Filaments spread out from the hole of its mouth, puncturing into the wall panels like heavy roots. Terror clogged his lungs, two fists clenching the air of his chest. “Sun! Sun, I’m here! I’m in!”

“Grab on!” Sun yelled, and released the airlock controls.

No sooner had the last word sounded than the chamber drowned with a piercing howl as the atmo rushed through the ever-growing aperture. The organism recoiled against the pull of vacuum, but Sun was ready in the hallway, limb extended and ready to grab it, squeeze it, press through its flesh. Its anti-sensory aura was more suffocating than ever, numbing Sun’s perception and forcing them to watch from their camera’s visual spectrum as they grappled with the slippery organism. Their instincts screamed at the loss of feeling and the breach of pressure, but their focus was on Indy, flailing like a ragdoll from his handle grip, so close to the gelatinous filaments tearing through the wall panels.

 The diminishing atmo muted the creature’s shriek, but it tore through Sun all the same. It seized in their grip as ice crystals bloomed within its writhing body. With one final twist of their limb, it snapped, then shattered into thousands of glittering obsidian pieces.

The sound died completely. At full vacuum, the remaining fragments drifted listlessly through the airlock, into open space. 

Senses prickling, Sun glanced toward the emergency handholds.

Indrani floated weakly in the airlock, fingers curled in a death grip around one of the safety handles. The sudden silence left only the sound of his heart hammering in his ears, his rasping breath echoing in his helmet. He found the strength to tilt his head towards the open chamber, the creature’s fragmented body, a constellation of shining diamonds. “…Sun? Is it…gone?”

The mechanical arm extended soundlessly towards him, hooking two slender digits around a fabric loop on the arm of his suit.

“It won’t hurt you now,” Sun spoke quietly. “I’ve got you.” 

Sun used the arm to tug at Indy until he loosened his grip and allowed himself to be gently pulled out of the airlock and into the silent hall. Inching along the walls and ceiling were a dozen cleaner drones, moving deliberately but almost nonchalantly towards the site of the depressurization. Just another mess to clean up.

“They’ll blast out what’s left,” Sun continued, rolling the arm down the hall in its mechanical track, Indy floating limply in their grip. “I’m taking you to decon and giving you the full cycle. Won’t be as relaxing as the baths, but once everything’s clear I’ll free up some water for you.”

“Thank you, Sun,“ Indrani said, his voice polite but clearly taxed. The violent decompression and sudden immense pull on his arms had definitely sprained his wrists; and his fingers tingled numbly in their gloves. He felt like some small nursling held by the scruff in its parent’s jaws, feeling both immeasurably weak and equally cared for in the mechanical claw’s grip. 

He marshaled what was left of his strength, his adrenaline sapped from his body as quickly as the atmo from the ship. “Is The Sun alright? Not too much damage, I hope…?”

The creature’s burrowing had torn panels from the walls and ceilings, and any hallway on the level left untouched by it had suffered warping from the decompression. Repair wasn’t impossible, but it was a long, dull task ahead of them. “I’ve got quite a few days of cleanup ahead of me,” Sun attempted cheerfully, with mixed success. 

They had converted a chunk of the hallway into a makeshift airlock between the decompressed area and the intact sections of the passenger level. Indrani and the limb reentered the warmly lit corridors with a soft hiss. Sun’s avatar waited for them at the door to Indy’s chamber.

The claw set Indy down carefully, but the curate still managed to stumble a little, dizzy with the rush of the chase. He gave his best consolatory smile to Sun as he passed. “I’ll be ready to help with anything, Sun! Just let me know.” 

He plopped onto his bed, clutching his left arm to his body surreptitiously, trying to hold it casually, as if he were simply cold. He was embarrassed by his fragility, even more so for how weak he appeared to Sun. Then again, skirting Death’s grasp often left claw marks on your mortality, and Indrani had already dodged the reaper’s hand twice now. Indrani glanced at Sun, hoping they didn’t insist on sending him to the medbay. “I think I might sleep now, Sun. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Sun eyed the arm, automatically running through the logistics of seeing to it before they gave up and nodded at Indy. “Sure. Call me when you wake up.”

The door whispered shut, and Sun waited for a moment, collecting their thoughts and prioritizing the mountain of tasks ahead of them. They were somewhat grateful to Indy for his willingness to let them go, and to put himself lower on that pile. All the same, that arm’ll kill him once the adrenaline wears off, Sun thought, chuckling.

It was nearly a minute before they realized they were still using their avatar, standing in the hallway, emoting to no one.

Entry: 003

A second meal and another long sleep later, Indrani made his way to the bathing chambers, a large blue-tiled room filled with an even, gauzy light that immediately made him drowsy again. As usual since he’d started his journey, he had no sense of how late it was, whether it was closer to morning or evening. The artificial gravity was still strange, left him feeling vaguely nauseous, his sense of self displaced just an inch to the left of his body. The bath was a welcome respite, the hot water soaking into his shrapnel-battered limbs, the stress leaching from his mind as the steam rose. The curate sighed, let his limbs float stick-like in front of him. 

Then a sudden sound behind him. An unmistakable scurrying. Indrani pressed his mouth into a thin line and straightened himself, peering out over the bath’s edge. “H-hello?” The steam seemed thicker now, dauntingly impermeable. Silence, and then again, the scurrying of many legs across the tile, hard and clicking. Indrani sank into the water, blowing bubbles fearfully just beneath the surface. “Sun? Sun, are you there?” he whispered, peeking out of the water. “D-do you have other passengers?”

The sound of their name made them pull away from their current focus, studying their test plants’ soil acidity down in hydroponics. For about a decade, they’d dabbled with breeding a new variety of a certain flowering plant from the system they visited most often. Thankfully, Indrani hadn’t stumbled in there yet. 

Sun had known Indrani was washing up, and had adjusted to the usual habit of not directly monitoring the bathing chambers when passengers were aboard. When maintenance was required, they sent in a remote-drone to take care of simple tasks — more of an autonomous tool than an extension of their body. 

The hexapedal drone was still at its current task, scuttling along a line of vents in the floor, steadily checking each one and cleaning its filter before moving on to the next. Sun thought their gait and diligence toward their tasks made them pretty cute, but some humans had knee-jerk reactions to anything that looked like an arthropod. 

They piped their voice over the chamber speaker. “Just you and the cleaning drone in there, Indy. What, did it scare you?”

“No,” he said reflexively, petulant. Malakar didn’t have drones; all the cleaning had to be done by hand, every repair manual. The curate was both impressed at the luxury and annoyed. “It just sounded like a bug of some kind. I wondered if you had an infestation,” he mumbled, the slight jab fading as he sank back into the water.

The drone skittered along the slippery floor and continued transmitting its readings back to Sun, who reviewed them smugly. He could cover it with all the bravado he wanted, but maybe Indrani was finally catching on that this was their ship and they ran the show here. He probably wasn’t going to dare leave the tub until the drone returned to its port — he’d just sit there, buck naked, with that self-important expression on his face. Not that they could see it. Not that they would want to see it.

Outside, a spray of ice crystals pelted their hull. They were skirting the edge of a solar system that had plenty of comets swinging around — they must have passed through one of the comas, tails of ice and dust the width of a gas giant. A large chunk smacked into one of their exterior sensors, wedging itself between two cracked panels. Sun glanced at the damage. Those parts will have to be replaced. Sun tutted and pulled the sensor back within the hull, turning it over with their limbs. The offending snowball melted to slush under their touch, forgotten over the course of the maintenance routine.

Indrani flinched at the sound of the small impact, a negligible buffeting that the ship probably barely registered. Still, the curate was uneasy; his initial voyage before the attack had only lasted four standard days, and he’d only just begun understanding what was within the norms for a ship to experience. The sound of the ship drones recalled a bonerat infestation the Temple had experienced a few years ago, one that eaten into their food supply but desecrated their Holy Catacombs as well.

Relaxation evaporated, the curate rose from the water and quickly dried off, intent on familiarizing himself more with The Sun to spare himself further embarrassments. 

Outside the ship, the impacted debris rattled against the panels with a hiss and stilled.

Violet apple in hand, Indrani wandered through the ship’s halls, thoughts oscillating between the gate they were headed towards and where Mithraiya might be, what her next move was. Among the five High Curates, she was the boldest, and therefore the one worth worrying about. Savel, Orollo, Kalidan, and Akalim were clever in their own ways, but lacked a certain bravado, a certain hazardous daring. No, him and Mithraiya were the most likely to reach their Purpose before the others—

Something clattered within the walls to his right, sudden and loud. Indrani leapt sideways, stumbling into the far wall. He withheld the urge to shout for Sun, biting into his cheek. Just another drone, he thought, walking on with slightly more speed. Ahead, another large doorway in the hall glinted at him to be explored.

Where was he — ? Sun couldn’t help but glance at Indy wandering the halls, making sure he didn’t stray from the passenger level, but found their attention divided. They felt compelled to check in on odd places throughout the ship and hull, though nothing seemed amiss as far as they could tell. It disrupted their concentration; almost, for lack of a better word, like an itch.

Focus! “Hey, Indy. Just wanted to let you know that we’re almost clear of this system. Once we pass the heliopause, I’ll set us on a direct course towards the —” Sun had to remember not to affect a sigh “ — closest gate. Should only be a few days away at my — at my ship’s top speed.”

“Wonderful!” The curate called back, shouting unnecessary into the air. “Perhaps when you’re free, we can dine together again? Any time really; my sleep patterns have been discordant and I’ve found myself more often awake then asleep.”

Indrani placed his hand on the door of the next mystery room, sprung back a little when it irised open. Inside was a dim, remote room with a long table in the center. The walls were all unlit glass, black and reflective as mirrors. The curate swallowed a little and made his way inside, the insistent quiet of the room pushing heavily on his shoulders. He padded softly to the glass walls, peering into them to see if they held anything behind their opaque surface.

Maybe a display case of some kind? Pursing his lips, he rapped a knuckle on the glass, expecting to hear a hollow impact. Instead, the glass burst to life, polychromatic plasma light flashing across the glass, followed by the ear-splitting sound of symphonic music. Indrani yelped and scrambled backwards, upending himself over the table as the screen seemed to deepen like an opening portal.

Sun activated their hologram and rounded the corner, entering the cacophonous chamber. Indrani was still sprawled on the floor next to the table. Sun grinned and spoke aloud, voice elevated. “Volume down.” They squatted on their heels to reach his eye level. “I’m free now. I see you found my archives room.”

Indrani peeled himself off the table, scrambling to stand upright and appear at least semi-dignified. “Ah! Is that what they are,” he mumbled, brushing down the front of his tunic until it was relatively unrumpled. Around them, the room had taken on what must have been their current environment outside, leaving them and the table floating in a projection of vast, starry blackness, the distant glimmer of planets and passing ships. 

“We don’t have anything so,” he flapped a hand in the air, “flashy as this.” Gaudy was the word he’d wanted to say; Malakar’s archives were a collection of ancient dataphials that all ran on various glass tablets, none of which utilized any 3D or holo tech. Indulging in the constant hedonistic advancement of technology was a distraction, one that pulled faithful Followers of their Paths.

“Very uh, impressive, Captain Sun. I’m sure you—” A loud scuttling sound interrupted the curate, knocking against the back of the wall screens.

There it was again, just a fraction of a second before — Sun stared, stood back up, and rounded the table to get closer to the source of the noise. Their consciousness raced, spreading their focus from this room, through the walls and the vents beyond. But they sensed nothing. Not nothing amiss, almost nothing, an unsettling fuzz where they should’ve been detail or metadata or anything.

They turned to Indrani, pointed beyond the starry projection to the screen. “You heard that, too?”

“Your drones, I presume?” Indrani said, a hint of irritation in his voice. If he didn’t know better, he’d have guessed Sun was using them just to scare him. “I’ve been hearing them quite a bit. Are they supposed to make such a racket?”

A rushing hiss vibrated through the room, jarring the computers and holoprojectors enough that the mirage of space they’d been standing in shuddered and disappeared, leaving them in the bare, open room. The curate inched closer to Sun, staring at the black screens along the wall, all of which had shut off simultaneously. “Are they…malfunctioning?”

Sun shook their head, eyes darting between the corners of the room. “Those aren’t my drones. There shouldn’t be any in this section of the ship right now, and I can’t —”  I can’t feel them. This isn’t me. 

They wheeled decisively towards the door. “I need to run a diagnostic. We may need to isolate this level until I figure out what’s happening. C’mon.” 

Behind them, a panel hummed for a millisecond, and then shattered, the sound like a thousand crystal shards ringing out against one another. The lighting in the room and the hallway guttered out, darkness welling up around them. Indrani yelped and lurched to grab Sun’s arm, but missed and stumbled into further into the hall. Something cold whistled by him at an unholy speed in the dark, leaving a trail of frigid air in its wake. 

“Sun!” The curate held his arms out in the darkness, feeling in the air for the Captain. “Sun, are you alright? What in Paragon’s name was that?!”

Fuck, it was alive. Something had gotten in and camouflaged itself and was alive, here, inside of them. Sun spared a tiny thread of concentration on speculation — the ice, the comet, the trace amount of organic compounds — but they had to focus on the hallway. The darkness that was nothing for Sun, even if it made Indrani vulnerable. Their senses extended beyond sight. But if they’d lost any sensory or motor control to — to whatever this thing was —

“Indy,” they called, projecting their voice down the hall, “I’m over here. Follow me!” Sun began checking every limb they had in the section, clicking their cameras to infrared. They watched the man start cautiously picking his way down the hall, through the miasma of atmospheric warmth. A shape moving behind him, an absence of accumulated heat, a void —

Indrani stuttered to a stop, felt the hair prickle at the back of his neck as something breathed a chill against his skin. The cold finally snapped into a solid shape in Sun’s cams, a terribly long serpentine shape that arched across the shadowed ceiling, ending in a splintered stellate head that was currently hovering just behind the curate’s back.

“Sun? I think…” A loud gulp. In the dark, the lithe serpent drew back slowly, it’s flowered skull suddenly widening and aimed directly at Indrani below. “I think there’s something here?”

With a click, a panel in the wall snapped back, and a mechanical limb flexed. As the serpent struck, the limb lunged out, splayed its digits, caught in its grip. Sun clamped on the creature like a vice, but it was already squirming, slipping away. 

“FORWARD! MOVE FORWARD!” Sun called urgently. “End of the hall, turn left, elevator!” Too slow, even that speaking that short sentence felt too slow compared to grappling with that thing.

Indrani scrambled into a run, urged on by Sun’s voice ringing loud against the walls of the hallway. Behind him, the serpent’s body dissolved in Sun’s grip, the chitin of its body fragmenting until both snake-like ends shot out of their grasp in either direction. A frothing hiss, and both ends were gone, their bodies rapidly worming into impossibly small gaps in the walls and vents.

The curate was panting by the time he turned and saw the elevator, the light inside flickering madly. “Sun! Where are you! What is that?!”

“Here,” Sun’s voice came from behind him, catching him in a startled yelp. Sun’s avatar came at a brisk run from the other end of the forked hallway, and they hoped they looked convincingly shaken. “Come on!”

The two of them scrambled into the elevator, whose doors shut on the darkened hallway with a wheeze, and they descended without prompting.

Sun slumped against the corner of the elevator, affecting fatigue. They gestured beyond the door, towards the hallway that had extended outside the door. “I had to — manually lock down that side of the level. We can’t let that — that organism escape that level of the ship.” Too late, they were certain. Sun knuckled their avatar’s forehead. “Yeah, that had to be an organism of some kind. Never seen anything like it, though.”

They glanced down at their passenger. “How about you? You okay?”

The terrified curate glanced from Sun back to the door, his small panting body pressed into the corner of the elevator. “I’m — okay? I think? What WAS that? I — told you —you had an infestation!” He drew his knees up to his chest, eyes boring into the door as if expecting the creature to burst through any moment. “D-did you see it? Did it hurt you?”

Hell of a question. Sun managed a wry smile. “I’m fine. For now. I don’t think anything’s reaching us in here, anyway.” They put their hand to their chin, thinking through their options. The elevator shafts were pretty secure; had to be, to keep atmo from escaping the entire ship if a hull breach pierced one of the decks. But they couldn’t stay here forever.

“The ship’s sensors didn’t detect this thing as fast as it ought to. They have some way to cloak themselves from being spotted easily, something in their biochemistry. I don’t know if I — if the ship can root out the organisms by itself.” I’m going to need Indy’s help.

“Don’t you have any uh, defensive drones on this ship? Any w-weapons?” Indrani was clearly shaken, and the idea of watching Sun arm themself even more terrifying. Malakar was far out of the way of major star routes and they very rarely experienced any dangerous creatures or travelers. As a child, Indrani had witnessed a starving Eorian vagrant hold his Paragon’s at gunpoint. He’d been young, and had hid behind his favorite Paragon’s skirts, Paragon Burazet. His mentor had barely broken a sweat and the thief had jetted off with some fabbed food, some of their generators and a few items that had no spiritual worth. It had been frightening to observe someone so desperate. But in the end, they had been reasoned with.

Now Indrani was faced with something that seemed intent on eating him, if the cold putrid breath on his neck earlier was proof of anything.  “W-hat does this thing even look like? It sounded enormous!”

Sun looked over the level diagram glowing from the panel by the door, watching the small blip that was the elevator crawl along its path. “It’s long. And slippery. Maybe it’s a kind of exomolluscine structure, absorbing moisture from the habitable levels.”

It could have reconstituted its body out of a tiny dormant state, tumbling within that iceball. If it was moisture the things were after, Sun had a real problem. They looked back up at their passenger and pointed at the diagram.

“I can have the cleaner drones go on the offensive on the passenger level. But we should close it off, handle things from the navigation level. You’ll be safer, and I can run a quarantine.” They pointed at Indrani now, looking at him levelly. “But you can’t run wild down there, Indy. Passengers are prohibited from being there under normal circumstances. It’s my space.”

The curate pressed his mouth into a thin, frowning line. “I’m not a child, Captain! I’m not some… wild animal! Of course, I’ll respect your space!”

Indrani folded his arms in front of him, brow furrowed in offense. Did they think him so untrustworthy? What had he done to give them such an impression? He couldn’t think of a single thing and that soured his panic into irritation. The elevator suddenly glided to a halt, the panel pinging it’s arrival at the navigation level. The curate sank into himself a little, glanced at Sun sheepishly. “I’ll, uh, follow you?”

Sun gave him an appraising look, then nodded. “Please do.” They softened their expression a little as they stepped through the threshold of the elevator. “Don’t be frightened.”

Indrani wanted to answer that he wasn’t frightened but the lie stuck at the back of his tongue.

Entry: 002

Dead. He was dead, wasn’t he? 

Indrani moaned, teeth bared as his bruises throbbed awake in unison with him. He blinked and knuckled his bleary eyes, peering off to the side with a squint. A wall with shelves. A tiny sink. The door to a compact shower. Hadn’t he been on that gurney transport just a few seconds ago? He must have passed out cold. The curate felt up his arms, legs, tried to flex them, and was rewarded with a terrible stiffness. So, maybe he’d been out a few hours then. Maybe longer? He’d never been injured to this extent before. Well, he’d never been injured ever.

“Screaming Paragons…I’m alive.” He slid his legs off the cot he was on, tested his feet against the floor. He snorted out a laugh, a nasty grin curling the edges of his mouth. “Mithraiya’s going to be pissed.”

A polite chime sounded in the room before the voice came over the intercom again. “Hey there,” they started cheerfully. “How’re we doing today? Can you walk?”

Gloating interrupted, Indrani straightened up, turning his quiet snickering into a cough to clear his throat. “Yes, hello! I’m…mostly well? Let me see…”

He stood up slowly, waiting with a twisted frown to feel the horrific pang of agony from a shattered femur, a snapped tibia… nothing. The curate huffed a little, prodded at his ribs, his arms. He bounced lightly on his feet. He was sore, beaten, but nothing worse. “Yes, it seems the Paragons have seen to me this day! Not a thing broken I believe! And you, are you well?” A pause, another little cough. “Did you…find anyone else?”

Here we go. “I’ll tell you what,” Sun said, keeping their tone amiable. “Why don’t I guide you to the common room on this level? I’ll meet you there. This is a… better talk to have face to face.” The small room’s door sighed open into the corridor beyond, where a warm, rosy line of embedded lights glowed down the path and around one of the corners.

“Just follow the lights and you can’t miss it. I’ll have some food ready.”

A loud grumble. Just the mention of food had sent an instantaneous pang of hunger through Indrani. “Yes, I’ll be right there! Thank you, Captain Sun.”

The curate, clad in only his skimpy compression suit, started poking around the cabin’s shelves and drawers. Nothing, nothing, a bandage, a single sock, a pair of gloves… “Ah!” Indrani reached behind one of the drawers, tugged at the edge of a crumpled piece of fabric, pulling out an old tunic. He pulled it over his suit, peered at himself carefully in the narrow mirror on the wall. This would have to suffice for his modesty for the time being, his hunger said, and the curate agreed, stepping out into the warm glow of the main hall. 

Walking through The Sun Clouded Over was an exercise in awe. He’d never been in a ship besides the one he’d just been blasted out of, and it had been a dingy hauler, more pockmarks than bolts, more rust than metal. The Sun’s hallway alone was more expansive than fifty of his monasteries combined, the vast openness of it pristine and daunting. Finally the guiding lights veered towards a door which irised open with a shushing sound. Indrani leaned through the wide doorway, feet at the threshold of the room, hands held nervously behind his back. “H-hello? Captain?”

The common room was a round, high-ceilinged chamber with indirect lighting that mimicked a fair day on a pan-human world. The utilitarian material that tiled the floors in the airlock and corridors included an eclectic mix of carpets of various ages and designs. There were also several tables, well-worn and well-scrubbed, bedecked with chairs and cushions. Some were clearly designed to seat at least a dozen for meals, but others were small and square, with a shallow depression or a screen set in the middle. Off to the side by the food fabber in the wall, sitting at a large table laden with steaming dishes, was a person.

They were a broad person, wide in the shoulders, hips, and stomach, but they sat with their hands clasped meekly in front of them. Their complexion was not dissimilar from the wood table they sat at, well-worn and well-scrubbed, and their hair was tied back in a tight, exact bun. But they had an accommodating smile and alert eyes shining from behind a pair of eyeglasses. The room’s light also glinted off a few gold bands on their arms and wrists, but their clothes were simple and unostentatious. Comfortable.

Sun had decided, after much deliberation, to pick this avatar. They were reluctant to reuse the one they’d assumed with the Heptagrams player, even though Sun knew the player’s suspicions probably had little to do with the realism of the hologram. But Sun liked the way the armbands jingled on this one’s wrists, and the way their weight appeared to settle on the surfaces they sat down on. 

Sun beamed cheerfully at the man as he peered nervously through the doorway, the cabin’s default tunic hanging off his narrow frame. Fuck me, I forgot to leave him clothes.

Encouraged by the person’s bright smile, Indrani gestured hello by forming a quick triangle with his fingers; a small signal of peace, appreciation, well wishes. The smell of the fabbed food cut through the otherwise gently antiseptic air, hitting his nose like a mining beam. Saliva pooled in his mouth as he hurried towards the table, fingertips pressed together in front of his mouth in eager but sheepish anticipation. The food fabber on Malakar was a few decades old and the meals it deigned to spit out were what one might expect to see at a monastery: bland, simple, efficient. 

“This looks incredible, uh…um?” The curate sank into a cushioned seat, tapping his chin apprehensively as he struggled to recall if this person had given him their name. As if physically pained by his faux pas, the curate scrunched his face up and met his host’s gaze. “F-forgive me if you’ve already introduced yourself; I was out of sorts while we communicated earlier…”

“You can call me Sun,” they replied, gesturing with a hand towards the spread. “I share the name with my ship. Please, go ahead. I’d join you, but I ate like an hour before you woke up. You must be starving.”

Sun studied High Curate Indrani the IV of Malakar and once again rifled through their available memory for any hits on the word “Malakar.” Any hits that were more contemporary, because surely their guest wasn’t talking about that Malakar. They tilted their avatar’s head and allowed themself the expression of searching their memory. “And you — you called yourself Curate…Indy? Remind me.”

“Ah, I see! Sun, it’s a most fortuitous pleasure.” Indrani spread a palm over his chest, drew a triangle in the air with the other. “Correct, I am High Curate Indrani the IV of Malakar.”

Indrani plucked a chapati from a center plate and began filling it with a little of each of the curries and toppings Sun had provided. After he’d taken a massive bite, red sauce dotting his chin and corners of his mouth, he asked, “Are you familiar with the holy moon, Sun? The Malakarian monastery?”

He did mean that Malakar. “Well, I’ve heard of Malakarian relics. Peak-imperial relics, from, y’know, a century ago. I wasn’t aware anyone still, uh, practiced.”

“Of course! We’re up to thirteen acolytes now,” the curate said proudly, raking rice from a communal bowl onto his plate. To even the most esoteric archivist, Malakar was less than obscure; it was positively arcane. Thirteen acolytes in the span of thousands of years seemed meager, but to Indrani, this was the peak of Malakar’s membership. “Altogether, with the High Curates and our Holy Paragons, we number twenty-one Seekers.”

Sun held their polite smile as they digested this unbelievable coincidence. Sun was probably one of the only ones in the fragment with living memory of the Malakarian movement, the original one wiped into obscurity by time and fragmentation, and here they were, sharing a meal with one of the only people who would actually care. Not just eating – they’d saved this little cultist from certain death. Speaking of which –

“Do you curates and paragons travel often? Go on pilgrimages? Where were you off to when – “ Sun dipped their head, “ – when our paths crossed?”

Indrani gave an acknowledging hum as he chewed and swallowed the savory curry, eager to answer. He leaned in conspiratorially towards Sun, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “Not at all, actually,” he murmured, holding Sun’s gaze as if to impress the gravity of this statement. “You see, I’m on a mission.”

Sun waited an entire, excruciating second before raising an eyebrow. “A mission?”

Yes,” he said, breathing out the word like it was a bomb about to be set off. The curate folded his hands in his lap, expression suddenly dire, his large eyes somehow larger still with the weight of his endeavor. “The three Holy Paragons…are dying.” Indrani’s face crumpled, a genuine grief in the confession. “They’ve lived long lives and now they are fading. Some physically, some mentally. We have no way of preserving their knowledge, their experiences in a full and robust way. They are the last scions of the Malakarian faith…”

Indrani unfolded his hands, stared down at them as he balled them into fists like he could will power into his own grasp. “I’m…trying to find a way to save them.”

How young he seems, Sun thought, watching the emotions wash over the man. How long had his Paragons lived, compared to the Ship he was aboard? What experience did he have of saving anybody, taking their lives into his hands?

Sun leaned forward towards him. “And how are you going to do that?”

Indrani pursed his lips, the harsh diamonds of his brows drawing together. “I found something in our archives. Allusions towards some fragment technology that could…do what we need. Remnants of a star map. The hauler was taking me towards where I think this relic lies…”

Until it got blown up. “Until you ran into some difficulties,” Sun finished, more diplomatically.

“Yes,” he muttered, a resignation slackening his posture. “That was my fellow Curate’s doing, but thankfully, my Purpose wasn’t to be obliterated by her hand at that moment.” Indrani signed the Path in the air in front of him with a sigh. “She was always…overeager.”

“That was — you were attacked by someone from your own monastery?” Both of Sun’s eyebrows shot up. The ship that had sent Indrani hurtling into space hadn’t been messing around on account of some petty rivalry. It was a decisive brutal hit intended to stop him in his tracks. The flying fuck was he looking for?

“Yes?” He was taken aback by Sun’s surprise, but waved a hand in the air indifferently as if the incident was some silly in-joke between the two Curates. “She pursues the same Purpose as I, but wishes to achieve It first. Her Path differs there and in other areas; for example, trying to permanently remove me as an obstacle.” There was a trapped chuckle in his voice. Mirthraiya’s Path had always involved violence and, most of the time, she got what she wanted through its use. Not this time, elder sister. 

“Luckily, the Paragons continue to support my Path by providing me a new means to reach my Purpose,” he said, a gratified smile crinkling the corner of his eyes. “—you!”

Sun barely needed to draw out the second’s pause this time, they were so dumbfounded. Someone from the same tiny rock of less than two dozen people wanted him dead, and he didn’t even bat an eyelid. That destroyed longhauler had been run by a crew — people had died, and he hadn’t asked about them, hadn’t presumed their fate since he sat down for the obvious face-to-face Bad News Meal. No, he was ready to press on with this – this mission — with the assumption that Sun would take him there!

But his smile’s not the same, Sun found themself thinking. And it was true. Indrani’s smile was not that of the last passenger, the one who’d figured it out. He still thinks I’m the captain of a ship.

Sun blinked, simulated a deep breath, and locked eyes with Indrani once again. “This fragment technology. Tell me more about it.” Another smile, with just an edge to the voice. “It must be a hell of a relic, for it to be worth all this danger.”

“Possibly,” Indrani said, scratching thoughtfully at his chin. “We don’t have a full cryptograph of the fragment’s language, but from what we did decipher it spoke of ‘the metamorphosis of the soul,’ the ‘rebirth of vessels’. I feel these records hint towards their medical technology.” Indrani imagined the magnificence of the fragmented empire, every citizen undying, just a step behind divinity, scholars and artisans all. 

“I think this could save the Paragons if I’m able to find it. No. I will find it. We will!”

Medical technology. Peak-imperial medical technology?  The idea shot through Sun’s core like lightning. But once again, they tamped down their excitement, not daring to get carried away. After all, it might be just like all the other leads Sun had followed on their own over the decades. Another dead end. What would make this little hayseed’s mission any different?

It was unlikely, but everything about this encounter had been unlikely. Sun needed more information. They had to be sure.

“You mentioned a star map. I can make a projection on one of my game tables,” they said, rising and gesturing to one of the smaller square tables in the room. “Show me where you were going.”

Indrani didn’t hesitate, simply tapped a bead held by a thin choker at his neck and passed the data through to Sun’s open channel. It was a strange patchwork map—3D, but notated in various odd inscrutable sigils and layered, a series of dimensional schematics nesting one into the other like a matryoshka doll. 

“It’s not totally clear to me how to read these, but I’m sure these are meant to take me where I need to go. Imagine, a way to rejuvenate your body endlessly. Or change it completely! Take on another soul! Who knows what the Fragmented were capable of?” he said, drifting off into a daydream.

Unnoticed, Sun stood a few paces away, staring at the schematic, hand to their mouth. They hadn’t seen schematics like this in a century.  This might actually be the real deal. This might help them find what Sun so desperately wanted.

“These symbols,” they murmured, drawing closer to the projection and gesturing to notations on the map, “indicated where you could find jumpgates. Before the fragmentation, I mean.” 

They ran their fingers through the layers of the map’s hologram, one of the only things they could touch and pass through without raising suspicion. “See how these pierce through the center of the construct and connect to the symbols on the other side? Going through a jumpgate was a near-instantaneous trip to another point in space that our current ships couldn’t crawl to in a hundred and fifty years.” 

Sun flicked a hand, ordered the projection to spin its nested shape around. “Trying to capture that distance on a typical star map would render all standard distances meaningless. So this ancient mapmaker folded the world into layers, marked the places where you could burrow through space and bend time. That was the old empire at its peak. That’s what it was like, before fragmentation.”

That’s what it was like when I was made. And somewhere in there, I can be remade. Sun glanced back toward Indrani. “Or so I’ve been told.”

The curate clapped his hands together once, his smile turning into a slightly manic grin. “Of course you’re familiar with pre-fragment cartography! Our Paths are aligned! You were meant to find me,” he said, rising to his feet and stepping up to Sun giddily, “and I to find you.”

Behind Sun, the map rotated, the tiered star chart a glittering spiderweb of possibilities; Indrani could feel the pull of his Path deep in his marrow, his Purpose no longer a microscopic speck of light in his mind’s eyes but a brighter guiding torch, waiting, drawing him onwards. “So,” he said, “where is our first gate?” 

Sun, alarmed at the possibility that Indrani might try touching them, took a step back but held him in their stare. “Nowhere. There aren’t jumpgates anymore.” Was he that sheltered? Or just stupid? “Story goes that one gate was targeted by some rebel faction, and in retaliation, the gates to any systems sympathetic to the faction were attacked. They all fell within a few years. The distances became too great, and the empire split into fragments. That’s what fragmentation means.

That was the simple version one might tell to a child, but it would never measure up to Sun’s memories, the ones they didn’t care to relive, but found themself drawn to now. Threading through a debris-scattered expanse, searching for small figures tumbling through space, answering distress calls, all against the backdrop of the enormous ring that had shattered into thousands of pieces. Metal scraping across their hull matched by wails rising from the people in their airlocks as they realized that their only path to the system beyond — to their families, friends, or homes — had been severed forever.

Sun returned their focus to the present, to the star map, and looked for their current location. There was the pulsar, there’s where they changed course — all right. They expanded outward from that point, and found the area Indrani might have been referring to. It appeared the mapmaker had tried to superimpose data from a more specialized map with stricter permissions, and a few details were fuzzy or unclear. But certain phrases screamed at them.

“Orgcore testing grounds,” Sun read aloud, and pointed to another. “Cultivation labs.” They glanced back at their passenger. “This looks like the place you want. You’re in luck, Indy. It’s a ways, but we can reach it well within an average human lifespan. You can’t say that for a lot of fragments.”

“Oh no no, the Path is surely guiding us to a gate! The Paragons don’t have that long and the fact that you knew these glyphs, this gate symbol,” he said, stabbing his finger into the chilled blue light of the holomap, “means that we are meant to go there! And you, Sun, are meant to be my guide, my beacon to my Purpose!”

Sun said nothing for several seconds, smiling blandly as they spent every available mental faculty cussing out this self-centered, oblivious, idiotic

“I’ll see what I can do. Let me convert this map’s data and plot a course. I believe there’s a gate in this part of the fragment we can…investigate on the way.” Sun turned on their heel, walking away from the game table. “While I prepare for our journey, Indy, it might be a good idea for a man of the cloth like yourself to perform a few rites.”

They glanced back at Indrani, their cheerful expression eclipsed by an almost ferocious gleam in their eyes, like a thick veil of fog pierced by harsh sunlight. “You know. For the dead.”

The curate blinked, cleared his throat. “Of course, of course, you’re right.”

He hurriedly knelt on the ground, thumb and forefinger together, eyes pinched shut. Their names. He hadn’t even learned them all. A cough as he shifted slightly. “So died Captain Orlo and his crew as becomes starfarers, in the vastness of the dark. Paragons willing, their Purpose was fulfilled. Now, in their Fulfilling, they lay down a new Path for others to walk. Great will be our struggle to follow it and yet we shall, without question, without fail.” Indrani drew the sign of the Path over his chest once more, bowing his head in silence, brows furrowed as he tried to focus on their sacrifice, manifest the appropriate grief, and not the elation he felt at getting closer to his Purpose.

Sun paused to watch, hands clasped respectfully, as Indrani carried out the rite. Their attention was divided, as usual, monitoring external conditions, plotting a viable course on the antiquated map, but they tried to focus on the man in front of them. Pulse elevated, expression almost comically intense, but quiet for once. 

As he rose, they once again turned to leave the room. 

“I’ll get us going in the right direction. You can use the fabber and everything else available in the common room or your quarters, but please stay on the passenger level. This is a big ship, and it’s easy to get lost.” They willed the door to open before their hologram body. “Call me if you need anything, Indy.”

The door shut behind them with a sigh, and the figure walked to the first curve of the corridor before they dissipated in a shimmer of light. As The Sun Clouded Over adjusted their heading and increased speed, they thought about the possibilities awaiting them at the end of this journey — even if their new companion was shaping up to be a real handful. It will be worth it.

Entry: 001

A voice was singing.

Indrani could hear it still, the hallowed echoing of it flitting back and forth from ear to ear, circling around in his head. A warbling soprano reaching the apex of a psalm, the clarity of the single note so pure he could feel it burning his skin cold, swallowing every other sound around it. It sounded holy, a psalm from the throat of a Paragon whose Purpose had been reached in that single solitary moment as it built and built and—

Absence. A full and filling muteness, a silence so stark it hurt. Indrani’s ears were beating in the quiet void, so desperate for sound his mind was amplifying the throb of blood in his ears. The curate’s eyes drifted open; a sea of shrapnel swarmed his vision, blocked out the deep black beyond. He blinked hard, stared aghast out of his fogged helmet visor. He was in space, untethered, no merchant ship in sight. And then pain, as if suddenly triggered by his presence of mind, rose up like a stoked fire in him. He whimpered and curled forward slightly as it ate through his body, radiating out into his limbs. He’d never felt this level of agony before, his whole body an inflamed bruise. Inflamed. Flames.

“Oh Paragons…”

Memories all filtered back: the other mercenary ship, the missile, Curate Mithraiya’s smug face on the screen as she saluted him with a swirling gesture that one made to Curates who’d passed on before their Purpose was reached. 

That wretched tryhard had tried to kill him! But it seemed his obliteration was not a part of Indrani’s Path as it was for the crew. Selfish fool! Indrani clutched at his helmet, hid the wreckage of the attack from his line of sight. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. “No, no, no.” He started shivering suddenly, a feeble grin on his face, and then chuckling uncontrollably. “No, no, haha, no, oh Paths, haha—” 

Something tugged at the edge of their senses, and Sun pulled away from reviewing the game records and ran through the usual cycle. Everything was running okay inside; atmo at standby levels, nothing amiss in the hydroponics lab. Exterior radiation seemed to fall within normal range, and there was the pulsar they were crawling past, 7.2 light years off their high starboard. It was a landmark, easy to detect in this part of the fragment, spinning every millisecond but as steady and reliable as a heartbeat.

Sun returned to the play-by-play. This was the last game they’d finished with the passenger before he’d disembarked on Qia Station with the rest of his company a few days ago, leaving the halls of the ship empty once again. He was a fast player, but Sun had had plenty of time to study their opponent between moves, and by the time the two had placed their last pieces, Sun had been fairly certain he knew. 

There was something in the expression, flat and smug and hungry, that Sun had come to recognize after seeing it enough times. A few minutes between the suspicion, the realization, and then the questions, the endless, probing questions. Of course he would have suspected; he’d been talking about his peak-imperial relic collection with two other passengers earlier in the trip. Those collectors always had a thing for Ships. And Sun knew it. Sun knew it. But he was also ranked silver-B in Heptagrams, and how long had it been since they’d played anyone in Heptagrams?

Stupid. 

Another twinge, one Sun couldn’t ignore. Nothing on long-range yet, but Sun knew well enough not to ignore, haha yes, that’s what it was after all, a gut feeling. They made a minor course correction, bumped up the speed and quietly expanded their senses through the delicate fuzz of interstellar radiation. 587 milliseconds had passed.

A few stretches of debris-littered space away, Indrani was just beginning to gather himself. He swallowed his sobs but whimpered as he assessed his spacesuit. Since this was his first space flight, the young curate had kept it on for the few days of travel, as disgusting and ill-fitting as it was. The pilot and their crew had gotten a good laugh out of his insecurity, jokingly asking if he was relieving himself in his suit when they caught him idling somewhere. 

In the end his fear had saved his life. Mithraiya had fired on the ship nearly as soon as she was sure Indrani was aboard the longhauler. He’d felt the cold touch of space on his eyes, in his throat as the ship decompressed, sucking the atmosphere out into the void with a piercing whistling sound. The screams of the crew had been sharp and then, suddenly, dampened into muteness.

The young curate shut his eyes again, trying not to cry. He tapped the console on his arm and a flickering display spread across his visor. He couldn’t make out what most of the stats referenced but the ones he could understand made his stomach clench up.

Oxygen: 12%.

Suit: damaged 31%

Fear tightened his throat. Oh, Paragons help me, guide me, please, he muttered under his breath, poking at the arm console ineffectively. “H-hello? Anyone out there? I could greatly use some assistance! I’ve been attacked and am free… f-floating…in…bLEARUGH—”

Hm. Now that was interesting. Particle trails made recently by a vehicle, make that at least two, longhaulers by the looks of them, not built for speed. Matter readings high, too high for a ship of that class to eject into space as waste. Sun sifted through the matter scattering and atomizing in the vacuum. A couple flavors of hydrocarbon, metals… 

Water. 

Sun ran some quick math, laid in a course for the source of the scattering debris. No ship wanted to lose water.  Had it gone through some kind of emergency venting procedure? 

As Sun drew close enough to start feeling the infinitesimal pieces slide and skitter across their hull, they picked up the beginnings of the narrowband message at the edge of its range. The debris pieces grew larger with every second closer Sun drew to the calculated center of the decompression. By the time Sun heard the phrase “free-floating,” each chunk averaged a meter across.

Sun found their voice, their speaking voice, and sent a message on the same weak channel. “Hello there! I’ll be there to help in just a moment. Boy, you’ve run into a real problem here, haven’t you?”

Indrani scrabbled at his helmet ineffectually, moaning in disgust as the thin stream of vomit floated through his field of vision. He leaned away from it as if he could escape its transit straight towards his forehead, his thick spacesuit arms flailing in front of him.

“No, no— wait, h-hello? Is there someone there?!” The curate tapped madly at his arm console again until the comms pinged to life. “Please, this is High Curate Indrani the IV of Malakar! I’m in desperate need of rescue a-and possibly others of my crew are as well, though I can’t see them! Hurry, I beg you.”

His visor display flashed on again and through the stream of curdled barf he could see his oxygen stat dwindling lower. 8%. Indrani made the sign of the Path on his chest, an upside down triangle drawn with his pointer. “Whoever you are, I think I m-might be out of time…”

Poor guy. This was a real mess. No cracked remains of a ship, no decompressed chambers, no sign of any other ship except a particle trail high-tailing it out of there. This wasn’t just a skirmish — someone wanted to reduce this ship to a greasy smear, and they’d succeeded.

Sun pinpointed the source of the narrowband transmission, a small figure flailing and buffeted by pieces of debris. Nothing too big, so a scoop-up should be doable. They opened their primary docking bay, dialed up the buffer fields inside, and started matching their velocity to match the drifting figure, coming into range at the word “time.”

Indrani didn’t see the ship until he finally slowly rotated in its direction, its massive smooth fuselage already upon him, glowing bright in the ancient dark. The docking bay gaped open at him, a hungry black opening that would have taken twenty of the longhaulers he’d been on. Indrani swallowed, the air inside his suit going frosty as it escaped out of the small tears around his torso and sleeve. His thoughts felt heavy, his breaths coming in slow and thick. The curate’s vision dimmed, limned in shadow. “I….I…can’t…”

The figure hurtled into Sun’s bay, clamps and locks snapping shut decisively behind him, and the buffer fields slowed his tumble like a pebble thrown into a pond. Sun began a sweep of the debris field for other survivors, but the majority of their focus was on their new, unexpected passenger.

The buffer fields dissipated, letting the figure drift limply to the floor of the airlock. Sun flooded the chamber with atmo, high on the oxygen, and snapped out some limbs from the walls to examine him more closely. His suit was shredded, barely worth the effort of unclasping the pieces properly. Sun made a long tear from the sleeve to the opposite hip, peeled off the material, flicked the helmet loose with a long digit, and tapped a specialized meddigit against the man’s freshly exposed neck. Low blood oxygen levels, but body temperature was okay. Sun studied the man’s severe face, frost melting on the eyelashes, hair plastered messily to the forehead. He’d probably come to shortly.

The man was still for a beat, and then he floundered as his body suddenly sucked in a hard breath, oxygen flooding his hypoxic brain. The fringes of his sight were blurred but no longer hazed in darkness, and his thoughts were finally stringing together into a semblance of a rational train. The moon-bound zealot blinked, saw the indistinct limbs and reached feebly out to them with a groan. 

“T-thank you.” A dry, sputtering cough. “Who…are you?”

“Oh, hey, you made it! I’m glad I got to you in time.” Sun withdrew their mechanical limbs and paused for a moment, undecided on how to attempt the ruse this time, with this passenger. “Welcome aboard The Sun Clouded Over. I’m uh, the one who runs things around here.”

Indrani’s hand dropped to his side as he marshaled enough strength to sit up, whimpering as he rose. With the damaged spacesuit now discarded and his only clothing tight-fitted compression wraps around his extremities, chest and briefs, it was plain to see the extent of his injuries. Garish bruises peppered his torso, nicks etched his limbs. Blood and flecks of vomit flecked his face. All in all, a veritable mess.

“You have my gratitude, The Sun Clouded Over.” A pause as the curate winced, each intake of breath needling sharply against his ribs. “I’m High Curate Indrani of Malakar—” A pained grunt. “—the IV. It’s obvious our Purposes have intersected. I praise Them for that,” he muttered with a crooked smile, signing once again the Path across his chest. 

“Okay, well, don’t push yourself too hard,” Sun replied gently. “It’s clear you need a once-over, and my docking bay isn’t the place to do it.” To serve as a stretcher, a four square meter section of the floor beneath the man hummed and began lifting him, a hovering slab of sleek material. 

“This’ll take you to one of the cabins.” Sun’s voice reverberated in the large chamber. “There are first-aid supplies in there, but I’ll be able to look after you if anything more serious crops up. It’s a little cozier in there, too.” The slab coasted smoothly out of the airlock and towards the passenger level.

“We should talk, but I’ll give you some time to look after yourself. I’m gonna finish combing the site where I picked you up and see if anyone else made it through,” Sun lied. There were no other transmissions on narrowband, and the heat signatures in the debris field were not promising. But Sun knew from experience that pan-humans tended to trust others who spent their time searching or helping or listening, even if the results were negligible. Most humans valued time, because most humans had little.

Really, what Sun needed the most time for, relatively speaking, was figuring out how they and this High Curate were going to have their talk.

Indrani fell back limply onto the slab with a pained smile and, not knowing where this pilot was watching him from, waved into the air. “Thank you, yes, that would be ideal, most ideal.”

The curate blinked in and out of consciousness as he floated through the passenger level, face twisted into an unflattering grimace as he tried to keep his eyes open. The halls of the ship were massive, the ceilings arching infinitely high over him, almost disappearing into the softly lit distance above. Maybe it was just the knock he’d taken to the head but it felt…unusually grand. What kind of ship was this? Who had plucked him out of the wreckage? His mind didn’t respond, slipping off the edge of consciousness into a deep black quiet.