Descending from the common room to the engine chamber was trading one enormous space for another, but the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different. Cool, clinical wall panels provided illumination instead of the warm facsimile of daylight, and they shone not on wood and carpet, but dull metal. Several large generators rose up on either side of the narrow walkway by the elevator exit. The trio’s footsteps drowned in the clamor of drones doing maintenance dozens of meters above them and the inescapable hum of the generators themselves. Sun hoped it was enough to mask the fact that there were only two sets of footsteps, and not three.
“I was expecting something with a little more kick,” came Dolabra’s voice over the din, higher pitched but no less sharp.
“These aren’t for propulsion,” Sun explained. “They’re for ship-wide power. Navigation, communication, life support.” Me. They gestured to the end of the cavernous chamber.
The generators were towers exposed on all sides, knobbled with shafts and drums and pipes and panels that drones could easily climb and access and check and repair. The structure beyond them was an enormous chrome sarcophagus set into the floor with barely a seam, like a natural growth emerging from smooth, flawless skin.
Dolabra stared at it, only breaking eye contact to glance at Sun, who gave a curt nod, before advancing forward. Indrani hung by their side, uncertain.
“Are you planning on sharing, ah, more of yourself, Sun?” Indrani asked quietly once Dolabra was out of earshot. He felt a mote of relief now that he could speak privately with Sun and get a grasp of the situation at hand. How long was he to keep up the facade of hiding Sun’s identity? “I must admit, too, that I’m troubled by what she has shared with us. Have you dealt with such barbarians before?”
They shook their head and matched his low volume. “The situation back in our old fragment hadn’t deteriorated to such an extent,” they replied. “Probably because we’re so far out from those imperial installations. Fewer scraps to fight over.” Sun hesitated before addressing Indrani’s first question.
“Scraps like me,” they murmured. “We could use Dolabra’s advice, but I don’t want to risk my identity getting leaked around the fragment once we go our separate ways. I’m hoping that studying the engines’ll satisfy her curiosity, give us some useful information, and keep her away from the core.” Sun gestured with their chin at the sarcophagus ahead before glancing back down at Indrani.
“You’re the only one I want in there, Indrani. I’ll need your help to keep it that way.”
A blush warmed Indrani’s face. “Yes, of course! Anything I can do for you, I will. Your secret is safe with me.”
The trust Sun was giving filled him with a buoyancy of spirit he’d rarely felt back on Malakar. Though he was in community with his fellow acolytes, they weren’t what Sun was to him: a friend. Or…more than a friend, though Indrani wasn’t sure how exactly to name it. But this new arrival left him curious; the gate had ushered them into this volatile fragment, and they’d been rescued handily by this traveler. If this auspicious turn of events wasn’t the Path guiding him, he didn’t know what was. Perhaps there was more information he needed to excavate from the woman.
Dolabra hummed to herself, running her hands over the surface of the generators. As expected, she was slowly winding her way behind them, towards the real oddity in the room: the engine. Its chrome surface was smooth and shiny, offering a warped reflection of Dolabra as she approached it. “Now isn’t this interesting…”
Indrani stepped lightly beside her, a pleasant smile on his face. “Is it? I’m not well-versed in engineering. Monastery life, you know. What is interesting about it?”
“You’re real cute, you know that, priest?” She cackled, running a sharp fingernail along the surface, hesitant at first, then in a pattern, as if she was tracing some unseen sigil into the chrome. “This is an engine. A dark fluid engine.”
“Like…water?” Indrani peered at Dolabra as she paused and tried tracing another pattern on its surface. “It doesn’t look very wet…”
“Nah, it’s a type of energy,” she said, her mouth sharpening in a satisfied grin as a pattern began to glow in the trail of her finger. “Very tricksy. Now I don’t know the math behind how it works but I do know some things. Sun, come take a look at this.”
The avatar joined the two of them at the end of the walkway, eyebrows raised expectantly. “I’m curious what you’ve heard. Dark fluid engines aren’t a common find, where we’re from.”
“Common! You’d be better off dowsing for water out in space.” Dolabra rapped her nails against the metal in a smooth series of clicks. “This got an interface or anything, captain? Viewscreen?”
Sun pored through a series of mental menus and submenus, then stepped forward until they, too, were face to face with the sleek surface. They timed their command with a wave of the avatar’s hand, and a holographic screen bloomed to life.
If the screen were a window, the world beyond was difficult to describe. Waves of darkness pulsed urgently and in every direction. Sun suspected only their eyes could detect the tiny pixels of individual colors that made up the writing, opaque mass. The three of them watched the unsettling display before Sun broke the silence.
“That’s not what’s literally in there. It’s an interpretation based on output, for the visible spectrum. If a sensor showed us what we’d actually see—”
“It’d melt our faces off,” Dolabra finished. She glanced at Indrani. “This is some of the most exotic matter in the whole universe. This shielding right here is the only thing stopping that,” she rapped her nails against the metal again, “from radiation poisonin’ us in ways you’ve never even heard of. Or just annihilatin’ our atoms entirely.”
Indrani blanched, and Sun spread their hands in a pacifying gesture. “We’re no less safe here than we are anywhere else on the ship. And dark fluid doesn’t annihilate anything, it— ”
They cleared the avatar’s throat, minimized the window with a flick of their hand. “So the Gates warp space between two points, right? They pinch the points together over gigantic distances to let matter pass between them. This uses the same idea. But this engine’s pinching relatively small bits of space at a time, letting us cruise faster than light. But only us. If we manipulate space and something else gets pinched in there with us, well, you can imagine. The effects might be…” They shared a look with the other victim of the spore leak. “Unpleasant.”
“I see,” Indrani murmured darkly, entranced again by the abstract imagery on screen.
Dolabra chuckled, her fingers suddenly moving with a noticeable speed across the interface, almost as if she was familiar with the system. “Unpleasant sure is a cute way to put it,” she said with a grin, scrolling her finger over a twisting fractal object on screen. “How about we put this unpleasant little gadget to work?”
Indrani inched closer, narrowing his eyes at the interface. “What do you intend?”
“Like Captain here said, it pinches bits of spacetime, right? But it sorta…bubbles around just your ship and in, swallowing you up in the bulk of it. But if we invert the composition…” Dolabra used her thumb and index in an L-shape to stretch the interface a bit larger. The bubble-like structure that normally embodied Sun now expanded outwards, forming a foamy shell around them. Dolabra rasped out a pleased chuckle. “Now you got yourself a proper shield.”
Sun nodded their avatar’s head slowly as they broadened their senses and examined this new spacetime barrier enveloping them. It felt… not wrong, not exactly. The physics of it were sound, although the effects of a shield breach would be theoretically nasty. Sun had never seen this technique performed, but it didn’t feel unfamiliar, and that was what bothered them.
Still, its utility in their current situation was undeniable. “Now we can progress,” they replied. “We can continue on to the ruins.” The avatar returned the freelancer’s glance. “We’ll take an indirect route for now, around the heavy trafficked areas you marked, but this should give us more protection. If you wanted us to drop you off somewhere along the way— ”
“Aw, no hurry,” Dolabra purred. “Still got some potential guidin’ I can do, to lesser-known routes and neutral zones if you want ‘em. If you don’t mind me stickin’ around for a few more meals.” She clacked her fingers once more on the chrome surface before stepping back onto the gangplank, sliding them lightning-fast along Indrani’s shoulder as she passed him. Both Sun and Indy heard the faintest hiss of nail on fabric.
“It’s been a while since I had such cute dinner company,” she called behind her as she returned to the elevator. Sun felt Indy’s heart rate and perspiration levels leap, and with considerable difficulty, affixed a polite smile on their avatar’s face.
They returned to the cafeteria, and after a few more drinks and light conversation, Sun escorted Dolabra to a room, while Indrani waited in the common area. It gave the curate a few much-needed moments alone to process the new passenger’s arrival, but also the night prior. His body was still sore from Sun’s attentions, and it made him shudder to recall any portion of the experience. Sun had held him, filled him; two great and powerful forms cradling and invading him, taking their own pleasure from it. It had been unlike any other experience he’d had. And because of that, it was growing difficult to separate the obvious connection they shared from what he understood to be their intertwined Paths. Were such intimate links normally so profoundly overwhelming?
Or what if this was commonplace when one was intimate with others? Perhaps he could ask Sun…or maybe not. What if that unsettled them? What if that made them feel pressured? He’d already promised he wouldn’t rush them down a Path of his choosing. How would he understand, then, if what he was feeling was simply the intensity of novelty rather than something deeper, more meaningful? How did one delineate those feelings?
Dolabra’s sharp grin flashed in his mind’s eye. Indrani shifted on the cushions, twisting the hem of his coat. Maybe an experiment was in order.
Sun waited patiently outside the door while Dolabra examined the cabin. “Even these are spacious,” she whistled, sprawling on the bed. “You should see how cramped it can get in my cockpit. I built it m’self, but even I can only go so many days without docking someplace to stretch.”
As if to demonstrate, she rotated her well-muscled neck and shoulders before lounging in a new, cat-like position. “I’m much obliged for the hospitality.”
“Sure,” Sun replied, turning back to the corridor. “If you need anything, just—”
“Well, now that you mention it,” came the immediate reply. The avatar paused. “As your humble guest ‘n’ all, I want to make sure I’m not steppin’ on any toes.” Dolabra leaned forward on the bed. “That little priest of yours. Is he… just your passenger?”
Sun needed almost three full seconds to control their face before turning and replying. “Whatever gave you that impression?” they asked nonchalantly.
“Just curious, is all. Trustworthy travel companions are hard to come by. I c’n understand the need to—”
“Indrani is a high curate of his faith.” Sun’s voice was light and smooth, like glass. “He has exhibited considerable discipline and sacrifice to carry out this pilgrimage. I’m here to make sure he gets to where he needs to go.” They leaned in past the doorframe, smiling levelly at the woman. “We clear?”
Dolabra, unfazed, smiled even wider. “Crystal.”
The door hissed shut.
Sun re-entered the common room where Indrani was lounging, gaze distant in thought even though he had a hologram displaying some vintage Terran drama. Upon catching sight of them, the curate perked to attention and patted the low couch cushion next to him. “Another fortuitous meeting, indeed,” he said with a hint of cheery slyness. “The Path continues to intertwine us with those necessary to continue our journey.”
The avatar sank into the cushion. This time, their smile was unforced, though tinged with bashfulness. “Hey. I haven’t really had a chance to check on you since she boarded. How did you, uh —” They chuckled, eyes darting away. “How did you sleep, you know, afterwards?”
“Quite well as you can probably guess, since I slept through all the excitement,” he said with a pleasant smile, crossing his legs on the cushion. “I didn’t realize how…rigorous such activities are. I feel like I’ve gone through multiple fitness training regimens!” After a pause, he blushed and cleared his throat, “I’ll be sure to work on my stamina for next time. If there is one! There is no rush, of course. Or necessity.”
I mustn’t pressure them, Indrani thought, recalling Sun’s earlier demand. Even if it felt like his Path was to grow as close as he could to Sun, pushing himself onto the Ship would only upset them. “Was it…adequate for you? Do be honest,” he added sheepishly, lips tensing his smile into a fainter curve. “I’m but a humble novitiate in this subject, ever ready to learn.”
His last sentence stoked a fire deep inside Sun, and warmed the smile on their face. If he ever catches on to how well that meek little man schtick works on me, I’ll be in trouble. The odds of Indrani growing a single guileful bone in his dumb little body felt astronomically low, thankfully, but Sun’s mood darkened when they remembered their lack of control at the end of that last encounter. Maybe he’d be in trouble instead.
“I know you are.” They kept their tone gentle. “I don’t have much in terms of first-hand experience, either. But it’s my understanding that everyone who gets into a… whatever we’re doing — ” they gestured between the two of them, “— essentially has to learn how to be with their partner anyway. I still have to figure out what works for me. What’s safe for you.”
They leaned in closer to the man, taking in his biochemical readings, his exhalations, his warmth. “But I like watching you, Indy. I like feeling you.”
Indrani’s green gaze came up, soft as smoke. “And I as well,” he murmured, suppressing a pleased smile. His face and neck prickled with warmth and the skin around his failsafe implant began to itch. Clearing his throat, he added, “And I remember my promise. I won’t ever make you do anything you don’t want to. I would never endanger you.”
He was now fully leaning towards Sun, his body an embarrassing italic. Catching himself, he sat back into the couch, folded his hands in his lap, all but missed Sun’s amused expression. “But ah, I was wondering. What are your impressions of Miss Rend? I can’t imagine she’s anything other than an auspicious sign that we’re heading the right way on our journey.”
“Auspicious, huh.” Sun adjusted their seating position instead of letting their smile falter. “She’s cooperative, resourceful. A talented pilot. Probably the best person we could’ve hoped to deal with, given the greeting we got when we jumped into the fragment. I don’t blame her for being…” Sun cycled through a few possible options to complete the sentence. “…opportunistic.”
Indrani nodded his head with the same attentive expression, clearly missing the subtext of Sun’s comment. “I imagine it would be difficult to be otherwise in a place as harsh and isolated as this.” He touched a hanging vine that descended from the top of the wall behind him, rubbing one of the round, waxy leaves delicately.
“She’s quite friendly, as well,” he said absently, before turning to Sun with his trademark blithe smile. “Are you also going to attempt sex with her like you did me? Maybe that’s a way we could confirm we’re on the right Path. Make an ally! Do you just have a sense of when humans are a good match for you? Like a…a sexual compatibility algorithm?”
Sun stared at him, dumbfounded. “I’m not going to fuck her, Indy. I —” They raised their hands for lack of any better option until they ran over his words several more times in their mind. “I don’t understand why you’d think I would possibly want to do that.”
“Oh! I thought you… liked humans? And she seemed to like you. And ships, too!” He frowned in thought as he realized he was missing some angle of this line of questioning. “Besides, it seems like a good way to make friends, doesn’t it? Like how we did.” His eyes widened, another epiphany lighting him up. “Do you think she likes me the way you do? Perhaps I should try and engage in intercourse with her. To see if our Paths are meant to be bound in the same way ours are!”
“No.” Indrani jumped at the forcefulness of their voice, and they, too, drew back. Sun cast their eyes to the floor, flattening their palms on their thighs and smoothing the virtual fabric they found there.
They had to calm down. What did it matter who he had sex with? There was frankly no reason he should even be having sex with them in the first place. As long as he didn’t take his map and leave them— leave the Ship, that is—
“There’s no need for us to be exclusive, of course,” their voice smooth and flat, like plastic, “I only meant that I thought our connection went a bit… deeper than just the physical intimacy.”
“Of course it does,” Indrani said, leaning back into the space he’d been startled out of. “I thought I’d conveyed my thoughts on the matter clearly but perhaps not. Our Paths being bound is no small thing. In fact, it’s the first time this has ever occured in my comparatively short life and it’s been quite troubling to me because, well,” he blows out a puff of air, flustered at his lack of insight, “it’s difficult to tell if its the Path leading me or… other human compulsions.”
Sheepishly, he reached out his hand, set it over the projected light of Sun’s tense knuckles. “But I’d be remiss if I didn’t consider the rarity of this situation a factor in my, er, fixation with you. And I know you’ve been, how to say, keen on keeping ‘whatever this is’ unnamed. I’m not worldly like you, Sun. I realized that this all might be a simple diversion for you.” He nodded to the board game at the table beside them. “Play. I suppose I was curious if I put myself in the same situation with someone else, that would help me understand…”
“Understand. Sure. Sure, Indy.” Sun nodded, but the command to their avatar was laggy, the result mechanical. “How else would you possibly know where your dick ends and your destiny begins.”
They focused on rising from the cushion, standing on their feet, keeping the smile on their face. “Go for it. Fuck her. I’m sure it’ll prove to be educational.”
“I… cannot tell if my confusion is amusing to you or if it has irked you in some way,” Indrani said, smile faltering for a moment, his head tilting to the side. “Like you’ve wisely said, we learn to be with our partner. I’ve learned to tell when you’re not quite pleased and you aren’t now. But I can’t say I understand why.”
“And that’s why I’m telling you to fuck her. So you can understand.” Idiot. Fucking idiot. Sun’s path across the common room felt labored and sluggish. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Sun’s tone was clarifying itself to Indrani now and he squinted at their retreating form, hesitating for a beat as the blocks of understanding fell into place.
“Wait!” Indrani popped up from the couch, following after Sun as they trudged away. His smile grew a little smug. “I know what’s going on,” he said, drawing out the ‘I’ obnoxiously. “You’re making a joke, aren’t you? But the cruel sort. You’re being…you’re being sarcastic! Am I right?” His knowing smile was quickly followed by a puzzled frown. “Why…why are you being cruel to me?”
“You have no idea how hard I am trying to not be cruel.” The exit felt kilometers away. “Just do whatever makes you happy. I’ll give you some space.” Sun’s avatar dematerialized from the common room, giving them the slightest relief even as Indrani’s image still glowed in their sensors.
Indrani woke up to a cramp in his lower back. He shifted this blinked in confusion as he realized he was 1) still naked, 2) still a mess, 3) strapped down to his bed with a security harness. Had there been some turbulence while he slept? He certainly hadn’t felt or heard anything. Unhitching the harness, he stood and stretched, then flushed considerably at the evidence of Sun’s attention plain in the mirror. He’d never been on the receiving end of such…zeal. Perhaps there was a better word for it, but being the spiritual man he was, “zeal” stuck in his mind. Sun had treated his body almost as an element of the divine.
And Indrani, to his embarrassment, had liked it. More than liked it. Which was why, he realized again with more clarity, copulation and adjacent activities had been summarily banned at the monastery. Why food and fiction and play that didn’t add to one’s understanding of the Path was disallowed. It was dangerous to indulge oneself. Distracting. Stars, even reminiscing about what they had done was over the line, testing his mental discipline. Most intelligent people considered the natural state of being to be one of contentment. Happiness. Pleasure. But the Paragons taught otherwise: the natural state, the purest state of being, was curiosity. And pleasure, happiness, indulging in oneself, was the opposite of curiosity; in fact, destroyed it. And to destroy or hinder one’s curiosity was to defy the natural state of the self and the universe. To defy the Path.
But then again…what if this was what he was meant to do?
Stepping in the shower produced a variety of twinges in parts of his anatomy he didn’t know were capable of soreness, but the warm water quickly eased the aches. Each throb of discomfort brought a slight grin to his mouth as he leaned against the shower wall, washing himself lazily, replaying the sounds of himself and Sun together. Their urgent, insistent voice all around them. Surely this profound physical connection was just another sign he was on the correct Path. Why else would they get along so well, and be so compatible? This was the Path’s providence, guiding them towards their destinies.
After what seemed like an infinitely long soak, Indrani emerged, dressed, and whisked himself down to the refectory where Sun was surely waiting for him. It was odd they didn’t greet him as soon as he left his room. Just what were they–
“You must be havin’ fun at me! You really telling me you woke up a Gate?!”
Two figures sat at the table instead of one. Sun perched on the bench next to the fabber that had produced the steaming bowls of lentils and flatbread before them. Lounging on the bench on the opposite end was a woman.
She didn’t match Sun in height, but she was close. A mane of pale hair trailed off her broad shoulders, falling nearly to the floor. It gleamed against the matte reds and blacks of her sleeveless jumpsuit, and she flicked some behind her with a toss of her well-muscled arm.
Sun had been studying her handsome face as she ate, watching a large scar crinkle around the forehead and jaw as she grinned. But as Indrani stepped into the room, her eyes widened momentarily, two bright irises ringed by dark sclera.
“Well! Who might you be?” she chuckled in a low, husky voice.
Stunned, all Indrani could offer was a dumbfounded blink before looking pointedly at Sun for a second, then donning a pleasant smile.
A new passenger had boarded while he slept. A new passenger! A salad of emotions piled into his head: dazzlement, confusion, and then lush, consuming anxiety. The passenger must be a stranger, for surely Sun didn’t know anyone in this part of the Fragment…did they? Stars, what if this was an old friend? A lover, his brain whispered ,but he brushed the thought away. No, no, that seemed unlikely. He’d have to speak to Sun alone as soon as he could.
So the question for now was: how much did they know? Was Sun keeping up a pretense, like they had with him? Or had they been honest from the outset, as they’d done with the posthumans?
Collecting himself, he approached with his hands in their traditional Malakarian triangular sign-shape, giving the newcomer a little bow of greeting. “I’m High Curate Indrani of Malakar the IV. And you?”
“Dolabra Cinnabar Rend,” she said, taking his hand in a firm shake, then tugging him closer. Her dark eyes glittered a handspan from his own. “You always look so gobsmacked? Almost looks like you know me or somethin’, priesty.”
Indrani gulped and cast a skittish look at Sun, then smiled at Dolabra. “I can assure you I do not! Are you and Sun, uh, known to one another? It seems I was asleep for your embarkment.”
Dolabra licked her lips, assessing the curate with a careful eye. “Mm, we just met.” They maintained close contact for a beat more before she let him go, turning to Sun with her own lazy grin. “Any more passengers I’ll get the pleasure of meeting?”
Indrani’s hand snapped back towards his chest. He stepped gingerly behind Dolabra to take a seat to her right, making sure there was ample space between them. “Does she know?” he mouthed, eyes wide.
Sun returned his gaze with a tiny shake of their head before glancing back at the woman and smoothly continuing the gesture. “Just this one,” they replied. “Go ahead, continue your meal. Indy’s hired out the ship for a personal pilgrimage.”
“Very personal.” Dolabra raised an eyebrow as she returned to the bench. “What’s he need all the space on a ship this size for?”
“Very little,” Sun admitted. “But I don’t mind taking clients of humbler means. This is the ship I have, and I’ll fly it, no matter what the job.” They sipped from a holographic cup of steaming tea. “I take it you’re also a… freelancer?”
“Something like that,” Dolabra said, swirling the warm umber beverage in her cup. “My work is similar to yours, actually. I do a lot of courier work. Transporting goods, here to there.”
Indrani nibbled on a flatbread nervously, glancing between Sun and the visitor. Were they a visitor? Or were they now a passenger? “Are you planning on joining the, ah, manifest, as they say?” No one said that. “I mean, how did you come to us? Them, I mean. Sun. Sun’s ship.”
Dolabra cackled. “Curious, aren’t ya. Where were you an hour ago? Your captain here was in a scuffle with pirates, and I interceded, after which they graciously invited me on board.”
“I see,” Indrani mumbled into the flatbread, face warming. He’d really been out of it.
“How about you, Curate? How’d you snag yourself a giant freighter like this? Monks must make some mean money.”
“Oh, no, no; it was an unexpected turn of events that we found each other.” Indrani set his flatbread down, fingers drumming on the table. Dolabra had a predatory gaze, red and unblinking; it made his skin prickle in an uneasy way. “Sun…the captain was kind enough to take on my itinerary.”
“Which would be where exactly?”
“T-that would be…”
“Peak-imperial ruins,” Sun supplied. “He told me that paying a visit to one of those sites in this fragment would be very meaningful to him.” They caught his eye again. “For religious reasons.”
Indrani’s brows remained creased, but he nodded. The woman wouldn’t stop looking at him. Sun cleared their throat until she glanced back in their direction. “When you mentioned earlier how much control these pirates exert over this particular area, it made me wonder what that control looks like. Are they just interested in stealing ships to build their fleets? Are they amassing wealth? Do they bother much with”—they sipped their tea again—“—cultural artifacts?”
Dolabra worked her jaw, the scar inching back and forth along her cheekbone, before replying. “Well, now, that all depends. Say a client digs up an old imperial treasure—a solid gold ashtray or some shit—and hires you to transport it to a buyer. Would a pirate band be interested in taking it off your hands? Sure. But the question of whether they keep that ashtray as a trophy or melt it down to repair one of their ships’ circuit boards—well, that depends on the pirate band you run into.”
She leaned back on the bench. “If these ruins of yours are in a well-trafficked area, they’ll be picked clean of anything interesting. But that shouldn’t be too much of a disappointment if it’s just about the pilgrimage.”
Indrani looked crestfallen, and Sun cleared their throat again to snap him out of it. They still had plenty to gain from any data Sun could recover from the site. Material relics would be better, but Sun was reluctant to play their hand too quickly with this woman. Indrani recovered somewhat, and managed a shaky smile.
“O-of course. Just being in the presence of such a historical site would be enough. If we…even happen to find it, that is.” He knew enough to not give away that they had a map to their destination, something even this friendly traveler would surely consider valuable. The woman hummed thoughtfully, as if she might say something, but instead lifted her cup to her mouth.
“So, you called yourself a curate. That’s a sorta priest, right?” Dolabra leaned on the heel of her hand, her smile a blend of easy confidence and temporary satiation. It gave Indrani the sense of being watched by a very large predator, ones he’d seen in ancient recordings on wild and distant planets. “What’s your religion, then?”
“Oh! I serve at the monastery of Malakar, under the Paragons of the Path.” A little sureness entered his voice; this was something he could talk about safely. “We train to attune our souls to the divine Path, both individual and collective.” Seeing no curiosity in Dolabra’s face, he pushed on. “Are you of any spiritual inclination?”
“Not particularly, no. I’m more of a practical person myself. I like things I can grasp, measure. Religions always got too many untouchable variables for me to indulge in.”
Indrani nodded, the familiar rejection firming up his resolve. “Many people feel that way. It does take practice to embrace the unembraceable.”
Dolabra chuckled, a velvety low sound. “What about you, captain? Do you ‘embrace the unembraceable’?”
Sun raised an eyebrow. Her tone was loaded with innuendo—was she talking about Indrani? They supposed men of the cloth didn’t usually find themselves in the position he’d been in a couple of hours ago, but that didn’t mean her probing look deserved an answer. The avatar straightened and drummed their holographic fingers on the tabletop.
“I keep an open mind for all possibilities,” they replied. “Speaking of which. I hope that while we’re enjoying your company, you might give us some more detailed information on what to expect as we travel forward.” They rose from the bench, walked over to one of the small game tables, and illuminated the projector. Indrani looked questioningly at Sun, who raised a placating hand.
A map—not the map, but a map of the fragment—appeared in the air. Their current position was set as a landmark, and the Gate, and a handful of objects bright enough to be visible from their home fragment. As it loaded, Sun updated it in real time with data aggregated from their sensors, but it was still sparser than they liked.
“What can you tell us about the territories here? Which pirate bands are the big players?”
“Well, this area I would say is picked pretty clean. This little half-moon is patrolled by Titus Dolmen’s crew. And here…” Dolabra pointed out a few more areas on the map where pirates had established their strongholds or frequented as waystations between the corners of their territories. She rattled off a few more names, without seeming especially perturbed by any of them. Instead, Indrani noticed, she seemed amused.
“Now, this little asteroid cluster here,” she gestured into the projection, circling an area with her fingertip, “is where Bambang Galyak makes their base. Real nasty sonuvabitch. If I could pick just one of these assholes to get rid of to make life easier, it’d be them.”
Indrani leaned forward with interest; this was exactly like some of the fictional holoshows he’d watched back in the monastery’s archives. Dolabra was a cool, confident underdog up against a horde of fiendish enemies. “Why is this Galyak so bad in particular, Miss Rend?”
“Aw gee, just Dolabra or Rend will do.” She held her cup inside the fabber and hummed thoughtfully as it filled up with something warm and amber. “Galyak is one of the oldest pirate leaders in these parts. Old enough to be gray, little monk. And that’s saying something because pirates here usually don’t live long enough to see their first silver pube.” She slugged back some of her spicy mulled beverage and exhaled in satisfaction. “And that’s because they’re colder than absolute zero. Shit, their personal craft is decorated with the skulls of enemy pirates. Real old-Terra type shit.”
“Tasteful,” Sun muttered. They considered the map. The areas Dolabra had traced hovered in their mind, and they drafted and redrafted potential courses through this gauntlet.
“And the civilian populations?” they asked. “Who keeps the pirates in check? How do they navigate this area without running afoul of them?”
The woman took another sip as she stared at the hologram, but silently swished the mouthful before she swallowed. “They don’t. Galyak and the others out-muscled any patrol or navy decades ago. Some folks might make a protection deal with a particular gang, but that paints a target on your back for all the rest. It’s safe enough planetside, I s’pose.” She glanced up again, locked eyes with Sun’s avatar. “But who wants to be trapped in one place their whole life?”
Sun drew their mouth in a thin line. They needed no assistance remembering the anguish of being trapped in just such a way.
Indrani shifted in his seat. That sort of blatant barbarism was so completely alien to him, it was hard to believe it was real. “It sounds like it’s likely we will come across these pirates once more.”
“Indeed you will,” Dolabra said, head tilted in thought. She directed her gaze at Sun, brow popped curiously. “I’m curious Captain; you never answered me last time. Is there a reason you didn’t go on the offensive with those chumps? Looked to me like you were holding back. Or maybe you’re not used to these sorta conflicts?”
The avatar’s chin tilted upward as Sun weighed their options. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s even considered firing on me,” they replied. “One of the benefits of…inheriting a ship this big. And I dislike resorting to violence if other options are still on the table.”
“And if they aren’t?” she drawled. “What sort of on-board defenses did you…inherit?”
As she spoke the question aloud a curiously familiar sensation brushed the edge of Sun’s consciousness. Numbness. Like the hydrophilic creature that hid in their walls, they felt a strange emptiness in their mind that slid away the instant they tried to pin it down.
Dolabra’s second eyebrow joined the first. “On a ship this large? What’s its class?”
Sun prickled as they turned over the elusive thought – that an imperial tactical vehicle without weapons didn’t make any damn sense at all.
Over a century without using weapons…surely that meant they were removed after I was decommissioned.
But when? They couldn’t recall. The microseconds ticked away but Sun’s eyes wandered to Indrani, leaning against the table and studying the map. The implant between his shoulder blades left a new crease on his tunic.
“There are still some details about this ship’s history that I don’t know,” they replied coolly.
“Is that so,” she said, the disbelief obvious in her tone.
For the first time, Indrani realized how strange it must be for Sun to not understand the inner workings of their own body, or even know where to start looking. That in some way, this hunt for their lost past might not just be about their curiosity, but also about their pride. Dolabra’s casual questions were poking a wound.
“Well, I can’t in good conscience advise you to travel any further without some sort of defense or weapons.” Dolabra drummed her fingers on the tabletop, lips pursed in thought. “Y’know we get all sorts of ships out here, lots of different models. Even find real old ones, though those are mostly wrecks. But I like studying them all the same. Maybe I can take a look around your engine room?” She grinned and patted the floor, as if the ship was some sort of massive pet. “See what this old thing is keepin’ from you.”
Sun considered. The engines – that was probably okay. That wasn’t navigation.
That’s not the core. They tilted their head and nodded towards the closest elevator.
Sun and Indy will be back in November!
Sun held him close to their Shell as he dozed, but their attention pulled away and turned over the signal in their mind. They cast their gaze out into the unfamiliar vacuum around them, searching for its source, until—
Could that be it? they puzzled. A small, battered structure drifted in the distance, starlight glinting around every scorch mark on the metallic plating. The vessel wasn’t big enough to hold more than a pair of modest thrusters and life support for a handful of passengers, let alone any defense capabilities to speak of. Someone took advantage of that, Sun thought darkly as they confirmed the small transmitter on the ship’s stern as the origin of the signal. They increased speed to close the distance between the two of them and opened a channel.
“Hello, there! This is The Sun Clouded Over, and I just picked up your signal. Need any help?”
They waited for a response, studying the vessel more closely. Crumpled metal around an airlock—maybe one of the shots that charred the hull caused a breach and depleted the atmo. The passengers may have just fallen unconscious, or they might be long dead. Maybe if they ran a chemical analysis on the scorch marks—
A streak of light scraped the edge of Sun’s sensor range, and then another. Two slim vessels swooped toward them at blistering speed, forcing Sun to split their attention and analyze them simultaneously. Only 3.8 seconds since Sun had transmitted their own signal—these ships must have heard it and swung in right away, like they knew where to go.
Searing heat ripped through one of their sensors before it burned out. One of the two had fired—fired! On them! Sun swerved their thrusters into an about-face to confront the attacker, but another shot grazed their port side. Sun jerked away, corkscrewing through the vacuum. As they gained some distance, they hurled a transmission in their wake:
“You’d better have a good explanation for firing on me, guys. This how they do things around here?”
As Sun tucked Indrani into a sleeping net for safety, a high, amused voice cut through their comms. “It sure is, stranger.”
“Poor old behemoth was expecting a welcome wagon!” said a deeper voice, broadcasting from the second ship. “Just where did you come from, handsome?”
Another barrage of hyperviolet fire raced towards Sun, targeting their thrusters. The two marauders were clearly trying to incapacitate them, not destroy them, which only meant one thing.
Sun’s massive frame vibrated on impact as they skirted the worst of the onslaught and took the shot on their flank. Turbulence dampeners gentled the impact enough so that Indrani barely stirred; the curate only grunted and shifted in his bed, solidly held in a state of slumber.
“I’d stop running if I were you,” one of the pirates said, voice cloyingly melodic. “We could make that pretty hull of yours real ugly, real quick.”
Sun rolled away from the debris cloud scattered by the last shot. “Try me,” they replied breezily. “I’ll make yours even uglier.”
The two of them weren’t polished, it was true, but they were well-armored and devastatingly fast for such small crafts. Small… Sun thought. Small enough to smash against the hull, or get pinned in an airlock, maybe. But how to draw the ships close enough for Sun to strike?
They locked on to the one swooping in for another attack and ran some projections. If Sun twisted just so—
They edged a thruster into the empty space between two volleys of light. The barrage seared their hull, but the thruster’s readings came back green. Sun could still fly with it, but the pirates didn’t need to know that. Sun cut power to its nacelle, letting themself tumble awkwardly for a second or two as the closer ship advanced.
There was a brief cackling over the comms before the connection was cut. The two crafts split apart from their offensive spiral at violent velocity, jetting closer towards Sun’s belly. As they skimmed across Sun’s massive surface, still firing at the seams of their structure, something bright began to drop from their arsenals: a mass of neon-red spheres. They clicked against Sun’s surface, bouncing off shallowly, but then adhering to their hull. As the attackers launched more focused fire at Sun’s nacelles, more of the spheres trailed in their wake. Soon there was enough that, even if one saw Sun from a distance, they might see what looked like a pox of red scattered across their surface.
“Last chance, bruiser. Either you open your bay and let us in, or we come in the hard way.”
The idling thruster flared back to life, and Sun twisted, smearing a wake of white energy along their starboard side and catching the craft hovering there by surprise. A shout of alarm came through the comms before the signal cut out. Got ‘em.
Before Sun could pivot their attention to the other one, sensors prickled uncomfortably—no, painfully—along their hull. The small red orbs had revved to life, forming hundreds of tiny pockmarks as they ground into the thick plating beneath. Sun had never seen anything like them before, but if they were durable enough to pierce their hull in too many of the wrong places… They started an analysis of the drills’ composition from the scant data available, but a searing slash along their port side yanked their attention back to the remaining craft.
“The hard way it is,” the pirate gritted out, then dove back in towards the nacelles. The one on that side had taken some serious damage—it wouldn’t hold out much longer. The clusters of red spheres were now over a meter deep into the hull. If they didn’t stop burrowing when Sun took out the other craft…
Another streak of light, bright red, shone against the blackness. What now? Sun thought distractedly as their sensors followed its approach.
A new comm channel opened and pinged for Sun’s attention. Before Sun could greet or threaten them, a smoky voice came through, just a hint of excitement in their tone. “You look like you’re in a bit of a bind, stranger! Need a hand?”
It seemed the question was rhetorical. The newcomer corkscrewed towards the attacking craft, unleashing a riot of red missiles that fishtailed and then rocketed in the direction of the pirate. It was a bright red ship, triple the size of the two smaller pirate crafts, with a similar sleek design that conveyed fearsome speed and power. The smaller ship, now missing its partner, began to make a series of defensive maneuvers, barely drawing the missiles back in on themselves.
“Fuck off, bastard!” screeched the fleeing pirate as the red ship followed in their wake, firing hot-pink rounds of plasma after them. Some stray shots hit the small drilling bots, melting them into slag where they’d latched onto Sun. The two ships circled around Sun’s massive frame in a game of high-stakes chase before the pirate angled off and jetted into the dark with one explosive flare from their fusion drive.
The red ship followed them as if they might give chase, but after the fleeing craft made no move to retaliate, turned back after a minute towards Sun. “Well, shit, looks like they took a bite of you, huh? Or…are taking a bite. Those hullmites sure look nasty.”
At over two meters deep, the spheres were dangerously close to breaching their primary layer, but Sun spared some of their attention on an analysis of the newcomer. So much about this ship, and the ones before, was opaque to them and their vast experience. Interior sensors on the auxiliary hall bleated in alarm, and they took a chance, re-opening the comm channel. “Thanks for the assist. You’ve seen these things before?”
“You haven’t? Pirate crews use ‘em all the time ‘round here.” The crimson craft looped around Sun’s hull, silent for a moment as they surveyed the damage. Or maybe they’re running an analysis of their own. The husky voice continued, “If you’ve got any cleaner drones with hypersonic emitters, try turning those up to the max around the burrows. It can reset the hullmites and make ‘em stop digging.”
Sun dispatched their closest drones and set them to work. The concentrated sound waves that cleaned gunk off pipes seemed to disrupt the rapidly spinning balls, rendering them inert in the tunnels they’d torn through the metal plating.
They looked closer at their rescuer and their shiny red coating. The craft had seen action, but the chassis was buffed, well-maintained. The pilot inside chuckled. “The bait ship’s another trick these crews use all the time. If you’re new to this area, keep your nose down until you get to the Lotus Nebula. This part of the fragment’s all carved up into pirate territories, and it’s getting re-carved all the time. A friendly tip from me to you.”
The red ship banked into a lazy u-turn. “Hold on a minute!” Sun replied. “That’s all you’re going to tell us? ‘This place is swarming with pirates, good luck?’ Can’t we fight these guys off before they leave a bunch of shit in my hull?”
A cackle crackled over the comms. “I don’t know, can you? Noticed you didn’t really open fire on our dearly departed friends. You a pacifist, or do you not actually have any weapons on this big ol’ freighter?” They paused, humming in consideration, then added, “Honestly, I’m do for a restock of provisions, so I’m kinda in a rush, buuuut if you wouldn’t mind sparing me a meal and water ration, I’d be more’n happy to give you a few more pointers.”
Sun realized that they struggled to recall a job where they’d had to aggressively defend themself, let alone end a life, back in the old fragment. It was so sparse, its worlds so spread out, that few opportunistic players could get a toehold in the power vacuum left by the Gate collapse. Clearly, things hadn’t settled down so quickly in this corner of the former Empire. Sun hadn’t realized how much the realities of their former life would feel so foreign to them now.
They checked their surroundings again. Clear. Nobody but the stranger now.
Sun clicked back on. “You got a name?”
“Rend,” they said, the grin in their voice more than audible. “Dolabra Cinnabar Rend.”
[Author note: This entry contains explicit content]
Sun tightened his grip on Indrani’s thighs and lifted. Indrani toppled forward, catching himself on the mattress with his elbows. Sun pulled his legs back, toward the edge of the bed platform and let him settle on his knees. They stood, surveying him as he gasped in surprise in his new position on all fours. Sun ran through the series of words and motions and positions they’d laid out for the two of them in their mind—alternatives and contingencies, all calculated based on projections of Indrani’s stamina and the Shell’s strength.
The avatar placed a palm on one of Indrani’s hips, steadying him. Then they drifted the fingers back up, up the spine and shoulder blade, walking around the corner of the bed so that they were alongside him now. His head was still ducked down, eyes fixed on the sheets beneath him. He really was very pretty, in his way.
“I liked having your fingers in my mouth, Indy,” they said, reaching down and cupping his chin. They ran their thumb against his lower lip. “Let’s start by putting a few of mine in your mouth.”
An electric pang skittered from his lip to the base of his spine, standing his hair on end. So, it was that sort of inside, he thought with furious embarrassment. Answering Sun no longer seemed necessary, or even desirable. Instead, Indrani flicked his eyes up at Sun and opened his mouth, cautiously taking their thumb on the soft pad of his tongue. He didn’t so much as blink as he closed his mouth around the digit, holding eye contact to observe Sun, as if they might suddenly find some shortcoming in the act. The trim muscles of his back bunched and softened as Sun stroked his tongue, the dimples at the base of his spine deepening as he shifted his weight.
Sun’s expression–so carefully staged and performed!–was one of disconcerting vitality and diffuse focus. It did something strange to his insides, and his cock twitched, half-hard against his thigh.
Beyond their self-projection, Indrani didn’t so much observe as he did listen to the rest of Sun: the pleasant vibrato of their engines, the aerated hum of life support systems, the subtle buzz of electricity. All of it—no, all of them—created an enveloping, bone-deep calm within him, one he’d never experienced before. As he took in another digit, lips moistening with saliva, he worried just how much he’d cede to keep hold of this feeling.
“That’s good,” Sun murmured, caressing his cheek with their unoccupied fingers. “That’s so good, Indy.” They couldn’t think of what else to say. They’d counted on Indrani doing this—the lubrication would be needed for what they’d planned for next—but the texture of his tongue on them blotted out the script they’d prepared in their mind. The sight of him, pupils blown out, face flushed, lean body propped up, ready for them, ready for absolute—
—submission. They shuddered, but their metal core kept them fixed in place.
Sun withdrew their fingers, a small strand of saliva connecting them to his tongue for a few seconds more. They paced around the bed again and laid their hand on his hip, slowly sliding it back until the broad palm cupped his ass.
Indrani stiffened under the touch, motes of unease multiplying in his chest. He wasn’t wholly ignorant of how people took pleasure in others. Parts of his studies included the examination of such things, how amorous affairs or unbridled lust pulled the greats from their Path, down into the uncharted zones of failure. He hadn’t considered Sun would be interested in the same mundanities of his anatomy—he didn’t even have a unique body plan! He was a typical bilateral, no interesting gene splices or cybernetics, for which his fellow novices often used to mock him. But a quick glance at Sun over his shoulder told him they were anything but bored. They looked as invested at this as they did in finding a new fragment of the galaxy.
One of Sun’s fingers tightened on his ass, a thumb tugging the cheek to the side. A frantic stab of fear and need formed in his chest and sharpened. This would surely hurt, wouldn’t it? Even with Sun’s careful hands, Indrani couldn’t imagine it wouldn’t. Indrani’s breath sounded loud in his head, so he parted his mouth to quiet the rush of air. He needed…something. The request bloomed in his head, the memory of his lips against glass against not-Sun. A kiss through so many cold layers. He’d seen ancient depictions of such things, monuments on abandoned stars, holos of mouths devouring each other after bloody wars and celebrations, performed in quixotic dramas. Maybe…?
“Ah, um, Sun?” Indrani turned his head back minutely, worried the interruption might be construed as disobedience, and tapped his fingers to his mouth as if in thought. “While you do that, could you…” The fingers turned to one, a single tap against his lips.
A small, almost bashful smile bloomed on Sun’s face. The image of Indrani pressing his face to Sun’s, his body clinging to their Shell, felt so different from the actions that had spun out from it. It had been so clumsy, but tender, too.
Sun kept his back half-anchored with a firm hand, and stretched out until they and Indrani were eye-to-eye once again. Their broad torso wrapped around his lithe body like a leaf around a dumpling. Sun leaned in until Indrani’s lips phased through their face and brushed against the smooth metal underneath. Their slick fingers circled around the soft flesh they’d found between his legs, waiting for the moment when they could push in.
Indrani had thought his knowledge of what a kiss looked like would prepare him for its appropriate execution. Instead, he gaped as Sun leaned in, their shining features forming something almost demure, surprised. That sweet expression exhilarated him, made Indrani feel almost sneaky. He’d coaxed that face from them, him and his body.
“Sun…” The warmed metal against his lips wasn’t anything like he’d expected, and he found he had no idea what to do with his mouth. He moved on instinct, kissing, then licking the flat metallic place, brow furrowed in concentration. Sun’s fingers massaged his entrance, then stilled and pressed in. Indrani had to close his eyes against the intimacy of all their light, against the sudden but careful intrusion. The sensation itself was neither pleasurable or painful, but the fact that it was Sun sliding into him, someone so majestic around him, holding him, protecting him from the cold of space, keeping him breathing–
“Oh. Hng.” Indrani’s head dropped forward slackly, the rhythm of his breath shifting. His erection lost all flexibility, twitching in the air between his legs.
“Gorgeous,” Sun crooned. They flexed inside him, gently but in all directions, mapping the texture of him with their sensitive fingers the way they had with his tongue. They felt the saliva on their Shell—their face—and wanted him everywhere, like he’d been on their fingers, their floor, their—
“Indrani.” Sun combed through his hair and gripped him gently at the roots, pulling his head up to look at them again. Indrani’s mouth hung open. “I told you I made some augmentations. This Shell has a cock. I want—” They paused, their simulated breathing stuttering as it mirrored his. “I want to fuck you with it. I want you.”
Sun pulled a spitty little moan out of him, followed by a husk of a chuckle. “I thought…you said… this was a mediShell,” he struggled to say between gasps, downy forearms quivering on the bed. All the blood that had rushed to his hanging head now flooded out as Sun gripped his hair, leaving him buoyant, dazed. Their digit twisted inside him, bending to touch him anew and deeper still. A slow, ratcheting tension was beginning to climb in his stomach like the energy build before a star jump, the atmosphere full of crackling atoms.
“You have me, Sun.” There was a pleasure-drowsy blink, and then a shift of a smile across his open mouth. “Can I…I’d like to see it. You.”
Sun bit their lip. It was true; Sun’s addition to the Shell wasn’t standard by any medical specs. They’d designed it and materialized it using one of the fabbers in their central chamber, attaching it to their chassis as they rehearsed what they might say—what they might do—to Indrani if they propositioned him again and he said yes.
But their avatar…puppeting their gestures and controlling their expressions was complicated enough with the clothes modeled on top. Deciding how they wanted to look without them, and rendering all the minute details that entailed, and making it appealing… all felt like a task fraught with more challenges than navigating an imperial minefield.
They squeezed the fistful of hair. “Not this time. I’ll leave how it looks as a surprise.” Indrani groaned as they released their grip and leaned back to resume their position behind him. “But you’ll know how it feels.”
Sun’s phallus bloomed from their Shell, a swoop of polished metal with delicate, nearly invisible sensors and a head that gleamed in the light. They braced a hand on Indrani’s thigh, lined themself up, and slid their fingers out of his hole.
The absence made Indrani’s heart stutter. The feeling of openness where there had been none before was startling. In just these past long agonizing minutes, Sun had changed him. Anticipation had him panting in quick shallow breaths again, so he tried to slow it with meditative breathing.
Sun wouldn’t let him see them…why? They didn’t seem displeased with Indrani, quite the opposite, but the denial stirred up a fog of confusion. Maybe they didn’t like his face. Or the expressions he was making. Or perhaps they just enjoyed denying him. The last thought stuck in his head; after all, when did Sun get to demand things of others?
“Yes, as you say,” he said, affecting meekness. Indrani let his head drop between his shoulders, shutting his eyes tightly. To test out the theory, he reached between his thighs and took himself in hand. One long vein swelled in an urgent pulsing seam at its side, stiff against his palm. He felt a bolt of rebellious satisfaction run down his spine as he stroked himself, as if he was stealing pleasure from Sun instead of himself.
Warm metal clamped firmly around his wrist. “Well, aren’t you impatient,” Sun smirked as they drew his hand away and pressed it flat on the sheets beneath their palm. “You’ll touch yourself when I tell you to.”
They leaned themself against Indrani’s body, letting their cock slide smoothly along his warm skin. The haptic sensations felt like those from their fingers, but the novelty of the actions and their feedback pierced through their fog of disembodiment. Sun still perceived the world through measurements and data, but when it was all hyperfocused on a single surface, a single body, the sensations became…intuitive. Pleasurable.
When their sensors marked an increase in temperature—just right—Sun guided their cock to Indrani’s entrance. With a glance at Indrani’s vitals—he wants it—and a calculated thrust of their hips—that’s it, gentle—they pressed in.
Indrani opened his mouth to comment that he’d always been very good at taking direction, that he was a star pupil in the monastery, but ended up choking on air as Sun filled him. Reflexively, his body fought at first—and then, slowly, he relaxed and let them in. Sun made quiet soothing noises, but Indrani couldn’t parse them, couldn’t hear anything beyond the engine roar of his pulse. Light popped in the corners of his vision, and all his attention was on the pressure inside him, the weight of Sun’s hands on his hips, their eyes burning a hole through his back.
“Uhn. Sun,” Indrani said, curling his fingers into the blanket of his bed. Indrani bit into his bottom lip, rolled his teeth over it, and emitted a strained groan. It felt like an eternity as Sun sank themselves inside him with slow, steady insistence, until their hips socketed against his own. A bead of precome dripped to the mattress below, and Indrani shook with the effort not to go limp.
“That’s… certainly something,” Indrani rasped, a hiccup of amusement in his voice. How was it possible to feel so perfectly full? Sun, inside and outside, his support and refuge; if he asked, he’d bet that Sun would take up the work of pumping his heart and lungs for him, too. To be so safe left Indrani feeling sweetly agravic. “How…how does it feel?” he asked, an unconscious note of hope in the question.
“It—feels—” Sun stuttered, unable to finish. They could barely speak. Their breathing vocalizations had hitched, and they made themself mirror Indrani’s shallow pants. “Indy, you’re all around me.”
The friction of his skin, the pressure of his muscles, all of it registered on this extension of themself in a colorful cascade of sensation. They pulled themself back and savored the feeling before thrusting forward again, hearing him gasp, seeing him twitch and tighten around them.
“I feel so much of you,” Sun said, their voice and vocabulary drifting away from them. “Fuck. Gorgeous man.”
Indrani husked out a chuckle, a wavering smile on his face. His sweat-damp hair stuck to his nape, the slope of his forehead. “Uhn. Good. Yes.” He grunted as Sun pulled back, then sat themself unmistakably deeper. His eyes glittered with tears. Part of him wanted to turn, to demand the glow of Sun’s mouth against his own and see, but the other part of him had no trouble staring at nothing, his mind dissolving into soft edges.
On a stronger thrust into the hot grip of his body, Indrani gasped and shot a hand out to brace against the wall in front of him. Sun paused, but Indrani squirmed his hips back. “No, it’s…strange. Good. More.” When Sun obliged, a fresh sheen of sweat broke out across his body as a new sensation grew roots in his stomach, between his legs, an arc of electricity that seemed to be growing between them. “Oh Paths, Sun, you’re–” He bucked his hips back against Sun’s churning hips, lanky muscles bunching in an effort to chase whatever sensation Sun was coaxing from him. “—very deep.” Indrani grasped at his pec, rolling the pebble of his nipple between his fingers greedily.
“Now you know what it’s like,” he muttered, incoherent with pleasure as Sun took up a steady stroking rhythm, “to be me, in you. All the time. So…good.”
“Yeah?” They leaned over him, arm wrapped around his abdomen as they pumped. “Is this how it felt on my floor? Is this what it feels like when you’re gonna—” They thrust again. Sun was completely awash in their sensations, watching Indrani take them harder and deeper, the exertion tightening every cell in his body. At some point, he’d peak and clutch them even tighter before he crumpled—would that do it for them, too? Or would they have to keep going and going, until they hit their own threshold?
“Y-es, just there, just there,” Indrani whined, drugged by the divine fullness, the hard, rhythmic slap of metal against the meat of his ass. Sun canted their hips at a new angle and drove their length in short, rapid punches that felt like they reached his lungs. A crystal strand dripped from his cock and puddled on the bed, and another wet spot had formed just beneath his head; he’d been drooling? Stars, how long had Sun been fucking him? It couldn’t be hours, but it felt like it, time dilating as Sun exacted their tender ferocity. Pleasure and discomfort seemed to have braided together, forcing him to balance on the edge of release. He clawed into the thin blankets to keep from touching his cock as Sun sheathed themself again and again. Would they get tired? Would they come? Could they?
“SunSunSun, just a bit more,” he whimpered, clenching and bouncing back against Sun in search of–
Indrani’s eyes shut, mouth falling open in a noiseless scream. His hole gripped around Sun’s cock in rapid spasms, shaft jerking with his heartbeat, spattering cum on the sheets. Sun planted themself as deep as they could go, forcing the intensity of his orgasm to a razor’s edge.
“O-Oh,” he mumbled, voice muzzy. Indrani’s arms melted out from under him, chest mashing into the mattress while Sun kept his hips anchored in the air.
They held him as they rode out the tightness of the shuddering body around them. It wasn’t enough. It was good, it was so good, but they needed more time, more haptic feedback to overwhelm them—
“C’mon,” Sun groaned. The braced themself with a hand on the bedframe, grinding on the man beneath him. “Give it to me—give it to me—”
“Uh, w-wait, uh!” Indrani’s eyes began to water as Sun rode them into the bed, little grunts devolving into labored gasps as they bottomed out again and again. He felt behind him for the hand on his hip, gripped the rigid joint of Sun’s wrist in a bid for respite. But the effort only encouraged Sun to grasp him by the forearms, using his limbs as leverage to haul Indrani back against them, forcing his back into an exaggerated curve. How long did they intend to go for? And how much could he physically withstand?
“S-un,” his face crumpled as a panicked, tingling rush spread from his stomach to his toes and fingertips. Sun ground against that strange place inside him with relentless energy, making his mouth fall open in surprise. “Guh, w-wait, ah–” Another orgasm ripped through him, a scalding, starry pressure that spiraled through every one of his cells. It gouged a sob from his lungs and a last pearl of cum from his softened erection.
In Sun’s peripheral attention, an unusual alert pinged into their awareness.
It was as if a small, insistent noise came muffled through deep water. The feedback of their body, their Ship body, encroached on their hyperfocus, and they slowed, taking it in—taking everything in.
Indrani was suspended in their Shell’s arms, head limp. He panted heavily, his muscles fervently pulsed around them, and his hair was plastered to his sweat-covered face. They hadn’t seen his biochemical readings like this, Sun realized, since his encounter with the creature. When he thought he was going to die.
Sun stared at themself as their singlemindedness washed away. Pleasurable sensations still prickled their brain while they were inside him, but now they took in the bigger picture—that of their puppet mechanically squeezing a man dry, with no sign of stopping.
Sliding broad arms beneath Indrani, they supported his body as they pulled out. They let him gasp tearfully before drawing him close to their chest, holding him there.
“Indy,” they barely managed to say. The alert pinged insistently, but they couldn’t focus on it, not now. “It’s over. I’m done. We’re done.”
Indrani shuddered and went slack against Sun, folded against the hardness of their chest, the glow of their self-projection. He squinted up at Sun as the haze cleared from the edges of his vision, ragged breathing evening out.
“Was it…as you expected?” he asked, patting Sun’s arm with a shaky smile. There was an odd note of tension in Sun’s voice that Indrani didn’t expect to hear. Or maybe that was just how they sounded when satisfied. Or perhaps they only wanted to sound satisfied when they, in fact, weren’t. Maybe he’d done something wrong.
A quiet settled between them, and the air shifted, turning gluey with awkwardness instead of intimacy.
“I didn’t consider that your, ah, vigor would be quite so different from mine,” he said, drawing his legs up and tipping his knees together to hide the mess between his legs. Embarrassment prickled warm across his cheeks and ears. Soft organisms, pan and post-humans, were so messy. Leaky and squishy. So unlike Sun, who was perfectly clean and shining. Even their projected clothes were unrumpled.
“It was—” Sun hesitated. “—incredible being able to touch you like that. I’ve never felt anything like that in my life.” They brushed a strand of hair from Indrani’s face, but couldn’t bear to look him in the eye.
They drew their focus away to inspect the alert. It was a signal rippling out through this sector of space that their sensors had recorded, repeating in a particular pattern. Unfamiliar, but the format seemed very much like—
“I’ve picked up something, Indy,” Sun said. “Outside. Might be a distress signal. You should stay put, but I might be a little distracted while I figure out what’s going on.” They were grateful for the distraction, for the promise of a task that they knew how to handle. They squeezed Indrani’s shoulder. “Do you want me to stick around?”
“Hm? Oh. M’okay,” Indrani answered as exhaustion washed over him. He was still puzzled at the tension in Sun’s voice, but he was too depleted to investigate further. With Sun holding him, the gentle stroke of their fingers across his brow, Indrani let his eyes close. His head drooped against Sun’s chest as a bone-deep tiredness claimed him. He could talk to Sun about his suspicions tomorrow. The two of them had all the time in the world.
If a child should ask, What was the empire? a parent might reply, “An old galactic kingdom that had too much ambition for its own good.” But if a child should ask, What was the fragment? the answer often varied.
“It was a mass-scale attack by an unknown enemy.”
“It was one of their own, a traitor who sabotaged all the Gates.”
“It was a malfunction in their tech, a quantum virus that ate through all their telematics.”
“It was a misstep on their Path.”
As Indrani sat safely cradled in a ship seat, a projection displaying the Gate before Sun’s bow, he thought of his Path and Sun’s. Were they truly meant to walk to their destinies together? Or was it his own preferences skewing the truth of his Path? It had been much less difficult to follow his Path on Malakar; there were no distractions. Food was simple. The curates kept to themselves. How embarrassing it was that, faced with the first obstacles to his faith, he was now completely unmoored? No wonder the Paragons had restricted them to the monastery.
The projection of the Gate glowed as the fungal spores flooded the broken Gate structure, filling in the missing and damaged frame, a golden glow spreading through the ancient circuitry like filling veins. From Sun’s vantage, the Gate looked like jewelry, molten and fresh from some nebulaic forge.
“The fungal biostructure is energizing and syncing appropriately with the Gate. You will be able to jump in…t-minus seventy-three seconds. Are you both prepared?”
“Initializing,” Sun spoke over their shared line with the Unbound. For the twentieth time that hour, they ran through every check they could think of. Everything seemed like it was functioning the way it should, even with Sun on hyper-alert for systems functioning the way they shouldn’t. “We’ll transmit a message when we’ve made it to the other side in one piece. Thanks again for getting this up and running, guys.”
“No sweat!” Clumb piped up in the channel. “Happy trails!”
They propelled themself into the glowing ring, the space around them now blissfully free of debris. Sun glanced at Indrani through one of their cameras, opening a line to just him. “No turning back now. Ready to see what the rest of space is like?”
“More than,” Indy answered, trying to put some resolve in his voice. He was trembling in his jump seat with a mix of anticipation and the fear of a fragile hope. Hope that had less to do with his Path and more to do with Sun. Would his destined Path put Sun in danger once more? Force Sun into places they weren’t comfortable or ready for? And if that happened…would they blame Indrani? If only they weren’t so resistant, both of their Paths would be much more pleasant. But they seemed set on setting up walls and boundaries. And for what? To slow their progression towards what they were meant to do? Indrani just didn’t understand.
A vibration filled the atmosphere in his room. His lungs felt strained for air, as if they were too weak to expand and contract. Indrani looked down at his hands where they grasped the seat harness; they were blurring, the defined edges of where his body ended and everything else began starting to fission.
“O-onwards on our invisible Path,” he said, the end of a longer Malakarian adage, clutching his harness and pinching his eyes shut. “And may we step true and not stray.”
Sun endured the uncomfortable full-body thrum that cascaded over every deck and hull. The image of Indrani on their camera feeds lost depth and detail as brightness filled the chamber, and all their other sensors were blown out by the noise and meaningless data of the atomization process. They wished they could shut it out, like Indrani, but steeled themselves and focused on what they could still control. Maintain plotted course. Finish the countdown.
“T-minus five,” came their garbled voice through their own deafened sensors. “Four. Three. Two. One—”
The brightness pierced them deeper than anyone or anything ever had, annihilating them—
—and receded like a knife pulled out of an apple, still whole.
Data flooded their sensors, showing them a world beyond themself, but Sun shut it out to focus solely on their body. Were they all there? Where was—
“Indy?” Sun croaked. Their voice felt almost painfully loud—they recalibrated their sensors back to baseline. “Are you okay?”
Silence, and then a small peep of a voice. “Y-yes. Yes! I’m okay.”
Every one of Indrani’s cells felt ponderous and slow as mist. The effect of being atomized and recombined in no time induced a sense of ghostliness in the curate; all weight and substance had vanished, then reappeared, his thoughts included. A sense of physical and mental diffusion swarmed him, set him on a dizzy edge. What if he’d lost something during the jump? A memory, a piece of knowledge? Would he even notice the absence?
Indrani touched his face, then chest, trying to ground himself in visceral sensation as the jump aftereffect wore off. Carefully, he prodded at the top of his spine, where his new implant bumped out of his skin like a segment of exposed spine. It pinned and needled with reassuring pain: he was whole.
“And you, Sun? You’re intact?” And then awed, a smile in his voice, “…we did it, didn’t we?”
Sun cautiously examined their sensors and started identifying the new stars that twinkled against the familiar blackness. Behind them glistened the edges of an enormous ring, softened by the Unbound’s overgrowth, but in a pattern different from the one that Sun was familiar with. This was a new Gate—the other side.
They projected one of their visuals on Indrani’s main screen, and brought up his star map alongside it, highlighting white dwarfs and supergiants as Sun recognized them. A line pierced one of the map’s onionskin layers and cut through to another on the opposite side, tens of thousands of light years away. A mathematically absurd distance, traversed in seconds.
“We did it,” Sun murmured. “We’ve left our home fragment.”
They twitched their thrusters to get a better look at the Gate on this side. The bright pinhole in the center of the ring was the warp surface that beamed through all their data—all their instructions for reassembly—to the engines on this side. It glimmered expectantly, waiting for a message back to the Unbound. Sun lined up their transmitter beam with the tiny target and opened their channel.
“Come in, guys,” they said in something closer to their usual speaking voice. “Clumb, Helfdym, we made it. Running a diagnostic to make sure, but everything feels good.”
The warp surface flickered like a distant star before exploding with light for less than an instant, all local color reversing into false tones and back again. Indrani blinked rapidly, unsure of what his senses had even registered, only that there was an infinitesimal and temporary change. Luminant motes flooded from the white pinhole, until a secondary ring materialized from it, and then something smaller, a shuttle in the familiar globular aesthetic of the Unbound tech.
“Ah, there you are,” Helfdym said, his low voice thrumming over the comms. In the background, Clumb let out a high-pitched hoot of excitement. “Congratulations on the successful jump, both of you. And we couldn’t have achieved this without your knowledge, Sun.”
Indrani felt a little fleck of envy spark in his chest; after all, Sun wouldn’t have come to a Gate at all if it wasn’t for Indrani and his adherence to the Path. But no, that was not the correct way to see things, Indrani told himself. There was no room for pride for those that followed the Path. And the Unbound were right; without Sun, they wouldn’t have been able to remediate the problems with their program.
“Yes, Sun, you deserve all the commendation for your fine work,” Indrani said, dampening his envy with the easy admiration Sun drew. “Helfdym, what will you do next? Stay here? Explore?”
“Clumb and I are going to begin building up the quantal-microbial scaffolding to maintain this new Gate’s integrity. If we are successful, we hope to have this Gate and its match open permanently. What is the next step in your journey?”
Sun pulled in on the star map and drew a new line from the symbol that marked their current Gate to a patch that was lower-resolution than the rest. The cultivation labs and testing grounds that promised so much to the two of them laid ahead.
“We’re going deeper into imperial space,” Sun replied. “There’s some more old tech out there we might be able to revive. If we find what we’re looking for—” they allowed a chuckle into their voice, “—I promise you, we’ll let you know where to find it.”
“You got it!” Clumb piped up over the comm. Sun was going to miss her little voice. The Unbound’s shuttle skimmed along the circumference of the ring, surveying their work ahead. “Safe travels to both of youse guys!”
“I’m sure we will cross paths again,” Helfdym said, a rare lightness in his voice. “But do stay in touch.”
The commlink pinged shut, and Indrani sighed in a moment of private relief. He undid the safety harness strapping him firmly down to the soft jump seat. When he stood, his spine pricked with pain, as if he’d been strapped down to a wall of spikes and not a plush seat. Peeling his flight uniform and compression suit, he turned to examine his back in the narrow mirror set in the wall of his room. Even twisting his waist and neck, he couldn’t get a decent look at the implant at the top of his spine. Was it supposed to be this sore? Perhaps Sun would provide him with something to ease the ache.
Or perhaps he should keep his pain to himself. The implant was, ironically, a sore spot between them. If he drew attention to it, it might irritate Sun. Or perhaps they’d be pleased the implant was causing him pain; he’d earned it, after all.
With a sigh, Indrani gave up the attempt to assess his surgical site and began to redress, pulling on a fresh pair of compression leggings. But a knock at his door startled him, and he stumbled backwards, his leggings stuck around his knees. “Yes? Is that you, Sun?”
The door began to slide open, revealing Sun on the other side. The second they caught sight of him, their eyes widened, and they spun their avatar around. The door hissed shut.
“That was my bad,” came their voice, muffled through the door. “I came by to check on you. My own diagnostics came back clean, but I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
There was a moment of quiet as Indrani extracted his heart from his throat and yanked his leggings quickly up to his waist. He snatched up the tunic he usually wore over his compression suit, then hesitated, wringing the light fabric between his hands in thought. Normally, he’d be adamant at protecting his modesty, but he’d quite thoroughly done away with that, at least between him and Sun. What point was there now in pretending otherwise? Besides, Sun seemed to enjoy his body, so it stood to reason that sharing it would only improve the state of their bond. And the closer they got, well, that would only clarify the mystery of their Paths, wouldn’t it?
Indrani palmed the door back open. “No apologies needed,” he said quietly, unable to fight the embarrassment from his face. He stood framed in the entryway in his leggings and nothing else, arms crossed in an attempt to shore up his stature. Otherwise he was close to hunching over, the sensation of unbearable bareness drawing all the heat to the surface of his skin. “Come in?”
Indrani retreated into the room and sat on the edge of his bed, hands folded over his stomach. “I feel normal enough? Perhaps a little deflated. But that is to be expected. All that excitement has to dissipate at some point.” He moved to itch absently at the top of his spine, then caught himself and retracted his hand. “Do you…have tests you wish to run?”
Sun passed through the door frame, and now they seemed to fill the room, glancing down at Indrani’s shoulders. “The implant still bothering you? Let me take a look at that, too.”
They reached their hand around Indrani, slowly and gingerly, fingers searching for where the bone-white object connected to his body. They made contact, and against his warm skin—a shock of smooth, cool metal.
The cold touch jolted a gasp out of Indrani, then a weak laugh. “You’re here! I mean, you’re always here. But you’re hard,” he said, then lifted his hand to rap a knuckle against Sun’s hologram-shrouded Shell. Then, sputtering at his word choice, “I mean, you’re solid. Ah, here…”
He turned quickly on the bed and sat cross-legged, his back facing Sun. Such a fitting name for them; their stare made him feel as if he was being broiled alive. “I’m sure it’s in a fine state,” he said quickly, fidgeting with the fabric of his leggings. “I haven’t had surgical procedures since I was young, so I imagine my tolerance for such things is rather low.”
“Still worth a look,” Sun murmured. They ran fingers along the top of Indrani’s spine, applying gentle pressure to test the tenderness of the flesh. His skin was bruised, but it had faded from plum to unripe lemon in color. Sun stared at the implant, the device that Indrani had fused with for…their sake. For them to control him, use him. Sun’s doubts and suspicions still buzzed dully in a cloud around their mind, but Indrani was here now, small and vulnerable under their hands.
“It’s healing pretty well.” They kept their voice low, smooth. “This Shell’s different from the last one I used. It comes with some meddigits I’m using to check your vitals.”
They ran their fingers up to his neck, feeling his pulse and perspiration through his warm skin. “You’re the same Indrani as before, I think. Congratulations.” They paused and counted silently: one, two, three seconds.
“I customized this Shell with a few other augmentations as well. Do you want me to keep touching you?”
Sun’s fingers had been chilly before, but now, perched at the apex of his throat, they’d grown warmer. Skin-warm, familiar. Baffled brown eyes risked a glance back over his shoulder, then snapped away. “Yes,” he croaked, hunching in on himself, as if he could hide his own body’s reactions. But where was Sun’s gaze, if not everywhere, and at all times? Abashed at his own eagerness, he added, “Best to do a thorough check. One might miss a subtler change.”
Sun’s thumbs rested at the nape of his neck, where his hair began. They ran one hand up, combing his hair with their fingers, and then pulling them down, tracing his jawline, brushing past his lips. They felt his rapid breaths on their sensitive meddigits, and the details of the room faded away around them.
The other hand, they drew along his spine and along his ribs, and here again, they could feel the rhythmic breathing through his chest. They found his nipple and brushed past it with a single slow finger.
“Don’t turn around,” they whispered in his ear. “Are you still curious to know what it’d be like for me to use your body?”
It was startling how confident and graceful Sun’s movements were as they petted different swatches of his body, all of which held their own flavors of sensation. The slight tug at the roots of his hair was honey dripping down his scalp, but his nipple sparked and tingled, overly sensitive. Confident to the point of arrogance, Indrani thought, and felt his cock plump with interest. He pressed his hands over his lap, shivering, keeping his breathing shallow, as if too strong an exhalation would disturb the moment. How did Sun know exactly how and where to touch him? Was their proficiency a product of study…or practice?
“Yes, please,” he said under his breath, his usual elocution now tinged with a hue of need. The touches, the nearness; all of it was so overwhelmingly intimate that his brain insisted some formality must be maintained. “Ah but I…I don’t think I can do it as we did last time. My back, you see.”
“Oh, you won’t be on your back,” they said smoothly. They felt his throat bob as he swallowed. Sun ran their hands down to his hips, where the bare skin ended and the clothes began. “Strip for me, Indy.”
Indrani’s blush caused two high, hot points of darkness to flush his cheeks. Ever obedient, he uncrossed his legs and leaned back to tug his leggings off. His back tapped against Sun’s Shell, and the cool, hard surface caused him to shiver and work his clothes off faster. He had a relatively smooth back and thighs, but springy caramel fluff curled up from his calves, navel, and a small patch at his chest.
Suddenly, all the details of his body grew in his perception, as if magnified. All the particulars of his anatomy—hair, scars, freckles, prominences of bone—became critical points of scrutiny. With Sun’s comprehensively granular vision, there was no way they wouldn’t see all these flawed intricacies. So, what did Sun like about him? What did they dislike? Sun obviously appreciated larger bodies, but he himself was lean, raised on an ascetic diet that allowed for little caloric buildup. Did Sun wish he was larger? Should he attempt to gain weight? Or did they like his smallness? His human fragility?
No wonder sex was prohibited in the monastery, Indrani thought as he tucked his legs under himself, hands still folded politely over his groin. One could become obsessed with meditating on the appetites of another.
Sun admired the man sitting meekly in front of them. The Shell was an inadequate substitute for the human body they desired, but the delicate medical sensors gave them a simulacrum of what it might be like to touch and explore a person like this. The possibilities beyond simply “watching” and “ordering” hovered tantalizingly before them.
They leaned forward until they could wrap their arms around his thin waist and run their fingers along his thighs, watching the thin, faint hairs stand on end. Sun’s chest brushed against one of his shoulders as they murmured in his ear again.
“You wanted so badly to have me inside you,” they chuckled. “And I can do it, with this Shell. I won’t hurt you. Do you still want it?”
Indrani’s pulse ticked hard in his throat. Seeing his basic desires so easily observed and spoken aloud was humiliatingly hypnotic. His stomach filled with a heavy, hollow anticipation, and his cock felt weighted with interest. “Inside?” he echoed weakly, drawing his hands through the hologram of Sun’s thick arms. A thrill went through him: the Shell provided enough scaffolding to mimic a body he could touch. Hopefully, if he was fortunate, a body to please. But what did Sun mean? Would they switch with him, his body for the Shell? Did he care? He tried to grab hold of reason, but Sun’s fingers dug into his thighs and dragged upwards, coaxing them slightly apart, and Indrani’s mind fizzled into a pleasurable static.
“Y-yes.” His tongue darted over his lip like a wary animal. “I want it.”
“Okay. So.” Sun took their time to slide the palms of their Shell’s hands together and raise them to cover a grimace. “Give me more context for what Indy’s done to himself. Please.”
“I can explain!” Indrani said, spread out on his belly atop a globular operating table, dozens of robotic surgical limbs hovering over him. Clumb and Helfdym were on the other side of the table from Sun—the former seemingly pleased, and the latter, slumping as if the entirety of the galaxy’s irritation was heaped upon his shoulders. Indrani shifted on the table, but restraints tightened, flattening him securely. “Please don’t be upset, Sun.”
“He was attempting to fulfill a…wish of yours. Human embodiment, to be precise,” Helfdym supplied, his voice nothing short of an audible eye roll. “And insisted on making it a ‘surprise’.”
“…Surprise,” Indrani said with a weak smile.
Sun stared, hands still over their mouth. The visible results of the procedure seemed to include a small cutaneous implant between his shoulder blades, at the base of his cervical spine. It was pale and matte, instead of some gleaming metal—organic, like the rest of the Unbound tech—and the unobtrusive shape reminded them of a piece of bone. Not nearly as garish as it could be.
But… why? Sun processed Helf’s words over and over again—this had something to do with “human embodiment?” For Sun?
Indy told them?
Panic washed through Sun’s mind, and it took all their will to tamp it down. They had no idea what expression was on their face. “That was…” they gritted out, “…private.”
Something about discussing their wish for a body with Indy had felt intimate. Was it so foolish an aspiration, too embarrassing to share it with anyone else? Or because it had always come up when Indy was trying to touch them? When he was inside them?
Indrani obviously hadn’t thought so. The sight of Indrani’s unclothed back, his body spread out on the table in front of everyone, felt so inappropriate. That sight should be just for the two of them, in the common room, when they were—
Were what, you lunatic? A voice broke through the surface of the wave, like it had before. This was irrational. They didn’t have all the facts. Indrani had done something stupid, and they needed to know exactly how to fix it.
Sun dragged their hands down to their sides and tried to fix their face. “What procedure did you do on him, guys?” they asked. “Something you came up with yourself?”
“Indeed,” Helfdym said, a rare note of caution in his otherwise glum voice. “But the basis for the procedure was from recovered Imperial data. You should have it in the packets we sent over, though it’s not completely clear what the original procedure was. We supplemented it with our own innovations to achieve similar results.” He gestured at Indrani. “In some OTVs, like yourself, there was often human crew aboard with such implants. We’re unsure if their function was essential or appurtenant.”
Indrani pressed himself up to rest on his elbows, his eye twinging in pain as his back curved and the tender flesh around the implant throbbed. “My humblest apologies, Sun,” he mumbled. He hadn’t considered Sun’s privacy even once.
It dawned on Indrani that secrecy and privacy were now things he’d have to consider in this world outside the monastery. On Malakar, such things had no place. And it had seemed such a harmless and natural desire for Sun to have, one Indrani couldn’t imagine would embarrass or upset them. More shamefully, he hadn’t thought himself close enough to receive anything like a secret. It both thrilled and shattered him; Sun had confided in him as a confidant. A friend!
“I thought…no, I didn’t think. I thought only to satisfy myself in receiving your gratitude for what I thought would be a well-received gift.” His head dipped down, hair draping over his sorry face. “I hope I’ve not hurt you or our friendship too badly.”
Sun found himself shaking their head at the whole sorry display. “No, you—” They sighed in defeat. “Forget it.” They glanced at Clumb more sharply than intended, based on her surprised squeak. “You said you got information from the same data packets you sent me?”
“Uh huh,” she replied. “Imperial mandates for ships passin’ through the Gate.”
“But why would anybody on an OTV have something like this…implant? I can handle everything in ops and navigation myself—that’s the point!” They pored through the data again, doubly frustrated now at their inability to parse it. The annotations in the crew manifests didn’t seem connected to Ship operations at all; no duties or jumping protocols or…
“…failsafes,” Sun whispered. They stared at the device on Indrani’s spine, then back at the Unbound. “For a situation in which they didn’t want me running everything.”
Sun took a step back from the man on the operating table. “That isn’t a way for me to control him. It’s a way for him to control me.”
“I would never!” Indrani said, voice rising in shock.
“We assumed that was the original intention of this implant, yes,” Helfdym said. He tapped at the surgical machine’s interface, and three flexible tentacular arms, braced Indrani and maneuvered him upright. “But as I said, the procedure we provided Indrani was only based on that technology. This is far less transgressive: you may occupy one another’s bodies at the discretion of the body’s owner. You may also occupy the same body simultaneously, though how safe it is to leave one unattended…” He waved one of his arms in the air absently.
Indrani began pulling on his vacsuit as Helfdym continued to explain the nuances of the implant to Sun, a furious blush warming his olive skin. How had this gone so wrong? The implant was supposed to be a good thing for Sun. A gift! It was supposed to tie them together so their Paths would intertwine more strongly. Had he gotten it wrong?
Sun spared only a fraction of their attention on absorbing the Unbound’s explanation, filing the pertinent information away as they fumed silently. How thoughtless could Indrani possibly get? Sharing Sun’s secrets with others—not that the Unbound hadn’t earned their trust, but their eccentricities made them hard to predict—and now, guilelessly grafting tech from the same source of which Sun was so desperately trying to free themself?
Was this Indrani’s idea of leveling the playing field? A shiver shot through their mind. Did my behavior push him to this?
“… pretty sure any class-B neural jack should be compatible,” Clumb had chimed in on the debriefing. “But the old data seems to be sayin’ that you should have a connection system built specifically for this in your systems core.”
“In my what now?” Sun snapped to full attention. “Until Indy came along, I was the only one doing anything in there. Surely, I would have known something about a—a custom-built connector.”
“Not exactly,” Helfdym said, a note of apology in his voice. “The connection system wasn’t built for you to access. It was strictly for your…‘failsafes’, as you called them.” He slanted his head in thought. “We’ve seen older OTV schematics without this particular connective port, but after a certain point, all of the ships began carrying these connectors. It seems wresting control from the ships themselves was becoming necessary. I wonder what issue was precipitating this engineering development.”
Indrani was only half paying attention to Helfdym’s rambling. Sun had shot them such a cold look, and like with every expression, it was perfectly crafted to convey what they felt. They were angry. Offended, even! Indrani had been so sure his Path was directing him to this choice…why had it led him astray? No, no, he must have simply misinterpreted it. The Path was never wrong.
“Do you,” Indrani began, his voice small, “want me to have it removed? I’ll do it immediately, if so. I only thought it would…” his voice dropped to near inaudible, “bring us closer together.”
He needed their bond to be strong if they were to successfully walk such braided Paths. Didn’t it make sense this would only improve their friendship? Why was Sun being so resistant?
“It’d be no trouble at all!” Clumb interjected. “Me an’ Helf have done way more complicated procedures than this. It’d be a roll through zero-gee!” Her tone was light, affable—but Sun recognized it from that of a former entertainer who knew how to smooth over awkward situations.
“I think some recovery time would be prudent,” Sun said. They hooked a thumb back at the corridor from which they came. “I have some housekeeping to do, clearly. You don’t need me around here, so I’ll take my Shell back to the ship.”
They pivoted and drifted towards the door that would lead to the airlock. “I’ll talk to you later, Indy.”
In an awkward silence, the three watched Sun leave before Clumb finished zipping up Indrani’s vacsuit for him.
“For friends, you sure don’t seem to know them well,” Helfdym commented, tapping in commands on his interface while his secondary pair probed at the implant and Indrani’s tender skin.
“Well,” Indrani began, “we’re…new friends?”
Indrani mumbled something, and the two Unbound exchanged a look. “A couple years, you said?”
Indrani cleared his throat. “A couple…weeks.”
Helfdym and Clumb froze. “Ah,” Helfydm said flatly. “You’re making a joke.”
Indrani’s brittle smile was all the answer Helfdym needed. The Unbound palmed his face with four hands, scrubbing them up and down in exasperation. “I thought with such a request, you’d have been old friends. Just why would you think this was an appropriate—” Helfdym held up a hand, stopping himself. “Never mind. You humans will always be a mystery to me.”
A few hours later, after a meal and a testing session to make sure Indrani understood exactly how to utilize the implant, the curate found his way back to Sun. He floated into the hangar and limped slightly to his room, all without a greeting from Sun. Their silence was more worrisome than their anger, the quiet building like a wall between them.
After putting on his sleeping clothes, Indrani poked his head out of the room into the great hallway. The grandness of it made him feel uneasy, like the walls and ceiling would come crashing down to smother him as punishment. Did Sun want to punish him? Is that what friends did when one was wronged?
“Sun?” Indrani’s voice echoed into the hush of the hall. “May I speak to you?”
A cloud of glittering motes grew and solidified in a human shape before his eyes. Sun leaned against the wall across from Indrani’s door, arms crossed. Try as they might, they couldn’t muster their default accommodating smile.
“Why did you tell them?” Sun sighed. “Our situation is already so… complicated. This—” they gestured at Indrani’s new augments, “—doesn’t make things any easier.”
“I only thought it would be a benefit. You are aiding me on my Path, and it seemed I could aid you on yours.”
Indrani itched at the corner of his frown. It wasn’t entirely true that his motives were purely Path-forged. A small part of him wanted to feel what it was like to be Sun again. A large part wanted to please Sun. Both parts, vainly pleasure-oriented, were ancillary to his Path. But perhaps pleasure could also be a guide, a compass on the sprawling map of his destiny.
But another thought burgeoned quickly. “I wasn’t aware what you shared with me was a secret. We don’t keep secrets on Malakar. It…muddles one’s Path. The Paths of others.” He paused, eyes locked on Sun’s unusually neutral expression. “Why didn’t you want them to know?” Was Sun ashamed to be seen as wanting a human form? Did they look down on their small ,inferior bodies?
“Isn’t it obvious?” The avatar’s voice was tight, agitated. “It’s hard enough finding others who understand what I am and still treat me like a person. But at least I know how to use the body I have. I can control it, and I can control who gets close to me.”
They held their hands out, palms up, pleading. Indrani was significantly shorter than their avatar, and miniscule compared to their Ship self. Why did they feel so unbalanced by him? “What you’ve done,” Sun continued, “jeopardizes that control. Of my identity, of my agency. Of my…Path. Can’t you understand that?”
It wasn’t obvious at all, but Indrani feared exposing his ignorance. After all, how could Sun trust him with their body if they thought he didn’t understand them? And how could Indrani even begin to understand Sun when they were so incredibly different? If they were to switch bodies again, more permanently, they could form a true bond, achieve true understanding.
Or…perhaps what he’d interpreted as his Path was a mistake. Perhaps they were a mistake.
“I…but I would never do anything like that, Sun. I would never take away control from you. And doesn’t knowing about this, ah, part of yourself make you more aware of who you are? Why, you’re like the Unbound, in a way! You have no need of a permanent shape. You can be anything.” Indrani would be lying if he said he wasn’t envious of that element, amongst all his other admirations for Sun. “And…don’t you think this will help us know each other better? In the most elemental of ways.” His mouth felt dry. “A way few friends can know each other.”
Sun stared at him, like they could tease out any hidden insincerity from his guileless face. “This isn’t a system designed for friends.” Or whatever the fuck we are, Sun bit back. “This could end so badly. No matter what modifications those two made on your end, or how well-meaning your intentions…”
They shook their avatar’s head, but kept turning over the entire mess in their mind. “There are other ways for us to get to know each other better, you know. Like in the common room.” They blanched, jerked their head up. “The yoga, I mean. Maybe we just need more time before we resort to…” Sun gestured vaguely at Indrani’s body, the implant between his shoulders. “…that.”
Even though Sun had many years on Indrani—who was a youthful thirty-two lunar years old—it was difficult for him to accept them as older, wiser. Worldly and more knowledgeable, yes, but Sun was not a student of the Path; they didn’t know how the Path comprised both the physical matter of the universe and the spiritual, the tangled brambles they might form, or how to interpret their shapes. Indrani had been studying the Path his entire life, and now was the chance for him to interpret where it meant to lead him without the guiding hand of the Paragons.
But how to convince Sun, who seemed to lack any faith in the Path at all?
“Of course. I would never want to rush you or force you into something you’re uncomfortable with. And I did not take this cybernetic addition lightly.” Indrani fidgeted with the hem of his tunic, the implant at the top of his spine twinging. “I interpret the will of the Path and follow it. It may not always be pleasant, but it leads me, all of us, to where we must go. What we must do.” Coppery eyes flicked up towards the false light of Sun’s tense gaze, a weakened smile hinting at the corner of his mouth. “And it led me to you. There’s no way I can question it now.”
Sun held the eye contact for as long as they dared, closed their eyes, and sighed. They did need him. They couldn’t risk alienating him. Was that why it was always so hard to tell him no?
Disarming as he was, they still had some control in all this. Sun leaned forward, pressed a hand on the doorframe just past Indrani’s ear. Their body remained holographic, the weight unsubstantial, but they thought they saw Indrani twitch as they entered his personal space.
“So it’s agreed,” Sun said levelly. “Whatever Path you’re taking, you’re not going to rush me down it.”
“Agreed,” Indrani answered, hope in his tone even as he shrank from Sun’s stern look. “Whatever time you need.”
The walls of the common room projected false golden sunlight, butter-warm and just as soothing. Indrani stretched from yoga pose to pose in a seamless flow to center himself, the artificial dawn gilding his skin. Beneath him, the floor had taken on the appearance of wood, a rich red marbled surface with knots and stripes of grain. He had never seen a tree in real life, just archival images, and seeing the complex interior dissected and polished induced a sense of wonder in him.
Had Sun seen trees before? Had they ever landed on a planet? Could they? Or was their mass too great?
Indrani sighed, shook his head, and bent himself into an arch. No matter what he did or saw or heard, his thoughts inevitably turned to Sun. It was unhealthy, Indrani concluded, and made an effort to turn his attention towards research and meditating on his Path instead of bothering his friend. Or were they just his host? No, Sun was his friend, weren’t they? Or had that also changed?
It had been a few quiet days since his encounter—was that the word for it? he thought— with Sun, and they had since made themselves scarce, save to update them on the Unbound’s progress. In terms of repair and advancement, Clumb and Helfdym had apparently made large strides towards a functional jump gate, and Sun was eager to observe a second jump demonstration themselves. But besides these progress reports, which Indrani was grateful to receive, Sun had mostly kept to themselves.
Indrani was steeped in confusion. Sun had seemed so impassioned while they were…being intimate. He had seen them shiver, saw their eyes widen, their tongue pass over their mouth as if famished. And yet once they—or more accurately, Indrani—had finished, they’d pulled down a veil almost instantly. Had it been unsatisfying? Disappointing? Had Indrani unsettled them in some way? He felt himself growing more and more disquieted as the questions insistently cycled through his head, interrupting whatever reading or activity he was trying to engage in. How would he solve this mystery if Sun seemed to be set on keeping him at a distance?
Sun watched him as he diligently went through each form. They had never recalled feeling so voyeuristic when it came to monitoring their inner spaces before. There were chambers where they refused to look on principle, like the baths, but were they really going to let this room, their favorite, become one of them? And they liked seeing Indrani use this room, breathing and flexing and pressing himself against their floor.
Sun materialized their avatar in the hallway leading to the chamber. They exclusively spoke to Indrani through it these days – using their disembodied ship voice might remind him of their constant unwelcome presence, or worse, of the way they had… used it during sex. Sun’s displeasure radiated out to their avatar, which grimaced the moment before they passed through the common room threshold. Why did you do that to him? Everything’s going to be so much more complicated now.
They composed themself back into a disarming smile and entered the chamber, quietly making a path to a chair (not the cushions, not the floor) in Indrani’s line of sight. Today’s update could wait until he was finished.
“Hello, Sun,” Indrani said softly, scanning the Ship’s comportment as they made their way to a chair. They looked relaxed and cheery, as usual, which made his stomach sink slightly. Perhaps his own insecurities and emotions were making more of their tryst then necessary. Still, he wanted to talk about it, despite the low simmer of unease in his belly. Indrani was in monkey pose, and leaned forward to touch his forehead to his knee, stretching his hands forward out to grab his foot. It was a good pose to avoid looking at Sun. He breathed in and out, slow and deep, then asked, “Any news from Helf or Clumb?”
“Yeah, good news,” they replied. “Clumb says the major repair work’s done. We might be able to test the new setup tomorrow. I’m running through the computer systems they got back online and making sure we won’t run into any problem as interesting as the last one.”
Sun studied the solid line that ran from the crown of his head, along his spine, and out to the toes of his back foot. “You’re very flexible, Indy,” they said quietly. “That must take a lot of practice.”
“Good. I’m excited to try our hand at the gate again.” He wasn’t sure, but did their conversation already feel stilted in a new way? Would it continue to be like this? The back of his neck prickled with sweat, and Indrani exhaled slowly in a bid to keep his pulse at a manageable tempo. “Yoga is our main form of exercise on Malakar. The moon’s gravity is quite light, so exercising can be difficult. We do it for meditation, too.”
But mediation and focus were the last things stretching was giving him. Especially with Sun in the room, each movement now felt weighted with potential. If he bent or stretched a certain way, maybe Sun’s boredom with Indrani would be burned away by new interest. Maybe they’d ask to touch him again. How did one keep the attention of an ancient partially-human ship?
But no, those were juvenile desires coming to haunt him again. He should keep their partnership companionable for the integrity of their mission. That he was already feeling compromised and troubled by Sun’s previous attentions—and now their lack— seemed to signal that this way lay trouble. The Path came first; his feelings, second.
“Do you have any ah, relaxing or meditative practices, Sun? When I was, well, you, it seemed…overwhelming. To even just be felt like too much.”
“I don’t—” Sun glanced up at the ceiling. They had to actually think about that. “I don’t know,” they admitted, eyes flicking back to Indrani. “I mean, I bet you were overwhelmed because you weren’t used to experiencing the things I could do without thinking. Even stuff that comes automatically, like fuel filtration or climate control, would feel weird if you weren’t used to doing them with your usual body.”
They slumped a little in their seat. “When I was in Clumb’s body, I didn’t have to make myself breathe. But hearing myself breathe, feeling the air go in and out of a hole in my head…” Sun shook their head vigorously, nose wrinkling. “It took some getting used to.”
The avatar leaned forward now. “I have hobbies. I grow plants, I read. Sometimes, when I’m studying a game, I get into a zone where I can focus on a pattern, a strategy. It’s soothing. But it’s not very physical of a practice.” They studied Indrani.
“Could I…try a pose? With my avatar? Something I haven’t done with it before?”
“Yes!” Indrani wanted to make a joke about trying a pose with their Ship-self, but was too delighted to ruin the moment. “I mean, of course. Maybe this one? It’s called the Revolved Triangle.” Indrani folded his legs up and stood, taking a wide stance and wiggling his soles to ground his feet against the floor. He let his arms hang, then took a deep inhale and exhale, raising his left arm while the right lowered to touch his left foot.
“It’s challenging, but it really wakes up your abdomen and balance. Just breathe through it, try to keep your spine long.” It felt odd to talk Sun through the pose when none of his instructions really applied to them. “Maybe…try and ground yourself in this room? If that’s something you can do. Feel the temperature of your walls. The flow of oxygen you’re venting in here. The vibrations of…of me on the floor.” Indrani blushed. Maybe this was too presumptuous of him, but he had a hunch this might be a benefit to Sun’s wildly busy mind.
The avatar continued to stare at him for a moment before slowly rising to their feet, padding silently towards him until the two of them were a meter apart. Sun turned to one side, slid their right foot forward, and bent at the waist. Mirroring Indrani, they clasped their right foot and twisted their broad shoulders until their right arm stretched toward the ceiling, and they made eye contact with him.
There was nothing about the pose that was impossible for the avatar’s rig to handle, no joint bending in a way they wouldn’t on a human body. But Sun had no experience with it, and could only go off of observation to imitate it, live in it. Their chest rose and fell to the tempo Indrani had set; they slowed their twist at the point Indrani’s body had met its natural resistance. They attempted a small grin, tempered by achievement and exertion, and shut their eyes.
They focused their attention into a pinpoint on the avatar, the pose, quieting as much as they could within their mind before slowly stretching their awareness out again, like a ripple along the floor. They felt Indrani’s feet pressed firmly against the wood, his breaths expelling droplets of moisture into the chamber’s atmosphere. They fixated on his heat signature, a column of warmth that slowly pulsed as blood flowed through his body.
“You’re right,” they spoke, keeping in the rhythm of simulated breaths. “It helps to…have something to focus on.”
Indrani felt a small flutter of pride: he’d helped Sun for once, even if it only was helping them relax. “I’m glad,” he said quietly, taking a long inhale and exhale. “How did you like being in a body? Clumb’s seemed especially unique, postie-wise. Am I correct in assuming you’ve never ah, inhabited a traditional one before?”
“Nope, never.” Sun opened their eyes. “If circumstances had been different, maybe I could have savored the experience more. But it was all so frantic…everything seemed to be moving too fast. And I needed all the time I had to get used to Clumb’s…unique features.”
They slowly rolled their neck from side to side. “I think she can turn her head almost 180 degrees. I mean, I could do that with this avatar, but it’s not typical human anatomy, is it? I’d probably give you a bit of a shock.”
Indrani smiled uneasily. “Ah yes, it definitely would. I imagine it’d give me a sympathetic crick in my neck.”
Switching sides on an exhale, Indrani watched in his periphery as Sun did the same. It was strangely cute to see Sun mimicking his movements, right down to his breathing, the flutter of his eyes as they shut in concentration. “Does having your avatar make human gestures satisfy you? Er.” Wrong word, Indrani thought, embarrassment making him bite into his lower lip; thankfully, his face was turned away from Sun. Well, their avatar. Paths, there really was no escaping their watchful eye, so why be shy?
“I mean to say, do you feel human when you…act human? And being in Clumb, did it…make you want a body? Or was the experience too strange? Or limited?” Indrani paused, then chuckled nervously, instantly wanting to backpedal. “I’m sorry, perhaps I’m overstepping.”
“You’re not, don’t worry,” Sun assured him. They paused for a few seconds. “I’ve always wanted a body. One more like the ones my passengers had. At least for some of the time. If I had been in Clumb’s body for longer, I would’ve gotten accustomed to it, certainly. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t mine.”
They extended their focus just enough to see Indrani glancing at them from the corner of his eye. They returned the eye contact. “I just want a body like yours, and to know that it’s mine. I want to do the things I’ve studied and practiced and mimicked for decades and…” Sun trailed off, hyperaware of the earnestness in their voice, and ducked their chin into their chest, “…make it count. Make it equal.”
Indrani was silent for a moment, though his thoughts were anything but. They ricocheted around his skull, doubling, echoing. You can have my body, he thought instantly. He couldn’t imagine anything more worthwhile than giving it over to Sun, infinitely smarter, more capable, more potent. Perhaps the fragment technology they were after could do that: make a gift of his flesh. Just considering this wild notion triggered a weightless feeling that filled up his spine and pooled in the base of his head, welled in his chest.
“It’s a shame I can’t share my body with you,” he said, instead of the madness his mind was whipping up. “I would gladly let you have it.” Like usual, there was an innuendo present in Indrani’s comment that he didn’t notice until it was out of his mouth. “I mean, you…you deserve the body you want.” He chuckled, added, “Even if I admire the one you have.”
Sun raised their eyebrows, slowly lifting out of the pose. “When you say…share,” they attempted, after turning Indrani’s reply over and over in their mind. “What do you mean, exactly?” The clarification was crucial, lest Sun get lost in the memory of what it was like to have Indrani’s body in this sunlit room. They tried to pull their focus away from the gravity well that was his breathing, his heat signature.
Indrani tilted his head curiously to look at them. He couldn’t think of how else Sun might interpret him. “Well, literally. Like you had Clumb’s form? Unless you have another way you could plug into my body.” He laughed, tried to make jerky robotic movements with his arms. “Like a Shell or something. You could pop in and out of me whenever you liked!”
But something like that would surely take Pre-Fragment technology. And scientists with a decent understanding of it. Like…
Like the Unbound.
Indrani blinked, jerked out of his pose with a new notion: if the Unbound’s technology could switch them accidentally, could they also make the switch happen on purpose? Or what if they were able to do exactly as he’d said, make his body a living Shell for Sun? Excitement clenched his chest as he thought of the possibilities. He needed to contact Clumb, quickly and quietly. Maybe he could even surprise Sun with some new tech.
Sun found themself relaxing, and even their avatar’s shoulders lowered a centimeter or two. He wasn’t doing it on purpose. All the nervous phrases weighted with possible meanings—that was just Indrani being Indrani. Unprompted, a smile bloomed on their face. No matter what had happened, what they’d done to him, Indrani was still…his uncomplicated self.
The word “Shell” did linger in their mind, a spark for an exciting idea, but Sun shelved it away for now. They blinked with interest as Indrani bolted upright. “What’s up?”
“Oh! Well I…” How was he always so embarrassingly transparent to Sun? Were ships psychic? “I was just thinking I’d like to visit the Unbound again, watch them work. Observe. I don’t think they’d mind.”
Indrani pulled out of the pose and did another brief round of slow deep breaths, stretching his arms out and up, then clasping them in front of his chest. When he turned to Sun, he had a boyish smile on his face, wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. “Well done, Sun. You’re a natural. I think I’ll go wash up, then float over to the habdeck again. I’m sure I’ll be back in time for dinner.”
Sun nodded, their smile revived at the sight of Indrani’s. “Sure thing. I’ll check in with you later.”
It wasn’t until Indrani had passed through the doors that they realized how little the two of them had discussed the reconstruction effort. It had felt like one of the few neutral topics they could cling to after their mishap at the Gate, and especially after their encounter in the common room. Yet this was the closest Sun had been to feeling… normal… in several days, and they hadn’t needed to rely on a heavily technical conversation to do it.
With some reluctance, they broadened their focus once again to encompass the entirety of their sensors and systems and continued their review of the Unbound’s data. The systems check was the most immediate task, but tucked within the last transmitted packet was a series of files Clumb and Helfdym had dug up.
Troubled by their unfamiliarity with the duo’s method of interfacing with the Gate, Sun had politely asked for a peek at any files that were native to the original Gate computers and hadn’t been overwritten by the Unbound’s patchwork system. Picking through those ancient files would give Sun something to do until Indrani returned—perhaps they might even find something to discuss with Clumb or Helf when they returned to the Gate tomorrow.
The most salvageable nugget in the mass of half-corrupted information appeared to be a roster of interstellar vehicles by class and affiliation. Made sense for an imperial installation, Sun reasoned, recalling the wildly escalating security procedures at every Gate—up until the series of attacks that knocked them offline forever. Operators had to know exactly what types of ships were requesting permission to pass through, and who they could trust. As such, this document provided data on each class of imperial ship beyond public knowledge, including passwords to test on the captains, even remote failsafe procedures in the case of a hijacking situation. The paranoia of the entire era was on full display.
Sun searched for the entry on “orgcore tactical vehicle,” of course, but was discouraged by its inscrutability. Inscrutable to them, of all people! Sun felt their uneasiness grow, instead of dissipate as they had hoped. The Empire had been a big place; it wasn’t crazy for Sun to be unfamiliar with some aspects of it. But for a document about their very class of ship to look this unfamiliar bothered them more than they cared to admit.
The gate was newly braceleted in stellar debris and spore satellites, but a sense of arrangement among them made the sprinkling of objects look just this side of purposeful. Indrani remembered how elegant and wondrous it appeared the first time he saw it. But now, while the gate certainly retained its mystique, it also held a melancholic humanity. In his research, people didn’t often speak or theorize about the everyday folk of the fragmented empire. Only their technology; how it worked and how it could be repaired and utilized for their own means. But people had built the Gate, used it as part of their everyday routine. Being in the Gate’s presence now, the magnitude of a people lost was suddenly magnified for Indrani. And that of those lost people, Sun was also singular remnant.
After a hesitation, the habdeck door admitted him, and Indrani floated through. When he messaged Clumb for permission to visit, she’d happily invited him, but he hadn’t missed Helfdym’s grumbling in the background. Indrani passed through the airlock and into the main room, where Helfdym was at work, tapping across the surface of his orb interface.
“Helfdym! Thank you for allowing me to visit again.” Indrani looked around, surprised to see the space was newly repaired. Even the glass viewport had been replaced with a transparent membrane. “The deck looks good as new.”
Helfdym’s darkened helmet tilted towards Indrani, then back to his interface. “You are very fortunate the Unbound aren’t superstitious.”
“Oh?” Indrani floated to the transparent membrane, missing Helfdym’s subtle derision. “Why is that?”
A multicolor blur whizzed past his peripheral vision. “Aw, don’t pay attention to the grump,” Clumb chirped as she grabbed a handhold on the ceiling. “What a repair job without a complication or two? ‘Sides, Helf, these two did help us catch a major flaw in our system.” Her rotund body was orientated to face Indrani, with Helfdym some meters behind her, but according to Sun, she could swivel her head back and forth between them easily. Perhaps she was looking right at her partner right now.
The next time she spoke, however, it was clearly directed at Indrani. “Th’ big one didn’t join you this time?”
“Ah, not this time,” Indrani answered, scratching the back of his helmet. He checked that his comms were on mute, just in case. “I actually wanted to ask a favor?”
Behind Clumb, Helfdym made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a groan. When Clumb waved her short hand in her partner’s direction dismissively, Indrani continued. “I was wondering if there was a way to make what happened earlier…happen again. But…on command?”
The two Unbound stared at him behind their opaque visors. Indrani chuckled nervously. “The ah, body exchange.”
“We know what you meant,” Helfdym said, taking his hands off the interface orb. “And why exactly would you want to do that?”
“Well, I…” Indrani paused, picking around his reasoning, realizing that the Unbound might not respect his rationale. “…Sun is a Ship, yes? But they would love to inhabit a body once in a while. They told me so.” The air in his helmet suddenly felt warmer than before. “And I was thinking, why not let them use mine? Not permanently, of course; thus the caveat of ‘on command’. But when they choose.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.” Helfdym floated closer, the black glaze of their visor reflecting Indrani’s face back at him. He looked…scared? But he didn’t feel scared. More…nervous. Excited. And something else he couldn’t quite name. Helfdym tapped a long finger against Indrani’s visor, asked once more, “Why would you want to do that? And on whose ‘command’ are you suggesting?”
Indrani cleared his throat. “Well, my command, of course. Since it’s…my body? And I supposed…” He attempted to scratch at his chin, but met only the smooth glass of his helmet. “I suppose because Sun is my friend. They’re helping me fulfill my Path, and I feel like this will help us in that regard.”
Clumb rotated in midair, tapping her fingers together as she mulled this over. “You thinkin’ this would be a two-way deal? Give you another chance to pilot the Ship, but on purpose this time?” She gestured towards her partner. “‘Cause we could work with somethin’ like that. Remember that stuff I dug up from the old computers?”
The two clipped Indrani out of the shared comm system and conferred for a moment, Clumb waving her hands excitedly and Helfdym wilting like a plant. They both turned back to him and reconnected. “We might be able to do you that favor. How much time you got to spare?”
“I didn’t think about it as an exchange of bodies.” He hadn’t considered where he would be placed if Sun took control of his body. Asleep, maybe? Nor could he imagine Sun being comfortable handing over control of their Ship to Indrani. But if the Unbound could make that happen, maybe that was the next step in their Path. “But maybe it should be. A proper swap, that is. We have as much time as you have before you send us through the Gate.”
Helfdym considered him for a moment before turning to his orb interface. “I still think you are asking for something you don’t fully comprehend, curate. But the Unbound are, well, bound to share our technology, and we cannot find a reason to withhold this from you.” He ticked his dark visor towards Indrani again. “Unless the process is turned down by Sun. We won’t force technology on them, even if you feel it is a ’gift’ to do so.”
“Of course! Of course, I wouldn’t force it on them,” Indrani said, an offended hand splaying on his chest. His face fell. “I was only trying to surprise them. But perhaps when you’ve solidified the process or program necessary for this undertaking, I can invite them here and offer it? And you can explain its, uh, parameters to us?”
“…Fine,” Helfdym grumbled. “I suppose it’s not completely unusual for an Empire ship to have an emergency human co-pilot.”
“Yeah! Exactly, Helf!” Clumb’s voice rose an octave in approval. “Just think of it as more ol’ imperial infrastructure we can improve.”
[Author note: This entry contains explicit content]
He was so small. They had gotten him to stay, gotten him to listen, but they had to be so careful now. Even by pan-human standards, he was slender, his long fingers fidgeting in his lap as he stared up at the avatar’s face, his long neck peering out from his collar. Ready for them.
Sun moved to be in front of him, knee to knee, and leaned down, their voice low. “I want to see what it looks like when you think about me,” they replied, barely keeping their voice steady. “What does it look like when you’re not trying to… squash your interest?”
A shy smile twitched across his face. Every word echoed through Indrani’s head and funneled down to vibrate in his chest, his stomach. He hadn’t drunk in months, but somehow, just being this close to Sun, hearing their voice, was as good as downing several cups of wine. He slanted back, but not away, to accommodate Sun’s proximity, his fingers curling into the floor cushions.
“Well, I don’t always think about you…carnally,” he said the word quickly, as if it might offend. “Sometimes it’s with admiration or wonder or…” He blushed when Sun gave him a look; that clearly wasn’t what they were interested in. They wanted to see him squirm. He wanted Sun to know he had a breadth of feelings for them, not just some shallow physical draw, but perhaps that was a line he shouldn’t cross.
“But, ah, sometimes I shut my eyes,” he did so, trying to keep his breathing even, his chest fluttering beneath his tunic, “and think about you all around me.” One of his hands drifted up his thigh, “And I can hear the echo of my breathing against your walls, l-like you’re closer all of a sudden,” he hand was deathly close to his groin now, and to Indrani’s terror, he could feel himself getting hard. “And then I…I—” Feeling madly bold, he palmed himself through his leggings, his face crumpling up in partial embarrassment and relief.
“Fuck,” Sun whispered. Nothing they’d watched could have prepared them for the real man in front of them, twitching as he heard Sun’s voice. Indrani drifted lower in his seat, closer to the carpeted floor, eyebrows knit together as he haltingly brushed his hand against the tented fabric beneath it.
“Do you remember the first time I brought you in? I had to take your suit off.” They had to tear his suit off. “I haven’t seen your body since, Indy. I want to feel more of your skin against me.”
The quality of Sun’s voice stole their breath as much as the words did; Indrani felt like he was being melted down to his nerves alone, sensitivity rising with every whispered request. How could Sun make him feel like this just by talking?
“I…I can do that.” Biting his lip, warping his small smile, he drew his loose tunic off and tossed it aside. Pinching the zipper of his vacsuit at his throat, he slowly drew it down to his navel. The hiss of the teeth seemed overly loud, filling the refectory chamber—filling Sun. Holding his breath, he shrugged out of the suit and leaned back, shimmying out of the rest of it. Beneath the suit, Indrani wore only his briefs, and his erection strained against the thin fabric with pitiful need.
He leaned to the side, spreading himself over the cushion and floor, eyes never leaving Sun’s. He had to work saliva into his dry throat before he could speak. “L-like this?”
“Almost.” Sun settled back on their knees, straddling either side of Indrani’s calves. His chest now bare, Sun could see the whorls of hair around his nipples, trailing away before his smooth, taut stomach. His breath stuttered, and Sun almost felt compelled to mimic it. As much as he was clearly under their thrall, they struggled to maintain any of their usual self-control.
They hovered a hand centimeters above his body, but did not—would not, could not—touch.
“Do you always touch yourself through your clothes? Or do you take your cock in your hand when you think about me being this close to you?”
“No,” he breathed, delight like a spark flying loose inside him, threatening to set him aflame. They were so close, close enough to touch, and Sun was looking down at him so intently. As if with an appetite; did ships have appetites? And they were doing all this, every hungry micro expression, consciously. Purposely. It sent a thrill flinging through him that he’d piqued Sun’s desire in such a way, with his simple small body. Bizarrely, Indrani felt his pulse in all the small places of himself, the hollow of his throat and the roots of his hair, his lips.
Hooking his thumb in his briefs, he pulled them off, lifting his hips, then legs. There was a performative aspect to being watched that Indrani hadn’t counted on feeling, but suddenly, every movement seemed weighted with purpose and intent. It made the moment all the more charged. “Usually I just—” his mouth closed around the rest of the words as he took himself in hand, slid the ring of his fist up his cock with a shudder. “—just like that.”
“Just like that,” Sun echoed. Indrani squeezed his eyes shut as he stroked himself, making small noises in the back of his throat. Sun rested their big hands on either side of his slim body, palms flat on the floor, watching him masturbate with every sensor in their grand, sunlit room. They’d told them to, and he’d done it. They wanted to eat him alive, and they already had.
“Indrani.” Sun loomed over him, calling him back. “Look at me.” They ran their tongue over their lip and lowered their head, slowly and precisely taking the entirety of his cock, down to the fist, into the avatar’s rippling, holographic mouth.
“Ohpathsohpaths,” he rasped frantically as he looked and looked and looked. His hand stilled into a punishingly tight grip at the base of his cock, and he moaned at the ache. But cursed stars, he was going to come right there if he didn’t stop himself, and he’d be damned if he ended this quickly.
Sun’s head bobbed, and lightning branched through Indrani’s nerves. There was no sensation besides his own hand on his cock, but his eyes filled his head with all sorts of wonderful imagined sensations: how Sun’s plush lips would feel around him, their tongue hot against his already fevered skin, the weight of their body pinning his legs.
“Uh, S-Sun?” Beads of sweat studded Indrani’s tawny skin as he held stone-still. When their eyes flicked up to meet his, he let his head fall back against the cushion, stricken. “You,” he whined, “what can I do for you? I’m afraid I won’t last.”
In the back of Sun’s mind, the twinge of doubt resurfaced. What could he do? Even now, with his bare skin touching the woven carpet beneath him and his panting breath the only sound in the room, there was nowhere else to put his hands. Or his mouth. Sun huffed in frustration on the next downstroke.
He was theirs. He was their body to play with, for now. Still swallowing him, Sun spoke with their disembodied voice for the first time that cycle.
“Touch yourself the way you would touch me,” they murmured, sound vibrating through the floor. He gasped and bucked his hips, Sun’s face rippled, reformed, and resumed the relentless motion. “Don’t you want to feel me?” His hand shivered at the base of his reddening cock. “Stroke me?”
“Yes,” he whined, picking his head back up off the cushion to watch them. But it’s not the same, he wanted to say. Surely he couldn’t be making Sun feel as good as they were making him. But with what was left of his brain that hadn’t turned into a hormonal slurry, Indrani obeyed. Worked his fist in time with Sun’s bobbing head, staying just ahead of the ring of their mouth. It was far too dry, but he couldn’t will himself to pry his fingers off his cock, and so continued to whimper with every pump of Sun’s mouth up and down.
“Sun,” he moaned, eyes goggling, mouth hanging slack. With his other hand, he dug his nails into his stomach, then grabbed his pec, twisting at his nipple. It wasn’t the same, he thought again, but it was enough. Pleasure rivered through him, and he fought to keep his eyes open, hips spasming up into the concentrated light of Sun’s face. “I…I’m, ah, about there—oh Paths—“
Sun pulled off him, and advanced on their hands and knees until they were on top of him. Their fingers were in his hair, their legs clipped into his thighs, and his cock was only millimeters away from brushing their hips or their stomach with every desperate jerk. They let their avatar sink into his body, imagining the mass of someone their size press into him. Indrani choked back a sob.
“I’ve got you now,” they whispered in his ear. “Come for me.”
Sun’s light, the heavy rounded muscle of them, shrouded Indrani, vanished his legs and hands. Paths, his cock was inside the brightness of them. Indrani’s head tipped back in devastation, both his hands reaching down to form a tight tunnel to fuck into. “Oh stars, SunSunSun, please—!”
He didn’t know what he was asking for, and in a few seconds, it didn’t matter. His body arched up as if electrocuted, his orgasm charging through him like a circuit suddenly closed. He sobbed, bucking his hips as his come spattered up against his belly, the furrow between his pecs. Forcing his eyes open, he stared up at Sun with an expression of besotted astonishment as he trembled through his release, and mindlessly, mutely, reached out to cup the light of Sun’s face. “-…Oh.”
Sun’s lips were parted, pupils dilated, chest heaving to match Indrani’s ragged gasps. Mirrored behavior, but it wasn’t an act so much as a wave they rode as they soaked in the sight, the sound, the heat of him. The white stripes of semen scrawled across his stomach—they’d done that to him. Sun let his grasping hand blur and pass through their cheek—they made him beg to be touched. As the slender man wrung out the last of his orgasm with a few erratic thrusts, the avatar rocked their hips against him.
“That’s it,” they exhaled, letting his fingers slide through their mouth. “Oh, Indy, that’s it.” Their tone was soft—they’d meant to slow it down and let him rest—but Sun couldn’t help but hear the pleasure in their voice, the coaxing for more. Fuck, they had to pull themself together. If they didn’t, they would decimate this man, trying to get something from him that he couldn’t give.
“Was—” his voice broke, the word emerging a croak. Sun’s mouth was parted, and he tracked his fingertips through the image of their mouth, across the pink of their tongue, before his hand dropped limply to the ground. They were…trembling? And their hips were still rolling slightly against his own, shimmering where light clipped against his form. Had they gotten anything out of that? Or was it simply a show for him? Well, curse it all, it had worked. He’d never come so hard in his life. Not that there was a large sample size of experiences to compare and contrast.
Intoxicated and wrung out, he smiled sheepishly and took a deep breath. “Was that alright?” he asked, words slurring. “You look like…” Like they wanted more. Wanted to swallow him whole. Again. Slowly, he dragged a lazy hand across his belly, swiping the pearls of come along his belly absently. “…Unsatisfied.”
“I—” Sun attempted, and then clamped their mouth shut. Their voice was as breathless as his.
Snap out of it! What are you doing?! The rest of their brain had finally reemerged, as if from deep water, to wrest back some self control. “I—I can’t ask for anything more from you. I don’t want to overwhelm you.” They stilled their grinding, but stared fixedly at Indrani’s hand resting on the crease between his navel and hipbone.
“I’m not even sure how I can—” they paused again, trying to smooth out their voice. “—get off. The way you did.” They glanced back at Indrani, and thankfully, the smile came effortlessly. “And you looked gorgeous, Indy. That was worth it. That was absolutely worth it.”
“You can’t ask,” he murmured through a pleased smile, his hand drifting coyly through his mess, “or you won’t?” He looked drowsily down at his fingers, then back up at Sun, holding their gaze as he extended the red of his tongue and slowly touched the remnant seed to its surface. He’d tasted his own release before, and found himself indifferent to the flavor, but for some reason, instinct told him Sun might enjoy the display. Why, though? Was it perhaps a fascination with the messiness of the human body? Its uncontrollable reflexes? Or was it something particular to …him? No, no, that seemed far too egotistical.
Indrani let his arms splay to the side, his chest rising and falling in slower tempo. “How do you…get off…your way, then?”
Sun’s mouth dropped open, but they couldn’t speak. What had happened to the bashful monk they had sat down with an hour ago? Had they done some irreparable damage to him? The burning shame was quickly submerged by another rising wave inside them, as they thought about the power of that idea. They replayed the image of his mouth, his tongue, his fingers. They wanted those to be their fingers on his mouth, something they couldn’t experience, but even just visualizing it made them swell with—
Big hands the color of polished wood pressed down on Indrani’s arms, clipped through them. Sun lowered themself closer to Indrani. “I’ve never had a partner like this,” they said. “But I have a very vivid imagination. And I have sensors all around you, taking in everything about you. And knowing that you’re looking at me, that you’re desperate to touch me while you come…”
They bit their lip, shut their eyes. “I feel like I’m gonna lose it, Indy. I don’t want to be done fucking you.”
A dumbfounded smile eked across Indrani’s mouth. The blush on his face felt so intense, he wondered if he’d burst blood vessels in his cheeks. Sun’s thick arms and the great paws were pinning his biceps down, and his body stiffened again, imagining the heft mashing his limbs into the floor. “Partner…”
When he had inhabited Sun’s ship-self, he’d experienced firsthand the way Sun perceived the world. He’d only touched the surface of their senses, but the depth and richness of them, the unique shapes they took, had imprinted itself on his mind. And now all those senses were honed down solely on him. Sun could sense him inside and out, at microscopic or even thermal levels if they were so inclined.
And they wanted more.
It was staggering for Indrani to parse the concept: the enormity of Sun’s want handed over like the grandest gift he’d ever been bestowed in his life. “You, ah, don’t have to be done. But,” he bit his lip, his face pleased but clearly bewildered, “I only know the one er, trick. You may have to give me a short reprieve before I’ll be able to…” He trailed off, his blush stinging across his face. “To perform.”
The avatar nodded. “Yeah, of course. Take all the time you need. You were going at it pretty hard.” They rose back to a sitting position, smoothing back their hair, trying to will themselves back into a calm, accommodating smile and tamp down the last of that raw, unsettling energy. “Let’s both take a break. I gotta say, that was the most strenuous round of that tile game I think I’ve ever played.”
“I would have to agree,” Indrani said through a smile before exhaling a nervous breath. Sun seemed to be their calm, collected self again, and an unsettling flicker of insecurity twinged in his chest.
He knew rationally that Sun didn’t have a body like his, that would go through peaks and valleys of emotions, gradients and progressions of sensations. That they could essentially display whatever they wanted without the force of unwelcome bodily chemicals. They were in complete control down, to every flick of their eyes or their tongue. So the stark shift from aroused to oddly polite made Indrani uneasy, and he found himself drawing his arms over his chest. “I think I should go clean up.”
He pushed himself upright and plucked his clothes off the ground, a shiver of embarrassment running from head to toes. He wasn’t quite sure why it bothered him that Sun appeared to be coolly amused. Did Indrani want them slavering over them every waking cycle?
Stars, yes, his body told him as he pulled the tunic on, leaving his vac suit folded over his arm. But that was madness to expect, and besides, how many times could they pull themselves off for Sun before they became bored? Maybe there wouldn’t even be a next time, he thought. The very real possibility of that ached like a newly formed scab being picked clean off.
“Ah, Sun, thank you, by the way. That felt…very good,” he said awkwardly as he walked backwards out of the refectory. The tunic didn’t reach mid-ass, so his backside was mostly exposed, but his folded vac suit modestly concealed his crotch. “I…I will see you in a few turns.” And then he was gone, scurrying down the halls away from projected Sun but still inside Sun, still clearly being watched by them. Paths, what had he gotten himself into?
Sun stayed seated on the woven carpet amidst the cushions, even after Indrani had left the room. They hadn’t stopped any of their usual Ship functions during their time with him on the common room floor, but no longer needing to puppet their avatar for their sole passenger gave them more room to think.
Motherfucker, what had they done?
The thing deep inside them that emerged in Indrani’s presence—that was a human impulse, surely. At their core they were fully biological, after all. But the way it manifested, with their power, their size, their sense of control… frightened them. The tunnel vision that came with that desire, to order Indrani around and chase after some enticing climax for themself, even if the man’s small body couldn’t hope to keep up—
They wouldn’t even let him leave the room, let alone leave the ship. Because if Indrani left, they would lose their path to the old labs, and that tantalizing new body.
Selfish, they admonished themself. Disgustingly selfish. What were they, if they couldn’t keep themselves contained? If they didn’t use their power to at least stay pleasant and uncomplicated for their hapless passenger? Messy human desires didn’t make the mechanical shell more human.
It made them a fucking freak.