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Entry: 013

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.”

Entry: 012

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.

Entry: 011

Crashing from the rush of their body-swap escapades and subsequent hormonal imbalance, the curate found himself sleeping clear through two meal times. Indrani’s brain generously gifted him a few hours of deep, empty sleep before dreams slipped into the darkness of his stupor. All of them featured Sun in some way, memories of interactions twisted into embarrassingly carnal fantasies. 

Older juvenile memories stepped into the fore of his sleeping mind as well, sweetly humiliating moments of him trying it on with some of his fellow novices, all of them clumsy and young and overwhelmed by their changing bodies. He hadn’t formed any attachments with his contemporary novices-cum-curates in his life. Being raised alongside them had imbued his agemates with a sense of family instead of romantic potential. So, his mind playfully re-invented these memories with Sun in place of the other faceless novices he’d touched or been touched by. Dream-Sun matched him in age, but still maintained their imposing physique, the gentle amusement in their soft face. If only Indrani could touch them…

But then, suddenly, he blinked awake without any fade out. In one moment, he was cavorting with a young, tangible Sun; the next, he was in bed, staring up at the plain ceiling of his room. Cursed Paths, he thought, and struggled to his feet. 

After dressing, he exited his room and cleared his throat to greet Sun, but paused with his mouth parted. Maybe it was better they didn’t join him for a meal. His body seemed untrustworthy at the moment, and besides, Sun didn’t need to eat. And surely they were tired of Indrani’s tedious and erratic meal times.

Still, Sun would surely sense him walking through the halls to the refectory. “Hello, Sun!” he said, attempting to be chipper and keeping his head ducked as he walked. He could feel his face warming already. “I apologize; it seems I quite overslept.”

Sun perked up at Indrani’s call. Their first instinct was to respond over the intercom, to speak as the ship, but reconsidered at the last moment. Instead, a door slid open in the hallway, and their avatar stepped through—a seemingly ordinary human waiting for their fellow passenger to join them.

“No worries. You had a hard time.” As Indrani drew closer, Sun gave him a look of gentle concern. “Let’s take it easy today. What do you say we get you some food?” Their expression brightened. “Maybe play a game in the common room?”

“That would be just fine,” Indrani said, intonation rising as he drew up beside Sun. His vulgar dreams pranced around his thoughts impishly, drawing his peripheral gaze to Sun’s physique, their attentive smile. Their voice was like honey in his ears. Honey!? he thought to himself, aghast. Paths, it was like a rusted door had been wrenched open, and now the floodwaters of his attraction towards Sun were now inundating him without mercy or propriety. He felt mad with the alien sensation.

“I, er, can’t say I’ll be very intelligent company. My head is still a little…” he made a wavering gesture with his hand, smiling up at Sun uneasily and then darting his face away. He stepped into the refectory ahead of Sun, wiping his suddenly damp palms on his tunic. Stars, did he need a medical intervention for this? Surely it wasn’t normal for a body to react in such a manner. “Um, have you heard anything from Clumb or Helfdym?” he asked, trying to keep his tone casual. “Updates on the Gate’s status?”

He’s gonna throw off the climate control if he keeps sweating like that. Sun couldn’t fight the sinking feeling. They activated the food fabber with a thought, cycled through options for a light meal, something easy on the stomach. Better to presume that the man was a little ill, as opposed to…

A pot of savory porridge steamed in the middle of the large table by the time they stepped up to it. Sun took their usual seat across from Indrani, thankful for some physical distance, even as they remembered Indrani reaching over, arm outstretched, trying to…

“Yeah, they’ve called,” Sun replied. “Still in progress. I sent some cleanup drones to help remove debris and let them focus on repairs. But they’re pretty optimistic about resuming tests soon. Even Helfdym.” A thought Sun had filed away came back to them now, and they jumped on the distraction. “Before the accident, when we went aboard their station, you mentioned hearing about rebuilding Gates before. Or the theory of it, at least.” They rested their avatar’s elbows on the table. “Where? In the monastery?”

Indrani gulped down a spoonful of porridge, hoping the meal would settle him. “Yes, the monastery’s data vaults. It’s always been a subject of interest to the Paragons. They believe the universal Path involves the re-connection of the past and present.” He held out both his hands, raising one, “The pre-Fragment,” he lifted his other hand, “…and the post-Fragment.” He clasped his hands together. “Without our past, we believe we cannot attain a hopeful future. We don’t know what caused such massive destruction, and in our ignorance, we may cause it again.”

With his diatribe finished, he grew self-conscious under Sun’s attention. He looked down into his bowl, moving around bits of protein with his spoon while his ears threatened to glow with warmth. “Anyway, that’s the High Path, the focus of our beliefs. I can only hope to contribute a step in the right direction.”

“For your Paragons’ sake, right?” Sun asked. “To save them, and their knowledge.” To use the past to squeeze out a little more future for them, any way he could. Sun sighed, smoothed back their hair. “I’ll be honest, Indy; I was positive this Gate was going to be a dead end. I didn’t think any of them would ever be reactivated—by humans, post-humans, anyone. If our Unbound friends can get this thing up and running, it could shave years off our journey.”

Sun leaned forward a little. This definitely wasn’t alleviating Indrani’s flop sweat, but it was important. “But it means we’ll be way beyond any territory you’ve ever known. It’s been decades since I’ve even gone this far. You could be stuck with me for a long time. Are you sure you’re prepared for that?”

Indrani’s face went ruddy as he looked up at Sun, startled. They said it like he would be put out by the notion. Or was Sun being self-deprecating in an attempt to be polite; perhaps they were not prepared to drag Indrani all over the galaxy?

“Following my Path is my purpose in life, Sun. If it means flying into the vast unknown, then I’m happy to go there. And,” he reached for a cup of water, holding it to his mouth as if to drink, “it…it would be a great honor to travel with you, as long as you find me tolerable. I suppose it’s not common for you to take on such a long-term passenger, but I…I would greatly enjoy it being you who accompanied me on this Path.” He tipped the cup, draining it rapidly. It did nothing for the warm color suffusing his face. He placed the cup on the table but held it tightly between his hands. “But I would also take no offense if you found this to be too much of a request. I can’t say I’ll be much of an asset to you on this journey, given my…limited and humble life experience.”

As he spoke, Sun slowly leaned back in their seat. Any doubt they’d had to cling to before the meal was gone now; Indrani’s biometrics and behavior had made sure of that. Sun almost felt bad for him, what with his face flushed and the lump in his throat bobbing as he nervously swallowed. 

But shame burned dully in the back of their mind, even as they watched him fidget on the other side of the table. They had to put a stop to this.

“You were right; you do look a bit out of it,” they said. “Let’s move over to the cushions over there. You’ll be more comfortable, and I’ll set up a game board.” Indrani followed Sun to another corner of the common room, where several broad, embroidered cushions bordered a small square table set into the floor. Sun tucked their avatar’s legs under them on a cushion and pulled up a holo display. They selected a basic tile game—brainless enough to play while still carrying on a conversation. 

“There is something else I wanted to ask you. How have you been doing since we got switched back?” They glanced up at Indrani, expression neutral. “I can’t help but notice you’ve been acting a little differently.”

Indrani paused in the middle, shifting a tile across the board, then completed the move. The porridge seemed to have instantly congealed, and now sat stone-heavy in his gut. He cursed in his head, then blushed at the cursing. When did he curse? He never cursed!

“Ah, yes, I think I’m still suffering some mild after-effects,” he offered weakly. A chill of shame crept up his spine; was he so easy to read? Sun must think him absolutely primitive. Hopefully he hadn’t deduced the source of his demeanor. Perhaps he could play it off as some mental fatigue, trauma from the switch. “It’s my nerves, I think. It was quite the ordeal, no? I’m sure I’ll improve quickly. Though an appointment with a medbot might be in order.”

“It was an ordeal. Being able to undo the damage was a huge relief for me. And I imagine for everyone else, including you.” They spent several seconds selecting their next tile, placed it, and looked up again. “Is that why you kissed me?”

“Kiss?” Indrani squeaked, the word fraying in his mouth. He had hoped, in vain, that Sun had forgotten the poorly thought-out gesture, or would at least be kind enough to pretend at forgetting it. Clearly, Sun was not intent on doing either.

“I didn’t—well, you see—I was just—” He pressed his mouth into an agonized line. His brain provided him no excuses for the action: what else would he be doing with lips pursed towards Sun’s face?

“It was—it was a moment of uh, relief! And panic. I do apologize if it was inappropriate or disturbed you in any way,” he said, the words rushing out with hardly a breath between them. “The situation got the best of me, and made me act crudely out of character.” He hazarded a glance up through his lashes at Sun, unable to gauge what their opinion was on his painfully obvious attraction. When he’d tried to kiss them on the habdeck, they simply looked confused. Now, they seemed not confused, but curiously indifferent. 

Paths, he thought. Sun was a ship. A human-based ship, but a ship nonetheless. In all his attempts to smother his own attraction, Indrani hadn’t even considered what Sun would find appealing. Perhaps receiving amorous attention from a human was foreign to them. Or perhaps repellent. After all, he was a tiny fleshly human and Sun was…Sun.

“If I’ve offended you, and perhaps this is your way of politely hinting that I’m not welcome to travel with you, I fully understand,” Indrani said, covering his eyes with his hands in abject humiliation. At that moment, he realized that Sun hadn’t actually confirmed that he was allowed to stay after he’d indicated such to their question. “I will take my leave as soon as possible.”

No,” Sun blurted, before they could stop themself. How had they screwed up this badly? If Indrani left

“No,” they tried again, more gently. “I asked because, well—we will be together for a while. I didn’t want you… feeling certain ways about me and losing sight of what I really am.” They looked through one of the common room cameras at the hologram they’d designed so painstakingly. “I made a human form for myself and use it when I’m with you to make things easier, but—” They adjusted their glasses. A fake action, for a fake accessory. Sun looked down, away, at a loss for what fake expression to give. 

The pause stretched on, and Sun didn’t dare to turn their head up. “But if this is what you’re attracted to, then I have to set you straight somehow. This is just an avatar for something much…bigger.”

“Bigger.” Paths, would the embarrassment never end? And when did feeling and attraction come into it? That he was more obvious than he’d thought sent searing shame through him like a hot knife. And now Sun seemed to think him a fool, attracted only to the light of their projection, like some foolish, lustful moth. Should he deny the attraction outright? No, that seemed excessively cruel, and no doubt Sun would see through that falsehood as well.

With a concerted effort, he put his hands in his lap and looked at Sun directly, trying to school his face into something less abashed. “I’m, ah, well aware of what you really are, Sun. In fact, that is the problem. My problem, which I’m sure I can extinguish given a few days’ time. I certainly don’t want my shortcomings to inhibit our traveling together.” 

How long did it take to get over such feelings of enticement? Maybe he could look through Sun’s archives for assistance. Maybe there was a pill he could take, some sort of inoculation against arousal.

“I’m sure my behavior has been bothersome if it’s been so plain to you, and again, my apologies. I only…I was raised on Malakar, which you know is very isolated. Things like attraction and…” Indrani gulped, glancing away, “…quixotic matters of the flesh have not had a place in my life. The acolytes I grew up with, I consider family. And so I find myself struggling with ah, this.” He gestured between them stiffly. “A thing I am very ignorant of. But I promise I can curb such sentiments, for the sake of our journey.”

“Wait, wait—” Sun raised their head and their hand simultaneously. “Wait. Stop.” They tilted their head as they looked at Indrani, buying time. Since when did they need to buy time? “What did you say earlier? About being well aware?”

Indrani slanted his head to the side, eyes narrowing suspiciously. Was he being drawn into repeating something offensive? “Aware. I’m… well aware of you?” He gestured expansively at the room with one hand, then returned it to his lap. “It’s quite hard to ignore that this is all you,” he murmured, spinning a holographic tile absently. “From your reaction, I can see that it’s not at all a welcome perception on my part…”

“No, it’s just—” Sun’s mind raced. “You’re acting this way because you know that this room is me. That your cushion is me. That table, that tile—” that tile he was touching, warping with his fingers— “that the ship is me, and you’re still—Still blushing, still balling his hands in his lap.

“What—” Sun’s restraint was being overrun by burning curiosity. They pored over the options for phrasing their question until they couldn’t wait any longer. “What…is it about me? That’s making you struggle? The real me?”

Indrani drew his hand from the tile back into his lap, his temperature rising again. Could a human being melt through metal? He felt as if he was about to put that theory to the test.

“Paths, Sun, you want me to enumerate them?” Just what were they getting out of dragging these pathetic truths from him? Was this a punishment, or simply cold curiosity? “You’re fascinating and kind. Quite selfless. Those traits alone, I feel would garner any sort of ah, affectionate attention. But, I suppose as to your physical state, well…” he rubbed the bracketed lines around his mouth as he thought out his answer. “Your projected self,” he touched the edge of the table gently, “your constructed self and your human self that you showed me. All these facets of you, I find intriguing. All of you combined is…” Indrani suddenly felt like the next word would shatter the entirety of this conversation and their partnership to pieces. “…highly alluring to me. For various reasons, which I’m afraid I don’t quite have the words for. I admit, I haven’t thought too much on the topic, as I’ve attempted to squash my interest outright, not examine it.”

Sun fixated on every word. Affectionate. Alluring. Not as an object, not as an image, but as a… 

They watched Indrani closely, his fingers on the table—on them—and didn’t want him to leave. Didn’t want him to end the conversation. As selfish as it was, Sun furiously considered what they would need to ask to keep Indrani talking, to make him give them more.

They edged forward slowly, slid the fingers of one hand onto the tabletop. Their face, what to do with their face? 

“I’m not angry at you. This isn’t going to ruin anything between us. You’re new to feeling this way, right?” After much deliberation, Sun tried a gesture they’d never used much, very quickly wetting their lips with their tongue. “Why not examine it? How do I make you feel?”

Indrani watched the dusky pink of Sun’s tongue peek in and out and went rigid. Sun wasn’t angry, so they said, but they still seemed to have an intensity about them, one that he wasn’t quite able to pin down to a precise emotion. Not offended, not disgusted, but what?

Clearing his throat, Indrani continued, “Yes, some of it’s new. Ah, I mean to say, you’re very…grand. Both your ship-self and how you project your human self. The fact of your, ah, vastness and how you might see me…” Small and held inside you. Weak to your power. Paths, no, he couldn’t say that. This felt beyond the bound of decorum, and his stomach was flipping like a dying moonroach with each word. “…is appealing. And you’ve rescued me from certain death several times, so I should think it makes sense that I feel quite… safe? With you? Which is…attractive?” His voice has gone up several octaves with each of the last sentences, and he coughed at the end.

Indrani leaned his elbows on the table, covering his face with his hands once more. “Sun, please, I should like to end this line of conversation,” he said, the defeat thick in his voice. “Libidinous compulsions like these were frowned upon on Malakar, and so I have no experience with the etiquette around such things. It is clear you are simply curious about my unfortunate state, and while I appreciate that, I must tell you it is agony to talk about.” 

Why it was agony, Indrani wasn’t quite sure. He enjoyed giving compliments to Sun in other situations, so why not in this one? Something about it made him ache, like the bones of his chest were pulling tight around his heart.

Sun paused their incremental advance, studying Indrani. Even when they were both seated, Sun loomed over him. Yet his body language didn’t read as fear, not even now. He looked overwhelmed, overstimulated. It would be better if they did relent, let him rest, but this new, hungry impulse inside them wanted to carry him to his quarters themself.

They sat next to him on the same side of the game board—far enough not to touch, but close enough to look down on him. “We don’t have to talk anymore,” they said quietly. “We can keep playing. We can do whatever you want.” Sun smiled gently. “I’ve got you.”

The movement startled his hands from his face, and he watched, rapt as Sun slid soundlessly to sit next to him. Sun was not there, yet he still felt a wave of heat emanating from their projected body. Was it real, or simply in his mind? How far would his body go to convince him of such troubling, lustful things? And that assurance! I’ve got you. What precisely did that even mean? That they’d endure his feelings? This notion seemed to numb his shame slightly.

“I appreciate your courtesy, but I don’t think I can continue playing this game,” Indrani murmured, disappointment clattering around his chest. He’d disgraced himself enough and now he wanted to bolt back to his room and hide for the duration of their years-long transit. “I’m out of my depth, I’m afraid.” A dry, pained chuckle escaped him, and he shifted to stand. “And I don’t want to waste your time making you humor me. My apologies again, Sun.”

“Sit. Down.” The firmness of their tone was startling even to them. Sun felt possessed. They leaned forward silently, staring at the small man. 

“This isn’t your moon rock,” they said slowly, evenly. “Do you really think I would be asking you what gets you hot for me if it wasn’t even slightly reciprocal?

Indrani’s knees unlocked at the command, and he plopped back on the cushion before he could even think to sit back down consciously. “Re-cip-ro-cal?” he stuttered out, staring up at Sun with white-ringed eyes. And then, with a pathetic rasp, “Hot?”

Electricity sheeted through him, and he took his hand from the table as if it was the source of the shock. Hot. That look on Sun’s face—their carefully controlled and composed face—was …attraction? “You, ah, mean to say, you…like…” Me? “…humans? In a. Physical. Manner?”

“I would, if they ever gave me the chance. But you, Indy, are the first person in a hundred years who’s really seen me. All of me.” Sun remembered the anxiety they felt as they stood with Indrani in front of their central chamber, the way that feeling twisted inside them as they watched him, awestruck, touch their tank’s glass and run his hand along their pipes. This time, Sun couldn’t repress a shudder running through their avatar. 

“And you still want me. I’m going to think about that every time I see you. I’m not gonna let that go. I can’t.”

“Oh.” The single syllable popped impotently from his mouth. That seemed like an impossible claim, but Indrani, his eyes trained unblinkingly on Sun, hadn’t missed the tremble through their image. A blade of honey slid from his chest to low in his belly, turning molten and sweet as he processed this revelation. Sun was…aroused? By him. Him, of all people!

“I didn’t think—” No, that wasn’t a line of conversation he wanted to pursue right now, not when a sudden tingling pleasure was forming at the top of his head and melting down his neck. He rubbed his hands nervously over the tops of his thighs, the fear in his frame and tone now replaced by a more anticipatory unease, a feeling that wasn’t at all uncomfortable. Indrani hadn’t known there was a strain of nervousness that could feel good. Breathlessly, he asked, “Well, how exactly…could we make this a…reciprocal connection?”

Entry: 010

[Author note: This entry contains explicit content]

Filaments of light coursed through the remnant wreckage, and the luminant spores once again disseminated into space, flooding the habdeck and the ship. Indrani, still muttering mantras to restrain himself from a panic attack, kept the ship steady as spores coated his sensors. A mighty vibration engulfed him until he could hear it; a reedy high pitch tone that he felt down to his bones. Or his girders. Whatever he currently had. 

Indrani’s vision flooded white, and there was a sudden building pressure in his entire body, like he was being stretched and stretched until his atoms were barely touching. He felt so thin, like he could blow away in a solar wind, so insubstantial was his form. Body gone, senses drowned in two single sensations, Indrani whimpered. It’s going to be alright, he thought frantically, this is going to work, it’s going to work—

The flood of light and pressure popped noiselessly. Indrani’s proprioception, that terrible stretched-to-nothing feeling, snapped back in a violent ricochet. His body suddenly felt very compact and wooden, but quickly he realized it felt…right. The appropriate shape, the right pathways to each limb. Fingers and toes twitched in their shoes and gloves. Breathing and a pounding pulse echoed in his ears. The after image of nothingness flared and died in his eyes. The spherical console floated in front of him and beyond that, the stars and— 

“Sun! Paths, we did it!”

Sun emerged from the terrifying vulnerability of nothingness to sensation, more sensation than they had felt in hours. Light, sound, radiation emissions, feedback, endless streams of data…they felt full, awake, alive. They heard Indrani gasp and begin to speak, and it was drawn out, the seconds stretching past at the leisurely rate Sun was accustomed to. A wave of relief swept through every deck of their ship self, and Sun basked in it for the duration of Indrani’s spoken sentence. 

They used their voice—their own voice—over the comm network. “I think so. It’s good to be back. It’s really good.”

Clumb gave off a piercing whoop in the docking bay, bouncing from wall to wall in celebration of returning to her body intact. The Gate had emerged from the rerun of the experiment in the same messy state as when it had begun, and Sun’s drone floundered amidst the debris.

Sun beckoned it back to their docking bay, preparing a fresh drone to take Clumb back to the Gate—in her proper body this time. “How do you feel, Indy?”

“Incredibly….small,” he said with a breathless laugh, wrapping his arms around himself. All his senses seemed to be running through their proper channels now, but there was no denying how simple his proprioception was, like it was being funneled down into a caricature. As Sun, it had felt like every time he reached for a sense it would open up a kaleidoscope of sensations. “But good-small? I feel back to my old self. How do you feel, Sun? Paths, I hope I didn’t cause your body too many problems.”

Indrani suddenly felt an urgent need to be back on Sun, to see for himself that he hadn’t done as much damage as his anxious mind was asserting. He startled when Helfdym’s large body floated past him. “Helfdym! Are you feeling okay?”

“Fine, fine,” he said dejectedly. “Clumb, are you making your return now? Stars, this will set us back a few solar turns…”

Feeling thoroughly in the way, Indrani shrank into himself. It wasn’t his fault the gate had failed, but for some reason, Indrani felt like it was. But why? Because his interpretation of the Path had taken him and Sun here? They hadn’t gotten to jump through space and time, but surely it meant they had learned something crucial. Something to direct them onwards to the next step on their Path. Perhaps they needed to go to another Gate with this new knowledge: that with current technology, the Gates’ power could be co-opted.

“Uh, thank you for putting us back together Clumb, Helfdym. I’m sure you will have great success with your gate. It’s clear you’re very close to a breakthrough!”

This earned him a glare from Helfdym’s featureless helmet. “…Indeed.”

A small beam of light cut through the observation deck as a new drone glided through the smashed observation deck window, Clumb and Sun’s Shell each grasping a handhold on its sides. Once inside, Clumb let go, rolling smoothly through the vacuum towards her colleague. Of the four of them, she appeared the worst for the experience, with her helmet still dented post-reconstitution, but she sounded as chipper as ever. 

“No sweat! Just another bug to note in th’ devlogs. If we hadn’t figured out what caused this problem, who knows what mighta happened if it cropped up somewhere else later on?” She caught herself on the back wall of consoles and glanced back towards Sun. “We owe youse guys. Stick around for a while, let us do some repairs, and we’ll run the program again. You did want to see if the Gate was functional, right?” 

Sun smiled, nodded. “That’s right. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us, and we’d appreciate any chance to shorten it.” They turned to Indrani, extending their free hand towards him. “But a quick break couldn’t hurt.  Ready to head back to the ship, Indy?”

“S-Sun,” he stuttered, a wave of foreign emotion suddenly rippling through him. Indrani’s eyes shone as Sun reached out to him. 

Sun was safe. Safe and whole and smiling. And he had almost ruined that; he’d almost gotten Sun injured. Killed. But even this disaster—that was arguably solely Indrani’s fault, since he’d put them here in the first place—hadn’t turned Sun cold. They still welcomed him with open arms. The sight of it sent a lance of unbearable warmth through his core.

Before he could think, Indrani kicked off the wall and flew into Sun’s arms, pressing his mouth against Sun’s own. The light of the hologram was brighter up close, so he shut his eyes, and his lips hit the smooth, cold surface of his helmet ,while the helmet hit Sun’s Shell. He registered none of that; for all intents and purposes, it was perfect. His friend was alive and well and in his arms and under his mouth.

Sun felt the helmet press against them for 3.682 stretched-out, agonizing seconds.

Their avatar’s face rippled, distorted by the close contact, like that moment in the dining hall a week prior, when Indrani had tried to touch them. What was he doing?

Sun wrapped their arm around his midsection to readjust him, keeping his body close but drawing his face away from theirs. They stared at Indrani as their face reformed, absorbing the respiration rate and electrodermal readings from his suit. What were they expecting? Another wave of confusion or fear as Indrani was reminded of their artificial form? Why didn’t it feel that way, like the first time? What was this expression on his face?

What was Sun looking at?

“I’ve got you,” they said. “Let’s go.”

Indrani blinked his eyes open—when had he closed them?—and stared dazedly into Sun’s face. Sun’s very close face. Oh Paths. 

His tongue went thick and clumsy in his mouth, so he nodded jerkily in response, turning his head to the side to avoid looking them in the eye. A smear obscured his vision; his kiss had been intercepted by the glass of his helmet. The barrier that hadn’t even entered his addled mind! Sun must think him mad.

“Um, Sun, are you sure you’re alright? I can’t shake the feeling that I might’ve ruined something while I was—“ Inside you, his brain supplied rudely, “—switched.”

The skin of his face felt hot and tight, Sun’s inflexible arms around his waist making his ribs tingle. What in the universe had gotten into him? Had he suffered some sort of nerve damage?

“I’m okay. I’m good,” Sun replied gently, still studying him with their sensors. The flush blooming across his sharp features and the dilated pupils weren’t concerning, but the array of biological feedback reminded them of something they couldn’t quite place. “What about…?”

“So, we’ll catch up with youse later, okay?” Clumb chirped over the comms. Their drone was still idling in the observation bay, after all. Sun glanced up at the Unbound, managed an awkward nod, and reeled the two of them back in. 

Sun didn’t release Indrani until their feet settled firmly on the deck of The Sun Clouded Over. They were still distracted by his odd readings, and only just thought to speak to him again. “I’ll be running diagnostics for a while, but you should get some rest. Maybe get cleaned up?”

“Yes. Clean. That seems ideal,” Indrani said, removing his helmet and shifting on the balls of his feet, pleased to be within Sun’s artificial gravity once more. Yet it did nothing to ease the prickling along his chest and spine, the ghost of pressure around his waist. Perhaps he’d been reassembled wrong, and it was giving him a fever. Some neurological malfunction. Tactile hallucinations. Whatever it was, he needed out of the too-hot vac suit now. 

“I’ll, uh, see you at dinner, Sun,” he said, trying for confidence and failing. Sun seemed to be considering him as well, as if confused. Paths, this was embarrassing. “Thank you. Again.”

Indrani fled down the halls to his room at a quick clip, not pausing until his door swept closed behind him. A few unzipped zippers later, and he was in his underthings, his sweat-damp skin instantly cooling in the temperate room. Still, the same full body twitchiness hadn’t dissipated. In fact, it was radiating through him more now, not unpleasantly. It was particularly insistent around his…groin. A shower. A shower would solve this, he thought as he peeled off his clothes, only to find himself half-hard. Paths, was he nothing more than some hormonal youth again? Perhaps it was just the adrenaline. And Sun’s kindness. His body was simply confused. 

Swallowing drily, he stepped into the tiny shower stall and closed the door. Two doors didn’t feel like nearly enough to conceal the humiliation of his body getting the better of him, but it would have to do. 

Indrani pressed the water on, then, once the hiss of the stream filled his ears, quietly palmed himself. He nearly tipped forward with the relief of it, and worked the ring of his fist up and down his shaft, but quickly found it lacking. 

After a minute, it became clear it simply wasn’t enough. Why, Paths damn it all? Cursing under his breath, Indrani touched the shower’s temperature gauge, ready to shift it to ice-cold and end the situation, entirely as unpleasant as it would be.

“It won’t hurt you now. I’ve got you.” 

The memory of that quiet utterance flared in his ears. Sun had just pulled him from the vacuum, out of the jaws of that space parasite. They’d held Indrani then, too, in the solid weight of their arms. Slowly, he took himself in hand again and pumped, pressing his forehead against the cool, wet surface of the shower wall. Against the surface of Sun. He could see Sun’s smiling eyes in his thoughts, the wry curve of their mouth. “Sun…”

“I’ve got you.” 

Barely a few jerks, and every one of his muscles pulled whipcord taut. The force of his orgasm put him on his toes, flattening his cheek into the wall. He moaned out a garbled version of Sun’s name, body going stiff as an electrocution to fully liquified within a span of seconds. Indrani slumped back against the wall, the water washing away the spatters of come from his fingers. Paths, there was something terribly, terribly wrong with him.

Sun couldn’t figure it out. There was nothing wrong with him. 

As they ran through their diagnostic sequences, ensuring no circuit, synapse, or screw was out of place, Sun kept puzzling over Indrani’s biometric data from those 3.682 seconds, and his face thereafter. He’d spoken with plenty of passengers over the last century, but no one had ever quite reacted to them that way, looked at them that way. But they’d seen that expression before, many times before— 

Sun paused momentarily, then resumed the checkup and pulled up their personal collection of files from memory. These weren’t schematics, course logs, or anything an engineer would need to consult, but instead, files that Sun saved for their own edification—or so they told themself. Crib notes for social behavior, references for facial expressions and body language from every culture they could find, an entire catalog of embarrassing gaffes that Sun classified, then avoided like a poisonous insect. 

But much of their collection was aspirational, glimpses at human interaction they would never experience—not the way they were now. Images of fleeting skin-on-skin contact, people braiding each other’s hair, videos of backrubs and celebratory hugs, biometric readings of people touching and caressing and moving against each other in ways Sun had never witnessed in the public rooms of their interior. 

I’m reading too much into this, Sun objected halfway through the dive into their enormous pornography collection. This isn’t what I felt. It can’t be. His heart rate, his staggered breathing—his almost-black eyes, his mouth against the helmet’s glass—if it were with another person, maybe. But with me— 

Fear and self-revulsion rolled over them. Their body was untouchable, their senses impossibly different. Every social interaction was lopsided, unequal. Inhuman. 
It would always be like this, until they found the old imperial labs and found a way to extract themself into a new body—their own body, not one thrust upon them in a botched teleportation. Only then could they enjoy the full human experience—explore all the ways they could feel another person against them with their hips, their hands, their mouth. Sun finished browsing through the rest of the collection, dejected, as the diagnostics continued on.

Entry: 009

The habdeck tore apart around them instantly, silently, easy as wet tissue paper. Indrani shouted as they hurtled into space, clutching onto the trio with a bruising force. Panicked, he turned his propulsion units on haphazardly, ricocheting them around as they rushed towards the incoming drones. 

Clumb, the one in the tangle of bodies with the farthest reach, stretched out a few of her hands. The first several whizzed by, too far outside her radius. Another one looked like it would intersect with their chaotic tumble, but she could only brush her fingertips against its smooth chassis as it too flew past them.

“C’mon, c’mon!” she yelled, her borrowed voice booming through their comms. Indrani’s jerky control of the Shell’s zero-g propulsion hadn’t stopped the inertia of their free fall, and stripes of light and shadow slid chaotically across all of them. 

Even Sun’s Unbound body, evolved as it was for gravity-free environments, felt a twinge of nausea they’d never experienced before. They glanced at Helfdym, whose plaster-white face suggested he was considerably worse off in Indrani’s more terrestrial body.

Behind Helfdym, another drone seemed poised to soar past them. “Clumb!” they called. “Reach towards Helf!” Clumb contracted in on herself and stretched back out in his direction like a spring. Two of her grasping hands made contact with the drone, but kept sliding until the drone appeared to be—from Sun’s perspective—underneath the four instead of side-by-side with them. Clumb’s surge forward had given them a new source of momentum, and they had vaulted over their target like an obstacle in a course. 

Clumb cursed colorfully. Sun spun their head around as far as it could go, counting how many drones they still had a chance to intercept. Unless Indrani could get his thrusters under better control and counteract Clumb’s momentum, they would miss any remaining chances they had.

Another one sailed in their direction from “below” them, in the direction of the Shell’s feet. “We need to turn upside down, Clumb! 180 degrees,” Sun said to the others before tapping Indrani’s shoulder. “But Indy, you have to counteract her with your thrusters. We can’t keep spinning like this!”

“Make it stop, please,” Helfdym whined in Indrani’s body, cheeks puffing out in an aborted dry heave, eyes drifting into his skull.

“I c-can do it, I—” A loud hollow thunk suddenly popped through the comms as the tail end of a drone smacked into Sun’s small Unbound body. They instantly went still in Indrani’s long arms. “Oh no no no, Sun? Sun?!” 

Helfdym paled another shade somehow, caught another dry heave in his clamped mouth. Indrani kept chanting “no, no, no,” looking up only to see one of the last maintenance drones quickly heading towards them. Past them. He had to get Clumb in position to grab it, she was the only one with reach enough to do it. “Clumb, this one on your right! I…I think I can get you there!”

Indrani’s Shell vents opened sporadically again, darting them around within a small trajectory. Pinching his false eyes shut, he hummed in concentration. “Oh Paths, Paths, Paths, please don’t let this be the end of my journey…!” 

He turned all his focus inward on the foreign components now in his body, touched each one with his mind. He imagined them like mouths connected to lungs, willed them to inhale. “I can do this, I can do this…” He opened his eyes, looked down at Sun’s small, unconscious form. They’d taken him so far; he couldn’t let it end like this for them. He owed them more than this.

Giving a loud growl of effort, Indrani activated his vents with a protracted shout. They all burst on simultaneously, sailing them directly towards the drone. “Ah! Clumb, now! Now!” Indrani snapped quickly before taking up his screaming again. Without it, he couldn’t focus all his vents at once.

Clumb extended three of her broad hands, fingers outstretched like a tree’s canopy. She caught one of the drone’s nacelles, swinging both it and the knot of bodies around wildly, but she refused to let go. One hand gripping the nacelle, she stretched again until she had wrapped two arms around the body of the drone in a bear hug. The others bumped awkwardly against the side of the drone, but they wouldn’t slide away now. They were secure.

The drone, puzzled by the foreign mass, attempted a few feckless maneuvers to free itself before it gave up and spun about-face. Clumb couldn’t help but cheer as The Sun Clouded Over rotated into view. 

“We’re headin’ back! Nice work, you three!” She turned Helfdym’s teardrop-shaped head to glance behind her. “Hey, what happened to me?”

Clumb’s body floated limply in the crook of the Shell’s arm, a dent marring the smooth surface of the helmet. Slow but steady breathing whispered through their comms, but nothing else.

Indrani clutched Clumb to the hard line of their body, a protective hand over the dented helmet. “A drone bumped into you! I think Sun is unconscious…Sun?” he tried, giving the small body a slight shake. Nothing.

“Don’t worry, Clumb’s a hardy sort,” Helfdym huffed, the anxiety in his voice flattening back to its dreary register as the group of them were ushered into the ship’s main hangar. The drone slowed once inside, and Indrani released Clumb’s long torso, bounding towards an inner airlock with Sun and Helfdym under his mechanical arms. “We need to get back immediately, Clumb. Correct and re-run the parameters,” Helfdym said, flailing Indrani’s human arms until they found purchase on the wall handles. He huffed, drawing his brows down into a thoughtful grimace. “Actually, we need this ship to absorb the data first. I don’t know if our computer survived the decompression…”

“We can check, Helf!” Clumb trumpeted as she clambered along the wall. She glanced at Indrani. “We know all the passcodes. If you line up a transmitter beam from this ship to one’a the data ports on the Gate, we should be able to see what’s still online and download any data that’s there.” She propelled herself toward the docking bay’s viewscreen—a projection, not a true window, broadcasting a view of the Gate in real time. 

The explosive decompression had propelled small bits detritus into the ring, leaving small craters on the other side of the observation chamber. Bouncing around the ring several times before finally tumbling into open space, the fifty-meter wide polyhedron had caused substantially worse damage. The Gate, overall, was not in the best shape.

“There,” Clumb pointed with a long digit at a round port approximately a hundred meters above the shattered window on the ring. “Aim the beam there, an’ we’ll try logging in using our codes. Maybe we can use this ship’s systems to figure out what messed up the experiment in the first place before we—” 

Sun regained consciousness with another first-time experience—a splitting headache. They tried performing a systems check—fruitless, in their organic body—and woozily raised their tiny hands to feel the dent on the surface of their helmet. Voices emerged from a murky silence… Helfdym’s, and Clumb’s. They were speaking, their voices getting clearer over the comms every second. Sun focused, and listened.

“We need to do this quickly. The Gate’s integrity looks worse than I imagined from this vantage point,” Helfdym muttered, brittle with dread. “Once we correct the data, we need to get all of us into the center of the Gate so the spores can reach us.”

Indrani looked from the viewscreen to Clumb to Helfdym, nodding, biting his lip, “Right. That…doesn’t sound too hard. Not as hard as using this Shell’s propulsion system, anyway.” 

A lie, but what choice did he have? Without doing this, Sun would be stuck in Clumb’s body, and most likely go mad from being held captive in such a stationary consciousness. He cradled Sun’s small Unbound body to him, then passed them off to Clumb, who scooped them up in their long limbs. 

“Okay, I’m going,” Indrani said, trying to force confidence into his feeble proclamation. I can do this, I can do this!

Indrani shut his eyes and let go of his proprioception of the Shell body, breathing deep. The world went dark and then expanded, a translucent swirling nebula of information suddenly layered in his line of sight. His mind forced a sense of nausea through his disembodied form, but after what felt like infinite moments of unmoored floating within the Ship’s systems, he finally impressed a sense of anatomy onto it. There’s the engines…the nav system…transmitter beam, where are you, he thought, straining to parse the massive amounts of information. Finally, a sensation like a migraine sprouted just behind his eye, and he blinked from the pain. Before he could control it, the transmitter beam went off in a sudden staccato flicker, shooting off into space before he reined it in.

“Okay, I think I’ve got it!” Indrani said, voice echoing through the hangar’s comms system. “I’m gonna try and aim now…”

Clumb held her former body in two arms as she stretched two more over to the console, zooming in the image for a clearer look at the transmission port. A bright beam washed out everything before the camera could compensate, and it zagged across the surface of the Gate’s hull until it hit its target. The console trilled encouragingly, and Clumb’s fingers went to work inputting long strings of characters to transmit.

The small figure stirred, and Clumb glanced down without pausing her work. “Welcome back, sleepyhead,” she said. “You okay?”

Her booming voice did nothing to improve Sun’s headache. “The novelty of this experience is wearing off,” they groaned. “Have you gotten access to any of your computers?” They looked up, tilting their whole body to see the screen without it being obscured by the dent in their helmet.

A list of servers began to appear one by one, each color-coded by whether it remained online or went dark in the explosion. Many seemed intact, but quite a few were inaccessible. Clumb’s fingers had stilled over the console—she seemed to be waiting for one in particular to pop up.

“The data from our botched teleportation?” Sun guessed. 

“Hold on,” said Clumb.

“Agreed, Sun. This body is impossible,” Helfdym said at Clumb’s side, trying to work on a parallel holoscreen only for Indrani’s short fingers to miss the proper keys. Defeated, Helfdym pushed the holoscreen away from him in disgust, moved to hover over Clumb. “What a mess. We’ll have to abandon this Gate entirely, spores and all…”

Around them, the ship shuddered and began a sluggish slow approach to the Gate. Through the comms, Indrani’s shaky voice buzzed into their helmet. “I’m going to start moving to the Gate before I forget how to use the propulsion system again. Clumb? How’s it going?”

Another chirp, and the Unbound jerked their heads back toward the screen. The servers had finished their roll call, and Clumb’s fingers flew across the console once again. “We got it!” she trumpeted. “The experiment data’s still online. I’m downloadin’ it now.”

A massive fractal unspooled across both holoscreens. Along the edges of the main shape were countless buds and knobs, each with its own complexity. Clumb twisted her wrist on the console, and the shapes seemed to advance towards a camera, text appearing next to each growth. 

“This is…a user interface?” Sun asked, glancing at the screen Helfdym had abandoned. The text on the fractal bud she was zooming in on appeared to be spatial coordinates, a sector of a three-dimensional grid. As the bud grew larger, grew buds of its own, more text appeared. More coordinates—organic cells plotted within an irregular structure. Zooming in yet further, the text plotted molecules within a single cell—millions of them.

“This is one of us,” they murmured. “This is how your system records where we are within the Gate—how it plots us. How it knows what we’re made of, down to the atom.” Sun wondered whose blood cell they were studying the contents of. “So what went wrong?”

“The leak. Those spores got into the control room, and they’re not s’posed to do that,” Clumb replied. “See how every atom’s plotted out, like points on a grid? The Gate is the grid. The observation deck’s…out of bounds.” She continued to work at her console, but used two of her spare hands to mime a ball for Sun, a spherical space. “But the spores broke us down an’ recorded our data, so the system decided we had to go somewhere. It was smart enough to figure out we were four separate entities, but it still mixed us up, trying to rebuild us in an out-of-bounds zone it had no business rebuilding in.”

She rapped some knuckles against her helmet. “We knew right away that some neural tissue got swapped around, right? But I’d be surprised if there weren’t bits a’ you floating around in my bloodstream, or bits a’ Helfdym in your bone marrow.” She turned back at the console far too cheerily, Sun thought. “Hopefully we get this sorted out before we feel any side effects from that. How good are you at math?”

Nausea returning, Sun settled at the unoccupied console. “What do you need me to do?”

Indrani watched Sun and the Unbound helplessly, feeling especially useless despite successfully keeping the ship stable, oxygen flowing into the chamber. Being the ship was an exercise in re-mapping his senses, and somehow, the ship seemed primed for this sort of adaption. Or else his stress was forcing the ship into forging unnatural connections. 

Would this affect Sun when they re-integrated into the ship? Paths, what kind of fallout would his friend suffer? And all because he’d insisted on bringing Sun to the Gate. He was a fool. If Sun died, it would be because of his stubbornness, his ignorance of the natural flow of the Path. 

Or if this was meant to be…

No. Indian clamped his mind shut on the thought. If a Path involved the suffering or death of Sun, it wasn’t worth walking. 

The blasphemous thought arrived so fully realized in his mind, it stopped his breath. The ship’s lighting flickered in response. No, he couldn’t follow this train of thought now. Indrani subdued his mind with an imagined series of slow breaths, cleared his head of anxiety as best he could with an acolyte’s simple mantra: the truth of the Path is in its walking.

Even hindered by Indrani’s anatomy, Helfdym managed to assist Sun and Clumb with their calculations. After an agonizing few minutes—or hours, Indrani found his sense of time especially skewed—the three mathematicians pulled their huddled heads away from the screens.

“Indrani, are you in position?” Helfdym asked, closing up his helmet again. “We’re ready to return to the deck and run the corrective program.”

Indy shuddered in response, the ship vibrating beneath the humanoid passengers. “Okay. Okay, yes, I think I’m as close as I can get.” From his vantage, he was just above the cracked habdeck. “Should I deploy a drone to assist you back?”

“Go for it,” Clumb replied, waggling her long fingers. “I promise I’ll keep hold of this one.”

A squat little drone awaited them in the airlock hatch, rotating its nacelles. Clumb and Helfdym each grabbed a handhold and drifted silently out the airlock on the drone’s power. Sun watched their departure from the holoscreens in the docking bay. Debris shot past them, and Sun couldn’t help but shudder, another unwelcome physical reaction. Being knocked unconscious made them feel incredibly vulnerable, and yet, there went Helf in Indrani’s body, a perfect target for a bone-breaking chunk of metal or a helmet-shattering—

Sun swallowed and focused back on the screen. If they didn’t monitor the data transfer on this end, Clumb and Helf’s attempt to restart the experiment would never work, and they’d never get back to the right bodies. They didn’t have any time to waste. 

The drone crossed the threshold of the destroyed observation window, and Clumb grabbed one of the ceiling pipes, stopping their forward momentum. She clambered towards the consoles against the back wall, Helf’s arm wrapped around her waist. She reached for a console’s squishy controls, and its screen sprung to life with an encouraging chime. She glanced back and gave a thumbs up at the drone’s camera, so Sun and Indrani could see.

“Looks good, guys,” she said. “We’ll start th’ sequence. Indy, keep th’ transmission going. Sun, make sure I come outta this with two hands instead of twelve.” 

Helfdym grumbled something about the optimal number of hands before he activated his own console.

Between the two Unbound, the gate and its bioorganic engines soon began to glow a vivid white. Over the comms, Helfdym’s voice said, “We’ll begin transfer in five, four, three, two, one…”

Entry: 008

The next room they came to was large and broad, banks of the Gate’s original instruments flush with the far wall, with new controls in odd shapes and textures growing out of them like mold on a piece of flatbread. The opposite wall, or rather, the window that stretched from floor to ceiling, commanded more of Sun’s attention. It was thick glass, a true window looking out onto the entirety of the Gate ring, of which they had travelled only a fraction. 

Greenery had stitched the ring’s pieces back together into an intact hoop that stretched several kilometers above and below them beyond the window’s frame. Sun’s gaze ran along the ring’s far side, which glittered like a broad ribbon against the blackness of space beyond. 

The only interruption to the gentle curve from Sun’s vantage point came from just below the window. There, a large organic growth stretched from the structure and extending dozens of meters into the ring.

“Welcome to the observation deck for one of our new engines!” Clumb announced proudly. She landed on one of the window’s raised edges and skittered along its length. “There is it, down below,” she gestured towards the growth. “Six others just like it are installed ‘round the circumference of the main ring. We cultivated the biological material for it and encoded it with what we want it to do. 

“When a ship comes by and says ‘We wanna go through the Gate!,’ the engines release their spores onto it. The spores dissolve everything—”

“What?” Sun said sharply. 

Clumb barrelled on with no lost momentum.

“They dissolve everything, break it down to dust, and log the data of how the ship and its contents ‘re structured. Which elements, in what amounts, y’know. Then—”

“That’s not even close to how the original Gates functioned!” Sun objected. “The Gates warped space and let ships pass through intact! They didn’t dematerialize them!”

Indrani gaped as he took in the implications of this. He’d only studied the cursory theories around the Gate through old archival logs, most of which he could barely comprehend, but these Unbound had done something entirely new with it. Unnatural, even. “Incredible,” he breathed, eyes wide as he pressed his nose against the window.

“Why bother trying to recreate all of its old functions when our new ones suit it perfectly well? Maybe even better,” Helfdym asked blandly as he floated into the room, arachnid limbs stretched out like a star in every direction. Indrani found his nimbleness disconcerting and kicked out of the way as he passed by, bumping into a bulbous wall. The orb followed behind Helfdym like a carnivorous flower as he positioned himself upside at the window, orb floating up between him and the glass. 

“This will be our fifth attempt to activate the gate. We’ve had minor success so far, but realized the fungi needed to mature more fully, cohere to the wreckage and what’s left of its processing system,” he said, voice trailing off as he plucked at the tines of his orb, clearly losing himself in his work. “Looks like it’s ready for interweaving, Clumb.”

“Okay!” The smaller suited figure bounced off the window with a smack, sending her careening toward the control panels. 

Sun winced internally. Their sensors didn’t extend through every wall and panel like in their shipself—their Shell provided what felt like the crudest of data as to the tensory strength of the window. The atmosphere wasn’t strong enough to breathe, but present enough to suck Indrani out through any hull breach. Shoot him into the center of that ring, and those growths that could disintegrate him instantly.

Sun refocused on their ship, made a minor course correction that drifted them closer to their current position. Its large shape floated into view from the observation deck and Sun nodded their avatar’s head, relieved.

“Minor success, huh?” they asked, turning from the window. “What kind of minor success?”

“Well, the spores do their job,” Clumb said, squeezing controls that looked disconcertingly like pustules. “They log the material data for any object, vehicle, or lifeform we wanna transport, and the engine reconstitutes ‘em almost perfectly. Margin of error, sure, but teeny-tiny, maybe a handful of atoms off. That is, when we do both operations on this side of the Gate.” They rolled their hand in a circular motion, impatiently, as if any drawback was barely worth mentioning. “When we run a program to reconstitute a subject on the other side of the Gate, we get mixed results. But whaddya expect? We hafta grow the same engines on the other side, and we hafta squeeze as much equipment as we can through the warp surface we can generate, only a few meters wide. Like buildin’ a model ship through a pinhole in the wall.”

“Compared to others attempting similar feats of gate reactivation, I’d submit that what we have accomplished, and in such a brief time, is quite promising.” Helfdym spun the orb quickly within his long arachnid fingers, each slim tine blurring with each flick of the Unbound’s fingers. 

To Indrani, it looked less like the computer who knew it was and more like some archaic scrying object, an orbuculum from old folktales. Carefully, he propelled himself to anchor near the window, watching as one of the engines outside began to glow with specks of light. Glancing back at Helfdym and Clumb, he asked, “How quickly do the spores log things? It sounds like it’d take forever.”

“Seconds, usually,” Helfdym said, his slow doleful tone at odds with the rapid movement of his hands over the orb. “Clumb, the engine is primed. Insert the test object to the focal coordinates.”

Sun’s shipself saw it before the Shell did. A mechanical limb—not unlike Sun’s own, but larger and cruder—extended from a large blister above the observation deck on the ring. Towed in its grip was a polyhedron about fifty meters wide, stitched together from a motley jumble of materials. Plastic pipes wrapped around metal bars, and thick layers of organic growth coated it with splashes of pinks and reds. It reminded Sun of a three-dimensional puzzle one of their passengers had played with on her journey. She had never succeeded in twisting it into a shape with sides of matching colors and materials.

“It’s been scanned inside an’ out,” Clumb was explaining to Indrani as he watched the test object glide into view through the window. “Its surface and contents ‘re mapped by our systems, so we know exactly how it’s s’posed to look when it’s reconstituted.”

The limb released the object, letting it slowly drift toward the center of the ring a couple of kilometers beyond the observation window. A faint vibration began to thrum through the handhold Sun gripped, and into their Shell body. The large organic mass stretching out below the deck began to change, growing tumescent and saturated in color.

Helfdym’s fingers blurred over the orb, and the orb blurred in turn, spinning in rapid rotation as the Unbound began sending commands and funneling energy into the engines. Indrani pressed his visor to the glass window, staring wide-eyed as the hybrid machinery began to glow and vibrate in earnest. “Wow,” the curate whispered, awed by the foreign technology burning to life before him, spores descending onto the patchwork mass in a uniform shroud. 

A mote drifted into view. 

Indrani swatted the speck away, intent on watching the disintegration of the object happen. More motes floated into his line of sight. 

“What the…” Indrani flapped his hand at the sudden sprinkling of dust. Didn’t they clean this place? He looked up to see some of the fungal matter on the ceiling beginning to flake and float down towards him. Almost as if drawn towards him magnetically, gathering in a little green flock. The curate kicked away from the incoming motes, pushing himself slowly towards Sun. “Um, I think…something’s wrong with that shroomy stuff. Should it be flaking like that…?”

Sun glanced at the ceiling in alarm. Damn the lack of sensors! How hadn’t they noticed the second it started happening? “Helfdym,” they asked, the sound crawling painfully slowly, “is the observation deck protected from the engine?” The flaking material began to collect on the glass, hazing the view outside.

Not one to hesitate, Clumb vaulted from the console to the window. She inspected the growing cavities on the ceiling and—Sun could see now—the floor, matter peeling away from fungus, polymer, and metal alike. 

“LEAK!” She shrieked over the comm, propelling herself away. “We got a leak!”

“We’re protected from the engine but…but—” Helfdym’s fingers fumbled along the orb while another pair of his long-reaching arms stretched up to a conduit above. He opened the wide panel there, and behind it was a glass vessel embedded within. Inside the vessel: bright, active spores filling it to the brim, so dense they were bursting out from the sealed edges. 

Helfdym hissed, snatched up the orb and propelled backwards away from the leak. “The larval spores! That’s where we check their health and development as they flow through the engine’s vascular network, but—” He manipulated the orb, neck craned close to it like it might just hold the answers he was looking for. “It looks like they’re reacting to the engine command, to their mature counterparts. I’m… not sure why. Clumb?”

Indrani, clueless as to what this meant but appropriately afraid, pushed himself up besides Sun, gripping their metallic arm beneath the projection. “Should we try to escape? Wait, we can’t, can we, all the spores outside…but they’re in here, too! Which is worse to be exposed to?”

“Stay put,” Helfdym barked, still working furiously at his orb. “Everything around the gate is active. Just let me try to deactivate the ones in here—“

The spores, a fine dust high in the air, began to glow a flushed pink. Outside, the engine spores did the same; brightening, humming, until the vibrations reached the habdeck floor, causing every surface to blur with the movement. The floating spores inside shivered into a white smear in the air. Indrani grimaced, both hands clutching Sun’s arm now. “W-What’s happening?”

Sun grimaced at their lack of information, their lack of control. Wall panels began to wrinkle as if they were squares of tissue paper floating on the surface of a pool. The thin atmosphere couldn’t hide the metallic groan beneath the incessant vibrations. They propelled their shipself closer, rotating to make their docking bay visible from the observation deck window. If that blew out, they could catch the ejected figures if they lined it up just right… 

Their prow passed through the ring as the ship advanced. Instantly, they felt the spores’ vibrations, magnified a thousandfold into a whine, across the surface of their hull. But they pressed forward, attuned their sensors, and analyzed the precious, precious data. 

“Who’s pilotin’ your ship?!” Clumb hollered. Sun jerked their head towards her. The Shell’s vision was fuzzy, but they could still make out Clumb furiously kneading the growths on the control panel. Her back was to the window, yet she had somehow seen The Sun Clouded Over fill the majority of the view. “They shouldn’t be in the testin’ range while we’re—” 

“We need another option!” Sun barked. The vibrations seemed to penetrate every atom of their being as they sped forward. They felt Indrani grip their arm as the other two spoke up to argue. Too slow, too slow, they all were just too slow!

Outside, some of the spores around the test object flitted away, magnetized to the new object within their range, congregating around the nose of the ship. “Your ship is far too close!” The orb suddenly flashed pink to yellow in rapid warning. “I killed the engine power, but the spores have their own energy source, a-and they’re not responding to my command,” he shouted, voice tapering off into a helpless whine. “Clumb, what do we—?”

White light. 

Something like heat but not, an alien element he couldn’t name, smothering and filling all at once, like a rescue breath delivered straight to Indrani’s lungs. 

The curate’s instinct was to go fetal, protect his body from whatever was happening, but something stopped him, froze him in place. The spore-filled habdeck was consumed in a thrum of energy, their brightness filling through the room, throwing the Unbound, Indrani and Sun’s shell in pink silhouette. 

Brighter, brighter, until Indrani felt the glow stinging his eyes through his lids, seeping into his bones, a painless but probing suffusion. He tried to call out to Sun but could no longer feel his throat, the pressure of breath in his lungs. He tried to grab for Sun’s arm, but could no longer feel his arms, his fingers. What’s happening? Indrani thought fearfully, blind and numb, lost in a deluge of roaring luminance.

Sun found their forward thrusters inactive and careened further through the ring on inertia alone. They assumed as much, anyway; as they sensors had gone fully haywire, registering nothing but damage, damage, damage. They were being atomized— torn apart! How long until—

—they were reconstituted? With a jolt, Sun found themself back in the observation deck, facing one of the wall consoles. The only sound they could hear was a high-pitched rhythmic rasp. Everything—the sensory input from the Shell, their internal processing speed—felt off to such an extent that Sun was certain the Shell was irreparably damaged. They tried checking on the status of their ship—

—and couldn’t find it. Where was it? Where was their body?

The raspy sound sped up in frequency around them. Panicked breathing. They twisted their head, looking for Indrani on their arm, but found their vision spinning nearly 180 degrees to the window behind them. The room appeared undamaged, not a panel out of place or a spore to be seen.

And Sun’s Shell body was floating there, curled into a ball, arm clamped around Indrani’s like a vise. “What—” The raspy breathing broke into a high voice, words ramming into one another. “WhatthefuckishappingWHAT—” 

Besides Sun, the Shell twitched to life, squeezed harder, and then let go. 

“S-Sun? I don’t feel very well,” Indrani mumbled, a hint of a moan on the undercurrent of his words. He blinked his eyes open, and a wave of nausea immediately struck, vision delivering a hybrid image of both the Gate from outside and the inside of the habdeck. Screwing his eyes shut, he went to clutch at his head, only to…not feel his arms where they were supposed to be. Not that they were absent or missing, blasted away by whatever just happened, but just simply…in the wrong place. Too overwhelmed by this strange sensation, he peeked out from a single eye, only to be horrified by the image and sound of himself panicking.

Why was he looking at himself? And why couldn’t he move? He was floating in the same habdeck, and it looked like all the spores were gone… but where was Sun? Why was he looking at one projection of himself? Confused, Indrani reached out to pass his hand through the holo of himself—

And sucked in a breath, and his hand—no, Sun’s hand, Shell hand, hit flesh and bone. His own flesh and bone. This wasn’t a projection of him. That was him.

“Oh paths, oh paths,” Indrani yelped, snatching his—Sun’s—hand back as if electrocuted. “Sun, what is going on?!”

Sun flinched at the sound of their voice, sped up to a degree that it was almost too hard to follow. They twisted their head back—too far round—looked down at their hands, their tiny body, wrapped in a quilted vacsuit of blisteringly bright colors and patterns. 

“No,” the voice squeaked. “I’m—” 

“I’M HUGE!” a deep voice trumpeted over the comms. Sun jerked, and their whole body started spinning aimlessly. Swinging into their field of view was Helfdym, and they were shocked to realize they had just heard his voice. Four of Helfdym’s arms splayed gracelessly across a few of the consoles, while he used the other two to animatedly pat his torso and his helmet. “No way! Look at how long these babies are!”

He glanced up to look at Sun before their rotation spun him out of view. He cocked his head, an utterly alien expression on the usually morose scientist. “And I’m all the way over there! Boy, we sure gotta big whoopsie on our hands!”

Clumb?” Sun yelped. Their Shell and Indrani swung back around. “Then who—”

Helfdym held out his—Indrani’s—arms, a deep frown dragging the Curate’s face downward, mouth bracketed by morose lies. He heaved a sigh, and Indrani flailed back from himself, his Shell body and projection of Sun’s form comically panicked, a foreign comportment on Ship’s holoself. “Who—what is happening! Why am I not in my body!? Who are you?!”

Helfdym only glanced at Indrani’s retreating robotic form, holding up his own arms—now just a measly two—to examine, his face scrunching up into mortification and distaste. “This feels absolutely terrible,” he mumbled, plucking at Indrani’s stubby human fingers, feeling the short thighs, the feet devoid of any prehensile toes. “Clumb? I fear I’m horribly hampered by this temporary psychic displacement. Will you assess the damage on the sphere?”

Indrani, pressed against the habdeck wall, swiveled his head back and forth between the others, a low, buzzing pain filling the confines of his skull…or his Shell. Helfdym was now acting like Clumb, ricocheting around the room, and his own body was acting like Helfdym, all dreary tones and drooping limbs. 

Psychic displacement? What did that even mean? And why did everything feel so wrong, like his lungs were where his feet should be? How color pinged through his senses in a new layered way that left him pinching his eyes shut from the onslaught of new sensations? 

With his eyes closed, Indrani’s sight didn’t immediately go black, as he’d hoped, but instead filled up with a panoramic view of the Gate and the surrounding space. His limbs felt multiplied to thousands, senses suddenly a tangled labyrinth of information. Outside the Gate, the Ship began to rotate, engines flaring on and off again in short bursts. 

On the habdeck, Indrani began to breathe rapidly, Sun’s visage conveying his hyperventilation, even though there were no lungs present for him to use. “Gods, Sun, please tell me you know what’s happening…”

Sun paddled with their tiny limbs through the air towards Indrani, reflexively trying to check on their shipself with no success. They had to see it, look for it. Sun made contact with the Shell, fingers phasing through the hologram to cling to the metal underneath, and glanced at the window for the rest of themself.

The Ship took up a growing majority of the view, spinning erratically with no regard for anything around it. The test polyhedron, fully intact once again, was in its path. But beyond that, so was—

“The ring,” Sun gasped. They spun back, strengthening their grip on their—Indrani’s—the Shell’s arm. “I’m still heading towards the ring! You have to reverse your propulsion!” They frantically studied the Shell’s face, stuck in a panicked grimace. Would he even know what to do? 

Sun clambered up the arm until they were level with the face, cupping either side of the Shell’s head. “Indrani, listen to me. Don’t open your eyes here. Lock onto the sensors giving you visuals of the habdeck. Just the visuals! Those sensors are your eyes now. Find your thruster on the same side as your eyes.”

Indrani’s holo flickered in and out, revealing the mechanical Shell beneath. His limbs quivered uselessly, folded into the skeletal apparatus as fear and confusion suspended his train of thought. But Clumb’s voice, spoken with Sun’s confidence, and the touch of their small hands on Indrani’s robotic face, urged his mind into action.

“Thrusters by..my eyes? Sun, I…I can’t do this! I—” 

But there was no time for second-guessing, because past Clumb’s colorful vacsuit, Sun’s ship was growing larger, filling the expanse of the window. “Oh paths, you’re coming closer. I’m coming closer!” 

Sucking in a nonexistent breath, Indrani shut his eyes as Sun had commanded, and found himself once again in a labyrinth of sensation, a tangle of foreign information clattering against his mind uselessly. With no way to parse the onslaught of data, his mind did the only thing it could: ignore, ignore, ignore.

Finding the thrusters by his eyes? Was Sun mad? How was he supposed to do that? In the alien maze of the ship’s system, Indrani grasped at the thing that felt nearest to movement, reminded him of the feeling of legs and tensed them. 

The thrusters blew on in a sudden burst of light, jarring the ship forward. Indrani squealed back in his Shell, eyes still clamped shut, and then reached for the sensations of movement again. The thrusters stopped and kicked on again, stopping the ship dead and sending it backwards in a violent lurch.

“Did it work, Sun?” Indrani asked, still folded into a miserable lump of metal. “What’s it doing?”

Sun released a breath they didn’t realize they’d been holding. “Yes! Just—” they coughed before clumsily inhaling another lungful. “J—just like that. Keep pushing yourself away from the ring’s edges until you’re—”

An ear-splitting THOK cut through the thin atmosphere. The ship had successfully propelled itself away, but the force of its thrusters had jettisoned the fifty-meter-wide polyhedron towards the observation deck’s window.

Indrani did as Sun instructed, their voice the only guiding light in the chaos of data streaming through his upended senses. The ship continued to glide backwards unevenly, thrusters firing on and off, tipping the ship off-kilter. Thankfully, it didn’t matter which way you were oriented in space.

“Clumb, we may need to evacuate,” Helfdym said with Indrani’s voice, a tremor in the tone. “The window is—”

A thick web of fragments spidered out from the polyhedron’s point of impact, and the window went sharply concave, pulled out towards the vacuum of space as the pressure escaped. 

“Hang onto something!” Helfdym shouted, kicking off the ground for the wall.

“What’s happening?” Indrani said, his Shell’s eyes opening to take in the habdeck. He wished he hadn’t. Immediately, he began to flail and grab at Clumb-who-was-Sun. “We’re going to get sucked out!” Another massive fissure appeared in the window, the glass beginning to vibrate against the opposing pressures. “Sun, what do I do!?”

Sun squirmed in his iron grip, trying to decide what to tell him first. Ideally, he would puppet the Shell, straighten out the ship, and line it up with the observation deck simultaneously—but could they trust him to handle it all? The prospect of such extensive multitasking felt overwhelming even to Sun, in a way it simply hadn’t before. 

A broad hand wrapped its long fingers around one of the Shell’s forearms. Clumb had swung Helfdym’s spindly body across a series of pipes jutting from the deck’s ceiling. With a tug, she drew in Indrani and Sun, gripping them with three hands as she clung to the ceiling with the other three. 

“I gotcha!” she bellowed in Helf’s deep voice. “Whattabout your ship?”

“Are you clear of the ring, Indy?” Sun gritted out. “Find your primary docking bay. Treat it like—like your mouth.” They swiveled their head, coming face to face with an increasingly dubious Indrani. “Find visual sensors—eyes—on the same side of the ship as your mouth. Line your mouth up with the observation deck window. With us.” Sun attempted an encouraging nod, which only caused their entire body to bob up and down. “You’re gonna catch us, the same way I caught you.”

Mouth, his mouth; where in Path’s name was his mouth? Now that Sun had mentioned it, trying to find it was like trying to grasp at smoke. Indrani tried again to find his mouth, but instead, felt something like his diaphragm seize up. His Shell whimpered audibly. 

“Your human is going to make it worse!” Helfdym barked with Indrani’s deep tenor, kicking off to grasp at the Shell. “Just make him hold still–”

“Sun, I–I–!” His stomach felt as if it was churning, full of meteors ricocheting around his gut—and then, unable to hold himself back, Indrani-the-ship burped. 

The ship’s bay snapped open. Out from the depths, drones began to fly, swarming towards the ring’s habdeck in thick, glinting clouds. 

Back in the habdeck, Shell-Indrani emitted a sob, clutching at his non-existent stomach, his mechanical head dipped down against his chest. “Sun, I don’t feel so good,” he mumbled, opening his eyes for a moment of sensory reprieve.

The whine from the escaping air was escalating to a dull roar, and Sun could barely hear themself think. They watched the drones swoop closer and closer, the glass’s deepening cracks obscuring their numbers. If they’d been deployed from the docking bay, they were probably maintenance drones, although these ones had never been designed to travel beyond the surface of The Sun Clouded Over. Leave it to Indrani to find a way to do the exact opposite of what he was supposed to—wait.

Sun clapped their tiny hands on the thick arm around their waist. Wait. The drones would only stay outside the Ship’s radius for so long before they started propelling themselves back. If Indy couldn’t get any closer to the four of them in the habdeck—

“—we can hitch a ride back on the drones,” Sun squeaked. They emphatically banged a hand against the Shell’s metallic arm, raising their voice to be heard over the escaping air. “Guys! If we each grab a drone, they’ll take us back to the docking bay!”

Helfdym lifted his head, turned to assess the incoming drones. “The force of the decompression is going to shoot us out at high speed. There’s an alarmingly high chance we’ll miss grabbing hold of them—” he paused, twitchy face falling into a resigned anxiety, “—but I suppose it’s the best option we’ve got.” 

“I c-can slow us down,” Indrani said, voice rising from a whimper to a sturdier register. His Shell finally loosened its grip on Sun’s tiny frame, unfolded from its fetal curl. He’d seen Sun jet their way over to the habdeck in the first place, so it stood to reason he could do the same. Testing out the Shell, he breathed and felt through his body with proprioceptive awareness. He’d gotten a taste of what it felt like in Sun’s ship form, but the Shell suddenly seemed much more manageable.

“Propulsion…” The glass fractured again, a massive fissure. The habdeck would burst any moment. He held tightly onto Sun, then reached for Helfdym who floated nearby in his own body, watching him with a grimace. Propulsion, propulsion, he thought, moving limbs, fluttering his eyes, the false mouth. And then, among the fake anatomy, a ring of vents along his mechanical torso, all of which felt like gently-held breaths.

“I think….I’ve got it!” He jerked forward suddenly, Sun and Helfdym in his arms, testing the propulsion system. The glass began to quake violently, and he reached out for Clumb, encircling their narrow body in his rigid grip. The pile of them thrashed forward and back in stuttering movements as Indrani experimented with the thrust of the vents. “Okay, I—!”

A great shattering turned the glass white and then a loud sucking whoosh exploded in his ears as the vacuum of space made to swallow them.

Entry: 007

Indrani finished zipping up his orange vacuum suit, hands trembling with excitement. He hadn’t felt this rush of emotion since he’d been ordained as a child and felt the Paragons hands, one by one, touch his brow in acknowledgment of his new appointment in their ranks and in blessing. At that moment, they had cemented within him his Purpose: to help others find their Path, as well as his own. 

Finally, his Purpose was being fulfilled, his Path growing more defined with each passing moment, clarified with the help of Sun’s Path rising to merge with his own. He clasped his hands together in front of him, pressed them to his forehead to try and calm his nerves. A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth, an expression completely out of his control. He could feel his sense of faith growing within him, ballooning out and enveloping him like a second atmosphere. It was an impossible sensation to name; like a joyous burning and sense of flight all at once. 

He was where he needed to be. This was his whole life’s destination.

He scrubbed at his face, trying to rub the wild grin off his mouth, and exited his room. He strode quickly down the hall, mind a rush of possibilities, of next steps. Oh, wait. “Sun? Should I meet you in one of the hangars? I’m ready to get out there!”

The Sun Clouded Over resurfaced from the layers of data pooling within their consciousness, results from the countless scans they’d been casting on the overrun jumpgate for the past hour. The lack of recognition or precedent in their memories irritated Sun, and the refusal of the data to yield any useful information did nothing to ease the feeling. And now—

“Out?” Sun’s avatar materialized in the corridor, smoothing their already neat bun and trying to sound more together than they felt. Their larger strides shortened the distance behind Indrani, even with his purposeful gait. “I still haven’t gotten a ping back from the ship out there. The repair crew or—” —the gardeners— “—or whoever.” The elevator doors ahead of them remained sealed, a line as tight and thin as Sun’s frown.

“Oh, I’m sure they’re just busy,” Indrani said pleasantly, tugging at the edge of his gloves to adjust them as he walked. “Have you figured anything out about what we’re seeing?” He palmed the elevator interface to summon it up, still too distracted to consider Sun at his side. “Anything in your archives about uh, space plants or—” he trailed off when he realized he couldn’t hear the little blips of the elevator rising. “Or, um…” He pressed his hand against it a few more times, totally ignorant of Sun at his side.

“Hmm, Sun, something’s wrong with—” Finally, he looked up at them properly, noticed the tension in Sun’s composure, the sternness in their face. “Oh, don’t tell me you’re worried! Come now, Sun, you can’t really be having doubts now?” He reached to pat the nearby wall comfortingly, as if it were Sun’s shoulder, a sympathetic smile on his face. “We were meant to discover this gate, to see whatever is happening to it now. They haven’t tried to attack us or anything, have they? That’s as good a sign as any that they’re probably the agreeable sort, if my experience counts for anything.” 

Sun fixated on the hand resting on the wall as their avatar turned to look literally anywhere else. The elevator doors opened with a sigh. 

“I’ll keep scanning the structure and pinging our visitors,” they said, stepping into the elevator. “But we’re getting out of there at the first sign of trouble. I’ll yank you back by your suit tether if I have to.”

The doors opened again, and the two of them stepped into the cavernous docking bay Sun had scooped Indrani into the first time they met. Near the elevator was a bank of more human-scaled fixtures—a supply locker, a control panel, and a viewscreen currently projecting live video of the jumpgate ruins beyond the Ship’s hull.

Indrani all but skipped to the locker, a grin locked onto his pointy face. He took out one of Sun’s vacuum suits, humming absently as he stepped into the heavy outfit and slid his arms in. “I was wondering, Sun, do you have some sort of…robotic avatar? A drone?” He zipped the suit up and clicked a button on his wrist that enclosed his head in a clear helmet. His voice buzzed out from a comm speaker on his visor. “We had a visitor once on Malakar when I was a teenager, a tourist. He was very sick and bedridden, but used a remote robotic body—a Shell, he called it— to tour the monastery.” Indrani tapped another button on his chest, and the suit hissed as it deflated, fitted itself to his body. “It wasn’t very sophisticated, not a lot of sensory feedback he said, but it was interesting.” He glanced up at Sun, dopey smile creasing the corner of his eyes. “Have you ever tried something like that?”

Sun listened patiently. More than a few passengers traveled with a surrogate body that they commandeered from their cabins. On a private ship, a Shell wouldn’t be necessary for them to access their essential needs, but on a large vessel like The Sun Clouded Over, socializing with the other passengers was the big appeal. 

Sun had never physically interacted with humanoids outside of their shipself, at a port or on a planet. The amount of possible complications, the sheer number of people they would have to behave properly around, to lie to, to fool—it hardly seemed worth it. But maybe, for a short outing, just with Indrani, to help keep him safe…

“Just a sec,” Sun intoned, and their avatar blipped away. Above Indrani, several limbs snapped out of the smooth walls, folding downwards. One limb stretched down two digits to touch the floor, and extended two digits outwards a meter above the floor. With a mechanical pop, the hand disengaged from the limb to stand freely, and several other limbs moved in to make adjustments, add plating and sensors and ports. When they withdrew what remained was a featureless humanoid figure made of cool, dark metal, like a shadow puppet standing two meters tall. 

With a flicker of light, Sun’s avatar rolled over the surface of the Shell, covering it like a glove, until the skeletal figure was invisible beneath them. 

Sun flexed the Shell’s arms, and it moved in perfect synchronization with their avatar. They glanced up and raised their eyebrows at Indrani.

“Oh!” Indrani clapped his hands together like he had just witnessed a very neat trick. “That’s amazing, Sun…” His hand drifted out towards Sun’s arm like he might touch their flexing arm. A blink, and he quickly came back to himself, snapped his hand back to his chest with a shy smile. Indrani wheeled around towards the airlock, red-faced, fumbling with his tether. “N-now you can come with me! Wonderful, wonderful.”

Despite being a novice to space travel and spacewalks, Indrani had adapted rather quickly to the new experience. He steadied his breathing as the airlock cleared and the artificial gravity vanished. Outside Sun’s window, he could see the strange verdure that had grown across the gate’s wreckage like an infection. Unlike the plants and flowers he was used to, this particular mass of greenery resembled fungus. Thick, spongy lattices held the debris like a spiderweb, layered into a thick green tapestry. Huge stalked puffballs spotted the growth, spiked with beads of slowly-growing spores. 

Indrani let out a breath as the airlock hatch opened. He threw Sun a nervous glance, his smile suddenly wavering uneasily. “Ready?”

Sun floated behind him, suitless in the vacuum. “Ready when you are.” Their lips moved to sync with the audio ported directly to Indrani’s helmet. It wasn’t necessary, and an outsider would find the sight of them very strange indeed, but Sun wasn’t going to quit their habits now. 

They pointed to the ring ahead of them, where the odd growth was spreading across the surface of the structure. One yet untouched section had its exterior lattice chipped away, revealing layers and channels beneath—formerly habitable decks for the crew. “I’ll move close enough to get us within range of that open section,” they said. “I’ll use the Shell to plug in there, check the systems, see if the Gate truly is being repaired. Then we can head into the green zone and investigate these newcomers.”

“Got it,” Indrani said, the slightest tremble in his voice. He hoped Sun couldn’t hear it through the grainy comms. He kicked off after Sun, unsettled but also awed by the image of them suitless in the vacuum. He followed them at a safe distance behind, using his microthrusters so he drifted right in Sun’s wake. Finally clear of Sun’s hull, Indrani could finally see other ship, its spherical build and the nondescript black paint job suggesting a prop of some dark moon. On closer inspection, the grappling arms that emerged from the hull and anchored the ship to the gate were covered with the same fungi, woven and braided along the elegant mechanical arms like sleeves.

As they drifted closer to the gate, the fungal webbing took on new clarity. Small spores floated just above the layer of solid vegetal material, still in the vacuum. Some were simple featureless balls, miniscule, and others—in a more mature stage?— had grown long, hair-like tendrils. 

“This is so…weird.” Indrani squinted at the fungus, bit his lip nervously. “I mean, I know I’ve been raised in a rather insular place, but this is weird right? Or maybe I’m being uh, ethnocentric. Fungalphobic…” He chuckled nervously, wondering if he was about to meet a mold-based lifeform or some other flora-based being.

Above them, at the highest arc of the gate, one of the orb ship’s panels bloomed open, all of its other panels shifting in a graceful tesselating pattern to accommodate the breach. A small single object emerged. 

“Oh! Sun? There’s some movement on that ship.” 

Sun turned the head of the Shell within their avatar, fixating on it like a predatory bird. Their shipself locked onto the object with their sensors and ran it through every sweep available. 

Limbs extending from the entity, four, moving in a natural way. Humanoid? The proportions seemed off, scraping the edge of the range of genetic possibility for an adult human. Its short arms and legs sprouted from its pill-shaped body like an infant’s; in standard gravity, it might stand only a meter tall. But it clambered across the orb’s panels with shocking speed and dexterity, especially if it was wearing—

“We’ve got a person,” Sun replied. “Vacuum suited. So the ship does have a crew.” The stranger’s suit didn’t look like the uniform of any ship, company, or organization they recognized, but even from this distance, the shock of color was obvious against the muted green and dull black of the ship’s surface.

Indrani tried to crane his neck around to spot the person, but couldn’t without adjusting his trajectory. “What’re they—?”

“Pardon me,” a deep voice suddenly said, filling Indrani’s helmet. “We’re in the middle of a symphonic cycle, and to be interrupted during the process would cause grave complications to our study.” 

Indrani blinked and looked at Sun questioningly. “Oh, we’re quite sorry,” Indrani offered, adjusting his jets to ease himself onto the exposed habdeck. Tiny motes filled the empty space around them, hovering around the surfaces of the wreckage. Ahead of them was an airlock door, a green light flickering brightly above it signaling that it was, for the moment, functioning. 

“You had better get inside,” the deep voice said, exhaustion clear in the tone. “The new batch of spores will begin adhering to the closest surfaces soon.”

“Izzat the new guys you’re talking to?” a new voice piped loudly into the comms channel. “What, d’they land in the section we’re cycling right now? I’ll be right over!”

“Unfortunately, yes,” the deep voice said mournfully. Ahead of Indrani and Sun, the habdeck airlock flashed and then began to slide noiselessly open. A curtain of feathery mycelium hung like a curtain within the airlock chamber, with many long, branching pale filaments binding to the metallic structure.

“Is this safe?” Indrani asked, jettisoning himself slowly into the airlock. Whatever was inside the habdeck seemed less terrifying than the floating cloud of spores the voice had described. 

“It’s fine, the roots won’t bond to you,” the deep voice said tiredly. “Come on in. My assistant will be with you shortly…”

Sun secured their tethers to a loop of exposed metal and unclipped them. Before joining Indrani in the airlock, they rifled through every sensor at their disposal on both ship and Shell for more information about their hosts. They studied the mycelium stretching from the ceiling as closely as surreptitious glances would allow, while their shipself’s cameras scanned the exterior of the structure. The figure climbing across the surface of the orb had somehow started going even faster, dipping around an extended plate and disappearing out of sight. Where did they go? Who were these two, anyway?

The door began its (to Sun) ponderously slow closing sequence when a flash of color darted from the gate surface to the habdeck and rolled into the airlock. Sun reacted, turning to face the intruder as they swooped their other arm around Indrani. Indrani had barely begun his surprised gasp when Sun finally recognized the small, round figure and the stubby arms they raised. 

“Whoa, take it easy! Youse guys are fast! You see how fast they moved?” This last remark was probably meant for the other one on the channel.

“Indeed,” the voice sighed. The airlock gave an unpleasant series of beeps before it flashed green again. The inner door opened jerkily behind them. “Come on in, then. We haven’t any gravity on this habdeck, unfortunately.”

Indrani had clung to Sun unconsciously, startled by how quickly this new person was moving. It was like they were perfectly at home in zero-g. Maybe they were space-raised? Did spacefarers live without artificial gravity? He’d thought for some reason that would be rare. 

Sun’s arm squeezed against his waist and Indrani was suddenly torn from his thoughts, very aware of how close they were. His face flushed hot, and he gently extricated himself from Sun’s grip. “We do apologize for intruding. I am High Curate Indrani the IV of Malakar, and this is, ah—” Indy glanced at Sun, wondering how they wanted to appear to these two beings: ship or simply a person?

“Call me Sun,” the Ship said, nodding at Indrani and withdrawing their arm as casually as possible. They pivoted their back to the airlock wall and stole a glance at the deserted habdeck hallway before studying the newcomer more closely. 

The quilted fabric of her vacuum suit was ablaze with bright colors, whimsical patterns tessellating across every surface. Her helmet was an opaque bowl that capped one end of the rotund body. Along with a few valves and cable connectors on the suit, it sparkled under the habdeck’s light fixtures. That their host’s face was hidden from view jogged Sun’s memory; could it possibly be that…?

“You’re a post-human,” Sun spoke aloud as the small figure rolled past them in zero-g. “Aren’t you?” 

She stuck out her arm and hooked it round a pipe extending from the habdeck wall. In less than a second, she used their new armhold to change the direction of her momentum, bounced around the ceiling and walls before catching herself on a new fixture and flashing a jaunty salute at Indrani and Sun. 

“Fast brains and fast bods!” she crowed. “We’re posties all right, me and my buddy both. Did a couple tours ‘round the fragment before I started my current enterprise. I’m Clumb.” She jerked a thumb in the general direction of the orb ship. “And this guy—”

“Helfdym,” intoned the deep voice as its owner turned the corner, crawling along the habdeck ceiling. Indrani was glad there was no gravity; otherwise, the jolt he gave would have been embarrassingly prominent. Helfdym was a mass of arachnid limbs stemming from a thin humanoid torso, all encased in a purple vacsuit that gradated to black towards the ends of his appendages. Each limb bore a hand, which in turn bore a set of six long, spindly fingers. Helfdym twisted effortlessly to land in front of the visiting pair, bracing himself with his impossibly long arms against the hab walls. Indrani had seen altered humans before, spliced or cyborged, but the natural grace of how these posties moved in zero-g made him uneasy.

“And yes, we are post-humans, though we prefer to call ourselves Unbound, after our home colony, the Boundless Federation. Perhaps you’ve heard of it,” Helfdym said, scratching at a mark on the wall before turning his black-tinted helmet towards them more pointedly. “But more importantly, we are scientists. You’ve interrupted a rather long experiment we’re running here. What exactly can Clumb and I do for you?”

Sun used a notch in the wall to reorient themself toward the two scientists. “I was escorting Indrani to the closest Gate to assess its functionality.” They left out that the assessment was intended to be little more than displaying the ruins on screen in front of Indy, raising their avatar’s eyebrows, and drinking in Indy’s sheepish expression before they planned a viable route to the imperial labs. “I must admit, we weren’t expecting to have company here. What sort of experiment are you doing, and how is the Gate involved?”

Helfdym’s helmet canted sideways, considering them. Multiple sets of fingers drummed against the wall thoughtfully, then gestured expansively to the Gate with a sweeping arm. “Biotechnological regeneration, obviously,” they lamented, unsure if Sun was simply testing their honesty or truly ignorant. “And what exactly are you?” They craned their neck, the dark of their helmet obscuring their eyes, but still conveying the intensity of their gaze. “Traditional humanoid as well, hm? It’s been decades since I’ve seen someone allow themselves to grow without any,” the distaste in their voice slanted towards pity, “…personal curation.”

Indrani flushed at the comment. He wanted to sink into himself, but was stuck in an uncomfortable splay of limbs, holding onto a nearby railing to anchor himself. “Is your experiment progressing?” Indrani ventured, unease in his voice. He’d grown used to being out of his depth on most topics with Sun, but this Unbound seemed to be less forgiving of his ignorance. 

“Is it ever!” the smaller one chirped, barrelling back in Indrani’s direction. Sun noticed that this one seemed more amiable to their guests from the start, or at least more socially inclined. They wondered if they understood Clumb right earlier when she had mentioned “tours.” Maybe she did have a background as an entertainer, like the ones onboard The Sun Clouded Over years ago.

Clumb steadied Indrani with a hand on his shoulder. “You seem a little green, and I’m not just talkin’ in the face.” She laughed, a single loud honk. “Green to the technology, yeah? What an exciting opportunity! Why don’t I show the two of youse around the place? Show off what we’re doing?”

Before Helfdym could object—a very likely possibility, Sun guessed—the avatar smiled gratefully. “What a generous offer. We’d love to see more of the Gate.” Maybe it’ll help us get to the bottom of this.

“Absolutely honored,” Indrani said eagerly, trying not to shy away from Clumb’s hand lest he give some offense. Now that he was out of the monastery, where others did not know of his personal reservations, he’d have to get used to casual contact. 

Helfdym was silent for a moment before returning to his work station, an orb spiked with hundreds of tiny hypodermic tines, which he began to press and pluck. Indrani cast a look to Sun, eager but nervous, before kicking off to follow Clumb. Farther down the deck corridor, more foreign scaffolding and equipment was implanted and embedded to secure the ancient structure. It was a patchwork of translucent bone-white angles in the style of late Imperial tech, amalgamated with the Unbound’s more amorphous biotech, grafted on and spreading throughout. 

To Indrani, the Gate almost looked infected with the stuff. “So you’re trying to restore the Gate, I’m assuming? What’s drawn you to a project like that?” He ran his hand along a nearby wall, bulbous and blue. It was warm beneath his gloved hand. “Most Gate rebuilders stick to arguing theory amongst themselves,” Indrani said, drawing his hand away. “They don’t actually try to repair it.”

Sun listened to this with interest. When they had first discussed voyaging to a jumpgate, Sun had taken Indrani’s passion for ignorance of the sorry state the gate system was in. But he’d apparently heard about reconstruction efforts before. Or seen this infighting for himself. On his little rock? They’d have to ask him about that later. Clumb had started to reply.

“Most of those guys’re perfectly okay orbiting ‘round the theory of the thing. They don’t wanna actually mess with the Gates. They’re relics. Treatin’ ‘em like little Empire treasures is more valuable to ‘em than whatever they would find on the other side. Watch your head.” Indrani barely missed colliding with a bony protrusion as they coasted down the corridor. Sun wondered how Clumb could have seen it without turning around, since the small figure was already two meters ahead of them.

“See, we actually want what’s on the other side. All us posties do. That’s why we’re always travellin’ around. We’re lookin’ for new homes for the Federation. Boundless places that aren’t so firmly established by more…bounded types.” Clumb did spin around this time, gesturing amiably with her arms. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Indrani said, carefully negotiating his way after Clumb. “We’re also interested in what’s on the other side! In fact, I was sent on a holy mission to find out just that.” An unsure cough. “Though I’m far from any sort of engineer. I was depending on the Path to guide me to a Gate that was ready to be revived, and lo and behold,” he smiled almost beatifically, arms out as he spun slowly around to take in the habdeck hall. “Truly incredible what you’ve done here! Er,” he blinked, smile turning to sheepish grin. “What have you done, precisely?”

“Next room’s right up ahead.” Clumb resumed cannonballing along the curving hallway. “You’ll see!”

Entry: 006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But if the gate had truly been repaired…

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

Entry: 005

Indrani slept long and hard, waking only when he turned awkwardly onto his left wrist, a spike of pain to shooting up his arm. He hissed and rolled off his bed, tumbling to the floor with a thump. “Lights!” He snapped petulantly, clutching his wrist. His cabin illuminated gently, and he squinted in confusion for a moment, not realizing where he was. He’d dreamt of being home at the monastery, scrubbing the worn stone floors in the meditation chambers. It was tedious work, but satisfying to see the grimy dark tiles scoured back to their rich emerald hue, the color of the moon they’d cobbled their temple from. A small knot of regret and homesickness hollowed his stomach out. How were the High Curates faring? Were the acolytes caring for them well enough? How far along were the other Curates on their own Paths?

Indrani sighed and brushed the nagging questions off, pulling on his clothes and drawing his fingers through his mussed hair. The small screen on the door said it was evening on the ship; he’d just make it to the evening meal if he hurried. Maybe he could dine again with Sun if he was quick and see how far they had to go to reach the fallen gate. Indrani splashed his face once, smoothing out his brows and grimacing at the stubble building up on his chin and his bare neck. The tunic reached just above his clavicles which wasn’t nearly high enough for his liking. Hopefully they’d find a supply dock soon and he could stock up on toiletries and another outfit, one that was less plain and revealing. 

He exited his cabin into the corridor and walked briskly towards the dining room. “Sun? Are you awake?” he asked into the empty air, assuming the captain would be notified of their passenger’s movements.

“In the common room!” Sun broadcasted, fabbers already whipping up a fresh meal. “Still some dinner left. You hungry?”

“Yes, please!” It didn’t take the curate long to get to the common room, drawn in by the scent of richly spiced food wafting into the hall. Indrani smiled cordially at Sun as he entered, folded himself across from the captain at the small table. “Did you finish eating already? I apologize for oversleeping, I didn’t think I was that exhausted…” He eagerly spooned himself a serving from the familiar arrangement of small dishes, glancing up at Sun. “How’s the ship? I can help with repairs. If you give me some instruction, of course,” he added sheepishly.

I could get used to this, Sun thought, and beamed with some sincerity this time. “I might take you up on that later. The worst of it’s been fixed, but it’d be nice having some company while I work.” They nodded at Indy’s scoops of curry. “You like the red ones best, huh?” 

Indrani nodded emphatically, mouth already full of it. “S’not a flavor ‘r—,” a loud gulp. “Not a flavor our fabber has downloaded back at the monastery. Most of our food is quite plain so we don’t get distracted from our work.” He dabbed at his mouth quickly before sipping a chilled, fruity tea, its bright, citrusy flavor spiking wonderfully on his tongue. He sighed, his face melting into a rather hedonistic expression. When he set it down, he saw Sun watching him and blushed. “I, eh, am hoping if I indulge quickly I’ll be less distracted and tempted to indulge later,” he said, chuckling. 

He scooped another mound of curry, paused, and then spooned it onto the plate in front of Sun with a sudden frenzied bashfulness. “I’m so rude, I should have offered to serve you first! I’m sure you’re starved from all the repair work. Eat, eat!”

“Oh, uh — “ Sun started, preparing the usual lie, I already ate, don’t worry about me, but losing motivation before they could commit. They didn’t want to decline and disrupt this streak of pleasantness from Indy. He did have some charm, when he wasn’t being so blindingly self-centered. Sun ran through their options and smiled. 

“Thanks, I think I will have some more.” They raised their chin, nodded at a square game table directly behind Indy, expression deliberately brightening with interest. Get him to glance behind him. “And then, hey, after that, how about a game?”

Indy gave a full-mouthed hum as he looked over his shoulder inquisitively, his head snapping back with a grin as he swallowed his food. “Yes, I would love that! Have you played Liar’s Pact? Or The Queen’s Diadem?” He asked, watching Sun intently. “We played that often on Malakar. What games do you like to play?” 

Sun brought the holographic spoon they had conjured to their mouth, and took a moment to pantomime chewing, savoring, and swallowing the scoop of holographic curry. “I don’t think I’ve heard either of those names before, but I may have played a variation of one of ‘em. You can travel outside your fragment and find people playing what’s basically the same game you grew up with on your home planet. Or station or ship or whatever.”

They glanced at their spoon, keeping their voice casual. “Before you came aboard I’d gotten back into Heptagrams. I’m a little rusty, but still pretty good.” They looked back up at Indy. “But I liked learning new games, if you’re up for teaching me.”

“I’d love to teach you the monastery games! Heptagrams sounds entertaining as well,” Indy said, watching Sun with a pleasant smile. Sharing a meal was one of the few regular activities his fellow monks participated in as a group, and was considered a sacred time to share and engage in fellowship with one another. That Sun was willing to eat with him was both an honor and served to soothe his homesickness. 

Indrani chewed thoughtfully as he watched Sun take a bite, a smatter of curry landing beneath the corner of their mouth. “You have a little something—” he said, grinning, reaching out to Sun without a thought, hand outstretched to thumb the little droplet of food from their skin. His hand passed through Sun’s cheek and into their head, fingers clipped away by holographic light. 

The moment was an eternity. Sun saw the action in progress and could do nothing. No human motion was remotely fast enough to stop Indy’s hand, or utter more than a single inadequate word.

“Fuck.”

Indrani was frozen, arm still stuck straight out, hand lost in Sun’s warm cheek. He blinked, confusion filling his face. Then, slowly, horror sank in as his hand retracted, brows drawing into a troubled knot. He held his hand to his chest, grasping it gently as if it had just been burned. “What… what is this?” he said quietly, searching Sun’s face.

He straightened up, leaning away rigidly from the captain with a grimace. Indrani had seen holo projections before, but none as vividly real as Sun’s. The monastery’s holo projector was a grainy mess, the light bleeding into the surrounding environments, pixels fuzzing in and out. The fact that he was still staring at Sun, trying to find the seams that would give away their false form, was alarming. This ship’s technology was already far beyond what he’d experienced. Slowly, his eyes dropped down to Sun’s hand, and a chill crawled up his spine. The holographic spoon was still grasped in their hand, complete with a smear of curry the same color he’d served to them. They were…trying to trick him? 

“Why would you…why are you projecting yourself? Why are you pretending to eat? Pretending to be here!?”

“Indy, I can explain — ” Sun attempted in their most soothing voice, but they could already tell it wasn’t going to do the job. Being found out was bad enough, but Indrani was such a hayseed that he probably didn’t understand the implications of what Sun was doing. He’d get no satisfaction from his discovery; only confusion, hurt. Revulsion. 

The hurt punctured through Indrani’s confusion and surprise, fell between them, fully formed and palpable. His mouth was dry as he got unsteadily to his feet, arms folded protectively against his chest. To Sun, he looked like he was trying to comfort himself. “Then explain,” he said, a tremble in his voice betraying his embarrassment and frustration at being so thoroughly fooled. “Why are you doing this? Who even are you if not— not that?!” he barked, gesturing roughly at Sun’s projection. 

Sun sighed, straightened, the spoon dissolving from their grasp. They passed a second in silence, blinking and breathing, or a close enough simulation to it, gazing levelly at Indrani.

“The most important thing for you to know,” they began, “is that I am a human. I have everything that constitutes a human body and brain. I just…have more to me than that.” They spread their arms, gesturing to the room, and beyond. “I am The Sun Clouded Over.”

Indrani remained mute for a few moments, squinting hard at Sun as their explanation sunk in. It left him only more confused. He hadn’t been questioning their humanity, only their identity; but now…now that was also in question? “What do you mean you’re…you’re human and the Sun? Like you’re synced up or something as you pilot it?” The curate grimaced, confused. “Do you look like…like this, or no? I don’t understand.” A pause, his features softening. “Can I see you?”

Oh sweet merciful fuck no. Sun shook their head gently. “You could say that I’m synced up to the ship. It’s such a strong connection that the ship is essentially an extension of my body. I pilot the ship the way you’d move your arm. I sense malfunctions the way you’d feel pain or discomfort.” They gazed levelly at Indy. “But the connection is so complete that I can’t really be…untangled from the ship. I can’t just walk down here and show you what I look like.”

Idrani’s shoulders bunched up around his shoulders, chastened. “You mean to say you’re never…disconnected from the ship?” The curate was quiet as he mulled over the implications of this—both in regards to Sun and to his own dire lack of knowledge around this sort of technology. He felt suddenly young and foolish before Sun. Lost. “Then may I come see you?” he asked, a hopeful edge to his voice. In the moment, he didn’t know why he was so furtive about seeing Sun but he instinctively felt the need. Sun must have felt it too, if they were so thorough in projecting themself with such uncanny accuracy into his presence. “Have you always been like this?”

“Yes,” Sun said, and despite their level of control over their form, their voice wavered involuntarily. “I was…born for this. This avatar” — they gestured to their hologram of an entirely typical, appealing human body — “is easier for most humanoids to wrap their heads around.”

They looked back up at Indrani’s guileless face. Don’t let him lose the last shred of respect he had for you. He’ll leave. You’ll never find the labs again. “I’m afraid,” they resumed, “that you wouldn’t find my physical form very appealing.”

Indrani’s composure seemed to lighten a little at not being denied outright. He knew he was being pushy, but his curiosity and unease was getting the better of his manners. They were born as part of this ship; the very concept was something out of the distant pre-fragment past, a concept from old Imperial technology that read like mythology in their archives. “I don’t care how you look, Sun. I’d just like…to know you. If you’d allow me. You saved my life, now more than once. You’re helping me follow my Path,” he said, voice gently encouraging. 

“You’ve…worried me with this—this deception.” He gestured vaguely at Sun’s projection. “But I trust you, Sun. I hope you’d trust me as well.” He hadn’t saved Sun’s life, not even close, but he’d shared with them his most treasured possession: his maps, the base of his Path and foundation of his Purpose. Perhaps that would count for something with Sun.

Sun ran through countless scenarios, desperately searching for the option that was the least catastrophically bad. Indrani sure didn’t seem repulsed — his curiosity was oddly sweet, even — but that wouldn’t last. They had to cut this off now — they had to say no. They had to say no. They had to say no.

Sun rose from the table, gestured with a flick of the head towards the lift. “Follow me.”

Their ride down to the navigation level felt significantly different this time around. Indrani was no longer stricken with terror, for one thing. But despite puppeting their avatar to give off the same casual politeness as usual, Sun felt almost overpoweringly, almost physically sick.

Indrani had brightened considerably, looked to be on the edge of saying something, but was intent on holding himself back. It felt as if saying anything right now would break the brittle resolve between them. A single innocent word might drop like a meteor between them, leave a hole unable to be filled again. He bit his tongue and let the elevator’s hum fill the silence. 

He held himself stiffly upright, watching Sun out of the corner of his eye like a curious bird. Sun’s body language was so natural and specific. Was it learned by experience or observation? Indrani mulled the thought over as the elevator finally stilled its descent, the doors parting with a soft whoosh. The curate swallowed drily.

The warm hallways of the navigation level drew them back in to reenter the control room, like an artery leading to a heart. But this time Sun walked past the seats and the consoles to the far wall with the fortified door.

“My body — my original, biological body — is through there.” They turned back to look at Indrani, struggling to keep their voice level. “Are you sure about this? You can change your mind, and it won’t offend me.”

Indrani blinked at Sun, startled out of his quiet anticipation. “I’m sure! Very much so,” he said, a small smile drawing up the corners of his mouth. He reflexively moved to offer comfort by touching Sun’s shoulder. He froze, perception fooled once again, and drew his hand back quickly with a blush, clutching his own upper arm nervously. “It would be my honor,” he said quietly, glancing up at Sun’s projected face through the fringe of his lashes, “to have you share this with me.”

Sun allowed themself a moment to linger on Indy’s face, to cling to the memory of the attempted touch and the different, but far less unpleasant anxiety it had induced. Then they nodded. “Okay.”

The door irised out, like a rock-hard flower bud, and the two figures squeezed single-file down the narrow, dark hallway beyond.

The low light coming from the end of the corridor picked out pipes and ducts lining the walls, and the dull murmur of flowing water dampened all other sound. As they proceeded down the hall, Sun in front and Indy behind, the light grew stronger and defined more edges.

The corridor opened into a round chamber veined with pipes. At its center was a large glass tank three meters on every side. Small movements were visible behind the glass of the opalescent cube, and Sun imagined that once Indy’s eyes adjusted to the light, he would realize the tank was filled, almost entirely, by a singular large mass. It twitched and rolled occasionally, but had no defining features other than its soft, fleshy surface.

Indrani felt a cold frisson go through him as he moved tentatively towards the tank, mind trying to parse the contents of the container. He glanced at Sun briefly in question before pressing a careful hand against the thick, warm glass, squinting at the amorphous form twitching vaguely within. Was this all that was left of them? Or were they born like this? The curate waved the questions away, felt them too harsh for this moment that was so delicate, fragile as the membranous surface of Sun’s body before him. 

“Are you…comfortable in there? Does this part of you feel?” he whispered, letting his fingertips drift down the glass. “You’re not like anyone I’ve met before,” he said absently, eyes locked on the soft flesh, the hint of vein and nerve beneath the surface. 

“There aren’t a lot of people like me,” Sun replied, and they were startled at how much it sounded like an exhalation. They had no awareness of the man standing only inches from their body, but the sight of him gently running his hand along the barrier separating them filled Sun with a sensation that was hard to classify. Relief, probably. He wasn’t repulsed by them, not yet.

“Across the fragments, we’re mostly known as Ships.” They emphasized the capital S. “More properly, I’m a peak-imperial orgcore tactical vehicle, but only pre-fragmentation history nerds would call me that.”

They walked around the tank, surveying the featureless mass. “My nervous system was cultivated to connect to the OS of a ship — this ship. My brain’s in the tank, but I was never meant to move this body or see through these eyes. I don’t even know if — nope.” Their limbs and face were buried too deep to be seen from outside the tank. 

Sun’s avatar glanced back at Indy. “Whatever I see is through my ship’s sensors.” Their readings on the visual spectrum were supplemented by readings of Indy’s body heat, respiration rate, and electrodermal activity. “That’s how I’m seeing you right now.” 

Indrani stared at Sun, eyes wide. “You’re…” He paused, brow furrowing thoughtfully as he turned back to look into the tank.  “Sun, you’re amazing. A singular wonder of the galaxy,” he murmured, and there was a fondness and awe in his voice even he couldn’t deny. For a moment, Indrani’s sense of self shrunk down to a pinpoint inside himself, and he could feel what Sun might perceive of him; nothing more than a mote of a soul within Sun’s expanse, a trivial microbe in the sea of their body.

He let his hand fall away from the tank as he stepped back, glanced at the wall of the room. “Do your ship sensor’s act like human senses at all?” He leaned in to run his palm along the dense collection of pipes and tubes that covered the walls like capillary filigree as they fed into the tank. “How you see and hear makes sense, but… touch and smell? Do you experience those? And do you actually need to eat?” he asked, an impish smile on his face. “Not to imply that I’d want you to stop having meals with me.”

For a long moment, Sun was at a loss for what to say. 

“I wouldn’t want to stop, either,” they began, then cursed internally, and tried again. “I get more out of the social interaction of a meal than the nutrition pumped to me from the nav level’s fabber.” That sounded even worse. What’s wrong with me?

They tried to collect themself, fixating on Indy’s hand resting on a pipe. “It’s not a sense of touch, exactly, but I feel impacts on my hull and pressures exerted in my hallways. The organism rooting around on the passenger level felt…uncomfortable. My mechanical limbs give me feedback during delicate work. But even now, without camera feeds, I can tell where you are, y’know —” They dared to glance up at his face for a second. “ — inside me.” Kill me.

Out of pure embarrassment, their avatar pivoted a hundred and eighty degrees, and glanced up at one of the chamber walls. “Sometimes I wish it weren’t so complicated.”

“I can’t imagine,” Indrani said quietly, surprised to see Sun’s back to him and wishing he could place a hand on the tense line of their shoulder. Both forms seemed secret and lonely, bravely glowing against the dark of the chamber. He canted his head curiously at them, suddenly feeling like a very paltry being besides their projection and the tank that held the vestiges of their fleshly form. “You’re a person but also…like a home. Your own home. And a shelter to others. It must be such a privilege to be able to be that to people…” He paused, ran a hand along the tank’s glass again, following the flow of submerged flesh. 

Something flickered in his eyes then, a glint of realization. He bit his lip, a barrage of questions fighting to leave his mouth. “You were made during pre-fragment times. You’re…forgive me, but you’re incredibly old! Do you…do you know how—” he cut himself off, redirected himself away from what was probably an unsuitably blunt question about Sun’s intended lifespan. “Are you healthy? You seemed in perfect shape from what I saw outside of your hull. Your interior is quite flawless as well. Are you, ah, young for your kind, or old?”

“You’re right; I’m pretty spry for a hundred years and change.” Sun glanced back at Indy and chuckled. Didn’t want him thinking they’d taken any offense. They settled their avatar into a lean against the glass wall of the tank. “I came into the picture right before the fragmentation. The circumstances that made the empire deploy Ships like us for its wars were ultimately what brought everything crashing down.  To be honest, I don’t know everything about all of my functions, or what my operating limits are. There aren’t very many of us Ships left to compare notes.”

They gestured with an open hand towards Indy. “That map you found, with the lead on peak-imperial medical technology. Where we’re going may hold answers for me, the same way it may hold answers for you.”

“Of course it does,” Indrani said with satisfaction, the open assuredness in his face obscenely bright, glinting in those deep green eyes.  “That’s why we’ve met, why our Paths have crossed in such a way. We’re meant to achieve our Purpose together side by side.” He placed his hand against the glass affectionately, a triumphant set to his smile. 

Indrani felt something filling him from toes to crown, a rushing wind of faith and anticipation that hummed just beneath his skin. He felt he might float off the ground with the strength of it. “Whatever we must do to fulfill your Purpose, it will be done. I believe our Paths aren’t just intersecting…no, they’re braided,” he said, the words rushing quickly out of him. “Our Purposes are woven tightly together, Sun. That can be the only reason for our meeting.” He knocked a fist gently on the glass as the epiphany vibrated through him. “We’ll find this medical center together!”

The smile spread across Sun’s face, and they dipped their head bashfully as they walked a few steps forward. “I’m sure we will. I’m more sure than ever.” And it felt true. The possibility of finding what they were looking for and achieving their oldest desire seemed within reach, for the first time in a very long time. The idea of what it might be like to experience the world—without hiding behind a camera lens or a polymer hull or a pane of glass — felt close enough to touch.

The light in the chamber seemed to grow denser with man and Ship’s hope, suffusing the very air with the intensity of it. Indrani held his breath as he imagined what they might do, what they might find, his visions of their future so strong he felt he could will them into existence simply with the force of his want. And yet a second thing floated just as brightly in the room that thrilled and heartened him in equal measure; the newborn trust between him and Sun, delicate as starlight and just as precious. The light in the room pulsed again and absently, he noticed his heart beating in time with it, rhythmically nested. A heart within a heart, a life within a life.

Entry: 004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senses prickling, Sun glanced toward the emergency handholds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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