Short Fic: Travel Companions

The Ambassador Part 2 went out to email inboxes everywhere today! If you want to sign up for installments, here’s the link.

And here’s a short story that ties in to The Ambassador, for your Wednesday pleasure:


Travel Companions

If there was one thing Anev Nahara had always appreciated about Station 6, it was the view.

The station, famous in Anev’s childhood for being a relic in which a surprise case of exposure syndrome was complementary with every visit, had been scrapped and rebuilt entirely in the 2360s. Like most stations built in the last ten years, it had an expansive and well-equipped viewing lounge. Unlike any other lounge Anev had seen, however, Station 6’s viewing lounge did not have floor to ceiling windows in its bulkhead-facing walls—because it had no bulkhead-facing walls. Or, rather, some designer had decided to construct the entire bulkhead-facing structure of the lounge out of transparent building materials.

Anev Nahara wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know what those materials were. Better not to think about it. Besides, the view out the nearly-invisible wall wasn’t the one that interested her. She was looking at the woman seated in front of it.

All Niralans got stared at, out here in registered space. There weren’t all that many to begin with, and even fewer who ever felt the need to venture off Nirala. Anev had learned years ago how to sidle along out of sight when she could, and how to pretend she couldn’t feel the stares everywhere else.

Koa Nantais didn’t pretend not to feel the stares. Koa Nantais fucking invited them. And Anev had always been happy to oblige.

She grabbed two glasses from the bar and headed across the lounge, sliding into the seat opposite the other woman. The lounge was mostly humans, and Anev was glad for it; humans had an odd social custom called “introducing themselves,” and an odd sense of awkward social obligation that accompanied it, that often prevented them from starting conversations. It was an unpredictable convention, and often overridden by noisy impulse. But not this time.

The sunlit undercurrent in Koa’s response to Anev’s first move was palpable. “Anev. You pirate bastard. How are you.”

She was tempted to say Koa had spent far too long among humans. But Koa had always liked Earth Standard; she was the only person Anev knew who thought the language more expressive and adaptable than Niralanes. Besides, she wasn’t expecting an answer.

“What are you doing here?” she asked instead.

Koa paused behind her glass, and Anev simply looked at her, the long black hair cut at impossible angles, the shards of light bouncing off the cut glass to highlight her cheekbones and disappear into those unfathomable eyes. She loved those pure-black eyes.

“Business,” Koa said, and put the glass down.

Anev raised an eyebrow.

“I imagine you’re here for the same,” Koa said.

This made Anev smile, the one bit of facial sign language she’d adopted after several years in the field. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m working with Amalgamated Logistics now. We ship things.”

“Of course.” There was zero point in lying to anyone in the Office of the Ambassador, especially not the Ambassador’s personal physician; Anev had every reason to believe Koa knew more about her current life than Anev herself did. But she lied anyway. It was an old habit.

Every lie fit better inside a bit of trivial, pointless truth. “Actually, I need your opinion on something.”

Koa raised an eyebrow.

“I’m running mechanics on a cargo freighter,” she continued. “There are five crewmembers besides me: Naratas, three Devori, and a human. Just one. And I think we broke her.”

“You broke your human.”

Anev sighed. “Yeah.”

She could see Koa musing over this. “Go on.”

“Well. The embassy’s handbook to working with humans says they’re extremely social, right? And that they have to socialize through a rigid series of symbolic vocalizations and gestures, because they’re not actually capable of transmitting or receiving direct emotional information.” Only as she said this did she remember that Koa had written the handbook.

“Yes.”

“And they’ll bond socially with anything. Just about. I even read this one story about a human bonding with an apex predator. An alligator. His bond-partner asked him to choose between the alligator and keeping her and the kids, and he chose the alligator.”

Koa suppressed a smile. “Unusual, but not unheard of,” she said. “These people are stupid about their pets.”

“Right. So, about nine months into the last run, the human starts to get a little messed up. Can’t concentrate. Not interested in anything that’s going on. Leaking when she thinks we can’t see her.”

“Leaking.”

“From the face.”

“Right. Yes. They do that.”

“Anyway, so I talk to the captain, and I show her the handbook. And we decide that the best thing to do is probably to get the human some kind of social companion animal.” She took a drink, coughed. “I should mention that we tried, by the way. And I think the human was trying too, it’s just-”

“Their phonemes for emotional states are incomprehensible and their hands are too inflexible to communicate effectively in Devori,” Koa said.

Anev felt relief wash over her like snowmelt. “You get it.”

“For whatever that’s worth,” Koa said. “Go on. You got the human a pet?”

“Yeah.”

“Did that fix her?”

“Well…no.” Anev set her glass down. “We think that’s what broke her.”

“What did you get her?”

“It’s called a-” Anev fished her handheld out of her pocket, flipped through screens until she found her notes. “A cat.”

Koa drained her glass. “I’m guessing you didn’t check with your human before you gave her the cat.”

“Well, no. The cat was sort of an impulse purchase. On the captain’s part. What difference would asking her have made?”

“It’s an allergic reaction,” Koa said. “Humans have very touchy immune systems—a wonderful adaptation when you’re trying to survive in an environment that’s highly amenable to viruses and bacteria, but not without its own problems. Your human’s body is rejecting the cat’s saliva proteins. That’s the reason for the sneezing and the watery eyes. They’re both methods the human body uses to reject what the immune system perceives as foreign invaders.” She paused. “What?”

“That’s…not what’s happening to the human. Her face is fine.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

“She won’t come out of her bunk,” Anev said. “She’s been there since we gave her the cat yesterday, with the cat. She’s lost most of her ability to communicate verbally. It’s like she’s been reduced to one word, over and over: ‘kitty kitty kitty.’”

Koa considered this carefully for a moment. “That,” she said, “is extremely odd.”

“We thought so too.”

“Some kind of cerebral parasite, perhaps?”

“But where would she get one?”

“The cat could be a carrier.”

“Cats are Terran animals. No way it’s carrying a Splikan parasite.”

“Do you want me to look at her?”

“If you would.” Anev stood; Koa followed.

She took Koa’s arm as they left the lounge. The electric connection between her skin and Koa’s told the other woman everything she needed to know.

“And when you’re finished,” Anev said, quietly, “I’d be happy to thank you. Personally.”

She couldn’t say she enjoyed seeing Koa Nantais smile. But she very much enjoyed what it meant.

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