The Pithian Gamble

Photo by John Fowler on Unsplash

The first paragraph of this story was generated by Space Wrecks. Its an automated bot that generates snippets inspired by Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority book, “Spacewreck: Ghostships & Derelicts of Space”. I adore the aforementioned book and highly recommend it to anyone who loves short stories about derelict ships and what might have happened to them.

The characters in this story use neopronouns, which are sometimes used by transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people.

ARCH/WF6.5: The soldiers bounced over the drone-dotted scrub, stopping within the confines of the Pithia. The colossal wreck was festooned with alien automata. There, they waited for sundown, beneath the ancient binary stars.

“Doesn’t feel safe, Matriarch…” Ol chittered through the comms. “I can sense their gaze even through the ship.”

Matriarch Ka made a curt sst noise at the scout and gave their recently-rescued Field specialist Ri a series of commands and feelings via the pheromone-link. Ri responded with a short return burst of Ka’s input to confirm it, then set to work singing resonance frequencies into the surrounding metal. At most, it would keep them hidden from the Benefactor’s watching metal eyes until sunrise; at worst…

Ol was skittering nervously around the large chamber they had chosen inside the Pithia’s ruined superstructure. Xyr noises were sure to attract the automata outside if xe kept this up – the drones might be programmed to break down the ship’s various composites, but there was no telling what other duty they had been charged with.

“Ol.” Ka signalled, sending a heavy static of smell and touch at the guard to soothe their nerves. “If you have excess energy, go inspect the rest of the wreck and the skiff; we must be sure we weren’t followed.”

“‘Ave, Matriarch.” Ol pressed xyr second-and-fourth forearm to xyr temple in deference. Xyr hands meticulously checked over their weapons and gear before clambering up the wall to the exposed maintenance tunnel they had all come through. It stank of rust and decay even through the suit’s atmosphere scrubbers, and Ka had been silently gagging since sundown.

Frustrated, Ka sent Ri a short burst of pheromones, seeking a progress report of eir resonance field. The response was full of stress, and Ka had to clear zir buffer to keep it from affecting zir mood.

“How long, Ri? If it’s less than fourteen hours, we may not live to see the Ternate sun rise.” The solar skiff they had all escaped with needed to charge, but the twin blue giants didn’t provide the right wavelength; only the Ternate sun’s rays could give it the necessary power, and that was more than half a day away. They’d all been running on pheromone stims and hormone enhancers for nearly three rotations, and Ka was startling to unravel at the joints.

“The metal is ancient, Matria- Ka.” Ri corrected emself, not looking up. The suits were designed for line-of-sight pheromone exchange, but only if directed; Ka couldn’t tell what ey were feeling unless ey sent a signal, and it bothered zir. “If I had some new castings I could shore up the fields, but without something less corroded,” Ri gestured to a nearby wall, disintegrating so much that the indigo-blue light of the suns illuminated eir suit, “it won’t last beyond a handful.” Ey returned to eir singing without waiting for a reply, diligent even in despair.

The news was worse than Ka had expected, and ze seated zemselves as gracefully as the suit and zir exhaustion would allow. Saving Ri had been a gamble, and it had taken a jittery Scout-Guard like Ol to get them in and out safely. But one didn’t leave family – All Within, None Without, after all. But to die out here in the Palatial Dunes after saving em from a trial before the Benefactor felt like moving burning si-tan from the hearthpot to the flame.

“Ri…” Ka murmured, limbs locked in an X over zir chest. “Did I make a mistake in coming to your aid…?” Zir pheromone line was left open, giving Ri a full read on Ka’s emotional and physiological state – none of it good.

Ri finished the last few notes of eir song and came to sit next to Ka, stacking eir left palms on zir knee. “You did what you thought was right, Ka. Whether it saves me or dooms us all, have faith in your decision. To think otherwise is to spiral, and you are too strong to let yourself be guided by anyone but yourself.” Ey gave Ka’s knee a soft two-handed squeeze, sending a calming wave of nostalgic scents alongside it: the first smell their clutch had shared after birth; fresh ice off the Tallic Sea; even the smell from their first trip off-planet together. “You have not killed me. No matter what happens next, you saved me. And for that, I am grateful.” Ri clicked eir mandibles in a show of joy, however forced.

Ka returned the noise in a muted way, replying with zir own shortened forms of the pheromones to show ze agreed. “Thank you, Ri. I’ll do my best with the time we have.”

Across the chamber came a noise like boiling water through a pipe, and Ol erupted in a panic, flooding their phero-links with the acrid smell of it. Ka bolted upright and gave a gesture of confusion.

THEY FOUND US!” Ol shouted as the Pithia shuddered overhead, raining oxides and desert dust on their heads. “The Benefactor found us!”

Now Ka could feel the Benefactor’s eyes on them, piercing through the suits into their very cores, alien tendrils grasped around zir heart like heavy mud. It had been so innocuous, so slow, that ze hadn’t noticed it worming its way in. But ze wouldn’t give the Benefactor the satisfaction, even if it meant leaving zir carapace to desiccate in this dreary wreck. This wasn’t over until ze chose it to be.

“Ol. Det-charges, there and there. Set up a mag-mine here.” Ka’s phero-link shunted all of Ol’s fear scents and replaced them with a strong, firm command-line back to the scout. “All entrances secured or barred. I’ll set up sightlines.” Zir back was firm despite the terror that tried to grip zir guts.

In a moment, Ol’s body went from a quaking mess of limbs to a taut and efficient machine, xyr movements and response almost hopeful. “Ave, Matriarch. My trust in you, my hands for you…” Xe intoned the phrase over and over, letting the mantra guide xem as xe arranged emplacements and traps. Ri gave a short chirp and returned to singing, trying to block the Benefactor’s psychic extension of will.

The degraded ship above them shook with the barrage from outside, but Ri’s guiding song kept the vibrations minimal as ey struggled to keep tune over the din of noise. Ri was family, third-born in their clutch of thirty, and Ka had sight-bonded with em moments after ze could see. Ka would do anything to make sure ey made it back to eir mate and away from the clammy, cold mind-death the Benefactor promised to the three of them.

Ol may have been a last minute choice, but xe’d surprised Ka time and again with xyr resourcefulness under pressure. Convincing a guard to switch shift with xem for the trial, hacking a series of maintenance drones to cause chaos for their escape, and piloting the skiff over geysers to disrupt the Benefactor’s chase fleet; all of it had been instrumental in saving Ri, and if they made it out alive, if they could survive the Benefactor’s puppet strike in this husk of a ship, if they could make it off-world and far from that fell thing’s gaze, Ka would see xem freed from xyr previous bonds and made Manifest.


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