Lab Notes: Flimax Orpah (et Girt)
The slug-like invertebrates of sector T-45, Hydra Galaxy, were the most fascinating Dr. Orpah Dit-Clonge had ever seen. She had already identified 13 different species, but none so beautiful as Specimen 38. It was over 2 meters long, with milky, pearlescent skin and thick, slimy foot fringe. It had two pairs of tentacles, two sets of genitals and three types of mucus secreted from the feet.
The mystery, though, after three weeks of study, was where it kept its lungs. “Where’s that breathing pore, Pearl?” Orpah murmured, studying every inch of the sticky underbelly. “Your skin’s too thick to breathe through without one.” Perhaps this was the reason she loved Pearl so much. She was always surprising her.
Orpah gave up with a sigh and pulled off her magnifying goggles, flipping Pearl right side up again. Strictly speaking, Orpah didn’t believe in naming her specimens. It interfered with objectivity. But Pearl was special. One day, she hoped, Pearl’s whole species might bear her name. Flimax Orpah she would call it. No scientist would ever look at the sticky, globulous head and retractable tentacles without thinking of Orpah. It gave her shivers to think about it.
The clock on the wall read nearly 1900 hours. The captain expected Orpah in the dining hall this evening, after yesterday’s lecture about her place on the Nomad. “This isn’t your university or some think tank back on Dosha. You’re part of this crew, no matter what branch of the government you work for,” he’d said. “You’d best start acting like it.”
She glanced around, looking for something to do in the short time before dinner. If she started anything too interesting she’d miss the hour for sure. She never meant to be rude, she’d tried explain to the captain. Time just got away from her. He didn’t understand. A man steering a metagalactic cruiser with a 150-person crew through the dangerous fringes of uncharted space didn’t get distracted.
So, what then? Clean some equipment? Organize her notes? Three unanswered transmissions were sitting in her computer, from her mother, her brother and her friend Tipna from the lab back home. She’d left those waiting for days; they could wait a bit longer.
She spun around in her chair, looking over her specimens. 9, 6 and 15 had entered some sort of hairy cocoon stage. 1 through 5 had been frozen in suspended animation for the trip home. 24 had retreated into the hidden dimensions of his pen. All the animal enclosures contained folded dimensions the specimens could access when Orpah made them available. It reduced their stress levels. Most of the larger animals were using them now. Their containers looked empty. Only Specimen 17 was visible, leaning against the door to the enclosure.
Besides Pearl, 17 was the most puzzling creature Orpah had collected in T-45. She had barely begun to study him. The truth was, she was putting it off. His bipedal posture, opposable thumbs and facial muscles made him look too much like a person, despite the spinal plates and green scales. Sometimes she felt like he was watching her work, his complex vocalizations sounding almost like commentary. It was disturbing. One more reason to prefer slugs, Orpah thought.
Pearl rolled onto her side, curled her tail up to her belly and wiggled her optical tentacles. “Who’s a happy Pearl?” Orpah murmured, wiggling her fingers back. “Who’s got a pneumostome for Dr. Orpah?” She grabbed the magnifying goggles again. “Is it on your feet? Hold still, Pearl, let me look at you. Do you have any breathing pods in your feet?”
“Of course she doesn’t!” someone said from behind her.
Orpah turned so quickly she fell off the chair and only barely managed to stay on her feet. There was no one behind her who could have spoken.
Only Specimen 17.
“Breathing pod in the feet,” he said with contempt. Said with his wide mouth draped with prickly yellow whiskers. “She’d asphyxiate in an hour. You must truly be desperate.”
Orpah opened and closed her mouth twice before she remembered to add sound. “You…speak?” she said. “You understand my language?”
“I am speaking it now, so obviously I do,” said Specimen 17. “I know you don’t understand my language. You would have slapped me by now for some of things I’ve said.”
“So you’re not an animal,” said Orpah.
“I’m a scientist,” said Specimen 17, drawing himself up to look down his green nose at her.
Orpah’s heart was beating fast. She tried to think of anything she might have done or said in front of 17, thinking he was a lower life form, that she should now regret. How had she ever believed he wasn’t highly sentient? No lizard could smirk like that.
“How did you learn to speak it?” she said.
“I’ve been your prisoner for weeks,” he said. “You study your slugs; I study you. You shouldn’t eat so much in the lab, and you don’t wash your hands nearly enough.”
Orpah had been lectured quite enough about snacking at her work station at school and didn’t have to listen to it in her own lab. “You should have told me you could talk,” she said.
The rough, green skin on either side of his mouth flapped out sideways and his thick yellow whiskers stiffened like toothpicks. She’d seen them do that the first time he’d woken in containment. Perhaps the response had evolved as a defense mechanism, an attempt to make his people look more threatening to predators. “I had good reasons to keep my secrets,” he said, “on an enemy vessel. Held prisoner by savages.”
Orpah’s mother would have fainted to hear Doshans called savages. But having been captured, held in a cage and studied, she could see why they seemed so to Specimen 17. When she saw herself through his tiny yellow eyes, she agreed with him. “Why did you talk to me today?” she asked, quietly.
The whiskers drooped again. “Because you’re not a bad scientist, all things considered. I couldn’t bear to see you jumping to such absurd conclusions.” The bristled ridges above his eyes drew together in thought. “Perhaps,” he said, “the slug’s breathing pod is camouflaged.”
“Perhaps it is,” said Orpah, feeling suddenly shy. The clock on the wall let out a high-pitched beep. “But I can’t look for it right now. The captain expects me for dinner.”
She hung up her lab coat on the back of the door and turned around once before leaving. “What do you call yourself on your planet?” she asked. It seemed an impossibly rude question after all this time.
“My home planet is called Spaft,” said 17. “My name is Girt.”
“If it were up to me, I’d burn every one of them,” said Ensign Kirkmo through a mouth full of auric toes. “Diplomacy doesn’t get you anywhere with pirates. A pack of them nearly wiped out the Lodestar in T-47. They barely escaped with their lives. That’s what comes of listening to the egg brains.” His eyes slid obviously over to Orpah at these last words. Her neck frill tingled with embarrassment, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of letting her hand fly automatically to her own egg-shaped head.
“You’d burn everyone, Kirkmo,” said Lieutenant Jekka. “You just like fire.” She passed Orpah a plate of frog cherries. “Made it to dinner tonight, I see, Doctor. Did the captain read you the riot act?”
“He did,” Orpah admitted.
Jekka laughed. “He doesn’t know what to do with civilians who can’t follow orders. How are things in your lab? Discover any new and interesting creatures?”
Orpah gripped her fork hard to keep from blurting out the truth. She had discovered the most interesting creature of all—a person! With green scales and yellow whiskers! For the first time in two years Orpah was not the only scientist aboard the Nomad. Girt had thoughts about slugs, and he respected her work, if not her laboratory etiquette. Yes, there were definitely new and exciting things happening in the lab! “Not much,” she told Jekka. “I’m still mostly cataloging slugs.”
“Well, there’s important work,” Kirkmo sneered. “If the pirates do attack us maybe we can set Orpah’s slugs on them.”
“Doctor Dit-Clonge is a respected guest on the Nomad,” said Jekka. “We’re exploring the sector. She’s helping us understand what we find.”
“She’s not helping me understand anything when we get to Sector T-47,” said Kirkmo. He pointed his fork at Orpah. “I didn’t even want to let you leave the ship. You better not wander off on any place when we touch down on Ipsid, or I’m leaving you and your pets behind.”
For once Kirko’s taunts failed to annoy Orpah. Her mind was far too distracted by the colleague waiting for her back in the lab.
“What’s that?” said Girt, eying the silver collar Orpah brought to the lab the next morning.
“It’s a restraining device,” she said. “They use it for prisoners.”
“And you’re giving one to me? I’m flattered.”
“I know it’s not very polite,” she said. “But I can’t let you out of the cage without some protection. We have given you good reason to want to hurt us.”
“Giving me new reasons every day,” he snapped. “Give me the collar.”
A moment later he stepped out of the cage with the silver ring around his neck. “I suppose I shouldn’t be so sensitive. It’s not as if I haven’t already been poked and prodded by you when I got here.”
Orpah’s neck frill flushed pink. “I didn’t know you were a person,” she muttered.
Girt stretched his arms over his head, enjoying his freedom. “I thought the same thing the first time I saw one of your kind,” he said.
“You did?” said Orpah.
He looked pleased at how he’d disturbed her. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked her up and down with an analytical eye. “Ovaloid, elongated skull, tapering to a pointed chin. Small mouth and nose. Extremely large eyes set forward for binocular vision. Big pupils, spherical lens, widened cornea indicates good night vision. Flattened ear structure. Silver, hairless skin, surprisingly soft. Strong neck muscles, square shoulders. Most notable feature: the neck frill. Enlarged parietal bone and squamosal tapering into a series of bony knobs. High concentration of blood vessels under the relatively thin skin, which become engorged when the creature is excited or angered or embarrassed.”
The last two were particularly acute in Orpah as he spoke and she felt her own frill turning bright pink before his eyes. “Stop it!” she said.
“Are you sure?” said Girt. “I haven’t even gotten to the insides yet.”
Orpah gasped at the implication. If Girt thought he had gone too far, he didn’t show it. “What?” he said. “Dissection is necessary for a full understanding of anatomy. I assumed you were planning to dissect me at some point. Who wouldn’t want a closer look at this body?”
He stretched himself out on the examination table, rippling his scales under the harsh laboratory lights. Orpah took in the broad shoulders, the yellowish belly and tail. If he wore clothes I might not have made the mistake, she thought. His hands fascinated her the most. Their short, stubby webbed fingers were so different from her own long, grey, tapered hands. Too long and tapered, her mother always said. When Orpah was a child she was always reminding her to curl her fingers up. “You’ve been cursed with the hands of a data processor, dear,” she used to say. “You didn’t get that from my side of the family.”
For lack of anything else to say, Orpah blurted the memory out to Girt.
“I have fine hands,” he said. “But the plates on my back are too small. My father said I looked like a Gully Worm. He wanted me to wear false plates to my first racing day in case anyone snapped a photo of us in our box.”
“Did you do it?” asked Orpah, who personally couldn’t see anything wrong with the shiny plates Girt had now anymore than she saw anything wrong with Pearl’s sensory tentacles.
“I didn’t,” said Girt. “Didn’t matter anyway. By the time the photographer came by I’d climbed onto the roof with my telescope to watch a meteor shower. I don’t much care for racing.”
Orpah laughed. “I spent most of my first cotillion digging for snails. Mother never forgave me when she found out just how I’d gotten the grass stains on my dress.” She laughed again remembering mother’s face when she found the specimens rolled up in her shawl. “What is it?”
Girt was staring at her with a look of surprise. “I’ve never heard one of your kind laugh. You always look so serious with those big eyes.”
Suddenly self-conscious, Orpah ran a hand over the smooth top of her head. “Physiognomy can be deceiving,” she agreed. “Your face looks rather grumpy. I think it’s your mouth. It’s wide. Compared to mine. Ours. Well.” Her eyes ran nervously over Girt’s face again. “What are those?” she asked, pointing to the yellow whiskers. “They went stiff yesterday. I thought they might have evolved for intimidation purposes.”
“Something like that,” he agreed. “Of course they’re not used for that today. Purely decorative now.” He stroked them and grinned. “Mine are particularly attractive, by the way. Be sure to put that in your report.”
Girt was surprisingly arrogant for a man wearing a restraining collar on an enemy vessel far from his home planet. Or perhaps he was really terrified and trying not to show it.
Perhaps Girt was the bravest scientist Orpah had ever met.
On Sundays Orpah video chatted with her mother. In the two years her daughter had been in space Madam Dit-Clonge had kept her abreast of all the important gossip back on Dosha. Thanks to her, she said, Orpah’s time exploring the far-reaches of the galaxy would not be a complete waste.
“Your brother is seeing a new girl,” she said, leaning out of her squashy violet chair towards the camera. “One of the Blonc-Hoops. She’s the one that started that fur-trimmed cuff trend I told you about this winter.”
“Right, her,” said Orpah. “Rollo told me he had already broken that off.” It was in his transmission of the week before. “I’ve a simple test for girls,” Rollo had written. “I tell ‘em my baby sister’s a space explorer. If they don’t think that’s the best thing they’ve ever heard, they’re history!”
Her mother waved the idea away. “None of my children know what they really want. Look at you, floating around in that tin can where nothing happens.”
“I’m exploring, Mother,” said Orpah.
“And you can’t do that in Triompha City? Rollo’s always exploring on the weekends. Just last month he discovered a little club that never closes.”
“Mmm,” said Orpah. “I can just imagine the specimens he brought home from there.”
Madam Dit-Clonge looked at Orpah over her teacup. “I’m glad to see you took my advice about wearing more peach,” she said, gesturing to Orpah’s tunic. Her large eyes narrowed. “You’ve been using that skin scrub I gave you as well. I told you it would brighten your complexion. Honestly, Orpah, you look absolutely radiant. I might almost think…” Her black eyes widened with delight. “Have you met a nice man?”
“What? No!” said Orpah. “And I haven’t been using that skin scrub. It gives me a rash.”
“Hmm,” her mother said with a smirk. “And you’re sure you haven’t met anyone special? A soldier isn’t quite what I had in mind for a husband, but a girl can have a lot of fun with a military man. Once when I was a girl at an army school dance, there was this square-shouldered cadet with a strong chin and thick fingers…”
“I am not seeing a soldier,” Orpah cut in. “I don’t look any different than always.”
“If you say so, dear,” said Madam Dit-Clonge. “You just look like a girl with someone on her mind.”
The closer the Nomad got to T-47, the tenser the crew became. Ensign Kirkmo filled every mealtime with warnings about the atrocities of pirates in the region until it was hard to believe a single Doshan had ever set foot outside their ship and survived to tell the tale. Jekka tried to change the subject one evening by asking Orpah how many creatures she had entered into suspended animation, but that only led to another one of Kirkmo’s rants about the uselessness of her research.
“I’m not risking my crew’s lives to protect your little zoo,” he said. “When those pirates try to swarm us, jabbering whatever noises they make at each other, Doshan lives are the only lives that mean anything to me.”
Not for the first time, Orpah was relieved Girt never left the lab, and that Kirkmo never went near it. Still, Kirkmo’s rants didn’t bother her as much as they once did, when she was the solitary scientist on board the Nomad. She hadn’t realized how lonely she was until she met Girt.
“It is rather nice to have someone with a brain I can talk to,” Girt himself said later that day in the lab. He was hanging upside down from the railing that held the smaller cages, curling up to touch his toes over and over. “I nearly drove myself crazy trying to talk to my fellow prisoners in here. Half the time I didn’t even know which end to address.”
Oprah looked up from the examining table where she was testing the flexibility of Pearl’s tail. “How did you really learn to speak Doshan?”
Girt paused in mid-pull up. “I told you. From you.”
“You have far too large a vocabulary to have learned it listening to me,” said Orpah, closing up Pearl’s pen again. “I know I talk to myself a lot, but rarely about cooking spices, while you can get rather long-winded on the subject. In Doshan.”
With a sigh, Girt flipped over and dropped, his webbed feet landing with a quiet slap on the lab floor. “I told you I’d met your kind before and studied them. You’re the ones invading our planet series, remember.” He frowned down at his feet, flexing his toes so the webbing stretched between them. “As I said, at first glance, they didn’t look like people.”
“I suppose that’s why you’ve been so forgiving of me,” said Orpah, looking down at her own shoes. “I’m not being sarcastic. Compared to how angry you might have been at being captured you’ve been very easy-going.” She went to the mirror that hung on the far wall and looked at herself, trying to imagine how she would look to a creature who had never seen a Doshan, and expected people to come with scales and back plates. “I want to be offended at your experiments,” she said. “But I can’t be, having done the same to you.”
“That’s how I’ve felt since I woke up in your cage,” said Girt.
Orpah continued to study herself in the mirror, comparing herself to the Spaft scientist reflected behind her, bright yellow whiskers drooping on either side of his full mouth. Looking back at her own grey reflection she found herself remembering all the things her mother always told her about how a woman should look. “Give your frill a pinch when the boys aren’t looking, dear, to give it a nice flush. Hold your hands together in front of you—it will make your shoulders look smaller. Hold your head so that the light shines off your cranium. Think of all that Doshan love poetry you memorized in school: ‘My lady’s head shines like the rising moon, and her eyes are the deep, black sea.’”
Orpah pinched her frill and clasped her hands and tilted her head just so under the fluorescents. It didn’t do any good. It never had.
“Are you pretty on your planet, Orpah?” Girt asked, almost as if he was listening to her thoughts.
“Looks are always so subjective,” Orpah said. “Current fashions on Dosha favor a roundness in the forehead, a tighter stomach, eyes that tilt a dramatic angle to the…” She was babbling and she knew it. “No,” she said simply. “I’m not pretty on my planet.”
Girt looked puzzled. “I find that hard to believe,” he said. “Speaking as a Spaft, now that I’ve gotten used to you, I find you quite pleasing, aesthetically.”
In the mirror, Orpah’s frill flushed a pale violet color. Girt’s whiskers stood straight out on either side of his nose and quivered. “Err. I mean, fashion trends aside, there are certain constants in what pleases the eye. Facial symmetry, smooth lines, good proportions between body parts. Even inside the body has a certain beauty of form. The Doshan heart, for instance, is twice the size of…”
Orpah’s frill had gone pale.
“I’m sorry,” said Girt. “That was…I didn’t mean… I never dissected anything once I knew that it could talk.”
“It’s all right,” said Orpah. “As you know, I understand. I just ought to be going. Can’t be late for dinner.”
She was halfway to the door. He grabbed her arm. There was a harsh buzz from the security collar. Orpah slipped out the door and Girt dropped to the floor, unconscious.
“Is something wrong?” Jekka asked that night at dinner.
“Why would you think so?” Orpah said.
“Well, you’re staring forlornly into your frog cherry pie instead of eating it, for one. Did something happen in the lab?”
Orpah sighed into her tea. How could she begin to explain what had happened in the lab? She couldn’t tell Jekka she was harboring a prisoner. Unlike Orpah, she would feel obligated to report it. But she really longed to talk to someone.
“It’s just…” she began. “There’s someone… it’s just… he’s…”
“Boy trouble?” said Jekka. “You’ve got all the signs.”
“I do?” said Orpah. “I’ve never had much boy trouble. My brother used to say I’d kissed more slugs than people. He might be right. I’ve been too afraid to keep count.”
“Never listen to brothers,” said Jekka. “I know. I’ve got five of them. What’s the trouble with your boy?”
“It’s not a problem with him, exactly,” said Orpah. “The situation is complicated. We’re just very different. We shouldn’t even be friends. I don’t even know if we are friends.”
Jekka was nodding wisely. “I completely understand,” she said. “A few years ago I was on a recon mission in X-48. A storm blew up—we were on a planet known for its hurricanes. I spent three days in a dugout with a Krepusuclian farmer. We didn’t have a lot in common—he was a widower with three kids. But by the afternoon the first day, that didn’t matter much. He still sends me freeze-dried daisies on my birthday. You know what I’m saying? Difference can be good.”
Orpah wondered what it would be like to be Lieutenant Jekka, even for one day.
“If you think there’s something there, give if a closer look,” said Jekka. “At least as close as you would give one of your slugs, right?”
“I suppose it would be irresponsible not to take a closer look,” said Orpah, taking a bite of her pie.
A clatter across the table announced Kirkmo’s arrival with his tray and silverware. “Pirates spotted in orbit around Ipsid. Word is HQ asked the captain if he wanted to turn back.”
“What did he say?” asked Orpah. She hated to think of coming so close to Ipsid without seeing what lived there.
“He told them to piss off, of course,” Kirkmo sneered. “If you’re scared you better stay on the ship when we get there tomorrow. Remember what I told you about leaving you behind.”
“Nobody’s leaving Dr. Dit-Clonge behind,” said Jekka.
“I’m not scared,” said Orpah. “I’ve got a lot to prepare for the landing.”
“Don’t prepare too much,” said Kirkmo. “Because of the nannies back at HQ the captain’s cutting our time on the surface in half. Five hours at the most.”
“Five hours?” said Orpah. “That’s barely any time at all.”
“It’ll be even less if a pirate cuts your head off,” Kirkmo said. He sounded as tough and obnoxious as ever, but Orpah noticed his thick, stumpy neck frill looked a little pale. He’s afraid, she thought, and he’s putting it all on me.
“If they do cut my head off, be sure to save it for analysis, won’t you?” she said, pushing away from the table. “A G-size specimen jar should be just big enough.”
She left the dining hall with Jekka snickering behind her.
If the Nomad hadn’t been approaching Ipsid so fast, Orpah would have put off visiting the lab again. She was still embarrassed over her last encounter with Girt, and confused about what exactly was so embarrassing about it. She wasted precious minutes outside the lab door preparing herself to act natural, and when she finally went inside it turned out she didn’t need it. Girt, possibly trying to avoid her as well, had retreated into the inner dimensions of his enclosure, out of sight.
Orpah loaded up a backpack to take with her to the surface. When she came back, she told herself, she would have plenty of time to apologize to Girt, or accept Girt’s apology, or even better, pretend the whole awkward moment hadn’t happened at all. “Goodnight, Pearl,” she said, stroking the slug behind her optic tentacles before she left. “Be a good girl while I’m gone.”
Pearl curled her tail up straight, almost as if she were waving, then went flat again. Her milky white surface rippled and before Orpah’s eyes her skin bloomed like a bouquet of flowers. It was like a thousand windows opening at once. Orpah could look right inside at Pearl’s pale, pink muscle as she took a thousand breaths, each one deep enough to last for hours, Orpah suspected. “No wonder I never saw you breathe before,” she whispered. “You surprised me again, Pearl.”
Orpah looked automatically toward Girt’s enclosure. She could press the button to close up the inner dimensions, forcing him to the part of the cage where she could see him. But she had only a few hours before landing. Might as well wait until tomorrow.
The sky was red on Ipsid. Orpah told herself it was the product of dust in the atmosphere. It only looked like the sky was bleeding out over a dry, hard ground.
“Nothing could live here,” Jekka said softly. “Maybe Dr. Dit-Clonge should stay on the ship.”
Orpah was already stepping out over the black, gritty sand.
“Stay in sight,” Kirkmo said as she passed him. His neck frill was pale again.
There was a pile of rocks in the distance, jagged and sharp. It looked as if something had dropped and shattered on the ground and no one had bothered to pick it up. Just the place small creatures would hide.
Orpah heard the soldiers moving behind her, fanning out under the bloody sky. “Look,” Jekka said. She pointed to a smooth, round bit of metal poking out of the ground.
“That’s the homing transmitter from the Lodestar,” said the captain. “It disappeared off the network soon after the last distress call.” He looked around him. “This is where they camped, all right.”
“You can’t tell,” said Jekka. The surface of Ipsid was one big, flat beach, broken up only by collections of rocks.
Orpah left the rest behind and climbed up onto the stones she’d spotted. They were cold under her hand, and porous, like the pads on Pearl’s feet. She leaned down between two stones and saw something moving. It was a worm, or a spider, or something in between the two. Thin, shiny body the color of auric fat and eight thick, hairy legs, the whole thing about the length of her longest finger to wrist. Orpah pulled a specimen jar, gloves and a net out of her backpack.
“That’s it,” she murmured. “Right this way…” She brought the net down, hoping to scoop the critter up quickly, but it had slipped into a narrow passage where the net didn’t fit. She could see the creature fine, slithering in the dark little crevice. She just couldn’t reach it, even with her long, skinny, data-processor fingers. “Come on,” she muttered, urging it forward. Eventually, she hoped, it would come out somewhere she could get it. She barely remembered she was on an unknown, terrifying planet and that the crew of the Nomad was getting further and further away.
The spider worm lifted its head and waved it back and forth. Its hairy legs skittered a few inches up the crevice and Orpah raised her gloved hand. But it only climbed back down and continued on its way.
Luckily it kept going, coming out of the crevice so that Orpah could get it. She jumped down and crouched to watch it climb the outer surface of the rocks on the far side. Holding the jar beneath it, she tapped the spider worm to knock it inside. Somehow the creature stuck fast to its place. She tugged and pushed with the side of the net but might as well have been trying to break off a piece of the rock itself.
Orpah rummaged through her bag for something that might stun it long enough to collect, but the second she looked away it scuttled off between the rocks again. If only Orpah had a partner when she did her field work…
That’s when something exploded. She toppled over with a squeak, scraping her elbow on the rough sand. Black smoke poured into the sky on the far side of the rocks. Orpah jumped back to her feet.
They’d hit the ship. Not so badly that it couldn’t fly, she hoped, but bad enough to tighten her throat when she saw the damage. They hit the lab, she thought. They hit the lab. They hit the lab.
Her legs were shaking as she stumbled back over the rocks. The beach looked at first like chaos: the Nomad crew running or shooting or worst of all, lying still on the ground; the stone-skinned, giant-limbed pirates leaping over the dead and streaming into the Nomad. But as she continued to stare the chaos organized itself into a battle. The crew was forming groups to defend themselves and chasing the pirates. Kirkmo was barking orders, sending soldiers into the ship to drive out the invaders. “Hit them in the neck!” he shouted, delivering a fatal blow to demonstrate. “They’re most vulnerable in the neck!”
Orpah heard a moan on the ground to her right. “Jekka!”
Her thigh was bleeding and there was smoke pouring out of a burned holed in her uniform, but she was alive. “Lean on my shoulder. I’ll get you out of here.”
She pulled Jekka to her feet. They lurched forward together a few yards. “Stop!” Jekka said. “We’ll never get on the ship. We’re going to get shot.”
“The rocks,” said Orpah. “Get behind them.”
Jekka collapsed on the sand on the other side of the rocks and pulled out her gun, but she winced when she tried to aim it. “They gave you some weapons training, didn’t they?” she asked.
“For emergencies,” Orpah admitted. “I didn’t think I’d ever be in one.”
“You are now.”
Jekka made sure the gun was ready to fire and instructed Orpah on where to point it. “I don’t know if I can shoot anyone,” she said.
“You’re only going to fire if someone comes at us,” said Jekka. “No use drawing them over here by trying to be a hero.”
Orpah didn’t think there was any fear of her being that. A soldier dropped across the sand, a young Spaceman named Glom-Plotz. Orpah had once spent three hours with him in the infirmary when she was bitten in the lab. He’d told her stories about a pet snakelet he had as a child. The snakelet’s name was Major Fang. Spaceman Glom-Plotz was dead.
“Do you think anyone on the ship is still alive?” Orpah asked.
“They’re all alive,” Jekka said sharply. “They’ve got defenses in there. Nothing like the Lodestar. We were expecting this. The crew’s trained to deal with enemy attacks. Those pirates surprised us-—they popped up out of nowhere. Must have some cloaking technology. But we know they’re here now. There’s probably not one of them left alive in there. We’ll get home again. Don’t you worry. Look!”
The pirates that had stormed onto the ship were now running off, followed by the heavily armed crew. “Fall back!” the captain shouted. “To the ship!”
Orpah didn’t see Kirkmo, but she didn’t want to test whether his threats to leave her behind were true or not. The pirates were on the run and not looking their way. She lifted Jekka to her feet. Together they moved as quickly as possible to the ship.
“She needs help,” Orpah told the first medic she found. Jekka was lifted onto a stretcher and rushed down the corridor. Orpah ran after her, but her mind was on the lab. Was the damage as bad on the inside as it looked from the outside? The smell of smoke was everywhere.
The right wall where the suspended animation tanks hung was crumpled like a ball of scrap paper. The animation pods were warm and dead, their specimens floating in the cloudy blue solution, bumping sadly against the sides of the pod. Several of the larger enclosures were crumpled as well, the animals dead inside. Pearl’s cage was untouched. She lay curled in one corner, her tail trembling.
“Orpah!” He jumped out from behind the blamphibian tank. “I saw the fighting outside! I thought…”
He made an impatient sound as if all that didn’t matter and pulled her into his arms. She laid her head on his shoulder and held on tight.
Girt’s whiskers moved against her neck, warm and soft and alive. She’d seen those whiskers droop and stiffen and quiver. Now they seemed to have taken on a life of their own, sliding and twisting against her skin. It tickled a little, but the quivering feeling it stirred inside her was better than laughter. “What are you doing?” she asked, a bit breathless.
Girt straightened up and pushed her firmly away. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what got into me. No, that’s not true. I know what got into me. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.”
“Do what?” said Orpah, confused but hopeful, terribly, terribly hopeful. “What was it you did? That thing with your whiskers? Against my neck?” She gestured vaguely to the spot that was still tingling pleasantly. “Does it have a name?”
“Zefling,” said Girt. “We call it zefling. It’s a gesture of affection or…” The whiskers straightened and curled. “A gesture of affection.”
“I understand,” said Orpah. Her neck frill was blooming scarlet. “We use a different gesture on Dosha.”
“What do you do?”
“We kiss,” she said. “Like this.”
They kissed and zefled and kissed again, until a crash from the hallway caught their attention. Girt put himself between Orpah and the door, but she easily slipped herself under his arm to look out.
Jekka struggled with a pirate outside the infirmary. She was unarmed and still weak from her injury on the ground, and the pirate on top of her was just about to…
Orpah ran into the hall and threw herself on the enemy, jumping on his back and wrapping her arms around his head. The pirate reared up with a roar and slammed both of them into the far wall. Orpah sunk to the ground and realized she’d just done something very stupid.
The pirate raised an iron fist. Orpah turned away; her neck frill went bone hard in expectation of the blow.
But just before it could fall there was a terrible screech, like the battle cry of the gelatinous fowlbat, but more piercing. Girt took two leaps down the corridor. Then his purely decorative whiskers shot like tiny javelins from his face, embedding themselves in the pirate’s vulnerable neck. The beast blinked, then trembled, and then dropped to the floor.
Orpah stared at him. Jekka peered carefully at the pirate’s face.
“It’s all right,” said Girt. “He’ll be out for hours. A smaller creature would be dead by now.”
“What the hell was that?” Ensign Kirkmo came limping down the corridor, a bloody bandage on one arm. He looked from Girt to Orpah with an expression Orpah had never seen him direct at her. It conveyed respect. “Is that one of your pets?” he asked.
“Doctor Girt is a distinguished scientist of Spaft and my guest,” Orpah said, “who was studying Ipsid the same day we were. Lucky for us.”
Kirkmo grunted something of a welcome and the two soldiers limped off, leaving the scientists alone.
“You lied about your whiskers,” Orpah pointed out.
“I had to keep some secrets,” said Girt. “I was wearing a security collar, you know.”
“I know.” She would see about removing that before Kirkmo left the infirmary. Girt kissed her again, experimentally. He was growing fond of kissing, she could tell.
“Your frill’s going soft again,” he said, running a finger along the sensitive edge.
“I can’t remember the last time it went all bone,” Orpah said. “Life in the lab isn’t often that exciting. Or life-threatening.” She touched one of Girt’s whiskers, and the empty space where he was missing one now embedded in pirate neck.
“They grow back,” Girt said.
“Good,” said Orpah. “I like them. If we ever had children I’d rather they get your whiskers than my frill.”
Girt laughed. “Too bad we’ll never get a chance to find out.”
“Of course not,” said Orpah quickly. “I wasn’t suggesting—or expecting—or hoping…from a purely scientific standpoint it’s probably not possible. The chances of our two species being compatible…”
“I hadn’t thought that far,” said Girt. “I just meant we’re both female.”
“Oh,” said Orpah. “Wait, we are?”
“Aren’t you?” said Girt.
“Of course I am,” said Orpah. “But I thought you were…I never examined you closely.” Orpah was beginning to feel like the worst scientist in the world. “You have broad shoulders,” she said weakly.
“I do not,” said Girt. “You’re just overly-willowy!”
They walked back to the lab, hand in hand, eager to get back to work. Orpah felt very happy, and foolish and pretty. She wanted to tell Girt about Pearl’s breathing process. She wanted to try zefling again. They’d have plenty of time to do it all floating around space in a tin can where nothing ever happened.