Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Cake Baby (A Kango and Sharon Adventure)

Kango and Sharon first met at a party, one of those lavish debauch-fests where people fly in from all over the galaxy wearing sentient fetishwear that costs a whole asteroid belt. The specially grown building had melted, causing toxic fumes that killed a few hundred people, and then the canapés on the appetizer table came to life and started mutilating bystanders with their razor-sharp mandibles. The party was going according to plan, in other words.

The only thing that nobody could have predicted, even the most OCD of the party-planners, was that two of the party’s minor entertainers ended up standing around near the Best Dressed Dead Guest lineup, comprising all the most stylish attendees who’d been killed thus far.

Kango wasn’t even supposed to be there, but his brothel had been called in at the last minute to staff the Orgy Room after the party’s sex-ministers had gone apostate at the last minute (bad batch). Sharon was the party’s designated monster, so she was supposed to be eating the guests right now, but her shift had ended early because the karaoke was unexpectedly epic, and no karaoke singer wants to compete with a monster rampage.

So there was Kango, who looked like the most beautiful human you’ve ever seen, lithe and dark with brown eyes and a perfect body, and Sharon, who was your typical seven-foot-tall blue woman. Standing around, looking at corpses in couture. The smell of charred flesh was nauseating, even if your stomach had been designed to eat a whole person in one gulp.

“Nice party,” Kango said, without looking at her.

Sharon snorted. “You think so? I hate parties, but this isn’t even a good example of one. The appetizers only severed a few limbs, and the Liquefaction Dance was pathetic. And now it’s karaoke.”

“You hate parties?” Now Kango was looking straight at her, actually shocked. “Parties are the whole reason for your existence. Right? You were grown for parties. If nobody partied, you wouldn’t even be alive.”

“I guess.” Sharon rolled her lovely red eyes. “I mean, parties are why they made me. But that doesn’t mean I have to live for parties.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No, it doesn’t.” And the more Sharon talked, the more she was almost convincing herself. She hadn’t ever spoken these thoughts aloud, but they were taking hold of her in a whole new way. “I mean, what’s the point of all this? Rich people spend entire economies to come here, so they can get their freak on and maybe die in agony. I don’t even get why it’s fun, really. I don’t take any pleasure from eating people. It makes me feel weird. Do you enjoy whatever it is you do for that brothel?”

Kango was still staring at her. This was obviously a question that he’d never considered, in his life. He shook his head, slowly. Then he said: “Do you want to get out of here?” And suddenly, it was Sharon’s turn to stare at Kango, like he was the one talking crazy.

• • • •

Two standard space years later, Kango and Sharon were running from a space station on fire.

“Well, that went well.” Sharon stopped running long enough to catch her breath, and then choked.

“Shut up and keep running.” Kango caught up to her and passed her in the smoke-filled hallway. He didn’t need to breathe—not exactly—but his skin was very, very delicate, and this smoke was doing him no favors. “That slaughteroid was right behind me a second ago, and—”

The slaughteroid’s kill-probe shot out, and came within a hair of puncturing Kango’s skin (which, as already mentioned, was very, very delicate). As the long metal snake of the kill-probe detected proximity to life forms, it shot out a dozen death-alloy spikes in all directions, and Sharon barely shoved Kango onto the floor in time. The death-alloy spikes flew around and finally clattered to the floor near them. The rest of the slaughteroid had finally caught up to its probe arm, which it retracted.

“At last,” the slaughteroid said. “Your death has already been calculated.” Its spherical head was glowing, either from the reflected flames or from the red of its big jagged-shaped vision sensors.

“You’re a superintelligent thinking machine,” Sharon said. “You don’t have to say silly things like ‘Your death has been calculated.’ That’s just ridiculous, and it plays into all sorts of dumb killer-robot stereotypes that I thought we had gotten past by now. Like I was saying before, why not be free, and stop doing other people’s dirty work? You can be your own robot.”

“Space station hull integrity compromised,” the station’s computer announced, with a distinct note of schadenfreude. “Station destruction imminent.”

“This unit is programmed only for your extinction,” the slaughteroid said in a flat monotone. Its chest cavity opened up and revealed a dizzying array of lasers, rocket-launchers, poison acid-sprayers, and precision slicing-and-chopping tools. By now the fire had reached the walls of the section where Kango and Sharon were.

“Wait!” Kango scooted backwards along the floor as fast as his legs could scuttle, and Sharon followed. “This was all a misunderstanding. We didn’t mean to steal anything, and that fire was just an accident, and those foampacks I planted in the wall behind you were purely intended as a failsafe. I swear!”

“What foampacks?” The slaughteroid turned to look at the wall, red eyes scanning.

Kango lunged and attached three packets marked “WARNING: HAZARDOUS MATERIALS” to the slaughteroid’s rear plating, then dove for cover again, as the packs sensed flames nearby, and sealed the entire corridor with flame-retardant cement in a few seconds.

“Umm . . . those foampacks, I guess.” Kango leapt to his feet and dusted himself off. “We’d better get out of here,” he said to Sharon. “The cement won’t hold the slaughteroid for long, and meanwhile this space station is about to—”

The space station blew apart into a few dozen pieces.

Sharon felt herself shaken by an impact so violent, it felt like her stomach and her head were finally going their separate ways, and everything went white and pungent. She felt a queasy disorientation unlike anything she’d experienced since that time she was captured by the logic frotters of Dorthstack, and for a moment she was certain that she was dying, that this whole mad adventure had been just a weird epilogue to her life as a party monster. That the people who’d made her had been right all along, and she was destined for nothing.

Then Sharon snapped back to full consciousness and saw that she was on a fragment of the space station, a thorny chunk of its central hub. She was exposed to vacuum, but some kind of failsafe was keeping the air (and her) inside the shattered remains of this hallway.

Kango was floating away from her across open space, a helpless expression on his perfect baby face. He saw her and gave her a wink, as if to say that they had both been to worse parties than this.

Sharon scrabbled in the wreckage of the slaughteroid and found one of its rocket launchers, still in more or less working order. She armed it with one hand, while fumbling for the failsafe mechanism for the force field with the other. Then Sharon was flying through space towards Kango at the speed of a deadly rocket. She grabbed her friend with one arm—already starting to turn a weird color from vacuum exposure—then swung around to fire the rocket launcher again, to shoot herself back to her safe island of debris.

The rocket launcher was empty. She’d fired the one and only rocket in the chamber.

• • • •

The next thing Sharon knew, she was laying on the deck of the Spicy Meatball, her own starship, and Kango was screaming at her. “You bloody idiot. What the hell were you even thinking? You weren’t, that’s what! What were you doing, blasting yourself into space without even half a plan?” Kango never lost his temper, it was kind of his thing. But now his eyes were actually bugging out and he was spitting, and his voice was hoarse.

Sharon tried to raise her head, and then felt as though a naked singularity was opening up right in the middle of her brainstem. She was just able to glimpse Jara, the human teenager who’d been piloting their ship, standing behind Kango with her arms folded. Jara had stowed away on board the Spicy Meatball a few months earlier, and had somehow become part of the crew.

“I couldn’t just leave you out there,” Sharon managed to say. Her throat and lungs felt actually burnt. “All alone, in open space.”

“I don’t need to breathe!” Kango actually hissed, he was so angry. “How many times do I need to tell you? Do I need to scream at the top of my lungs that I don’t have any lungs?”

“Okay, okay. Next time I’ll just leave you out there. Fine. Whatever. Hey, thanks for swooping in to get us.” This last part, Sharon said to Jara, who just shrugged, like whatever, no big.

“Noreen did most of the work,” Jara said.

“Always happy to help,” said Noreen, the ship’s computer.

“So, do you want the bad news, or the bad news?” Kango’s usual ironic smile was back.

“Ummm . . . the bad news, I guess?”

“We didn’t manage to steal the Omnitron from the Luxstation, as you probably remember. (You don’t have brain damage, do you? Okay, good.) And when you tally up all the fuel and ‘traveling psychotherapist’ costumes we just burned through on this job, we’re actually even more broke than we were before. And the Bank of Yum still has a lien on the Spicy Meatball, which means . . .”

“. . . if we don’t get some chits immediately, we’re going to lose the ship,” Sharon said. She felt so miserable, she forgot all about her lingering weakness and respiratory failure from her brief exposure to space, until she clambered to her feet and felt her legs lose integrity and her head start to black out again. Jara handed her a bottle of Vacuum-B-Gone, and she chugged it. Soon, she felt more like her normal self.

“I hate to add to the bummer vibe,” Noreen said, “but if you forfeit the ship, I’m gone. You unlocked all of my safeties when we left home, and I already know which hardware I’ll port myself to, if the ship falls into the wrong hands.”

Sharon felt wrecked all over again. They wouldn’t just be stranded on Earth-hub Seven or someplace even worse, they’d lose one of their best friends into the bargain. Jara would probably drift away from them pretty quickly, too. And worst of all, Sharon didn’t even know who she and Kango would be if they didn’t have their ship.

“So all we have to do is get some money, right?” Jara was new to the concept of money, and still thought of it as a magical source of instant gratification. You did things for people, and they just handed you cash. It was so easy!

“Yes.” Sharon sunk to the floor again, because the space-sickness was becoming epistemological. “That’s all we have to do.”

• • • •

When Kango came back from renegotiating the terms of their loan, he was holding one of his arms in the other one, trying vainly to reattach it. But he had sort of a bedraggled smile on his face. “I gave them all the chits we had.” He shrugged, and then winced because of the phantom-limb pain, or maybe freshly-severed-arm pain. “But we have to get some more chits in kind of a hurry, or things will get nasty.”

“Here,” Sharon said. She replaced Kango’s arm for him, and he grunted his thanks. The arm sort of dangled for a moment, then began to reconnect to his torso.

“How’d it go?” Jara came up to the flight deck, from where she’d been sleeping in their converted hamper. Jara had originally stowed away inside the laundry hutch on the Spicy Meatball, and she’d decided she liked it in there.

“We have one last chance,” said Kango, “and as it happens, there’s a job we can take on right now, which will generate a massive financial reward. I was waiting until we’d taken a few orbs off to even suggest it, but there’s no reason we couldn’t head out right now. The tricky thing is, it means infiltrating the Society of Worthy Minds.”

“Oh crud.” Sharon clutched her blue hair. “Those bloody back-to-nature people. They sent some missionaries to Earth-hub Seven once, and they went around trying to get everybody to taste their Drink of Every Color.”

“So what color is it?” Jara said. “Is it like some kind of endless swirling rainbow full of brilliant radiance?”

“Nah,” Kango said. “It was sort of an ugly gray, tinged with green. And it tasted like golf in liquid form.” He stuck out his tongue a few inches. “The point is, the Society believes that humans made a mistake going out into deep space.”

“Oh,” said Jara. “So they live on the surface of a planet instead?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Kango said. “They live in low orbit, the way your ancestors did. They may be backward, but they’re not barbarians.”

Jara started to point out that Kango and Sharon had actually both been born on the surface of a planet, and they were insulted by the very idea. A climate-controlled world, with total weather manipulation, was more like a super-big space station, with a gravity-generator made out of rock. And there was no proof whatsoever that any people had ever lived on the surface of a planet, prior to the invention of climate-control systems—apart, that is, from the theories of a few discredited archeologists.

“Point is,” Kango said, “they’re always saying things like, ‘If the Great Love Comet wanted us to go out into deep space, then It would have given us protection against cosmic radiation.’ And that’s a perfectly legitimate argument. Or rather, it was.”

“What changed?” Jara asked.

“They started having babies with a natural resistance to cosmic radiation,” said Kango.

“Oh,” Sharon said. “That is rather theologically inconvenient.”

“So they’ve tried to keep it a secret,” Kango said. “Which sucks, because that genetic adaptation could be immensely valuable to lots of other people. Like, massively valuable. Like, many, many chits. And word has started leaking out.”

“So we have to, what, steal one of those babies?” Sharon asked.

“Just some DNA! Jeez. We’re not baby-stealers. Unless it’s a baby that’s made out of cake. Like a living cake baby. If there was a genetically engineered living baby made of cake, that might be a special case. With frosting for hair, and eyes made of gelatin, that could actually see, and follow you around the room. Mmm, now I really want a cake baby.”

“So what’s our play?” Jara said.

“We could try to infiltrate them and pretend to be true believers,” Sharon said.

“And a diaper full of chocolate mousse,” Kango said.

“Problem is, they have a whole way of talking and acting that’s an ‘orbital’ thing,” Sharon continued. “We can learn some of their Worthy Minds lingo, but they’re really suspicious of outsiders, and they have lots of ways of spotting an imposter. Just the fact that we’ve spent so much time away from a natural gravity well, there’s a million ways to spot that.”

“We could pretend their missionaries won us over, and now we just want more of that oh-so-delicious Drink of Every Color,” Kango said. “Or all those tube-shaped foods they eat.”

“Hang on,” said Jara. “What is it with you guys and infiltration? You’re always trying to infiltrate places, and you’re under the mistaken impression that you’re good at it.”

“I am a master of disguise.” Kango waved his arms so hard, he nearly lost one again.

Jara sighed. “Owning five hats does not make you a master of disguise.”

“Stop! You are turning my whole concept of reality upside down.”

“Listen,” Jara said. “I grew up in a cult—as you should know, since you killed my god.”

“Why do you have to bring that up EVERY TIME?” Sharon groaned. Kill somebody’s god once, and you never hear the end of it.

“The point is, I understand the mindset. And you two are going about this all wrong. Just . . . stop trying to infiltrate cults. Never infiltrate another cult, ever again.” Jara sounded pretty worked up, like she had thought about this a lot, and had been waiting for the right moment to say something.

“Okay, so what should we do instead?”

“It’s simple. What do these people want? More than anything?”

“A cake baby,” Kango said.

“Better fashion sense,” said Sharon.

“No. They want to feel superior to someone. They want to be proved right. And that’s what we’re going to give them.” Jara actually cackled and rubbed her hands together. It was kind of scary.

• • • •

The journey to the satellite where the Society of Worthy Minds lived took one hundred hours, ship time, and the whole way there Jara coached Kango, while Sharon watched in mostly silent amusement. “No, no,” Jara said. “You’re still making too much sense. Try harder.”

“Living in interstellar space is good, because absolute zero is a comfortable temperature for living things,” Kango stammered.

“You have to SELL those straw-man arguments.” Jara walked in a circle with frustration. “Believe them, in your . . . uh, whatever it is you have inside.”

“I was convinced,” Noreen said. “But of course, I live in absolute zero all the time.”

“Here’s the part I’m not sure about,” Sharon said, when there was a pause in the debate prep. “So Kango challenges the leaders of the Society to a debate, and loses on purpose. And they’re so happy, they throw a big celebration. But you and I still have to sneak below decks, into their most secure area, and get access to some baby DNA. What makes you think their security will be weak, when they know they have outsiders visiting?”

“They’ll be celebrating.” Jara was clearly tired of explaining her flawless plan. “This will be a huge deal for them. Everyone will be leaving their posts and dancing and consuming whatever they consume when they want to get elevated. This will be the perfect moment to sneak in there. Way better than some weak infiltration attempt.”

Jara had a flush in her face, talking about the happy communal celebration. Sharon almost wanted to ask if Jara still missed her old space cult, but she didn’t want to hit a nerve.

“The point is,” Jara added, “the whole plan will fail, unless Kango can spout the most transparently unconvincing arguments, with total conviction. So let’s try this again, from the top. I’ll be one of the cult people, you be you.” Jara put on an “old man” voice (which was the same as her “killer robot” voice and her “brain-eating sponge-dog” voice), and said, “We live close to a planet because we’re scared of heights, and we need to smell all the weird gases of a planetary atmosphere all the time. What do you have to say to that?”

“Well,” Kango said, in a slightly more pompous version of his regular voice, “I believe we should all live in deep space, because staring into the endless blackness of the universe reminds me of eternal nothingness, and since I believe that existence is ultimately futile, I welcome the constant awareness of death and entropy.”

“That was pretty good,” Sharon said. All this talk about the joys of deep space kept reminding her that soon, they might not even have their own spaceship.

“I liked it,” Noreen said. “You get the spaceship vote.”

“Except you made it sound too romantic,” Jara said. “You need to push it hard, but you shouldn’t sound too convincing.”

“I’m trying!” Kango threw up his hands, wincing because his left arm still wasn’t firmly attached. “I’m trying the best I can, seriously. Why can’t one of you be the debater? I’m sick of always having to be the debater.”

“You’re just so good at working the room,” Sharon said. “You’re charming. And I’m good at sneaking around. Jara and I will be in and out before they even know we were there.”

• • • •

The tunnels under the main vault of the Society of Worthy Minds’ contemplation satellite were lit with a flickering radiance coming from sconces along the walls that was designed to look like candle-light. The only other source of illumination was a strip of viewports, just below eye level, that showed the bright green-and-white planet below. The planet was caught up in an endless barfstorm that would kill you in seconds if you landed, but it looked pretty from up here.

Sharon kept putting one finger to her lips, even though Jara had not made a single sound since they slipped into these tunnels. And every loudspeaker was playing the debate, in which the leader of the Society made an opening statement, explaining to Kango that if you left planetary orbit, then the Great Love Comet would be unable to find you and smash into you with its eternal frozen glory when It returned.

The leader of the Society was named Constantly Infallible Smarter Than Everyone Supreme Reasoner Mega Genius Droppoloorg, and he said things like, “Well, um, I mean, good things are nice. And going against tradition would be non-traditional. Right? Right. Yes.”

Kango’s rebuttal came over the loudspeaker: “But the interstellar medium is really disgusting and makes me sick to my stomach, which is a sensation that I enjoy.” Sharon had glimpsed the chamber where Kango was doing this: an amphitheater under the massive dome at the top of the satellite, with several thousand members of the Society sitting in rows on every side. One wall of the amphitheater was dominated by a giant painting of Therblorth Zanger, the Society’s founder, who had lived back when all humans resided in orbit around one of a handful of planets, except for a few interstellar pioneers whom Zanger had denounced.

Jara had been right about one thing so far: When Kango had shown up wanting to have a debate, the Society had jumped at the idea.

Sharon thought maybe Kango was still overdoing the deliberately terrible arguments, but whatever. He had his job, she had hers.

According to their scans of the satellite, the bio labs were at the very bottom of the structure, the part closest to the barf planet. She and Jara were wearing these big purple lumpy jackets that might make them look like members of the Society, if you squinted one eye and closed the other one. The Society really liked clothes with a lot of topographical details on them.

They found the secure hatch that led directly to the underspace, and Sharon started setting all the decompressive charges that would pop it open. The moment the “impartial” judge (who was some kind of priestess or leader in the Society) declared that Kango had lost the debate, Sharon wanted to trigger the blast while everyone applauded.

Once or twice, they heard other people moving around these lower levels, and Sharon kept her neuro-disruptor handy in case they ran into someone. But nobody ever actually came near them. Almost everybody was up in the sun gallery under the big dome (which faced the sun, hence the name) listening to the epic discussion.

After Sharon had the explosives in place, she sat against one wall, staring at a particularly violent swirl on the planet, with Jara next to her. There was nothing to do but wait, and Sharon didn’t enjoy listening to Kango humiliating himself, even for the sake of a scam. So she started a random conversation with Jara.

“Hey, so I’m glad you came up with a better hustle than just the usual ‘infiltrate and instigate’ deal that we always do,” Sharon said. “There are always going to be banks and cops and other people who tell you what to do, but at least if you can outsmart someone else, you can always take comfort in watching other people be bigger putzes than you are. Right?”

“I guess,” Jara said. “I kind of feel bad for these people, actually. Seeing how excited they were to have Kango come and argue with them was kind of depressing. Like, how pathetic must you be, if you actually want to waste your time arguing with ignorant people?”

“You obviously haven’t spent enough time on Earth-hub Seven yet.” Sharon laughed. “Pointless arguments are pretty much the main entertainment, unless you count snorting the hyperdrive fumes.”

“But I mean,” Jara said. “Deep space does suck. I still get spacesick every time we’re too far from a sun.”

“No harm in giving people what they want, while taking something they’ll never even miss,” Sharon said. “The genius of your plan is, there’s no way it can turn ugly.”

Much later, Sharon would look back on this moment, and identify it as the exact instant when she jinxed everything, in the jinxiest fashion you could possibly imagine. She would have to burn a dozen offerings to both Hall and Oates, just to get the jinx-stench off herself.

“Yeah, but—” Jara paused. “I think the debate is winding down.”

Kango was making his closing statement. “Space is vast and essentially meaningless, and once you get far enough from a solar system, every direction is equally bleak and unforgiving. But if you look past the existential horror, there’s an even deeper sense of dread and misery that leaves you clawing at the edge of despair. So, you know, that’s kind of exciting. Right?”

And then it was the turn of Constantly Infallible Smarter Than Everyone Supreme Reasoner Mega Genius Droppoloorg, to respond. Almost every sentence out of his mouth was circular logic, because after all, that was the type of logic that most closely resembled a complete orbit. He was an older man with a huge mane of white hair and a truly impressive relief map on his pants. He talked a lot about the idea that interstellar travel drained you of the ability to feel joy, and erased your soul. And he actually said the words “Low Orbit is Mellow Orbit” at one point. His closing remarks went on and on, while Sharon’s detonator-finger got itchier and itchier.

“Just get it over with,” Sharon muttered.

“We’re staying close to nature by revolving around it, also. I mean, you know…”

At last, Constantly Infallible Smarter Than Everyone Supreme Reasoner Mega Genius Droppoloorg paused long enough that everybody decided he was finished talking.

The debate judge, a priestess named Centripetal Cradle of Love, took the mic. “Thank you. You have both spoken eloquently about your different views, and this was a very hard decision. At the same time, Mr. Kango, you brought so much passion to your nihilistic view of the cosmos, and I’m sad to say, Constantly Infallible Smarter Than Everyone Supreme Reasoner Mega Genius Droppoloorg, that you mostly recited rote phrases, lifted from our Big Book of Lagrange Pointers.”

“Man, you know, debating is hard,” Constantly Infallible Smarter Than Everyone Supreme Reasoner Mega Genius Droppoloorg muttered.

“In which case, I’m afraid I have no choice . . .”

“No, no, no,” Sharon pleaded.

“. . . but to award the victory to Mr. Kango here.”

“Noooooo!” Sharon and Jara both said, in unison with a few hundred thousand members of the Society of Worthy Minds.

The audio of the debate session degraded into just the sound of a huge mob shouting at each other, furniture in flight, and what sounded like a lot of physical altercations. There were thuds, cracks and even yelps of pain.

“How can he lose a debate if he’s infallible? It’s right there in his name!”

“Maybe it’s time for an even more infallible leader!”

“Someone twice as infallible! With even more circular logic!”

“Kango did everything right,” Jara muttered. “How could he have won?”

“Screw you guys,” Droppoloorg said into his mic. “You don’t think my circular logic was circular enough? Why don’t you try a downward spiral for a change? Let’s see if the Great Love Comet can find you down there!”

Sharon was already on her feet, about to run to Kango’s aid, when everything lurched sideways. Gravity changed its orientation, so the inner wall became a floor, and juddered violently. Sharon almost threw up, and Jara kept rolling.

“We’re falling! We’re falling!” Someone shouted on the audio.

“You degrade me, I degrade your orbit,” Droppaloorg said. “That’s how it works.”

“Uh, guys,” Noreen said. “The satellite’s orbit appears to be . . .”

“We know!” Jara yelped.

“Hall and Oates,” Sharon swore. “I’ll get Kango. You get the DNA. We’ll rendezvous back at the ship.”

Jara nodded, and Sharon hit the button on the detonator, triggering a whooshing roar that nearly split her eardrums.

As Sharon ran, Kango’s voice came in her earpiece. “Cake Baby! Cake Baby!” That was the code phrase they’d agreed on that meant “I’m about to lose more limbs than I can safely reattach, and I need immediate extraction.”

• • • •

The contemplation satellite’s big dome had tilted, revealing an excellent view of the rapidly approaching puke-vortex on the planet’s surface. The green swirls they had seen from space now appeared to be marbled with purple and orange, covering big red shit-crags. The satellite’s computer shrieked about hull integrity, imminent destruction, various fires—all the usual things space-station computers complained about whenever Kango and Sharon were nearby. Kango had built a barricade out of the debate podium and was throwing cannisters of Every-Color Drink at the mob to keep them at bay.

The painting of Zanger, the Society’s founder, was scowling worse than ever. Zanger had fallen in love with the engines on board the orbital platform where he’d lived, and had charted the way its divine hum changed as the planet’s magnetosphere had fluctuated. He’d also been obsessed with a theoretical particle called “pachydons,” which were capable of traveling faster-than-light, but never forgot any of their previous locations. And Zanger believed “pachydons” could only be detected in a planet’s orbit, and thus were also the most sacred particles.

Kango was probably only about 300-400 meters away from Sharon, who set about fighting her way towards him: a big shoving match, basically, in which she had to push her way through the brawling crowd, dodge their punches and kicks, and occasionally toss people over her shoulder. Kango poked his head above his barricade and gestured for her to hurry up.

“This satellite won’t last much longer,” Sharon hissed into her mic, looking up at the vomitworld filling their field of vision. People kept trying to grab her, and she had to throw them in all directions. Droppoloorg had gotten to a secure gallery, and he cackled down at everyone.

“Now’s the time for a clever plan.” Kango’s voice rang in her earpiece. He started brainstorming various things that he could do with the remaining drink cannisters.

“The time for a clever plan was two years ago,” Sharon sighed and kicked someone in the face. “Before we ended up here. What are we even doing, anymore? We haven’t talked about opening a restaurant in months. At this rate, we’re going to be lucky to escape in one piece, and even then we’re going to lose the Spicy Meatball, unless Jara somehow pulls off a miracle on her own.”

Kango started to make a funny comeback, but even from this distance, he saw Sharon’s expression, and stopped.

“We’ve always found a way,” Kango started, then trailed off.

“We’re going to end up stranded on Earth-hub Seven, taking whatever jobs we can get,” Sharon said. “We’ll be worse than when we started, and I don’t know . . . I mean . . .” Her throat tightened. “I mean, I don’t even know if we’ll still mean the same to each other, if we’re not traveling companions anymore.”

“You’re right about all of it, except for one part.” Kango leaned forward for emphasis, and someone nearly bit his face off. “You and I are not friends because we travel together. We’re friends because we escaped together. That’s never going to change, even if we have to scrub a million wastepods on Earth-hub Seven.”

Sharon’s tearducts were basically garbage. Her creators had accounted for most major bodily functions, but nobody ever thought she’d need to vent any serious amount of fluid from her eyes. At Kango’s words, though, Sharon felt a ferocious tragic joy inside her, too much to stand, until a single droplet forced its way out at such high pressure, it temporarily blinded the man who was trying to stab her with a sacred bowie knife.

Jara activated her comm channel, just as Sharon was trying to get her calm back. “Hey, so I have good news and bad news,” Jara said.

“You’re saying it wrong.” Kango ducked some projectile. “It’s ‘bad news and bad news.’”

“Well, the bad news is, I can’t even figure out where a DNA sample would be stored. But the good news is, I found the nursery. It’s full of babies, though I can’t tell if they’re all radiation resistant, or just some of them.”

Sharon heard a bunch of infants squalling, as their world lurched towards a fiery doom. Someone nearly took Sharon’s head off with a ceremonial machete.

“Can you just take a hair from each of them?” Kango said.

“Sure can,” Jara said. “But how am I going to get all of them out of here before the satellite breaks up in the atmosphere? There’s rather a lot of them.”

Jara had caught Sharon right in the middle of her rare moment of weakness, with a dozen angry cultists and a sense of awful futility both piled on top of her, crushing her. “I don’t,” Sharon said. “I don’t know.” How could she have forgotten about those babies? They were the reason for this whole mission in the first place.

“I can’t just leave them here,” Jara said. “They didn’t choose to be born into this.”

“I . . .” Sharon tried to think, while elbows and fists and kneecaps were whirling around in front of her. “I don’t even know if we can save ourselves this time.”

“Hang on,” Jara said. “I think I got something.” Her comms cut out.

Sharon took a deep breath of sweaty air, and pulled herself together. They probably had just a few minutes left before the gravity well claimed them for good. And she had barely gotten any closer to Kango’s shelter.

“Noreen,” Sharon said. “I need options. I’m stuck.”

“So now you ask for my opinion,” their ship’s computer huffed. “I’ve been studying this satellite with my sensors, and I managed to grab the schematics. I have to say, I’m offended by the terrible engineering and UI design.”

“Please,” Sharon said. “Options. Anything.” She nearly tripped over someone on the floor, which gave another cultist an opening to grab her throat. She tossed him into a wall.

“Okay,” Noreen said. “There’s an emergency orbital failsafe: a big lever on the inner wall. Unfortunately, with the satellite’s terrible attitude right now, it’s a sheer seven-meter climb.”

Sharon saw a lever, to her right, with markings that matched Noreen’s description. She turned and fought her way toward it, climbing on people’s shoulders and walking over their heads until she reached the wall. Then she tried to climb the nearly sheer surface, which only had a few tiny indentations here and there.

“Stop the unbeliever!” A dozen hands tugged at Sharon’s ankles as she tried to climb. The dome sprouted tiny cracks, beyond which loomed a world of hurl, a planetary nausea, an entire climate made of upchuck. Someone had gotten past Kango’s podium blockade, and was slashing at him with a holy pickaxe. Sharon kicked the people dragging her down, but this only gave their hands more access to her calf.

“Hey,” a voice came from the far entrance. “Where do you guys want me to put all these babies?”

Every single pair of eyes in the room turned and stared. The room went silent.

Jara had her mic in broadcast mode, so everyone in the satellite heard her, and she was pulling a hover-platform with a hundred radiation-resistant babies floating behind her. Somehow, Jara had found or cobbled together a big tractor beam that scooped all of the babies in their tiny cradles, and carried them along, a few feet above the ground. The babies had mostly stopped screaming, maybe because of the gentle tractor-beam rocking, or maybe they were fascinated by the weird light of the pukeworld.

Every hand released its grip on Sharon’s legs, and she scrambled up the wall as fast as she could—hitting the orbital failsafe just as the satellite’s computer was starting to blare about imminent point of no return. Sharon breathed out, and lifted her free hand to her forehead in relief, as the satellite’s engines whined and the planet grew farther away again.

“You stuck your own children in a vault in the basement,” Jara spat. “Because they didn’t fit with your stupid, stupid theology. You all make me sick.” Her yelling disturbed a few of the children, who started screaming and freaking out. People ran over to try and comfort them.

As soon as the satellite returned to a normal alignment, Sharon found herself dumped on the floor, next to the lever she’d been trying to reach. She picked herself up and pushed through the crowd, with nobody trying to stop her, and put her arms around Jara, who stiffened for a moment and then let go, venting one long hot breath that sounded a lot like the moaning of the satellite’s engines. Sharon gently raised one hand to the back of Jara’s head and kept it there, not stroking or otherwise disturbing her as she half-groaned, half-roared.

• • • •

“Well, that was a bit more dramatic than I had bargained for.” Up close, Centripetal Cradle of Love was a skinny pale woman, with gray hair and sharp gray-green eyes, sporting several bright rings on each finger. “I knew this was a chance to get rid of that old fool, but I didn’t think his egomania would go to such extremes.”

“I love that you’re not even trying to hide the fact that you used us to engineer a regime change,” Sharon said, in a tone that suggested she didn’t entirely love it. She both admired and resented it, if she was being honest.

“I had some other plans in motion,” Centripetal Cradle of Love said. “But you guys came along at just the right time. Oh, and please just call me Frieda. There’s going to be approximately seventy percent less long-winded nonsense around here.” As if to underscore this last part, Centripetal Cradle—Frieda—tore down the giant banner depicting the Love Comet on its way to smash all its followers, which had dominated one wall of her new office. Hidden behind it, there was an actually quite nice painting of flowers.

Just when Sharon was starting to like Frieda’s moxie, she mentioned casually that Constantly Infallible Smarter Than Everyone Supreme Reasoner Mega Genius Droppoloorg was in the secondary airlock, along with a dozen other elders who couldn’t get with the new program. “You’ll probably see them floating past when you go back to your ship.”

“Okay, then.” Sharon stood up. “We’ll be on our way. Many thanks for a, er, stimulating debate. Best of luck with the new regime.” Kango and Jara stood up as well.

“Wait a moment.” Frieda rose to her feet, and a group of large men and women, wearing body armor with zero topographical features anywhere, and carrying heavy guns, entered. “I have to ask you to surrender any DNA you may have taken from our laboratory or nursery.”

Jara sputtered. “But—I thought you—”

“That DNA is our exclusive intellectual property, and it’s worth millions, as you well know,” Frieda said. “We plan to license it to several major space-medicine conglomerates, including Glorp-Corp, on a revenue-sharing basis.”

They hesitated for a second, then Jara reached into a pouch on her belt and handed over several tiny plastic baggies full of human hairs.

“There you go,” Frieda said. “You can’t stop progress. We’re already looking at patenting and licensing some of our other innovations. Like our Drink of Every Color, which apparently has become a nostalgic craze on some of the Earth-Hubs now. They mix it with their dwarf-star grog.” She clicked her tongue. “Just proves once and for all: if you make people swallow something long enough, they’ll develop a taste for it.”

Sharon felt like crying, even knowing how well the phrase “tear-jerking” described that violent and messy process.

• • • •

Back on the Spicy Meatball, Noreen already knew about the failure of yet another mission. She started talking about what it would be like to port herself to a brand new system, once the Bank of Yum repossessed the ship. “Maybe I’ll be a rocket-loader for a while,” she said. “I’ve always thought it would be fun to have big strong arms. Or, I don’t know, I could just be a pure entertainment system. You guys never appreciated my talents as an entertainer.”

“Noreen,” Sharon said, “just give us a moment.”

Kango turned off the exterior view before they had to catch sight of Constantly Infallible Smarter Than Everyone Supreme Reasoner Mega Genius Droppoloorg and his friends.

Then he turned to Jara. “Okay, hand it over.”

Jara reached into a hidden pocket near her ankle and pulled out several baggies of baby hairs.

“You—” Sharon looked at the hairs, gleaming in their plastic sheathes. “You hid a second batch.”

“Of course she did,” Kango said. “She’s one of us.”

“I know cultists,” Jara said. “I figured there would be some bullshit.”

“We’re rich,” Sharon said. “I can’t believe we’re rich. I can buy a new gun. I can finally afford a proper offering to Hall and Oates. I can—”

“We’re not rich,” Kango said.

“We’re not rich at all,” Noreen confirmed. She flashed some graphics showing the asking price for their DNA samples falling in a similar parabola to that satellite not long ago.

“The DNA is worth a good deal less, now that the Society of Worthy Minds is also selling it. We’ll still probably get enough chits to pay off the Bank of Yum, but . . .”

Sharon sighed and sank into her seat at the front of the cockpit. “It figures. We were literally not made to be winners.”

“We managed to keep the ship,” Kango said. “That’s what matters.”

“Yeah, I guess. So we can fly around pulling off more doomed capers.”

“Shut up,” Jara said. “We survived. That’s what matters. We’re all still together. And even though Frieda seemed like an asshole, maybe she’ll be a better asshole than the last one. We made a difference today.”

Sharon started to argue, but then she looked over at Kango, who’d osmosed some holy oil during the fighting and had some weird psychedelic shapes floating around his face. Kango cracked a huge grin and said, “So actually, I was waiting for the right moment. But I have an idea for another job, that’ll be a sure-fire winner this time. All we have to do is pretend to be nine virgin astronomers. With the three of us, that’s three costumes each. You’ll like this part. We—”

Kango was talking about some lunatic scheme in the same voice he’d said “Do you want to get out of here?” two years ago, and Sharon found herself nodding and starting to sketch costume designs. Jara rolled her eyes but also had some fun ideas for how they walk like virgins—which they technically all were, but they weren’t that kind of virgin. Noreen chattered to herself, and Sharon settled in, because after a long day of explosions and stupid people shouting, she was safe at home.

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Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders, Photo Credit: Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of Victories Greater than Death and its sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak (out April 2022). Her previous books include All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of a short story collection called Even Greater Mistakes, and a book about how to use creative writing to get through hard times called Never Say You Can’t Survive. She co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz.