Escape Pod 603: An Equal Share of the Bone
An Equal Share of the Bone
By Karen Osborne
To kill a theriida, you need gunboats and suits, laser cutters and open-mawed cargo bays, brawn and a stout heart, and God on your side.
We, of course, had none of that.
I learned in the merchant marines to never shoot a theriida with a standard railgun. They’ll thrash and writhe and put angry holes through your hull, and eating vacuum is nobody’s idea of a good trade run. No: a theriida’s distributed brain needs a distributed solution. If you don’t have a spinal lance capable of wide-range dispersal, move on. Don’t even try. Back in the academy, before Eliot and I signed on with Garuda, we used to inflate massive plastex balloons with pressuregel and deploy them beside our training vessels, taking turns at the lance control. It wasn’t anything like the real thing.
Inexperienced spacers often believe that the glimmering purple sac in a theriida’s bioluminescent belly is the animal’s brain, but that is only because we mammals forget that the universe is a multifarious, violent parade of a hundred thousand ways to be mortal. But we weren’t inexperienced. Our captain, Nate, had thousands of hours of piloting time. I was the best gunner this side of the Mercy War. Eliot could make a working engine out of spit and vomit. That’s why we believed we could handle a theriida kill.
Hubris. That’s the word.
Even professionals happen on hard times. We were desperate and destitute, coming back from a bad-luck, fruitless trip, and Nate’s frequent and frantic messages to creditors back on the station made me wonder if our ship, Garuda, would be ours for long. Garuda ran cold and broken most of the time, with recycled air that we could no longer keep clean and rattling parts so close to breakdown that even Eliot was having a rough time. We three were tight, but there was tension, made worse by Eliot telling Nate one night at dinner that he hadn’t trashed his illegal brainload equipment like he’d promised back in the Belt, and Nate responding that there was only room for one of us in the hard drive if it came to that.
Eliot reacted well—dear Eliot, who smelled like the engine room, whose thin fingers ran as delicate against the ship’s broken systems as they did against my skin, in our quarters or in the cargo bay or sometimes in my gunner’s chair after Nate was asleep. The arrangement had gone from casual to serious in the time it took to quit the Belt, and we wanted to stay together when we got back to Mercy Station.
All of that stress is why we can be forgiven for rushing to the window in a breathless cluster as soon as the theriida hit the sensors, our fingers pressed against the deathlike frost of the observation window, greed kindled in our chests. We watched the massive being twirling and twinkling against the darkness, and started calculating how much space we had left, and if we could fill it with plasm. None of us wondered why this theriida was on its own; why it had no pack of babies riding its wake. Eliot and I just saw a future with a ship of our own. Nate saw his Garuda, wings unfurled and shining, the pride of the system once again. If we could take the star, the sac, the plasm—we’d be rich. It seemed logical.
(Only in the bright aftermath of our mistake, when Nate floated transparent and dead in front of the very same window, tethered for a safety that could never truly come, did I start to understand that greed has a logic of its own.)
Eliot was the first of us to speak. I could see the bare outline of his bones through his shaking hands—the signature of a spacer that had been around starlit engines and aether radiation for more than ten years. He was always the one to rush in, heedless of the danger. It’s a bad quality in a spacer and a worse quality in a trader, but you forgive these things when they inhabit a person you love. “Are we going to kill it?”
Nate was the captain, so he made the call, wide-eyed with wonder. “C’mon, Aris,” he said. “Are you kidding?”
It was like I’d just asked him if water was wet.
In a way, we owe our entire economy to the theriida, don’t we? To them, and to the ophelians, who chased a pack near Europa in their slippery, skinny ships just as humans first arrived in the neighborhood. We owe it to the early spacers who discovered that the creature’s flesh—what we call the “plasm”—protected against interstellar radiation when slathered inside suits and on skin, even as it made that skin slightly transparent. We owe the inventors who discovered what the osmotic sac could do to recycle food and water to on long journeys. Who turned the heart-stars that sustained the theriida into the starlit engine that gave us the galaxy.
Without the theriida, we are denied a future.
So we still hunt the grand beast with our harpoons and our knives, screaming chanteys against the airless black tide.
Nate had seen ophelians hunting theriida up close on a long patrol, and we had textbooks, so we assumed we were set. I loaded a firing solution into Garuda’s spinal lance while he gave us the plan. I would disable the brain with the lance, making sure the animal was still alive, then make a cut under the creature’s dorsal fin to free the plasm at full potency. Nate would suit up and harvest the plasm, and Eliot would open the main engine to take in the new heart-star.
The profits from the sac would go against Garuda’s repair bills, and more besides. The star, the sac, the plasm: they would fix everything.
At first, everything went according to plan. I fired. Bright blue pulses hit the animal and crackled around its broad amoebic body, its incredible bioluminescence flickering twice, then failing forever. I did not know if the theriida was in pain, although its anterior fins shuddered, and the liquid skin convulsed in quivering ribbons. I swallowed, then made the cut under the fin, noting the gaping, black curve against the exterior lights of our ship with unwelcome, grim pleasure. Our theriida kicked and shuddered once more, then went limp and liquid. Plasm leaked from the wound. I tried to feel upbeat.
At any rate, we were committed. Nate looked white and wan, but tethered himself to Garuda’s repair mesh anyway. I stayed to monitor the situation on the bridge while Eliot worked the last of our extra plasm onto the skin of Nate’s arms and legs and chest, loaded him down with a laser cutter and as many containers as he could carry, and sent him out the cargo bay airlock. Eliot watched the sticky, boring work of the slaughter from inside the airlock, while I stayed on the bridge.
“We’re going to be rich,” Nate said over the comm, as he bagged container after container of plasm, sending each back on the tether to Eliot with a quick, careful hand. Eliot wasn’t paying as much attention: he was whispering to me on a private channel about the places we could go now that we were going to be able to afford a vacation.
Nate bagged and bagged until he reached the osmotic sac. He announced that he was making the initial cut to the sac, and went quiet. He did not need to tell me what was wrong. Around me, the aether-wave alarms erupted into a screaming orchestra of sound.
Plasm is useful, but the osmotic sac and its contents are the most important part of the theriida. Without the osmotic filters protecting and recycling food and water, the grand colony ships would have never reached filled this part of space with human life.
And while the sac is important, it’s the heart-stars that really count. Tiny slices of nibbled stars, full of the energy we know as aether, are swept up by natural-born theriida in the quiet nebulae where they’re created, and are eaten by others after a packmate’s death. These are as dangerous as they are useful, and sit at the heart of the starlit engines that propel humans and ophelians into deep space. One heart could feed a theriida for a hundred years. Two meant that it once had a mate. Three, a child. Four, a pack.
Three stars could work miracles for spacers like us. Four meant that we could retire. Five stars contained so much aether radiation that it could hurt a crew. Five would kill—eventually. Cancer. Six?
Nobody had ever seen six hearts in a theriida’s belly.
The alarms howled. I slammed my hand on the comm. “We’re taking rads,” I yelled. “Nate, abort. Get back in behind the plasm barrier.”
Nate’s voice crackled. “We’re so close. Just one more.”
“Those alarms that say you’re up against at least four hearts in there,” I said. “We need to rethink this.”
“We can still do this.” Eliot’s voice. I checked the camera. He was still in the cargo bay, going for the extra suit. “Let me suit up and get out there. Open the engine maw.”
My stomach churned as I checked the readings. Four hearts? That’s a lot of rads for four hearts.
That’s a hell of a lot of rads.
“No,” I said. “Eliot, stay where you are. I need more information.”
“I’m going out to help.”
Nate coughed. “Don’t,” he said. “It’s too late.”
The sentence hit like a load of bricks to my stomach. From Eliot’s hitched breath, it’d had a similar effect.
“How many?” Eliot asked.
Nate was silent for a long, agonizing moment. “Don’t look,” he said. “Just get out of here. Garuda’s plasm barrier won’t protect you from this.”
I looked. Heart in my throat, I switched back to the exterior cameras to see Eliot waiting inside the airlock, helmet in hand, ready to go. I saw Nate in his suit, clinging to the hardening skin of the dying theriida, his legs kicking fruitless and angry in the vacuum. He stared at the gobs of plasm blinking and sputtering around him, and was limned in the bracing, screaming light of a heart-star.
I checked the radiation levels again.
A hell of a lot of hearts.
The picture was so bright that I had to close my eyes, even with the filter. Eliot’s hand shaded his eyes, and he looked away, past the dead thing, into the cold stars beyond. I gulped down saliva, imagining the light in Nate’s eyes, the radiation slipping past the plasm, curling his veins, cooking his mind. I had last heard that kind of silence at my mother’s funeral.
“How many?” I finally whispered.
“Dozens,” Nate said. “Thirty. Maybe forty.”
Eliot’s voice was anxious disbelief. “I thought it was young. Packless. Now you’re telling me that it’s basically older than time?”
“You’re rich,” Nate said. He sounded dry. Shredded.
“You’re rich, too,” I whispered back.
“For the next ten seconds. This is…” He gulped. “This is not how I thought it would turn out. Eliot, I’m leaving Garuda to you. Take care of her.”
Eliot looked up at the camera, waiting for me to weigh in. I wiped tears from my eyes. “This is your ship, not mine,” Eliot said.
“You heard me.” Nate’s words were the clipped, forceful bullets of a man who knew he had no time. “Go.”
Eliot lingered for a moment, then stumbled back, disappearing.
“Reel in his tether,” I said. “There has to be something we can do.”
Garuda’s rad alarms kept screaming, and even as I said it, I knew I was lying: the dying theriida’s osmotic sac was reading aether leakage from the corpse like I’d never seen. Forty hearts. Forty hearts. Enough to curdle the plasm inside of Garuda’s hull, enough to power the entire empire, enough to keep Eliot and I in gold and satin until the end of time. Would it be enough to make up for leaving Nate behind? Even if we gave it all away, would it make up for anything at all? What I was about to do?
I slammed the comm. “I’m opening the engine maw. Three hearts. That’s all we need.”
Eliot’s voice sounded shocked. “Damn it, baby, no.”
“I’m not giving up, El.”
“What the hell is happening to me?” Nate said.
“No. Nate. Don’t do this. Nate.” Eliot was in the hallway, now, gunning for the engine room. I could see him on internal cameras, shaking and angry and stalking. I wondered how many rads he’d taken. Forty hearts. I wondered if I was dead, too.
“Stay with me, Nate,” I repeated.
Nate did not respond. I swore at him. I brought up the camera in his suit. Nate had nearly gone transparent; underneath his disappearing skin I could see his white eyes, the pus in his sinuses, his white skull, the deteriorating grey whorls of his brain. His body went liquid, transparent, purple and gold and bright, searing blue, and the suit began to disintegrate around him. The tears in his eyes shone last, diamond-bright. He looked less like a human being than an amoeba trapped in a suit. I had only heard of this transformation happening in stories. I hadn’t thought for a second that the stories were based on truth.
Through the horror curdling in my throat, I told Nate that Eliot and I loved him, but he was a theriida now, a beast with no heart to guide him, and he was just as dead as the rest of us.
And this is the truth of the universe: to live, you must kill. We can be as moral as we want, but the calories have to come from somewhere, and humans can’t eat stone. Death feeds life, and life feeds death. The line between greed and necessity is a thin one, even in the all-consuming vacuum, even as we spread past Mercy Station to the entire damned galaxy.
We don’t have to kill the theriida. We could have stayed on our rickety little stations, our dying little world. It might have even been a good life. We don’t have to gamble with the blood in our veins and the beat of our hearts. But where would we be without our starlit drives, the sac that keeps us alive, the dreams that the theriida give us? Would we be huddled on our own tiny world, dying around the ancient fires that ruined our planet? How far will we go?
We like to think of hope as the impetus that caused us to cross oceans, mountain ranges, the space between Earth and Mars and the asteroids and, finally, galaxies. But it is greed. It has always been greed.
Even when we think we are better than that.
Eliot came up to the bridge. His face was paler than mine, as white as water, and he kissed me as if it was the last time. I knew what was happening. We were both dead. I thought of the hearts I’d just been dragging into the engine maw. What if I ate one? Consumed it? Would I die human, or breathe starlight for a hundred years?
His lips felt warm and his body was still human, so I fumbled with the fastenings on his suit. The thrill of the forty stars reached our fingers, began turning our skin transparent, squeezed terror and exhaustion into our trembling hearts. I ripped the suit off and we cried. We would soon be something else, ourselves, but for right now we were human.
“We’re rich,” he whispered.
We were. Forty hearts. Forty. Enough to buy an entire world. Enough to commandeer a thousand Garudas, to drink armies, to race to the end of time itself.
“Worthless,” I whispered back, unwilling to stop touching him, even as I changed.
“I have a plan.” Eliot reached up with his bony, flickering hand, pushing back my hair. He was nearly transparent, now; I could see the blood in his arteries, his liver, his grey, pumping heart. He traced his hand up my arm, right above the radius slipping into view. Without his face, Eliot looked less like the man I love and more like an anatomy drawing. A biology textbook. Cells, endothelia, flagellae. Food in his stomach and crap in his rectum and all of that soon to end, as well.
He turned to Garuda’s command chair, dragging his liquid hand out of my grasp.
“You can save me,” he whispered through a lipless mouth. “I’ll eat a heart. I bet I’ll transform. You can upload. Go for help. Scientists. We’ll have plenty of time. I’ll have a hundred years. Two hundred. And you’ll have forty hearts in your belly.”
“No,” I whispered. “I’m not going to leave you behind.”
“I’m changing. Maybe I can change back.”
I looked down at my hands. They had started to flicker. I felt a calm sort of fear, a burning sort of pain, a starbright hunger. “No.”
“Then I’ll knock you out and make you do it.”
“It’s illegal. They’ll kill Garuda’s core gestalt, and then you’ll be out there forever.”
“We’re this screwed and you’re worried about something being illegal?”
I started to panic. “They’ll wipe me from the banks and I won’t be able to find you.”
“You can do this, Aris.” Eliot’s fingers were limned in purple; it sounded like he was drowning. “You will find me.”
I thought of the dying theriida outside. Had it been born that way? Had it been human or ophelian or some other damned, mortal thing? Had it dreamed of being human? Would Eliot, in a few minutes?
I could not leave him behind.
“Where’s the rig?” I whispered. Even his bones were gone, now.
He pointed, no longer able to speak.
Eliot could have been the one to tell you all of this, but for the fact that he loved me.
Call me Garuda, or call me Aris. Either one is correct. Garuda is not dead; the ship is me, now, every inch of it, from the AI synapses firing in the computer core to the breach-severed skin that aches, brilliant and broken, against the endless darkness. I am no gestalt, but I am as immortal as any rusty thing can be. I am illegal and I am in love , and you will not stand in my way with this ridiculous customs inspection.
This is your choice, Mercy soldier.
No matter what you do to my new body, I will not forget that I was Aris, once—Garuda’s gunner, Nate’s friend, Eliot’s lover, as damned and as human as you. I loved people. I drank coffee and vodka. Danced. Sang. Wished. Hoped. Eliot made sure I had my mind, that I could remember where to go when I awoke and took control of my new metal form, that I could track him and find him and defend him until the research bears out a cure for his starbright affliction. It might take a hundred years. I might have to destroy every theriida-hunter out there to make sure Eliot will live. I do not care.
If Eliot committed a sin uploading me to Garuda’s core, I am glad of it. Just as glad as you will be to let me leave with my secret intact and thirty-nine hearts in my engine. One heart: will that be enough to make your face turn in the opposite direction when I go? Or will you need two?
Greed is something I understand now. Are you thinking of putting that heart in a starlit engine and taking to the hunt yourself? I know how seductive that thought can be. It doesn’t matter to you that you might end up in hell. You’re just thinking about the forty stars, and all of the things you could buy when you’re done.
I already see you scrambling at your comm units, at your sensor rigs, at your spies among the ophelians. You think you will make better decisions than Nate and Eliot and I. You think you won’t ever be desperate. You’ll conveniently forget that there is nothing we could have done to save ourselves. You’ll think that you will do better. Don’t forget a blanket when you go. Forty hearts burn like an apocalypse, but they will never keep you warm.
You will need gunboats and suits, laser cutters and open-mawed cargo bays, brawn and a stout heart, and God on your side.
About the Author
Karen Osborne lives in Baltimore with two violins, an autoharp, four cameras, a husband and a bonkers orange cat. She’s been a reporter, a wedding videographer, a newspaper photographer, a high school English teacher, a Starfleet captain and a Scottish fiddler. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise and the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and has never been whaling, even if she can play you all the tunes.
About the Narrator
Ibba Armancas is an Inland Empire PBS writer/director and TV host whose COVID-themed educational kids show “Pandemic Playhouse” airs Friday starting January 2021. You can find out more about her, it, and her puppet pals at https://www.