Escape Pod 617: A Cure for Homesickness (Artemis Rising)

A Cure for Homesickness

By S. L. Scott

Krem was dead.

Well, not exactly, yet, but he knew death when he saw it, and the scavenger holding a plasma shotgun three feet from his face sure looked like death. The Torqu might have exoskeletons strong enough to keep hardened steel from piercing, but that wouldn’t stop the ensuing explosions from ripping him apart. They’d just be nice big chunks instead of tiny pieces. Not that Krem was surprised he’d go this way. He’d signed up for glory and adventure traveling the galaxy, and what that really meant was boring travel time followed by constant near-death experiences. The former he’d learned to live with; the latter, it seemed, would be harder to ignore.

At least he’d finished his mission. They’d been hired to recover passengers from a crashed ship, but the scavengers and slavers had all gotten there at the same time. By now, the last group of survivors should be close to the final checkpoint, where the captain could get them to the safety of their ship.

“Del,” he whispered into his com. “Make sure they sing for at least two hours at my funeral. If I’m going to die a hero, I think I deserve it.”

Krem wanted to go out shooting and kill his own killer in one of those “showdowns” he’d seen when Max, their human crewmate, picked the entertainment. There was a certain appeal to two people facing each other over the fate of the universe. Krem was decidedly more practical though. He knew one drone like him wouldn’t matter any more than the one scavenger about to kill him. He’d done his part, and now he would come to an end for the betterment of the mission. That was how the Torqu thought of heroics, after all.

The scavenger raised his gun slightly—better to hit Krem in the neck between his more protected thorax and skull plates—and promptly exploded. A shower of sticky blue internal juices and meat splashed Krem’s entire front and dripped into his gasping mouth. The scavenger tasted rather sweet, he noted, as little else seemed to make it through his shock-addled brain. There, behind the scavenger and just as covered in corpse debris, stood Max.

“Why’d you come back?” he asked slowly and with as little understanding of the human as he ever managed. Max had taken the second group. There was no reason for her to be there.

Max, wiry as a bridge cable, wiped the blue blood from the visor protecting her eyes and spit a bit or two of scavenger from her mouth. Apparently, humans didn’t find it as appetizing. Once able to see again, she reached out a hand to hook his claw and yanked him to his feet. “We’ve got a saying back on Earth: never leave a man behind.”

Two years ago Krem would have noted that he was Torqu, not a man, but he’d come to learn that humans had a habit of using their own human-centric terms to refer to everyone they encountered. Krem preferred species distinctions, but Del said that was a Torqu thing and he should stop whining about what the human called him. As Del was his captain and also determined to not be called by his proper designation—rather insisting everyone call him Del, which offered no real signaler as to his status in the crew—Del won.

So, Krem was not, in fact, dead anymore, though how long that remained a fact was still debatable. He double checked the gun he’d stolen from one of the scavengers, which didn’t fit his claw at all and was terribly difficult to shoot without more of the tendril-like appendages the human called fingers. He sorely wished his own weapon hadn’t been destroyed. More scavengers were coming.

“Krem! Max!” a garbled voice sputtered across their coms in broken screams. ” . . . ack here . . .”

“Boss wants us back,” Max said, smiling as though this were a pleasant stroll through the trees. Del didn’t seem to care when Max called him Boss the way he did when Krem called him Captain. Del always played favorites with the human. “You go first. I’ll cover you.”

And then any annoyance Krem felt toward the human was once again banished. For all their strangeness, they were one tough species, at least in their own minds. How she thought it was better for her to follow him baffled him. He had an exoskeleton to protect him and strength far superior to anything she could offer. The loss of his weapon was minor compared to the sheer differences in their basic physiology. And yet, if he tried to argue, he’d lose, as he often did, and they’d have wasted precious time. A human was fiercely loyal and brave if nothing else. Crazy and weird, but he’d always pick a team with a human over one without.

“Did my group make it to Del?” he asked as he followed the path back to the ship. The scavengers were still a little too far away to be a problem, yet.

“Safe and sound last I saw them. Nearly there when your signal finally got through.”

“You shouldn’t have come back for me. If we both die, then Del has to replace two crew members instead of one for no good reason.”

“Why thank you, Max. I’m so glad you came back for me, Max. I definitely would’ve been blown to smithereens without you, Max.” That she managed to imitate his chittering voice, which had always before seemed to necessitate a large degree of eye rolling on her part, and still fire off a short volley to keep a closing scavenger from taking aim was almost impressive.

“What’s a smithereen?”

“It’s a tiny, insignificant piece of nothingness smaller than a bug. An Earth bug,” she added when he was about to tell her that he was also a bug and quite large in fact. That was a common argument among them. Krem had decided soon after he left the colony that imprecise speech was the bane of other species. Humans were the worst of them all.

“Actually, I would’ve been rather large pieces. Not even a pulse gun would be able to easily shatter my exoskeleton.”

“Chunks then. You would have been blown to chunks.” They paused behind a boulder and Max took careful aim, an easier task for her than him at the moment, and landed a clean headshot to the closest scavenger who crumpled to the ground in a momentum-fueled tumble of death. “Actually, that sounds more like you’re going to throw up, so I’m gonna stick to smithereens.”

Krem wondered if there really was a human idiom to vomiting that resembled her comment, or if she said it merely to irritate him. The Torqu had more than two dozen words and idioms in reference to regurgitation, so she could be telling the truth. If they hadn’t been running for their lives, he might have asked.

As it was, the scavengers were getting closer, and Krem could see the ship in the distance, which meant they were about to lose all cover. A spaceship couldn’t land on rocks or forests. The last two hundred yards were open air and unimpeded line of sight.

Max grinned as they cleared the last of the rocks leading down to the valley the ship rested in. “Damn, I’ve never been so happy to see that squid face.”

“You say that every time we end up running for our lives back to the ship,” Krem corrected.

“Maybe we should stop running for our lives back to the ship so much,” she chided in near breathless huffs as they started the dangerous descent into the valley.

Del stood ready at the rear cargo bay with a rifle that looked like it belonged to something much bigger and taller than Del himself. He didn’t actually have a squid face, or at least, not that Krem could see when Max had shown him images of one for comparison.

He supposed the shape of the head could loosely be considered similar to the conical squid, though Del was far broader in the face and his eyes were closer together, more like Max’s own. Krem figured it was actually the bio-luminescent gel he sweat that gave her the idea. With it, his skin produced a sheen and often changed color depending on how much he secreted. At the moment, the spots on Del’s forehead glowed bright blue, and his skin was a murky grey that almost matched the outer hull of the ship.

“Hurry up!” Del shouted, though Krem could barely hear it over the thwump of the rifle expelling ammunition at a rate more suitable for a small machine gun. He could feel the air displacing next to him as bullets whizzed by in a protective cover fire. Krem would have to find out what gun that was and if they produced a model for Torqu.

The cover fire did its job, and Krem and Max were within yards of the ship when Del finally had to pause to reload. Only a few seconds to change clips, only a few seconds to get inside. It took only two seconds for Max to barrel into Krem from the side and for the vibrations of cracking armor to reach him. Max’s eyes lost focus and a warm liquid began to drip from under her chest plate in a steady stream Krem was certain she couldn’t maintain for long.

The cover fire resumed, and lacking Max’s usual banter at shrugging off a wound, Krem lifted her—cradling her in his four arms—and rushed them both inside. The sound of the engines accelerating drowned out the sound of gunfire. Krem rushed her through the crimson halls of the ship. He’d been told that shortly after joining the crew Max had painted the halls in each section a different color to brighten the mood, with Del’s permission of course. Krem thought it must have been a waste of time, but Del seemed to find it amusing and argued that Torqu had no sense of aesthetics. His tastes aside, Krem didn’t like how the floor was quickly matching the bright red walls that led to the spare cargo hold they’d turned into an infirmary for the survivors. Max was very quiet.

Max was never quiet.

There was no lack of medical personnel at the moment. They’d brought a whole slew of doctors and medics to look after any injuries the survivors suffered in the crash. Space was another matter. Plenty of people were hurt, and Krem had no idea who was worth interrupting and who needed help as much as Max did. Probably none of them needed it as badly as Max since the worst of the survivors had been taken in first to be treated. Krem decided to focus instead on who could help. Not every doctor knew how to treat humans, and Krem didn’t see any other humans among the survivors. That made his decision much simpler.

Krem scurried through the crowd of beds and wandering people to find the one doctor he knew could treat humans. Sovad— her full name being so unpronounceable to Torqu tongues that the translator sputtered only a handful of garbled syllables that ultimately became Sovad—was their ship’s full-time medic. Given the jobs Del took, she was well utilized and probably the highest paid member of the crew.

With more care than finesse, Krem snatched up the woman sitting on a table in front of Sovad with two claws and deposited Max in her place with the other two. The woman gave Krem an indignant expression that didn’t make him feel bad for interrupting.

“Shit,” Sovad said. Well, that wasn’t exactly what she said. As with her name, certain words simply couldn’t be translated from her language, and obscenities tended to be high on the list. But Krem had been with the crew long enough to identify each of them, and tone of voice allowed him to figure out the rest.

Sovad reached for a tray behind her, one eye turning to identify whatever medical instrument she needed, while the rest of her arms began the process of removing Max’s blue and red blood-soaked armor. In all truth, Sovad resembled the squid Max had shown him far more than Del, though mostly from the number of appendages. Beyond that, the similarities ended. Sovad wasn’t bipedal as most other species were, instead sliding along a rotating set of legs beneath her, which were usually kept hidden to give the illusion she floated everywhere she went. Six tentacle-like arms encircled her body, allowing complete range of motion, and, Krem supposed, necessitating the evolution of her eight eyes, placed equidistant in her pudgy purple head. Their ability to multitask so efficiently made them excellent doctors, administrators, and surprisingly often, spies.

A tentacle arm grabbed a large clear cylinder full of small white puffs that she inserted into the bullet wound all at once. Free of the cylinder, the white puffs immediately sucked up the gushing blood and sealed the hole in the process.

“Now that she won’t bleed to death, let’s take a look at the damage.” Sovad stripped Max’s clothes from her torso more thoroughly to expose the full extent of the injury. It was surprisingly small for how much blood she’d lost.

“Humans are fragile,” Krem remarked, not pleased to be right. “A tiny wound can kill them.”

Sovad shook an unoccupied tentacle in his direction while two others prepared a strange reddish-yellow fluid in a large, bone-boring needle. Two more limbs removed Max’s boots and started scraping flakes of skin from the bottom of her foot onto small, clear dish. “Fragile, yes, but easily fixed. Unlike you, their flesh knits back together. Her worst danger was from the blood loss, and that can be taken care of.”

She slammed the needle deep into Max’s leg with amazing casualness, and Krem could hear the sound of bone being struck. She injected the liquid and pulled the needle free with a soft pop. “Stimulates the bone marrow to create blood,” she explained. “Now to repair the wound, so she doesn’t bleed all that new blood out.”

Tentacles swam in a flurry of motion. The wound was unpacked of the now red blobs of fluff, then sutures flew to stem the bubbling stream of unpressured blood. All the while, a thin mesh netting was measured and cut, and the scrapings from Max’s foot were combined with a clear solution and loaded into what looked like a motorized spray bottle.

Once the wound was cleaned and only oozing blood rather than gushing it, Sovad pasted the mesh over the open hole and began spraying the clear compound from the bottle she’d prepared. Nothing seemed to be happening other than the mesh and wound were quickly being drenched. After a moment, she stopped and placed a clean bandage over everything.

“So easy to mend,” she repeated, noting Krem’s concern with an unoccupied eye. “The solution is a mix of her skin cells and a chemical that creates rapid cellular replication.  In two days, new skin will have formed over the mesh and, by the end of the week, the mesh will have dissolved into the body, leaving her with a small square scar and little worse for wear. That same wound on you would have been much more bothersome to repair. Why, you’d practically need an entirely new thorax plate.”

Krem relaxed against the edge of the bed. He and Max didn’t fully understand one another, but she was a fine companion, and he hadn’t enjoyed the idea that she might have died, especially to save his life. That wasn’t supposed to be how a colony worked. Drones like him were replaceable. Max was also a drone, but that meant they didn’t need to save him, not that another drone should die instead.

Sovad injected a blue liquid into Max’s thigh, and the human began to rouse unhappily, which seemed to please the little purple alien. “If she’s able to wake up, the blood loss is being mitigated properly. I’ve given her something for the pain, so don’t take much of what she says as coherent. Call for me if she starts to fall asleep again.”

“Where are you going?” Krem asked. He was not a medical professional. How could he properly watch Max for complications?

Sovad managed to narrow all her visible eyes at him. “If you haven’t noticed we have quite a few more people to patch up than usual. Now just talk to her until I get back.”

And with that Krem was alone in a room full of people, staring at a human who, upon opening her eyes, proceeded to fall into a fit of giggles. This was not the normal laughter he was accustomed to hearing from Max, or even her drunken guffaw. No, this was a high-pitched snickering that seemed to be caught in her throat and which she attempted to expel in short bursts, as though she’d drank in laughter the wrong way.


“You’re an ant!” she sputtered between fits of laughter, which were growing in volume the longer they lasted.

Krem sighed and accepted the fact Sovad was correct: Max would be fine. It wasn’t the first time she’d compared him to the human’s bug. During their conversations about Del and Sovad, Krem’s own resemblance had not been overlooked, though she didn’t find it quite this humorous last time.

“A giant ant,” she continued, daunted only by the need to breathe and Krem’s steady grip when she started to roll toward the edge of the bed. Pain certainly wasn’t a pressing concern to her. “Don’t you get it! You could squash a human like a bug, but you’re the bug!”

“Wouldn’t it be I could squash you like a human, then?” Krem asked, indulging her drug-induced hysteria as best he could. He wondered if there were any cameras recording this right now. Depending on what she said, it might be useful blackmail material later on. That the Torqu did, in fact, have a saying similar to that—as easy to crush as a mammal—was beside the point.

Max’s bright eyes widened as her muddled thoughts grasped at the idea. “No wonder humans don’t like Torqu. You make us bugs.”

Krem used a free claw to pat Max’s forehead in a way he had seen her comfort squishy children. Since most aliens were squishy compared to Torqu, this seemed like an appropriate action. At least the giggling had died down. “Don’t worry, I don’t think I’ll squash you anytime soon.”

Max grabbed at the claw on her head, missed, and somehow managed to finagle his only free arm, the lower left one that didn’t want to bend quite the way she forced it, to a position cradled between her arms and her chest. She was extra squishy there, which unnerved him until he felt the hard bone of her sternum and reminded himself he wouldn’t actually crush her easily.

“You won’t squash me,” she proclaimed as her eyes closed. “We’re family by now . . . no, colony. I’m part of your colony, so we take care of each other.”

Krem blinked. Was that why she’d come back for him? Krem was so taken aback that he didn’t even bother to fight the stranglehold she now had on his arm as she rolled onto her uninjured side as if falling asleep. Drones took care of their colony, but he’d never heard a Torqu refer to anything as colony except the actual colony one was born to. It was a place, a state of purpose, it wasn’t the “family” she so often talked about. Not people but the community. Yet, his willingness to die today wouldn’t have helped his home colony at all, only the ship and these people, like Max. Perhaps the aliens were rubbing off on him. It was almost nice to think of them as colony, in a way. Not that he’d tell any of them that.

Krem was so flustered he almost forgot not to let her fall asleep. He tugged enough on his trapped claw to make her blink awake again. “Why don’t you tell me more about these ants,” he said, floundering for a topic that would keep her distracted attention.

“Ants are boring,” she concluded, as though she hadn’t just spent several minutes laughing hysterically over them.

“Then tell me something else about your planet. It’s called Dirt or something, right?”

Earth,” she said with the same drawn-out tone of one insulted. “Dirt’s just dirt.”

He didn’t really see the distinction, but that may have been a translation issue. “All right, tell me about Earth.”

“Earth is,” she paused, her eyes going unfocused in a way that made him look around for Sovad before Max finally spoke again and calmed him. “Home. Beautiful from space, all blues and whites and greens and browns and at night the lights all look like spiderwebs crisscrossing the continents.” She splayed her fingers out wide in a mimic of an explosion. “Gravity’s not as strong there as most ships or planets. Not a lot, but enough that you feel lighter when you walk. Just a little.”

Well, he certainly got her talking. Krem released his hold on her shoulders now that she seemed calmer, but allowed her to keep a grip on the claw she clutched. “You should be exceptionally strong there, then, since you’re used to working in higher gravity.”

“Yeah, but it’s like taking a weight off. You can breathe there. It’s so easy. No fighting, no one needing rescuing. I can relax. God, I miss it.”

An itch formed in the back of his mind. As Krem didn’t have skin to itch, this was quite the feat, but the sensation caused by her words definitely felt like what Max and Del referred to as an itch: a slight, annoying discomfort that if you could touch would be resolved. Her words made him itch because he was certain he’d heard something similar before. “I thought you enjoyed the adventure.”

“Sure, sure,” she dismissed with a bob of her head that kept bobbing for near a minute after before she continued. “But it’s nice to just breathe. I miss that. I miss Earth. It’d be nice to go back. I could show you ants.”

That itch became a punch, quietly bashing the back of his exoskeleton. He had heard someone say that.

Before he could process all that connection meant, Sovad reappeared with Del close behind. Their captain smiled broadly, showcasing several rows of sharp teeth in the process. “Our human’s going to make it then?” he said, obviously continuing a conversation Krem hadn’t heard.

“Oh yes,” Sovad detached Krem’s arm from Max, and tentacles began pawing over her body again. Max swatted at the invading appendages in bewildered annoyance. “Her color’s improving, a sign the marrow injection is working well. I’ll watch her for a few days, but I don’t foresee any issues. She’ll be good as new in a week.”

Krem didn’t agree but stayed quiet. This wasn’t the time or place to speak. “Capt— Del,” he corrected the slip, the seriousness of his concerns dropping him back into Torqu standards. “When you’re free, I’d like to speak with you.”

Krem could see the instinct for Del to ask what was wrong crossing his face, but after a quick look around at the crowded room of strangers, he resisted. “If Sovad doesn’t need me here, we can talk now.”

Sovad waved them away without a word as she injected something blue into Max and the human relaxed, though she didn’t fall asleep.

Del led him out of the cargo bay and through the yellow halls—painted to remind Max of the sun, which was yellow in her solar system—to his cabin. Del was a collector of sorts and decorating his small walls were trinkets from every race that he employed on his crew. He’d asked each of them when they joined to bring him a souvenir from their homeworld. Krem had brought a piece of his first exoskeleton, which caretakers shattered and made into decorative items for those close to the child. Krem had plenty, and it seemed a good enough choice as it was unique to his species and unobtrusive. His were carved into small oval decorations that could be hung.

Max had brought him a strange plush-filled toy of indeterminate species. It wasn’t human, but had two arms and two legs and a humanoid head. The ears were big and black and round on the top of the head and a more rodent-like nose popped from its face. For some reason, it wore red shorts. Max had called it a mascot for Earth. Krem never understood why a mascot was not human, but then he didn’t quite understand what a mascot was either.

Del sat down on his bunk, allowing Krem the only chair in the room. “What’s going on? Are you mad I let Max go back for you? I know you consider it a waste to risk her, but now I don’t have to hire anyone new.”

Indeed, that was an appropriate thing to be upset by, but Krem shook his head. “You’ll still need to hire one soon.”

Del leaned back, his skin flushing a bright blue. “You can’t be that mad. She saved your life.”

“Max is . . .” Krem paused. He knew this word. He’d learned it from the human on his last ship. “Home injured. No, that wasn’t the word. It was like that, but not exactly. Injured, harmed, ill . . .”

“Homesick?” Del suggested.

“Yes, that’s it. She’s homesick. That’s what happened to the human on my last ship. He got homesick, then very sad, then he wasn’t able to work anymore. My previous captain said humans are only tough because they think they are, but they can’t keep it up. It’s only a matter of time now until Max wears down and will leave. It’s unfortunate, but you should know.”

Del sat up straighter. “Let me guess, your last captain was Torqu, wasn’t he?”

“No, Flerian.”

“They’re insectoid, too. All you colony creatures are ready to get rid of your lowly members when things get rough.” Del’s reaction wasn’t what Krem expected, so he stayed quiet. “Krem, I’m glad you told me, but I’ve been working with humans since my people first brought them out to space. I have two hundred years’ worth of experience on fixing humans who tire out.”

That punching Krem had felt talking to Max suddenly stopped.  Was there a way to stop the sickness? “You can fix her?”

Del grinned and his skin flushed an iridescent green. “My old captain figured it out, and it’s worked for every human I’ve hired. Once we drop the survivors off, we’re going to head to Deph Port. I should be able to get what I need there.”

“And the homesickness will end? She won’t want to leave the ship?” Krem surprised himself with how pleased he was with that idea. He’d gotten used to her, even if he didn’t always understand her. Perhaps Max wasn’t so far off when she said they were colony.

“If she’s like the other humans, she’ll be fine.”

Krem stared at the thing in the box Del held and backed away two steps. Then another for good measure. “You bought her vermin? That’s what’s going to cure her?”

The creature in the box lolled a long, pink tongue from its maw, a claw-sized opening lined with sharp white teeth that would only grow bigger as it aged. Bright red fur covered the thing from head to inexplicably bushy tail, which flopped back and forth in soft thumps against the sides of the box. It reared three of its six legs to curl over the edge of the box and look out at the people watching it. In an annoyingly pitched voice, the creature yipped, and the sound vibrated uncomfortably against Krem’s skin.

A raok. Of all the things Krem imagined Del would get to cure Max’s homesickness, a raok was not on the list. They were infestations. Born small enough to crawl into ducts and passages too tight to easily remove them from, often clogging vital equipment, and once grown they were large enough to rip an arm off. Older ones even ran in groups that could menace an entire station if not killed. Why would anyone willingly bring a raok on board a ship?

Del grinned an effervescent smile that said he’d expected such a reaction. “Raoks may be vermin to you and me—”

“And every sentient species.”

“But,” Del continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “to a human, raoks are adorable. They have similar creatures on their world, which they emotionally bond with. They call them pets. A human with a pet is much more mentally stable than one without. It does something to their brain chemistry. Makes them happy. My people have been studying the effects for a while, but they’ve yet to find another species who manages it.”

“It’s vermin,” Krem repeated. “Do you know how big it’s going to get? We’re going to have to live with that.”

“I know, but you haven’t seen a trained one before.”

“You can’t train a raok. They’re beasts.” As if to prove a point, the little raok snapped its needle-sharp teeth into the edge of the box and took a chunk off to chew.

“Humans can, and one of these trained is a huge asset. Trust me.”

Del carefully pushed the raok back into the box and put a lid on it, the notch made by its teeth acting as an air hole, not that the vermin would die without it. Raok would be the last creature still alive when the universe collapsed. Krem thought they’d go deliver this “gift” to Max right away, but Del grabbed a length of red fabric, stripped thin from what might have been a shirt at one point and tied it around the box and lid. He did the same with a length of green wire that looked to have been salvaged from a broken conduit Krem had seen in the blue hall—blue, to remind Max of the ocean. Krem’s planet didn’t have oceans, so the nostalgia was lost on him.

“Why are you tying up the box if you’re going to give it to Max? She’ll have to untie it.”

Del waved him off. “It’s a human thing. Trust me, she’ll like it.”

With a box that was entirely too tied up for something that was going to be opened, Del headed down the orange hall—orange because nothing rhymes with orange, though Krem knew several in his own tongue that did—to the crew quarters where Max had been recuperating. She hadn’t left it for long since being shot, which was odd for her. If the raok didn’t cure her, Krem feared the homesickness would become too much. He didn’t think a human could die from it, but he’d never met a human who’d recovered before.

Max stretched as she got out of bed, rotating her nearly healed shoulder several times before approaching. “Boss, Krem, what’s with the box?”

Del held it out. “We haven’t given you a gift for your winter solstice holiday yet this year. I know how important celebrating that is to humans.”

Max gave them a look that said Del hadn’t gotten that one right, but she didn’t have the heart to contradict him. Krem got that look a lot, so he knew it well. “Thanks, but you didn’t need to go to all that trouble.” She fingered the green wire tie. “Really, you didn’t.”

The box shook in her hands, and Max’s curiosity quickly grew. She set it down, retrieving a knife to cut the wire and cloth ties around it, and lifted the lid with cautious interest. The raok’s head popped up out of the box before the lid fully raised, pushing it out of her hands to topple to the floor with an ease that warned of its full-grown strength. That thing was going to terrorize the ship.

“It’s a raok,” Del explained.

Looking at Max’s face, one would have thought she’d just seen her god sitting in a cardboard box. She slipped her hands under the raok’s first two legs and lifted the creature into the air above her. When she spoke, her voice raised two octaves from her natural speaking voice. “Look at you! Aren’t you just the fluffiest little guy in the galaxy.” Max brought the vermin down to her face and buried it in the raok’s all-too-hairy belly. Its four remaining legs tried to use her head to find purchase, one tearing the skin of her cheek with its claws, but Max appeared oblivious. “Yes, you are the fluffiest. Yes, you are.”

Beside Krem, Del smirked a self-satisfied expression that said this was exactly the reaction he’d expected.

“You like that thing?” Krem asked. He had to. It simply made no sense how she could enjoy holding the fur-covered creature that much.

“Of course,” Max replied, not noticing his skepticism. “Thank you, Del. He’s absolutely wonderful. Is it a he or a she?”

Max promptly switched her attention, dropping back onto her bed with the raok cradled in one arm as the other brought out her datapad for her to look up what a raok was. The position was quite a feat actually, as she somehow managed to tilt the raok, which filled her arm fully, into the crook of her elbow as her hand held it securely by the back two legs. He’d never seen a raok held in such a vulnerable position without it immediately ripping off the offending arm.

“It looks like you’re a boy after all,” she cooed, using her free hand to scratch the raok’s neck. It twisted enough to bite her hand, and she laughed. She laughed. “Oh, you have sharp little teeth, don’t you? And you’re supposed to get big, too. I think I’ll train you to go out and work with me. I bet a lot of people would think twice about attacking with you there. Yes, they would. Yes, they would.”

Her voice devolved into a cooing drivel of words so incoherent Krem’s translator failed to find any meaning in them at all. He’d thought it before, but his suspicions were renewed: humans were the weirdest species he’d ever met. But beneath the rather creepy way she coddled the beast in her arms as if it were a child to fuss over, Krem had heard the important part of what she’d said. Max did not say she wanted to take it home to Earth. Max would train it to work with her. Unnerving or not, that was a good thing to hear.

“Just keep it away from me until you can control it,” Krem said.

“What,” Max drawled out in her more normal voice, “don’t you think he’s cute?” She held him out and Krem took a step back. That only made her laugh. “Well, I think he’s cute. He’s so soft and fluffy. I think I’ll name him Commodore McFlufferton.”

“Commodore McFlufferton?”

Del burst out in a heavy guffaw that usually ended arguments before they began. “He’s all yours, name him whatever you want.”

And it was then Krem realized that the vermin was going to be the only member of the crew he’d actually be allowed to call by rank, and, probably intentionally, she’d made him outrank even Del.

About the Author

S. L. Scott

S. L. Scott

S. L. Scott is a digital archivist and content writer with a Master’s degree in Professional Writing and Publishing. She has been published in magazines such as Bewildering Stories and Wild Musette, as well as several anthologies, including, Gothic Fantasy: Agents & Spies, Mirrors & Thorns, and Eyes that Pour Forth and Other Stories. Currently, she writes about the craft of world-building in her blog, Woman in the Red Room.

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S. L. Scott

About the Narrator

Eric Luke

Eric Luke is the screenwriter of the Joe Dante film EXPLORERS, which is currently in development as a remake, the comic books GHOST and WONDER WOMAN, and wrote and directed the NOT QUITE HUMAN films for Disney TV.  His current project INTERFERENCE, a meta horror audiobook about an audiobook… that kills, is a best seller on

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