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She nodded a vague good-bye and waved her hand in the general neighborhood of her forehead. Ship captains are supposed to exchange full salutes after talking to each other… even if one of you is only a lowly acting captain. I guess Prope couldn’t bring herself to give me a real salute, seeing as I was only an Explorer.

Lots of regular navy people are embarrassed by Explorers. Or scared of them. Even fake Explorers like me. Everybody knows Explorers aren’t normal.

Before I could show Prope what a real salute looked like, she cut her end of the connection. I saluted anyway, to the blank screen. As long as I was sort of a kind of a captain, I wanted to do the right thing.



Fifteen minutes later I sat at the transport bay’s control console, watching two Explorers float weightless outside the ship. These were real Explorers, not just fakes like me. Their suits were as glinty white as washed stucco, with cords of black piping along the sleeves and pant legs. As they drew close to Willow, little jets puffed out from their hips and shoulders to slow their approach.

From my point of view, the two people looked like they were completely upside down: flying along with their feet poking up in the air, because that was the angle they’d happened to come in on. But as soon as they touched the ship’s hull, they grabbed the handbar railings that surrounded the airlock entrance and pulled themselves right way up. I’d already told the ship-soul to open the outer hatch, so they slipped straight inside.

It took a minute for the airlock to cycle — and that minute felt like forever, I was so eager to see people again. These two were both humans, I could tell that from the shape of their outfits… but looking at their tinted visors and their lumpy tightsuits (with pockets and pouches and electronic attachments front and back) I couldn’t tell if the Explorers were young or old, male or female, bulky or slim. They hadn’t talked to me by radio either; there’d been no need, and Explorers aren’t the sort to chat for the sake of chatting. Not to strangers, anyway.

Finally, the inside airlock door opened and the two Explorers stepped out. A big thick observation window separated me from the transport bay, but I banged on the glass and waved. After a few seconds staring at me, both Explorers waved back. Pretty halfhearted waves, if you ask me.

"York?" a growly man’s voice asked. The Explorers had patched their helmet radios into Willow’s speaker system. "The name’s Tobit — Phylar Tobit." One of the white-suited figures gave a slight bow. "And my know-nothing greenhorn partner is Benny Dade." "Benjamin!" the other snapped in a peevish high-pitched voice. "But everybody just calls me Dade."

Tobit gave a loud snort. "Dade? Who the hell calls you Dade? Everyone I know calls you the Sissy-boy Whiner… but I thought I’d be polite in front of company."

Dade (or Benny or Benjamin) gave a hissy sniff that may or may not have been good-natured. I tried to keep a straight face. Explorers make a point of never addressing each other by title — it’s tradition. But without titles to go by, the young cadets sometimes get hung up on what they should or shouldn’t be called. Carefully I said, "Hello, Tobit. And, um, Benjamin. Welcome aboard the Willow."

"Yeah, yeah, swell," Tobit answered, waving his arm dismissively. I tried to lock down in my head which Explorer was which, but knew I’d get mixed up as soon as they started moving. The two tightsuits looked exactly like each other on the outside, no names or insignia or anything.

"So what do you want to do first?" I called down. "Would you like a tour?"

"We’re supposed to follow a specific search pattern," Benjamin replied, still a bit miffed and huffy. "You’re an Explorer, aren’t you, York? You should know there are procedures for this sort of thing."

His voice sounded as young as wet paint. All full-fledged Explorers had to be at least twenty-two, but I didn’t think the boy could possibly be that old. It made me feel dry-dust ancient, the way I kept coming across recruits who were practically babies. "All right," I told him, "you do what you have to do. I’ll tag along and watch."

"Yeah," Tobit muttered, "we love spectators." The tint on his visor had started to fade now that he was inside the ship; I could see his eyes, puffy and a little bloodshot. He stared at me a moment longer, then said, "Oh all right, you can come along. Professional courtesy to a fellow Explorer. Although if I were you, I’d just mix myself a drink and let other people do the work. You’ve been sick, haven’t you?"

"I’m fine now," I told him. Then I whispered, "You know there isn’t really a disease, right? Everyone at the starbase is just pretending."

He made a phlegmy noise in his throat, then said, "If everyone else is pretending, pal, I wouldn’t want to be the odd man out. The Admiralty High Council are rabid old bastards on the subject of solidarity."

Benjamin looked at him in surprise. Before the boy could speak, Tobit went on quickly, "Okay, time to get our asses in gear. We got some damned important standard procedures to follow." He belched loudly, then headed for the door.

It was too bad the Explorers couldn’t take off their tight-suits. As it was, I still felt kind of alone, even with them walking right beside me. They were all bundled up so I couldn’t see more than their eyes, and their voices came from the ship’s overhead speakers instead of from the people themselves.

Not that they talked to me much; Explorers really focus on their jobs. From the moment they left the transport bay, Tobit and Benjamin were so busy giving their home ship a running commentary of what they saw, they scarcely tossed a word in my direction. I tagged behind like baggage, through machinery rooms with automatic systems doing automatic things… till we got to the hold.

When Benjamin saw the queen he nearly jumped out of his suit. "Shit!" he squeaked. "I mean, shoot! Look at the size of that thing! I had no idea they were that big!"

Tobit didn’t take his eyes off the queen’s corpse, but he gave a deep sigh. "Benny. Buddy. My dear bright spark. Didn’t you study the goddamned Mandasar castes in Explorer Academy?"

"Yeah, sure," Benjamin answered, "but it’s one thing to watch them on chip and another to see one up close."

"Christ on a crutch," Tobit muttered. "If you don’t have enough imagination to learn from normal pictures, run yourself a VR sim. The first time you meet a real alien in the flesh, I don’t want my partner gibbering, ‘Mercy me, look at the size of that thing!’ "

Benjamin mumbled something I couldn’t make out. If Tobit had belonged to any other branch of the navy, he’d yell, "What was that, mister?" then shout in the boy’s face for ten minutes about subordinates keeping their mouths to themselves. But Explorers hated acting authoritarian, especially if it meant browbeating their partners. Instead, Tobit turned to me. "What’s with the defense clouds around the venom sacs?"

"Oh those. Um." I dropped my gaze. "The ship had uninvited nanites show up a few days ago…"

"What?" Tobit snapped. "No one told us about nanites."

"The folks at Starbase Iris never let me get that far," I answered. "As soon as I reported the whole crew dying, they just stopped talking to me. When I tried to tell them other stuff, they cut me off sharp."

"Bloody hell. Those morons at Iris have their heads up their candy-coated asses." Tobit took a deep breath. "All right, York, we’re listening now. Tell us everything. The truth, not what you think we want to hear."