The Mind, Like a Stone in an Ocean

When I start working on a roleplaying game, I will often write some short fiction so know what it’s supposed to feel like when we’re playing — what sort of ethical questions lie at the heart of the setting, what kind of things matter, what the parameters are on the plausible actions of the characters.

I didn’t do that when I started working on Eyes Wide to the Stars and I got stuck, realizing that I didn’t fully understand the way that antagonists work, and therefore how to resource the players who portrayed them. So I started writing this vignette about a fugitive on the run from an unjust government that trades in slaves and the realization that one has been the beneficiary of such a system and is only now considering it an injustice.

Then I wrapped it all in weird aliens, funny robots, psychic powers, vivid descriptions of food, and giant spaceships festooned with livery of such brightness that it would threaten to make one color blind.

Hey, help me make up more weird shit by supporting the xenoglyph Patreon!

Gribus held her head low, her back to the underside of the bar. Above her head just a meter away, patrons spoke loudly in a thousand tongues while a few spoke with different organs altogether. The air was as thick with thumping music as it was with the intoxicating smoke of Poobash. Just on the other side of the wood-veneered duraluminum, a swaggering Kantarian pilot bragged and flirted with a Zoda, who chirped the occasional chord of distant encouragement from their syrinces while draining their drink through their proboscis. Try as she might to listen for her pursuers, she could only hear the Kantar telling questionable tales to his partner who, to Gribus’ surprise and relief, invited him to their berth in their freighter with their podmates.

“Chaka sungu,” she muttered to herself, finally able to listen intently past the sounds. But now, her eye caught on the last thing she’d hoped to see, hiding here on the floor behind a bar: eyes looking back. The bartender, emerging from a hatch in the floor with a crate of supplies, looked at Gribus with a moment of possessive anger that quickly melted to concern when he saw the look on her face — the hair plastered to her forehead with sweat, the torn prisoner’s jumpsuit, the brown skin drained grey with fear and exhaustion. With a subtle nod, he finished climbing the stairs with his crate, stood to smile at a customer, wiped his hands on his apron, and took their order as though there were not a single fugitive behind the bar with him.

She watched from her spot, plastered to the floor as he walked away to the other end of the bar where he picked up a bottle of pressurized Orun gas and an apron, then walked toward Gribus to pick up a bottle of Lizard Tears as a mixer, dropping the apron across her knees as he did so.

When she didn’t pick it up, he nudged it gently with his foot, and, understanding, she wriggled into it, unzipping the top of her jumpsuit and tying the sleeves around her waist.  She rummaged in its pockets, finding a piece of string to tie back her hair along with a sonic corkscrew and a data pad holding a drink order. She scuttled under the bartender’s legs toward the hatch, checked her hair one last time, put on a false smile, and stood as though emerging from the storage hatch.

The club looked like it had when she’d first ducked behind the bar, only moreso. In the last few minutes, the crowd had thickened. Nearby, she noticed the smuggler Rur Shatan and a colleague dancing with a Confederate Navy officer on shore leave, the two likely sizing up the officer for a mark. A being who looked like nothing so much as a giant, glistening pickle stood, pulsing like a swallowing throat to the beat of the music. And, near the door, she saw through a brief break in the crowd the three Confederate Secret Police who were her captors just a half hour before dumb luck had given her reason to make a break for it. 

But what she felt when she saw their faces was not the fear she expected. Instead, the police’s head seemed to fold out of itself; the face and eyes and ears rolling away into a spot between the skull, and what emerged were the thoughts of the police: a fear of reprimand; anger at Gribus for putting them in such a position; the need to find Gribus before the Confederate Bloodhount, Enshul Mas, arrived to claim jurisdiction for an escaped Xenopsychometer named Saenz Gribus.

They thought she was a Xenopsych? Who could guided ships through hyperspace? But she was no psychometer. She was a thief, smuggled into Akaii Station aboard a tramp freighter as part of Bolan’s now-failed scheme to divert a shipment of star diamonds. That’s why she’d been caught. She’d been abandoned here two days ago with no way to get back off the station. She…

It slowly dawned on he what she’d just seen. She’d seen into the secret police’s mind

And that dawning showed her that it had been no dumb luck that had freed her. When she’d been collared and booked by the station patrol, they’d taken her name (fake, of course, with the forged documents to aid) and handed her to a Confederate Marshall — an imposing individual in his sleek, dark uniform bearing only the symbol of the Southern Arm Confederacy. Attendants had locked her into a complex, mechanical chair, sensors attached to her head while a bored technician asked her droning, meaningless questions. And then… she had risen from the interrogator machine while her interrogators calmly loosed her bindings, then looked on impassively. She had walked out. The attendants’ eyes had been seeing but incurious, as she walked the direction she knew to walk. Once outside the constabulary, her calm she had been feeling became the sudden impulse to run.

She’d rounded the corner to see a surprised station cop drawing his blaster on her — his uniform was not Confederate, just a local rookie she’d seen once or twice, but she didn’t want to be shot by anyone. Just as her shock had resolved into a desperate need to get the blaster away from him, the cop’s eyes took on the same glazed, incurious look and he handed her his square service blaster. She had taken it with a confidence that only now struck her as peculiar. The guard calmly walked past her into the corridor, and pointed the opposite direction from her. “She went that way, “ he said in a deadened voice to the pursuing Confederate Secret Police. She ran, holding the blaster like the baton of a relay runner.

Around a second corner had come running another pursuer, this one with no uniform at all, but carrying a Confederate-issued blaster, same as the Marshall who had captured Gribus. She had a grizzled and resolute face, a long-ago broken nose, and wore a filthy teal space suit with no helmet or life support.

The two dove under cover of office chairs and a communication console and fired, bolts punching thumb-sized holes into the smooth, institutional white walls and passing harmlessly through the casing of a cube-shaped office robot who immediately tested the listed specifications of its top speed. Gribus had run, ducking behind the robot as it said in a voice only faintly tinged with panic, “Please do not run in the corridor. Please do not run in the corridor.”

No further shots had come, though Gribus could hear voices shouting from behind.

The corridor ended at a sliding transparent door, and the robot paused, unable or unwilling to exit the police station. On the other side bustled the populace of the station. Merchants and tramp freighter captains making deals to transport goods legal and contraband. Xenopsychs, recognizable by the brand on their foreheads, taking time off from their conscripted labors to spend their meager savings gambling. Asteroid prospectors, carrying their certified commodity tablets to trade in the market. Most were human, but there, standing two meters tall and encased in a space suit, undulated a giant slug using four slender robotic arms to exchange an attaché for a lock box the size of her forearm.

Gribus had seen the weapon sensors array around the door. She shoved the blaster into a receptacle on the robot and said, “Off you go!” allowing it past her to continue its duties. Walking through the door and the river of sophonts, she’d ducked into bustling bar across the corridor.

And now, wearing an apron, she found herself taking an order from a bearded prospector, still wearing much of their space suit, their visor thrown back to reveal their unpleasant features.

The Confederate secret police received a message on their communicators. They briefly conferred with each other, then departed.

The bartender, standing close to pull a Melodic Wheat beer from the tap, asked her quietly, “What was that about?”

“I wish I could tell you,” answered Gribus in a barely voiced whisper as she pulled a draught from the tap in the same way as the bartender had, sliding it to the prospector who, she now realized, had thought he’d been making his features more attractive. The effect had been small, but distasteful.

“Suit yourself,” said the bartender passing by as Gribus took an order from the pickle who’d been dancing earlier and now steamed a pungent, alcohol vapor to cool down. “But you gotta go if you make my bar unsafe and don’t tell me why I should help you get away.”

Gribus finished ionizing the alcohol-water mixture that the pickle had ordered and handed it to the pickle’s prosthetic manipulator of the same sort used by the slug she’d seen earlier. The pickle picked it up to the top of its head, which opened like a flower to sip from the straw while it leaned against the bar and watched the dancers with the eyes on the other side of its body.

“End of this shift, OK?” Gribus said to the barkeep.

“Either that or be gone before it gets here,” he said back.

An hour passed while Gribus served drinks. Most were simple: Melodic Wheat beer. Alcohol/water mixtures. She listened to an incoherent tale for a moment. Served a bong of Poobash to a pair of ship owners who had just made a deal for the exchange of a xenopsychometer for a share in a lexium refinery. For the drinks or  with names, she passed them on to the bartender.

But now, on the dance floor, she saw the same stern face she’d seen in the corridor, whose eyes had wished death on her. The teal space suit had been exchanged for an ill-fitting orange emergency escape suit. The eyes locked and the face approached with intent.

Gribus stood, paralyzed. She told herself to stay calm, that this bounty hunter, or whatever she was, wouldn’t dare make a move in this crowded environment. And, in any event, things would be alright soon. “I should stand here,” she thought.

There was a beat before she thought, “Why should I stand here?” And then the hunter was there, looking her in the eye.

“What, ah, can I get you?” asked Gribus, unable to ask anything more complex.

The hunter’s gaze softened a bit. “I’ve had a hell of a day,” she said. “How’s yours been?”

The unpleasant prospector — who had, Gribus realized, never left — slid closer, and said, “Excuse me, I was speaking with the lady.”

Gribus realized that it was true. She turned to face the prospector. “Excuse me, I have to take this call.”

The prospector held his hands up in drunken, slightly confused submission and withdrew.

Out of the corner of her eye, Gribus saw the bartender shift his attention to them.

“I, uh, ran into some old friends,” stammered Gribus.

“Tell me about it,” said the hunter.

And so, Gribus did. Completely.

“I got stood up by Bolan, the trog-splitter. His crew left me behind with nothing but a handful of hot star diamonds that no fence wants to touch. And while I was trying to figure out how to get out of here with no passage, the cops caught up with me. And then when they arrested me, they handed me over to the Confed Marshall, and his thicknecks jammed me in a torture chair, and then they all, just, backed off? So I ran, and that’s when I saw you, and we shot at each other because I thought you were a bounty hunter or a local plainclothes or something, but now I think you’re not because you changed your space suit to another one that’s a really crappy disguise, but before you got here, two more Confederate agents came in and their heads peeled open and I saw their thoughts, and the bartender here has been covering for me because I think he doesn’t much like the Confederacy either, so I’ve been serving drinks all night and not listening to that really unpleasant prospector until you got here.”

There was a moment before the hunter said, “Me too.”

Gribus said, flatly, “you. What.”

“I’m Ghiarren. I’m mostly not a bounty hunter. But I think we need to leave.”

The unpleasant prospector said, “hey,”

Gribus realized that a ship awaited them. In dock 41. And that, indeed, it was a good time to leave.

She turned to the bartender, who made a shooing motion. “Tell me about it the next time you’re here.”

Gribus handed him the apron and said, “Thank you,” then walked around the bar to Ghiarren and the two walked out past the pickle, again dancing with the crowd, cheering him on as he pumped his three tiny, robotic fists in the air.

***

The two exited the storage room of the bar into the service corridors of the space station. The lighting was harsh and ugly, throwing sharp shadows on the durasteel floor and walls. Neglected and worn equipment lay around the floor with the remains of vacuum crates that had once held expensive alcohol and foods from across the sector. A broken cart leaned where it had been shoved out of frustration. A small, open crate of fruit rested near the door, an apparent recent delivery. A small robot forklift stood nearby with no task to perform.

Gribus pointed: upon a pallet stood a much larger, empty vacuum crate the size of a coffin. Ghiarren nodded. They both slipped inside and pulled the cover over the opening, sealing themselves in with the emergency release. The air was close and smelled like old fruit. Ghiarren’s breath was moist Gribus’ ear and her elbow stuck painfully into her own side. The crate immediately began to warm with their breath.

Where to go from here? Gribus needed a plan that would get them past the Marshall. It seemed like the Confed cops, if they were still interested, would be spread out around the station looking for her — for them. Dock 41 seemed like a good bet.

But it was Ghiarren who spoke first, yelling through the crate. “Robot, take this crate to Dock 41. Take it quickly.”

“ACKNOWLEDGED,” said the robot, its voice, though muffled by the walls of the vacuum crate, was tuned to be heard in noisy environments. “THANK YOU FOR SHIPPING WITH TIME WARP SHIPPING,” it bellowed, “GUARANTEED ON TIME DELIVERY.” The crate lifted smoothly but suddenly, and the two felt an abrupt acceleration as the robot veered through the service corridors of the space station. “Sorry,” she said, her sweaty face pressing into some part of Ghiarren in the deep dark of the crate. Ghiarren said nothing.

Outside, they heard a muffled human voice. “Destination?”

Then the robot’s: “DOCK FORTY-ONE. PRIORITY DELIVERY.”

The human voice shouted in surprise at the force of the robot’s voice and then they felt acceleration again as the human waved the robot through, presumably with some enthusiasm. “THANK YOU FOR SHIPPING WITH TIME WARP SHIPPING, GUARANTEED ON TIME DELIVERY.” Gribus couldn’t make out the curse hurled at the robot.

She shifted her weight onto the other foot, squishing herself ever more into Ghiarren. The air was thick and stiff.

There was a bump as the crate was placed down. A sliding sound as the forklift was removed from the inbuilt pallet. Cautiously, Ghiarren slid the emergency release of the crate open, letting the stale air tumble to the floor as fresh air entered their lungs. They disentangled themselves and stepped out. Indeed, they were inside the bulkhead of airlock 91. Before them rose a ship, its livery goldenrod and aubergine stripes, its sleek carapace speaking speed.

The craft, though, looked like it had been in an accident. Protruding off-center from the rounded bow grew an asymmetrical, crystal-like structure. Its surface was hard to understand; interlocking shapes that seemed not to stand still, nor to move; but the shapes never seemed the same when glimpsed again. It’s angles were regular, if rounded. It seemed a massive, living thing, like vines and crystals at once. Where it met the hull of the ship, the hull was puckered and buckled, but the protrusion itself held it firmly sealed.

The loading door of the craft was open and empty, lit by utility lights. 

Ghiarren asked, “What is this?”

Gribus said, with confidence that came from nowhere inside her, “I don’t know, but we should definitely get aboard. The Confeds are going to be here when they figure out that we were both at the bar.”

Ghiarren nodded agreement and the two entered the craft. Behind them, the loading ramp lifted with a pneumatic sigh and sealed shut.

The cargo lights were an obnoxious, cold color, blanching the life from the two. Ghiarren’s orange space suit looked a sickly brown to Gribus.

The intercom spoke.

“Sophonts, as you might imagine, it is best that we depart with haste. Please come to the cockpit where you may strap yourselves in.”

They looked at each other. Gribus’ eyes narrowed. She knew the voice. Low, but feminine. Urgent, but sounding as thought spoken through a crooked smile. She noticed the same expression of recognition growing on Ghiarren.

“I will light your way,” said the voice on the intercom.

The lights in the cargo bay went out. Only the one above a ladder remained lit. The two climbed four meters up the ladder before stepping off into a corridor. One direction was lit, and they walked into the light of an empty cockpit. There was enough room for three, but no one was in either of the pilot’s seats, nor the navigator’s console. The viewscreen ahead of them showed a dock worker gesturing at the vacuum crate, explaining something to a Confederate agent, who nodded along and appeared to make eye contact with the two before his eyes skated along the rest of the hull.

“Ghiarren,” said the voice over the intercom, “I believe you will be familiar with the controls on this ship. I would ask that you please remove us with some haste.”

Through the viewscreen, the agent was conversing on a wrist communicator. Their addressee, still talking through their own communicator, emerged into the docking bay: the Confederate Marshall with whom Gribus had spent the earlier part of the day. Ghiarren seemed to recognize him, as well, and she sat and buckled into the harness as she looked over the controls, flipping switches to bring systems to life. The engine made a coughing rumble. Gribus felt a slight disorientation as the artificial gravity calibrated. She sat in the second seat and buckled in. The worker in the viewscreen looked alarmed and made for the cargo door, appearing to tell the others that they should do the same.

Instead, another individual strode through the door. They wore a white tabbard over tights, their face hidden by a cowl. They swept back their hood and looked directly through the viewscreen at Gribus, then at Ghiarren. Their skin was hairless, a smooth brown Gribus wanted to the touch. Their eyes were compelling, luminous. On their forehead was the sigil of the xenopsychometer — like any that guided a ship through the web of hyperspace — but this one walked with a back straighter than any she had seen. They kept their eyes raised and even the Confederate Marshall stood back. They were beautiful. They were awesome.

“I think we should surrender,” said Gribus. Then, “No, I don’t!” She shook herself.

A hesitation crossed Gribus’ mind, but when Ghiarren brought the engines up to speed, the rumble that had filled the ship turned to a hum. As the ship rose, they watched the Confederate agents speak into their wrist communicators and retreat behind the blast doors. Ghiarren swiveled the ship in place, lined up with the air shield that separated the atmosphere of the station from the dark of space, and pulled the throttle.

Gribus was pushed back into her seat. She realized that she had unbuckled her safety harness earlier and clipped in back in place.

The air shield of the docking bay squeegeed every last breathable molecule from the surface of the craft and it vaulted into the darkness of space.

“Thank you,” said the relieved voice in the intercom. “I should much prefer to remain out of the hands of such people and I don’t have complete control of the systems of this craft.”

Gribus spoke first. “Who are you?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have a name. Or I don’t know it. I am what has become of the craft that you pilot.”

Ghiarren was the first to break the ensuing silence. “So where are you?”

The voice returned. “I am wedged firmly into the upper hull of this craft, and now, to sustain my existence, integrated delicately into its information systems. My memories are commingled with its logs, but I believe I, ah, this craft, was a Trailblazer called the Winking Tempest, seeking new hyperspace lanes at the extremes of human space. I collided with…myself?”

The voice muttered something, then “I recall both parts of the collision, and it is quite painful. I was Arjal Mujehed, the Trailblazer, and I died in fear. I was this craft, the Winking Tempest. I was Taiuuai Embettaiianiachuatekam, made by the artist Meleuek who…I now understand to be dead for over five million years. And now, we are all dead, all destroyed. And yet, here we remain.”

Ghiarren’s eye had been taken by a blinking light on the console. “I think we might need to step on it,” said Ghiarren matter-of-factly. “Or — does this craft have weapons?”

“It has, but if we cannot make an escape, there is no reason for us to fight,” said the artifact. “I had rather hoped one of you could provide a second eye so we could make our escape through Hyperspace.”

Ghiarren and Gribus looked at each other, both shrugging. “We don’t know how to do that,” said Gribus with a look of concern.

“I will teach you,” said the voice “Sit, and place your hands within the areas marked.”

The consoles showed handprints. The two placed their hands upon them, and Gribus’ eyes were immediately packed with a vision of stars, held together by gossamer webs.

The distance was vague, but around them, nearby — nearby by light years, Gribus realized — was apparent. A dense shimmering appeared around stars. Between them flowed enough tiny lights to make the web they had first seen.

“Each light,” explained the artifact, “I believe to be a beacon, a xenopsychometer, or at least the sapient energies of one. If you look behind us, you will see one quite close.

Gribus turned and looked. Immediately behind (though it took no change in focus) was a light, hard and round. Behind that were glitterings around the station. They each moved like a person. Some walked the habitat ring while others prepared spacecraft for departure. They each had qualities: colors Gribus couldn’t quite name. Shapes that surprised her with geometries she thought impossible. The one directly behind them was a torus, but somehow when she peered into the occulus, she found herself looking again at the outside of the ring, which to her looked like an eye, infinite in depth, focused on her own. She looked away, unsure of how long she had stared at it.

“Let us grasp a location to which me might flee,” said the artifact, its apparent patience unmarred by the approaching pursuer.

Gribus looked around, unsure where to start. Ghiarren broke the brief silence. “Is this Plaskko?” Gribus looked where Ghiarren was looking.

“I can’t go back to Plaskko,” said Gribus unemotionally, “but if I understand what we’re looking at, is this Olumai?”

“It is,” said the artifact.

Through the ship’s communication came an alert: a request to open communications from a ship close behind, signed, Southern Arm Confederate Marshall Kowan Sol.

Ghiarren started a question: “Do y—“ but the ship shook with the concussion of a warning shot.

Together the three reached for the glitter of Olumai and pulled.

The ship dove out of real space into the realm of mind, where space itself bent to thought.

The pursuing occulus behind them fell away like a stone into a well.

***

Gribus removed her hands from the console with a sticky pop. Sweat had provided a suction seal around her palms. “Are we safe?”

Ghiarren removed her hands from the console, as well, looking at her own palms.

“No, but the more we move, the safer we will be,” said the artifact.

Ghiarren then asked the question that struck Gribus at her core: “Is there anything to eat?”

Gribus’ stomach growled. She had begun the day by being arrested. Suffered through hours of being processed, then reprocessed. Escaped, then worked a shift tending bar before escaping again. She had no idea where she was in her circadian rhythm. But it was unquestionably well past lunch.

I wonder what the traditions of hospitality in The Fifth World are. How do you feed someone you haven’t seen in a long time? Is it different when you want to ask them a favor?

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