Penelope Sykes never understood why she had been chosen.
Yes, sure, she was as “pure” as any human was these days, genetically speaking, but what did that really matter? Magic was wonderful. Magic was something she could watch all day, marveling, laughing and clapping at the silliest conjure, and desperately wishing she could do it herself.
She couldn’t. And that was why she had been chosen.
Pen kept her desires to herself. She had to. The Earth was dying, and the human race had to carry on. She had the proper genes. It was only her soul that didn’t fit the bill. And surely that wasn’t inherited. Right?
“Water!” called Barnes, staring out the viewport. “Freaking… water everywhere! What the hell! This isn’t where we were supposed to land!”
Water? Were they sinking? Adrenaline woke Pen fully, and she staggered from her sleep-pod with one eye open and her shirt ridden up over her breasts.
Barnes was right. Water, water all around, and according to the readings, nothing but water – and the one tiny patch of land the ship sat on.
How the hell had they landed on the only patch of land on a fully flooded planet? How were they here? Kepler 90b had small oceans, yes, but nothing like this.
“Sykes,” Iskinder croaked, staggering up to lean on the console beside her. “What’s he bellowing about?”
Pen didn’t look at him. He was too handsome for first-thing-in-the-virtual-morning. “We’re not on Kepler 90b. I haven’t figured out where we are yet, but it isn’t there.” Her throat tightened. “There’s no land.”
“What?” Iskinder pushed her aside (his hands were warm, but she tried to think of something else) and typed quickly, never glancing at his hands. Information flew up the screen; his jaw tightened the longer it went on. “We’re on a moon.”
“A moon?” Sykes rubbed her eyes. Wake up, damn you. “Kepler 90b had six moons. No, five?”
“Six. Don’t second-guess yourself.” Iskinder frowned. “But it wasn’t supposed to have water. It’s supposed to be bare rock.”
“Water!” Barnes was shouting down the hall, dragging people from their pods if they weren’t moving quickly enough.
“Go calm down the idiot, would you?” said Iskinder, gaze locked on the screen.
“None of us are idiots,” Pen said, but went to calm Barnes down, anyway.
She found chaos in the hall.
“We can’t take off again!”
“We’re trapped here.”
“Are we sinking?”
“It can’t end like this!”
Pen bellowed over them all. “Enough!” They weren’t military, but she’d be damned if they’d lose control like this. “Get hold of yourselves, right now. You’re the best of humanity, ladies and gents, and right now, you’re acting like a bunch of half-breeds.”
That brought them up short. Several dozen humans stared at her in a cocktail of shock and anger, and she took advantage of their attention. “We are not sinking,” she said. “We are stable and just fine. Calm. Down.”
“We can take off again.” This from Yoon. “I know we can’t. You know we can’t. We’re going to starve.”
“We’re not going to starve.” Pen knew no such thing, in truth, but she’d be damned if she’d lose them to panic this early in the game. “Get. Hold. Of. Yourselves. This is unacceptable behavior.”
Few of them made eye contact now.
Her psych training came in handy. They’d had the dressing down; now it was time for building up. “I know how you feel. We all gave up everything to do this, banking on a future we could barely see. That’s why this ship has the name it does. We’re doing this. We’re going to win. Deep breaths. First task: everybody get cleaned up. We all smell like elephant’s ass.” Once they seemed inclined to obey her, she headed back to the control room.
Iskinder was on his knees, forehead pressed to the cold console.
Pen froze. She’d never seen him humble (and it sure as hell wasn’t prayer), never seen him afraid or in over his head. Mouth dry, she closed the door behind them and knelt beside him. “Hey.”
He didn’t move. He didn’t speak. Tears sparkled in the corners of his eyes, and that scared her more than any of this had.
“Hey,” she said again.
He finally remembered to breath, deep in and deep out. “We’re screwed.”
“Okay.” Her hand rested on his back, steadying.
“We can’t take off again. This place looks good. It does. Air’s right. We can survive it, and there are lifeforms here. We can hunt.” He looked up. “But it’s one sixth of the size. It’s too small. We’ll overpopulate in ten generations. We’re screwed, Pen.”
He’d used her name. She couldn’t help a happy sigh, situation be damned. “Okay.”
“What do you mean, ‘okay?'” Iskinder’s dark eyes flashed. “Don’t you get it? We’ve only delayed the end! That’s all!”
“We’ll figure something out.”
“No we won’t! The scan found nothing! No materials we could use to refuel, no reservoirs of oil, just this damned water!”
She kissed him.
Screw it, right? She’d wanted to do that since before they took off, since he first visited her in England and paced in her dark living room, arms waving, painting a future without magic and without interference and with nothing but hope for humanity.
He gripped her arms tightly, too tightly, but her soft sound only seemed to stoke some fire inside him, and now he was kissing her.
She didn’t know how it happened. Or why. But suddenly they came together there on the floor in the control room, locked away from the rest of the crew, their soft sounds punctuation sharp and demanding movements, until the frenzy of survival and desperation and closeness and need peaked in a glorious reminder of life.
Yes. It was everything she’d hoped.
They lay there, panting. “That was weird,” Iskinder murmured.
She laughed and kissed his neck. “Been waiting for it.”
“Bet they’re screwing out there like rabbits.” He pushed off her, their skin sticky separating. “Yoon thought that might happen. Something to do with the chemical effects of isolation.”
It sounded more like a soul thing to her, but she knew better than to say that. “Feel better?”
His crooked smile warmed her to her toes. “Yes.”
“Okay. So now what are we going to do about this?” She waved her hand at the monitor, at the outside, at this bizarre flooded moon they’d found themselves stranded on. Iskinder (Jason, she could call him that now, surely) opened his mouth to reply.
And suddenly, they weren’t alone.
The room filled with things, creatures, beings like she’d never seen a dozen of them shifting and shape-changing and babbling and trilling.
Her scream and his shout melted in the flood of sound they made. It all happened so fast. Suddenly the things took on familiar shapes, but unfamiliar, like half-dogs and half-gorillas, or people-looking faces on fish bodies, or wings like butterflies and tails like dinosaurs. They didn’t approach or try to touch as Pen and Jason scrambled for their clothes, but just hovered around, howling, yipping, trilling, singing.
Then one of them spoke. “You are called humans,” it said, coalescing into a nearly human form, but so solidly black she had trouble making out its details. “You are beautiful.”
She laughed unsteadily. What had it just said? Beautiful? Really?
“You speak English?” said Jason, voice cracking like a teenager’s.
One by one, the floating things settled came to a gentle landing, peering around with suddenly-formed eyes, their edges rippling like water kissed by bugs.
“Yes,” said the spokesthing.
“What the f… what… what are you?” Jason demanded, his voice rasping and broken. Pen touched his arm, trying to calm him, to steady him.
The creatures stared at her hand on his arm, trilled, whistled, made sounds like laughter or something much worse.
“We are,” suggested the black-skinned creature, and smiled with teeth it had not had a moment before. Suddenly, it switched from English to French. “N’aie pas peur.” Suddenly to Spanish. “No tengas miedo.” Vietnamese. “Ðừng sợ.” Japanese. “Osoreru koto wa nai.”
It kept going. Arabic. Swahili. Cantonese. Somali. Hausa. Latin. Pen stared, mouth open.
“Stop!” Jason cried. “Stop. Just stop!”
The creatures… felt confused. She couldn’t read body language, couldn’t read facial expressions (when they had faces), but somehow, she knew they were confused. They weren’t aggressive. This situation could be calmed. “You’re scaring us,” she said slowly. “Do you understand?”
The black-skinned one frowned slowly, as if it had never done it before. “Why?”
“How can you know our languages? How?” said Jason.
More confusion. “You know them.”
They’re reading our minds, Pen thought. Oh my gods. They’re reading our minds.
“You are welcome here,” said the black-skinned one, and this time, it made a smile. Behind it, the others seemed to be struggling with which forms to choose, and their constant, oil-slick changes dizzied her. “You are lost. You have no home.” Its smile melted. “This is home. We will make you home. You…” It was picking up human expression so quickly, too quickly, terrifyingly quickly, and now its brow knit with what looked like compassion. “You poor, sundered people. How can you live like this? Are you bleeding?”
“Huh?” said Pen, looking down. Beyond a decidedly soggy crotch (she really hadn’t thought that through), she was fine. So was Jason, looked at himself, then her, searching for injury.
“You must see one another to find wounds?” said the black-skinned thing, its eyes wide – and the irises suddenly went from black to blazing orange like the center of a forge.
“Holy hell,” Pen whispered.
“Do you not hurt?” it said, and then it did something that hurt a lot.
In a moment of absolute hell, every thought from every one of her crewmates flooded her mind. Only for a moment, because a moment later, her brain twinged sharply, and everything went black.
Pen found her way back later – who knew how much later? – on the floor, screaming, gripping her head and twisting like a fish out of water. Blood from her nose and ears covered her hands, her face, her neck. Beside her, Jason lay unconscious.
“We are sorry!” the black-skinned thing crouched in front of her – it had altered its form more, added long black hair, and somehow achieved beauty. “You are repaired. We have repaired you, but you are still sundered! How can this be? Do you not hurt alone?”
“I don’t understand,” Pen said, her voice was thick and hoarse beyond recognition.
It tilted its head (how quickly did it learn, how fast, how frightening). “You are repaired,” it repeated.
Her head no longer hurt. “Thank you?” she said.
“How can you be sundered?”
“We’re not sundered. We’re fine. We were fine until you came along,” she blurted.
“You were afraid. Then you were happy. Then you were afraid.” It looked troubled. “But all… at different times.” The faces it made mirrored across the faces of things behind it, though they couldn’t possibly see those expressions, couldn’t know what the speaker was doing.
“We’re lost,” she said. “This isn’t where we’re supposed to be.”
“Yes,” it agreed.
“Did you bring us here?” Jason croaked, lifting his head as if it weighed a thousand pounds.
It blinked. “No.” Looked back and forth. “She believes we did not. You believe we did. How can this be? We do not understand.” And now it looked even more confused. “We are I. I are we. Why do you think we are we? How can you not be I?”
“Okay, now you’ve lost me and any patience for this I had,” said Jason, sitting up and swaying in place like a drunk.
Pen touched his arm and he went still. “We’re strangers,” she murmured to him. “We’re stranded. We need help. Reel it in, soldier.”
The creatures stared at her hand on his arm, mouths agape.
Jason kept swallowing. He looked green. “Okay. Yeah. All true. Sure.”
“He does not say what he thinks?” said the black-skinned spokesthing. Its hair moved on its own, waving slightly like seaweed in a current.
“Nobody does,” said Jason.
“We need help,” repeated Pen.
“We tried to help. You are not… you are sundered,” said the thing, earnestness in its voice and face, an earnestness imitated by all the morphing things behind it.
The creatures continued gibbering, squeaking, trilling, changing shapes – and, as Pen discovered, borrowing whatever she thought of to make those shapes more interesting. Pink fish, she thought, and saw it happen. Flying elephant. Car with toad-eyes. One or more took any idea she had and played with it, applying parts to themselves like clay.
It was magic. It was everything she’d ever loved about magic, and she laughed.
Jason was doing it, too. A shark’s fin. Claws. Huge, terrifying lizard-eyes. “Okay, stop,” said Jason. “Stop reading me. Stop it! Stop!” Jason gripped his head with both hands. “Stop it!”
They all went still, and those who had eyes looked his way.
“We can,” said the spokesthing slowly.
Jason slumped, exhaling, evidently believing them. “Please don’t read me again. Don’t do it. I’m begging you.”
“Jason,” whispered Pen.
“We will not,” said the spokesthing again, louder.
She believed them. She didn’t know why. “Look at you,” she said, nearly whispering. “You’re incredible.”
“You look at them. I’ve got to check the crew.” Jason stood, shaking, and adjusted his trousers.
“None are injured,” said the thing. “We repaired.”
“Repaired what?” Jason snapped.
More confusion. “Anything requiring repair.”
Jason muttered some curses Pen had never heard and stormed through the door into the halls.
Pen stayed where she was. They were beautiful. Diamonds for fingers, she thought. Trees that sing. Stars with limbs like horses.
It all came true in bits and pieces, and she laughed, close to crying, far past amazement, completely out of room for questions.
“You are beautiful,” said a blobby orange creature so bright it hurt to look too closely. Frog eyes, she thought, and it formed them, pop-pop on top of its head.
She laughed again, beyond terror, beyond grateful. She still didn’t know why she’d been chosen, but for the first time, she was glad. This was true magic. “So are you. Gods help me. So are you.”