Ira presses her face to the window and watches a high-speed flower blossom, fire and debris surging from the epicenter of the explosion. The Jade Necklace Expedition Vehicle, which she has called home since she was born, disappears into petals of flame and twisted polymers. Everyone left aboard when the weapons hit–and it was everyone, everyone but her and Father–is vaporized instantly. At least, she hopes they were vaporized.
The looming alien ship waits and, as the escape pod hurtles away, it lazily drifts back into orbit around the planet. After a moment, there is no sign of it, and after another moment, there is no more planet, no more ship, nothing but the needle-lights of distant stars. The pod is moving at near-light speed, as fast as a craft this big can be made to go without the sheer force of microparticles shredding it.
These are technical details and images she will come to associate with the event. At the time, she is twelve, and only marginally aware of the physics that make starships go, of gravity and orbit. Certainly not educated or imaginative enough for metaphor.
She is twelve, and the Dagh’makshan have killed her and everyone she has ever loved.
Father is still breathing, but it pains him, and with each breath, he grows paler and sweatier. Ira doesn’t know what to do, so she pulls her blood-stained overshirt off, finds the cleanest part, and dabs his forehead clean. Hot black blood wells from between the fingers clamped over his wound.
She is injured, too, but the rudimentary first-aid she received planetside have held. She wasn’t hurt during the assault on the ship, either.
“Here, let me put pressure on it,” she says, pushing the shirt against his fingers.
“Don’t, Ira,” he urges. “Ira… Ira… let me…”
Later, she will come to understand that he was trying to ensure she would never blame herself for what happened. There was no saving him. The blade went in one side and out the other, skewering every organ in its way.
Maybe if there’d been medical personnel left alive.
Why didn’t the other escape pods fire? Ira and Father rocketed away from the Jade Necklace at near-light, but all the other pods stayed clinging to the bottom of the ship next to the carriers and other dropships.
Were they afraid? Did they realize they were going to die?
Why didn’t the pods fire?
Uchat’dis said no real Daghna would ever kill medical personnel, not during a hunt. It was dishonorable. You wanted to go after warriors and big, capable adults, not cowering nurses and doctors. It’s a matter of proving yourself. Anyone can kill a civilian. It takes a real man to kill another man. That’s what Ucha said.
It must not have been a hunt. But why would any Dagh want to attack their party, if not for the hunt? Dagh didn’t go to war, not against non-Dagh. It’d be like going to war with cattle. Ucha said that once, and immediately got so embarrassed he had to run back home to his mother.
But the Dagh that attacked them went for the medics first, shattered medicine cabinets and tore apart sterile packaging with flechette guns. That was an act of war.
Were the Dagh’makshan and Hong Kong going to go to war…?
Eletrical failure is what made the pods stick. Ira can visualize it now, the channels that were damaged in the initial attack on the ship from orbit. The backup power must have been knocked out when the Dagh ship docked onto theirs and boarded. The shapes of the ships were too different.
Or, perhaps, the Dagh ship was made specifically to be a weapon against other vessels. All the jagged, sharp pieces, all the blades like the fins of an angry fish. Maybe they did it on purpose, and the shape of the human ship was just off enough that one cord managed to avoid being severed.
The cord that linked Ira and Father’s escape pod to the generator and started the dislodge procedure. The explosion of fuel that jerked them out of the planet’s gravity well. The spark that triggered their near-light drive.
All of these are technical details. Ira isn’t thinking in those words, not now, though she will as an adult. But even now, she can see the places that went wrong. Her father always shared his engineering work with her.
“Father? How long until we reach Sigma Hub?”
Father says nothing. His face is very pale and his grip on his still-bleeding wound is growing weaker. Ira kneels at his feet and holds his hand to the hole, presses with all her strength.
Father isn’t breathing anymore.
Only now has it set it. That Father is dead. Ira has been staring at his corpse for what seems like forever, staring at his waxy face and the sea of blood. His limp hand laying in his lap, red and sticky, the hole in his body.
She stands and cuddles up to his side, which is still warm despite its stillness. Its silence. She pulls his arm over her.
Blood begins to seep into her clothes. It begins to grow cold.
Her own cuts and skinned knees ache, but Ira tries not the think about them.
Is Ucha still alive? There was still fighting on the ground when the carrier took the ground crew back to the Jade Necklace. It would have besmirched Tribe Hutha’s honor to let rivals kill their guests.
Uchat’dis caught a knife to the back for her, though it did her little enough good because another warrior came up behind them and stabbed her anyway. Maybe Ucha was still fighting. He wasn’t obligated to, he was just a kid just like her, but unless his mother or someone else came to get him, he would.
Maybe he was dead.
The jungle was so beautiful on that planet, like the pictures Ira had seen of Earth. She and Ucha used to climb trees and catch bugs and, in general, disobey her father, who specifically told her not to stray from the compound.
Did she trespass? Did she and Ucha cross a boundary they didn’t know about and bring down another tribe?
Father is starting to get hard to move. Ira decides to stop fidgeting so much so she won’t have to think about it.
Ira looks out the window and watches the stars pass. At some point in time, they slowed from near-light to slow enough that the stars are dots once more.
If someone was looking out from one of those stars, they wouldn’t be able to see her. A radio telescope might catch the pod’s distress signal, but no one would see her. She’s all alone in Void.
Even for a Voidborn, the thought is… upsetting.
The stars always seemed so small, unless they were a sun they were passing close by. But those were suns, not stars, and to a child there is very much a distinction. Ships were big. Planets were big. But stars were small.
Only now does she realize that stars and suns are the same things, only now does she truly know this the way a body knows it needs air. The way a body knows it doesn’t belong in Void. The way she knows that she is completely alone for who knows how many sub-lightyears.
There are rations for about a week on the escape pod. Ira begins calculating how long she can make those stretch. She won’t need to, but at the time, she may as well be the only human being left alive. The only human being in all the galaxy.
Dying among the Dagh’makshan and with Uchat’dis would be better than dying alone and hungry and frightened among the stars.
A cruiser picks her up and a man comes in and tries to pry her away from her father’s corpse. Ira has forgotten what a corpse means, and bites the crewman so deep his skin splits.
“I’m not going to leave him alone!” she screams.
The crewman doesn’t speak Void Cantonese, he speaks Terran English, but there’s a man onboard that manages to calm her down and get her out of the pod. But it isn’t until she’s been cleaned up, her wounds stitched, and she’s viewed Father’s body cleaned and ready to be sent back to Hong Kong, Earth for burial that she realizes she’s not really alone anymore.
For a few days, she stays completely underfoot. Even sleeping alone is too much.
She can’t bring herself to ask anyone if Uchat’dis of Tribe Hutha, the Dagh’makshan child she was so close too, survived the attack. By the way people are throwing around the words ‘Dagh’ and ‘killers’ and ‘massacre,’ she can tell that right now, distinctions are not being made amongst individuals.
They viewed the Dagh too humanly. If they had remembered that above all else they were aliens, maybe Father wouldn’t have bled to death in the Void. Maybe Ucha’s survival wouldn’t be a slim prayer that Ira still occasionally makes, when it’s humid and dark and leafy like the jungles of that planet.
Human beings left the jungle a long time ago. Or, rather, the savannah. The metaphorical jungle of predators and diseases and difference. Earth is a tame place now, a place that holds no fear.
Ira knows well now that fear goes hand-and-hand with survival. If they had remembered to be afraid, maybe Father would still be alive…