Common Ground

Common Ground
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In the dark places between the stars, the Plriki look for wrecks and junk and things that have gone missing. But since they don’t like to get too close to those things themselves, every ship carries a Contact/Salvage team. Mostly, it’s a boring job poking through the refuse of long-dead sentient beings.

Mostly.

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Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
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Excerpt:

I can never tell how long it’s been since I’ve been home. It could be a couple of weeks or even a couple of years; time doesn’t feel quite right on a Plriki ship. In hyperspace, time is non-constant. If a second has passed while looking at your watch, that doesn’t mean it has outside the ship. The opposite is also true. It might have been a week, or not. I’m not sure any human really understands the theory, never mind the reality, but I’m told the equations balance.

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Colors battle in the wide, round passages of the roving ships, and the ocular nerves of non-Plriki passengers and crew become casualties of the bizarre décor. They try to tone things down in the parts of the ship we poor humans—unable to appreciate proper beauty—spend most of our time. It’s common to come across a wall, deck plate, or door painted in a fuchsia and neon green plaid pattern. Thankfully we’re allowed to decorate our own quarters; mine are almost entirely white from floor to ceiling. Drives the Plriki nuts, so much that none of them have visited more than once.

The ship cruises through hyperspace most of the time, and the Plriki apparently find the sight stimulating in an almost narcotic way, but they rarely pull back the blinds, and never in the human sections. I’m told we aren’t developed enough—as my ancestors heard for centuries—and just a glimpse will drive a human insane.

Never being able to see outside, it’s hard to tell if any time has passed. The only proof that we’ve gone anywhere at all is the difference in scenery at either end of the trip. Having instruments prove things doesn’t qualify; they’re Plriki instruments.

I felt an elbow jab in my back as I pulled my beige suit on in the main airlock. Breckenridge grinned at me, eyes crinkling up around the edges, and jerked her head to one side. I refused to look. I knew better.

Without bothering to tell us, some joker had opened the outer door, leaving nothing but a millimeter-thin force field to hold back the hard void, a force field you can walk through with no resistance. I don’t trust it. A flimsy little bit of energy holding back the universe? No way. One little power failure, and then where would I be? Sucking vacuum. For a few seconds, anyway.

I checked the seals on my gloves. “Bitch. You just want to see me jump.”

“Every chance I get.” Her grin grew, disappearing for a moment as she pulled her helmet on. I swore—not quite under my breath—and copied her, exhaling when the seal hissed. The suit, made by humans, I could trust. I looked around. Everyone else was ready to go. Last again. Surprise

Chinning the group frequency, I gave my standard speech. “All right, people, you know the drill. Get moving, and let’s all try to come back in one piece.” It wasn’t much of a speech, and not very inspiring, but it’s been a tradition on board as long as I’ve been Salvage Chief.

Breckenridge slipped through the field a half step before me, and turned on her suit jets to pick up a bit of a lead. As Team Second, her job was to secure a foothold ensure no dangerous defensive systems were in place for the rest of the team arrived. I fired my jets and locked my eyes on our destination to avoid thinking about the emptiness around me.

Half of a kilometer away, a derelict ship hung in space like an insectaphobe’s nightmare—a giant, wingless wasp with a dozen or so extra legs. Huge multi-paned windows perched atop the front section, reflecting a little starlight, but dark inside. Three sets of triplet antennae sprouted behind them, the ones in the center twice as long as their flanking sets. The rear section curved downward to create a convincing stinger. Between the two sections, the cylindrical hull tapered to only a few meters wide. The legs clustered in groups of three, arching gracefully inward and spaced almost evenly on both sections.

In my twenty years of service, I’d boarded ninety-seven abandoned starships—the wasp making ninety-eight. With the vast, empty distances involved, the discovery of a derelict ship should be a rare and exciting experience, but after the first few it takes something really special to write home about.

The region of space humans and Plriki grew up in has been home to multiple star-faring species for over eight hundred thousand years. An awful lot of ships—and more than a few civilizations—have gone missing, and the Plriki actively look for them. They’re not a hands-on people and they’re pretty shy until they’ve gotten used to you, awkward with social any interaction. I think even Plriki even give Plriki problems most of the time. They are, however, insatiably curious, and maintain a large fleet with the primary goals of exploration and contact.

Since the Plriki are timid and won’t go poke things themselves, they hire humans to do it for them. Of course, they watched us from a distance for forty or fifty years first. I guess they wanted to make sure we weren’t going to eat them, or something.

[story continues]

COLLAPSE

"Common Ground" originally appeared in the long out of print anthology "Alienology: Tales from the Void" from Library of Horror presses.

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