by A’liya Spinner
Space unfurled in silent grandeur before the bow of the Kujira. A faint, golden haze from the furiously-laboring electromagnetic engines tinted the edges of the viewport, blotting out some of the expanse in an angelic glow. Taveer liked it—it made them feel safe, like the ship was swaddled in a protective spell. Their shipmate, however, griped incessantly about how the residue of their otherwise wasteless propulsion system ruined his view. Unfortunately for N’heera, the ship couldn’t run without engines, and the engines couldn’t run without light. Taveer wallowed in the small victory and enjoyed a center seat before the bridge’s wide window, their feet up on the command console while they watched the Kujira autopilot itself through the expanse.
Beside Taveer, on a pedestal jammed full of instruments, scanners, and readouts, rested a transparent cylinder. Occasionally, they would glance to it, checking on the gaseous sample within, recording changes in color, density, and form. Taking notes and pondering the mystery of their strange cargo was often their only entertainment for hours on end. N’heera was too busy doing—well, whatever it was that N’heera did. Taveer both missed him and enjoyed the silence of being without their talkative husband for a little while.
“How’s our little enigma doing?”
Think of the devil…
Taveer spun in their chair to face the back of the bridge as their crewmate and partner climbed up through the hatch to the lower deck—the bunks where they slept and the Kujira’s very modest laboratory. N’heera had bits of soil on his short snout and in his ruffled mane of red feathers, no doubt from tinkering with the specimens in his experiment on seed germination in irregular environments (read: a spaceship hurtling through the irradiated void of space.) He wiped his four-fingered hands on his uniform (leaving faint smudges) and trotted towards the bow of the bridge, his catlike eyes fixed to the glass container beside Taveer.
“I wish I could tell you,” the pilot answered, taking their feet down from the command console. “I have no clue what’s making it fluctuate. Temperature, light, radiation—I’ve tried adjusting everything to get a consistent response. But it just does whatever it wants.”
“How interesting!” N’heera’s constant excitement was infectious. Taveer found themselves smiling as they turned their eyes to the cylinder. The gaseous sample inside had turned itself into soft lavender mist; five minutes ago, it’d been an angry red sphere of writhing smoke. Even more than the Kujira’s prized cargo, though, Taveer watched their husband, holding back a chuckle at the way N’heera’s oversized fox-ears quivered in curiosity and twitched in time to the swishes of his long, feathered tail.
“So what brings you out of your burrow, kitsune?” Taveer finally asked when it was clear that their husband was going to stare at the transparent capsule until something else caught his attention. The alien—the vulpine Sutorenjā— looked up with confusion in the furrows of his snout.
“The lab computer told me we’ve arrived.”
“Really?” Taveer swiveled again in their chair. The nav screen indeed indicated that they’d reached their destination, and the Kujira’s autopilot was gradually slowing them down. Only, their target had been the nebula from which their fickle sample had been collected, and outside the viewport, Taveer saw nothing except the usual star-studded void of intermediate space.
“The computer must be confused.” Taveer leaned forward over the dash, fiddling with dials and coordinate charts, trying to fix whatever mistake had brought them to a standstill in empty space. Unable to find a discrepancy, they gestured towards the viewport in frustration. “There’s obviously no nebula here.”
“How can you tell through the light of the exhaust?” N’heera teased, even though the glow of the engines had begun to fade as the ship slowed.
“Very funny,” Taveer grumbled. “Aren’t Sutorenjā good trackers and star sailors? You come find it for us.”
“Maybe the previous generations were.” N’heera tapped the cylinder, watching as the gaseous substance within began to congeal and darken. “The elders who had to guide our great habitat ships for centuries knew all of the stars in the sky by name and position. But I was born in Tokyo. I know more about ancient human gardening techniques than starfaring.”
“Just my luck,” Taveer said under their breath, knowing that N’heera’s huge ears would hear everything, “married to an alien that knows more about Earth than I do.”
This made him bark-laugh and puff his cowl of feathers. The two of them were both ostracized within their species—N’heera for being too human, too obsessed with art and “lesser” sciences, and Taveer for not being human enough, for not enjoying sex and sensuality, for turning away from cultural expectations for a life amid the stars. But they had found each other, and that was enough, no matter how often Taveer’s parents bemoaned that their bloodline—which traced all the way back to the early sultans of the Ottoman Empire—would die with them.
“The original coordinates must have been wrong,” Taveer muttered, pushing away thoughts of their family and refocusing on the ship’s computer. They felt N’heera’s huge, nocturnal eyes boring into their back, waiting for them to solve the problem like they always did. Once, that had unnerved Taveer, the feeling of being watched with expectation. Now they were used to the way their husband fixated, and were determined not to let him down.
Finally, they gave up trying to convince the navigational system it was wrong, and instead recalibrated the sensors to scan for nearby particles with the same properties as those in the sample. As the computer thrummed in obedience, they glanced at the cylinder; the mist had deepened to a royal violet color, and swirled like a lazy tornado.
“You really have no idea why it’s doing that?” Taveer asked, mesmerized by the way it moved with no external stimuli. They were more pilot than scientist, despite their degrees in astronomy and astrophysics—N’heera was the one who really understood how the universe worked.
“I have some hypotheses,” the Sutorenjā said with a shrug, a human gesture that always looked rather strange on an alien’s slender shoulders. “But there’s really nothing more I can learn without access to the source.”
One of the screens flashed green and chirped. Both occupants redirected their attention to the star chart it displayed.
“Well, looks like you’re in luck, kitsune.” Taveer flicked a switch on the console, and a fluid hologram of the elusive nebula appeared just above the dash. “I found it. Six-hundred-thousand kilometers away, near that ice giant we detected on our way here.”
“How’d we miss it?” N’heera leaned over Taveer’s shoulder to dubiously inspect the new coordinates. “And how did the initial survey team get the location so wrong? It’s not exactly small.”
“It’s pretty small for a nebula, only the width of a moon, and space is very big. It’s easy to make little mistakes with startlingly large consequences.” The pilot entered the new destination into the computer and braced themselves for a brief jolt as the engines reignited. “As for missing it, well—” Taveer shot their husband a guilty grin, “—maybe I wasn’t watching the helm as diligently as I could have been.”
N’heera shook his feathered head but said nothing. Taveer reached up and playfully swatted at one of the alien’s ears, which made their husband bare two rows of sharp teeth and rumble in the back of his throat. He was only teasing, the pilot knew; Sutorenjā looked like foxes, but this particular specimen had the gentle temperament of a lamb.
The hologram disappeared as the Kujira swung around in a wide arc, allowing an unobstructed view through the glass-capped bow. In the distance— currently no bigger than a marble but rapidly expanding as they barrelled closer—was a purple ink stain on the dark canvas of the void.
“And there it is,” Taveer announced, leaning back in their chair.
“Well done,” N’heera praised, as if his spouse had actually done something impressive and not merely directed the computer to run a simple scan.
“Thank you.” The human reached up and ran their fingers affectionately through the alien’s feathered mane. He purred, tail swishing.
Beyond the viewport, the nebula was growing in size and complexity. It was no longer just purple, but indigo, crimson, and even pale gold in veins that laced the gaseous formation in a lattice that held it all together. It swirled and spiraled as if it had been formed by a gust of cosmic wind and then frozen in time, caught in a moment of splayed splendor. It was the smallest nebula Taveer had ever seen, but it was also the most beautiful. They didn’t believe much in divinity, but every so often, the marvels of the universe tested the solidity of that doubt.
“Take us in slowly, please.” N’heera broke Taveer’s reverence; the Sutorenjā was focused now on the mission, on the science. His fascination was as strong as his spouse’s, but it was in the pursuit of discovery, rather than the contemplation of the unfathomable.
“Yessir.” Taveer deactivated the autopilot and took control of the Kujira, slowing it to a crawl just as they breached the outskirts of the nebula. Immediately, they were enveloped in swaths of color and dust; drifting ice shards glittered in the light of the engines, the wake of which caused flurries and eddies in the particulate contents of the nebula.
“What are we looking for, exactly?” Viewscreens lit up all around the cabin as external sensors began to relay a constant feed of data. Taveer watched their husband rapidly turn between them, somehow absorbing half a dozen pieces of information at once, and entering commands to adjust each instrument to his precise specifications.
“I suspect I will know when I see it,” he answered after a moment of frenetic sensor-tuning. “Our sample is so volatile that I was expecting more activity within the nebula itself, but so far everything seems normal.” N’heera’s ears fluttered in intense thought.
“Speaking of the sample…” Taveer turned away from the console to watch the glass chamber containing their piece of the gaseous formation. “Does it seem, uh, agitated to you?”
“What?” The Sutorenjā turned away from his screens; his eyes widened in shock. “Oh.”
Inside its cylindrical cage, the mist was writhing as if in pain. Its pigment fluctuated, pulsing between every color in the visible spectrum. Over the course of a few seconds, it congealed into a thick, opaque sphere and then erupted into thin mist, pressing up against the glass, swirling and splashing, tumbling over itself as it changed consistencies and shades before their eyes.
“I’ve never seen—”
N’heera was cut off as the Kujira suddenly rocked to the side, throwing the Sutorenjā against the wall and almost knocking Taveer out of their seat. Blinking red lights and blaring alarms replaced the calm sounds and screens of the sensors.
“Are you okay?” Taveer gasped and struggled to right themself, using the console to pull their body back up into the seat.
“Hai, I think so,” N’heera answered. He braced himself against the wall as he scrambled to his feet, the feathers of his cowl and tail flared in shock. “What was that?”
“I don’t know.” The pilot struggled to make sense of the readouts in front of them, all of which were in alarm mode, competing for attention. The left thrusters were damaged, that much they could tell. And the particle dust around Kujira was electrically charged, much more so than it had been moments before. As they watched, the levels of static and electromagnetism around their bow began to surge. A warning bell sounded.
Taveer barely had time to follow their own advice and brace themself against a console before a visible pulse passed through the nebula. Lightning struck their hull, shaking the Kujira. N’heera yelped in surprise, but remained standing as he clung to a bulkhead. A second bolt grazed the edge of the viewport, leaving a glowing streak of melted glass in its wake. Taveer was thankful that the window was thick and reinforced; they weren’t in danger of an oxygen leak. Not yet, at least.
“Are we under attack?” N’heera shouted over the wailing of the alarms.
“I—I don’t know,” Taveer stammered, deactivating what lights and sirens they could, trying to compose themself. Half of the forward sensor arrays had been fried, but the rest seemed to be operating at full capacity—and they didn’t show anything in the vicinity capable of generating lightning. No probes, no other ships. Maybe they’re using the nebula to cloak themselves, somehow?
The ambient charge around the vessel began to surge again. Taveer grabbed the controls and propelled the Kujira forward as fast as it could go on only one operational thruster; another bolt of lightning sheared through the space where they had just been.
“We need to get out of here.” N’heera’s voice held a strange mixture of fear and betrayal, as if he couldn’t believe they had been thrust into peril on such a routine mission.
“I’m working on it,” Taveer replied through gritted teeth, struggling to keep control of the wounded Kujira. They pulled the ship around in a wide and awkward arc; visibility was frighteningly limited as vibrant particulates of stardust and ice streamed past the viewport. As soon as the computer indicated that they’d turned a full one-eighty degrees, the pilot rerouted power to the engines. The Kujira bucked as its speed increased. An instrument beside N’heera began to whir.
The pilot managed to pull the nose of the ship up just in time to avoid another blast of electricity, and the entire bridge was lit by a brief, brilliant flash. Metal whined in complaint as the Kujira twisted and rose, plunging back into the depths of the nebula as branched lightning chased the glow of their exhaust.
“I don’t think they want us to leave.” Taveer swerved to avoid another bolt, driving them farther away from the sparse outer edges of the nebula. The density of particulates doubled as they dove into its colorful depths, which only increased its capacity for extreme ionization. Sparks flew around them, creating strange shadows in the thick gas and dust that enshrouded their vessel.
“I don’t understand, there’s no one else here.” N’heera fiddled with instruments and sensors, calibrating and recalibrating, scanning for engine exhaust, looking for enemy shadows. “There can’t be.”
“There has to be.” Taveer’s knuckles were white from the force of their grip on the throttle. “They’re chasing us.” N’heera was silent; he couldn’t argue that the bolts—another of which the Kujira just barely dodged—had unnatural accuracy. His spouse clenched their jaw and switched to a different panel of controls. “Maybe I can flush them out…”
The Kujira was not a war machine, but it was equipped with enough weaponry to defend itself from space debris and the occasional pirate hoping to make a tidy profit on stolen equipment. Shudders passed through the floor and bulkheads as Taveer called forth two small energy cannons from their hiding places in the ship’s underbelly. One hand hovered over the trigger while the other gripped the throttle. They waited.
N’keera’s instrument whirred in warning. Taveer sent the Kujira lurching forward; a bolt of lightning scraped paint off of their hull as it streaked past. At the same instant, the pilot fired the cannons in the direction the attack had come from, watching as the glowing bullets were swallowed by the nebula. There was a distant burst fire as a small pocket of violative gas ignited on contact with the shot, but it was too small to have been anything substantial. The shadows cast by the miniature explosion illuminated no skulking enemies in the churning mist.
Taveer would not be discouraged. They fired again into the colorful depths, shooting randomly, hoping to hit something. More pockets of flammable gas erupted in a colorful display of light and fire. It revealed nothing but an endless cloud of dust.
There was no time to react to N’heera’s panicked shout before the Kujira rocked from a direct hit to their aft sensors. Several screens and streams of data on the console—which Taveer desperately clung to—went dark as they were taken offline. While the ship trembled, the pilot hastily spun the energy cannons and fired a round at the source of the lightning. More miniature explosions, more shadows, no enemies.
“We’re fighting a ghost.” Taveer’s hands were beginning to shake from confusion and a creeping sense of dread. Their opponent was as mysterious as their motivation for attacking a poorly-armed and barely-crewed science vessel, which meant there was no way to predict movement or a next attack. The more they thought about it, feeling the Kujira thrum in pain beneath their hands, the more Taveer began to realize there was not much left they could do. All that mattered was saving N’heera.
They’d have to dash for the edge of the nebula. Taveer had never been the best pilot, but maybe they could kite the lightning long enough to break through the dust and out into the void that was not so easily ionized. They could do it. Maybe.
“Ghosts.” N’heera was muttering to himself. Taveer tried to tune it out—assuming it was nervous rambling, for which the alien had a habit—and began to brace themselves for a headlong charge into the fray. Flickers of static danced around the edge of the viewport and the space before them as their surroundings charged for another strike.
“Ghosts! That’s it—Taveer, I don’t think there’s another ship.” N’heera’s voice was raised with the thrill of discovery, as if he’d forgotten all about their peril.
“Not now, N’heera.” The pilot’s shoulders set. Their jaw clenched. They moved to activate the thrusters to their highest setting, to plunge into the dust and ice and lightning.
“No, stop!” Serrated Sutorenjā claws suddenly grasped at Taveer’s hands, pulling them away from the controls. The human froze, struck by how quickly N’heera had moved to their seat, at the ferocity in his eyes and the tightness of his grip. “That won’t work. It’s faster than we could ever be.”
“Look at the sample,” he interrupted, turning his snout and ears towards the glass cylinder. Taveer obeyed, looking at their cargo for the first time since the strange fight had begun.
Sparks went off inside the roiling, multicolored form that the mist had taken. Tiny bolts of lightning struck the glass of its container, illuminating it from within. One of the readouts on its pedestal reported levels of ionization that were naturally impossible.
“It’s never done that before,” N’heera hissed, “in all my time studying it. Don’t you see? It’s connected to the nebula.” The Kujira shuddered as it was struck again—in its armored underbelly, fortunately; the alien dug his claws into the back of Taveer’s chair to stay upright.
“How does this help us?” Taveer didn’t doubt N’heera’s hypothesis, but they also didn’t see any non-scientific significance. Survival was what mattered now. They tried to reassume control of the helm, but their hands were swatted away again by the rumbling alien.
“I think the nebula itself is what’s attacking us, Taveer. We can’t outrun it while in its belly.” He pulled back a little, straightening, ears lowered in nervousness. “I think—it knows. Knows we have something it wants. It feels…” N’heera’s eyes glazed over ever so slightly. “It feels alive.”
It was a common superstition that Sutorenjā—due to some great evolutionary fluke—possessed weak telepathic powers. Taveer was one of the few who almost believed it, having seen N’heera connect with people of any species on impossibly intimate levels. Now, he wondered if there was genuine truth in it after all—or if their husband was succumbing to the madness of stress.
“A nebula can’t be alive.”
“Why not?” N’heera’s catlike eyes regained focus, and affixed that huge, intense gaze on Taveer before turning it to the flashing glass chamber. “What if this one’s alive, too? That’s why it’s angry. We’ve been holding a living thing as our prisoner without even knowing it.”
Instruments whirred. Alarms that Taveer had previously silenced blared back to life; they glanced to the console to see that the dust and ice and particulates of star matter surrounding them—could all that really somehow be alive?—were beginning to ionize again. This surge looked bigger than the others. Angrier.
“We’re out of time, we have to go.” The pilot tried not to think about what their husband had said, that they’d never be able to escape a predator when already in its stomach. “We have to try.”
“No, Taveer.” This time, N’heera’s voice was soft. The claws he laid on top of his spouse’s trembling hands were gentle. “Trust me. Please.”
Taveer looked into the alien’s eyes. They were kind, and yet somehow seemed to bore into the deepest part of his spouse, to the fear and the uncertainty, begging them to let it go. Suddenly, Taveer didn’t doubt that the Sutorenjā possessed some ancient metaphysical power. It felt as if N’heera was reaching out to their very soul.
“I trust you.” Taveer didn’t look at the gauges warning of rising electromagnetism all around them, or at the small flashes of static beginning to scorch the hull. They just looked at N’heera. Gratitude flowed in the connection between the pair.
And then, in an instant, the bond was broken. N’heera turned away and grabbed the containment chamber, pulling it off of the pedestal, ripping it free of wires and indicators without regard for the destruction it caused to the equipment. He became a blur of brilliant red feathers, moving with uncanny Sutorenjā speed to the airlock at the aft of the bridge. Tiny bolts of static laced the writhing smoke inside the chamber as its unknowing captor opened the first hatch, tossing it through. As soon as it had shut again, N’heera slammed his palm into a panel on the wall, opening the outer door and ejecting the cylinder into space on a wave of oxygen that rushed out of the airlock to be dispersed in the void.
Taveer watched as the levels of ionization around the Kujira began to peak. A bolt struck the hull, making the ship groan in pain. Bigger ones were coming; they could see the charge building in the nebula around them. There wasn’t enough time now to run. Taveer spun their vessel to face its imminent destruction head-on.
There was a flash from deep within the nebula. An arc of lightning snaked out of the shroud of dust, aimed directly for the bridge. N’heera was suddenly at Taveer’s side again; he grabbed his spouse’s shoulders, holding them together, trembling with anxiety. The pilot forced themself to keep their eyes open, to watch. They would not allow themself to be afraid.
Nothing struck the ship. The bolt’s course to the bow of the Kujira was intercepted by the drifting sample capsule, which it struck directly in the base. The glass exploded. Broken fragments reflected the light, flashing and amplifying every color in the nebula, hovering in the dust, framing the freed mist in a heavenly mandorla.
The static charge in the space around Kujira began to dwindle; no more lightning streaked out of the depths. N’heera sighed in relief as the instruments and alarms fell silent, indicators showing standard and safe levels of ionization, and internal diagnostics reporting that none of the damage they sustained was life-threatening to the starship or her crew.
“I was right,” N’heera murmured in slight disbelief.
“Well, don’t sound so surprised. You’re the smartest person I know.” Taveer reached up and stroked the side of their husband’s cheek. The muscles in their shoulders and back ached from stress, and their heart throbbed in their throat, but N’heera’s relief had begun to soak through them, too.
“Well…” his ears folded down in typical Sutorenjā abashedness. “Oh, Taveer, look.” He changed the subject by pointing towards the viewport, out at the shattered remnants of the glass prison. Amid the twinkling shards, the emancipated ball of churning dust and smoke was beginning to change form. Writhing protrusions spread from its core, growing, taking a shape that could almost be called wings.
Neither of the crewmembers of the Kujira spoke as they witnessed the entity taking in its freedom. In the density of the nebula’s particulates, it was better able to hold its shape, taking strange configurations that resembled nothing they’d ever seen. Veins of color ignited in its heart. It reveled.
Around the ship and small lifeform, the nebula began to pulse. Waves of light and ripples of pigmented dust raced away from them and the misty entity at its center. Huge, golden veins appeared amid the reflective particles, shimmering in the glow of the Kujira’s engines.
“It’s beautiful,” Taveer finally mustered the breath to say.
“It’s… love,” N’heera answered, echoing his spouse. “I’ve never seen a lifeform so strange, but—it’s really not all that different than us. It’s just happy to be reunited with someone it loves.”
“That’s why it moved.” Taveer watched as the two nebulous entities pulsed in unison, the changing of their colors perfectly synced. “It was looking for the little one.”
“And why it attacked us. Last time our kind was here, it ended with a kidnapping.” N’heera sounded sad to think of their colleagues’ blind mistake. Taveer took his hand, giving it a squeeze.
“Not our best First Contact, no,” they reassured him. “But we made it right. That’s all we can do, isn’t it?”
The Sutorenjā nodded, puffing up his feathers for a moment before smoothing his cowl. No doubt N’heera would spend the next few months scheming for a way to make contact and amends with the lifeform living in and as the nebula. But for now their mission was complete, and both the Kujira and its crew needed some time for rest and repair.
Soft rumbling filled the bridge as the starship began to slowly move forward; the pilot still had the shadow of a fear that doing anything too quickly or powerfully would anger the nebulous creature and provoke it to attack again. Cautiously, Kujira dove under the brilliant display that surrounded the smaller entity, whose shape had settled into an amorphous imitation of its caretaker. Soon they had left it behind entirely; the ice and dust through which they plunged became sparse, and then they could see the twinkling of stars through the last, thin layer of the nebula.
N’heera glanced behind himself as they exited into normal space, even though the bridge had no aft windows. Taveer wondered if—in some silent, metaphysical way—he was saying goodbye.
“Home?” Taveer didn’t wait for an answer before entering Earth’s coordinates into the autopilot. Then they spun in their chair to face their husband, thinking to themself that even the stunning pigments in the nebula could not match the familiar beauty of N’heera’s scarlet feathers and soft, maroon fur.
“Please,” the alien answered, grinning wide to show off his sharp teeth. Then he began to trot towards the hatch leading to the lower deck, most likely to check for damage to his equipment and specimens.
“Kitsune, wait.” N’heera stopped, ears perked to attention. He turned back around to Taveer, who shyly echoed the Sutorenjā’s smile. “Stay with me.”
“Of course, my love.” The alien purred happily at the invitation. There was only one seat on the bridge, but that hardly discouraged N’heera. He gracefully slid around the back of the chair and into Taveer’s lap, folding his wiry legs up under him and coiling his tail around his spouse’s ankles like a very large cat. He thrummed in the back of his throat as Taveer scratched the back of his ears, resting his head on their chest.
The endless expanse of stars just beyond the viewport usually made Taveer feel insignificant during the quiet voyages to and from their destinations, but now they felt only completed. They could feel N’heera’s pulse as they held him, perfectly timed to the beating of their own heart—somehow the Sutorenjā must have synced them. And then they remembered how the two nebulous lifeforms had also pulsed in unison with one another. Perhaps N’heera was right in thinking that maybe the only thing that the strange and varied souls of the universe shared in common was their need to be loved, to belong.
This was where Taveer belonged. They wrapped their arms around their husband and held him close. N’heera’s tail swished in contentment. Around them, the Kujira sang a strange love song with its pinging instruments and growling engines, and beyond, dwindling to nothingness in the distance, the nebula was filled with light and color and joy.
A’liya Spinner (he/him & she/her) is a non-binary activist, author, and aspiring paleogeneticist. Most importantly, his favorite dinosaur is the Allosaurus fragilis. Talk about magpies, dinos, and queerness with him at her Twitter, @cladist_magpie.
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