"Bitch," whispered Ricardo,
jamming home the spring-feeder on the chamber of his ballspitter.
Most of Abraxas' systems
-- power, gravity, helm -- had gone with the aliens' first
salvo. At least we still had atmosphere. I had been reviewing
manifests on the big wallscreen in the ready room when the
attack began, the bridge vacant for the first critical seconds
of combat. That should have been all right, damn it. The
aliens had never been seen within the Solar System before --
troublesome as they were, they were considered a colonial
problem. Traffic control doctrine called for civilian ships
like Abraxas to maintain a low-level defense posture, in
order to avoid messy accidents.
I held on to that thought, a
bitter mantra against the blood-price our crew was paying. A
blood-price I had earned them through my casual negligence.
"Traitor." He rotated the
locking collar on the gas cylinder.
Ricardo had tethered himself
near one corner of the ready room to tinker with his ballspitter.
Hollow rubber bullets powered by compressed air -- one of the
few usable weapons on a starship, where high-velocity kinetics
and energy weapons both had fatal drawbacks. Plus, with
practice you could shoot around corners.
"Murderess." He checked his
sighting, aiming the ballspitter at my face.
Idiot was more like it,
but Ricardo didn't seem to require a response. I just stared
back, willing him to shoot me, to shatter my forehead at two
hundred meters per second. The ballspitter would kill an
unprotected human at short ranges -- messy, bruised death.
Too bad the aliens wore
hardened vacuum armor. Rubber balls didn't do much to them.
They didn't find blowing holes in a human ship's hull a
meaningful impediment either. Me, I was armed with clenched
fists and regret.
"You'll pay right along with
the rest of us." Ricardo dropped his aim and went through his
weapon check all over again.
Eventually our emergency
sticklights failed. Banging noises occasionally carried through
the bulkheads. A red grainbulb on the backup aircycler let me
know I hadn't gone blind. Ricardo's breathing thundered in the
quiet dark, his ballspitter clicking as he worked through the
weapon check over and over and over.
When the ready room's hatch
finally broke open, the noise was unbearable. In flooding
pulses of colored light, I saw Ricardo push off from his corner,
ballspitter spewing like a supercargo at the end of a three-day
station leave. I tried to scramble out from behind the galley
processor, tried to swarm the alien's armored bulk with my
fists, but I couldn't move. I just couldn't make myself move.
One of the aliens telescoped an
impossibly long arm through the spray of rubber bullets and
snapped Ricardo's neck. I recovered from my paralysis to curl
into a fetal crouch as the balls bounced around the ready room,
working off their killing velocity in the spinning colored
A telescoping arm grabbed my
neck, hard fingers choking me. Nothing snapped, although as I
was towed weightless out of the room, two ribs cracked under
the impact of Ricardo's ammunition.
I never even whimpered.
I lay naked on a deck, metal
cold against my back. I was in the vehicle bay of Abraxas.
It had been completely stripped of equipment, from the shuttles
down to our suit racks. Gravity had been restored along with
the lighting. Every exit was covered with pink foam. My chest
hurt like hell, a whopping bruise on one breast from Ricardo's
rubber balls to go along with the cracked ribs. I wondered if I
was the only survivor of our crew. Was there some way for me to
kill myself here?
One of armored aliens lurched
across the bay toward me. I tried to ignore it as I gently
explored my cracked ribs. Out of the corner of my eye, I could
see it was almost three meters tall, bipedal, with two thick
armored arms and two more utility arms -- the extensors. It
didn't have a head, just prominent bumps on the shoulders.
It stood there, patient,
quiet. A killer machine. The silence eventually got my
attention, so I stopped ignoring the alien and looked toward it,
focusing on the black panels on the bumps.
"Incurse domains racekind you,"
the alien said.
We didn't even know what the
aliens called themselves. Humans hadn't intercepted enough
telemetry to crack their language. The aliens had never
invested time in talking to us. The few times humans had
captured an alien, it promptly died within the slagged interior
of its armor. No human prisoner had ever escaped or been
A cheerful thought given my
"I don't know." I couldn't
keep the whine out of my voice. "I don't understand 'incurse
domains.' I don't even think 'incurse' is a word."
The alien clucked at me for a
moment, a giant mechanical chicken. "Formate this incursion
I propped myself up on my
elbows. "'Formate this incursion regular.' That almost made
sense." I started to laugh, falling back onto the deck. "Where
did you learn English? You think 'incurse' is the regular verb
form of 'incursion.'"
Laughter took me,
uncontrollable, bringing shrieking pain to my ribs. I couldn't
cry for Abraxas and her crew but I could laugh until I
threw up. After a while the alien left me to my whooping
Later my alien brought me
food. The supplies were obviously looted from Abraxas'
galley stores. Four vacuum-sealed bags of cornmeal at five
kilos each, a three-liter tube of brine-packed olives and a
hundred-gram tube of cinnamon. The ridiculous menu confirmed
the aliens didn't normally keep human prisoners.
Maybe I wasn't slated to die.
Starve perhaps, but not be executed. Hope springs eternal.
"Thanks," I said as I tugged at
the olive tube. I didn't have a cap-puller, but figured I could
get it out eventually. Working on the olives distracted me from
the chill of the flight deck. "Do you think I could get water,
and maybe some blankets?"
My alien did something I'd
never heard of. It folded down in its powered armor like an
anime toy until it was almost a cube on the deck. The shoulder
bumps peeked at me from the top of the almost-cube.
"Instantiate response speaker
I lay the olive tube in my
It clucked again. My alien
almost sounded distressed. "Generate response racekind
"I think you mean, 'You're
"Instantiate welcome you
"Okay..." Something about the
phrase bothered me. "Racekind. You used that term before.
That's you. The aliens. Whatever."
"Instantiate response speaker
My alien was starting to make
sense to me. Which was scary in its own right. "That would be
Two days later, measured by the
light cycles on the flight deck, I'd gotten sick of olives and
cornmeal. Still no water. The brine in which the olives were
packed was hell to drink. At least I got some moisture out of
the green flesh. I figured I had another day or so before I was
incapacitated by thirst. It seemed only fitting that I die with
the rest of the ship and crew.
My alien came to me with three
others. We'd been making progress, me and my almost-cubical
jailor. By now I could recognize my alien by the wear patterns
on its powered armor. Talking away the hours together, I'd even
gotten a little bit of the hang of its weird syntax
verb-object-subject-modifier. My alien seemed to understand me,
communication was like one of those low-level write-only
computer languages. Just because my alien understood me didn't
mean I understood it. And now apparently it was time for
somebody to prove something to somebody else.
"Instantiate greeting you
racekind," said my alien. It didn't fold into a cube.
"Hi yourself." With a cold
jolt in my spine, I remembered the sound of Ricardo's neck
"Implement action you
That was relatively clear.
"You want me to do something."
There was a short pause.
Perhaps they were talking by radio. Or telepathy. How the hell
would I know?
"Intake transgression you
requirement," my alien said again.
"You want me to intake a
My alien practically rattled
with excitement. "Instantiate response speaker affirmative."
"Right." Sarcasm wouldn't
translate. Hell, words barely did. I shook my head. "What the
hell do you think intaking a transgression actually means?"
"Atone you transgression
"Atonement? You want me to
atone. For what?"
"Consume trespass you
"Trespass?" On what, I wanted
to say, but the context was clear enough. "But we didn't invade
your territory. We don't even know where your territory is."
Well, I didn't. God only knew what the military got up to in
the dark between the stars.
My alien rattled again,
actually squeaking. "Mistaken you trespass comprehension."
I sighed. "Of course it was a
mistake. No one meant to start a war with your racekind. We
didn't know you existed until you started shooting up our
There was long silence, as if
the aliens were exchanging glances. I thought about what they
were trying to communicate to me. Spiritual concepts such as
transgression and atonement. It was like going to Fontevrault
Bible Church with my grandmother back in Caldwell County when I
was a kid. Sermons full of blame and regret, fire and
brimstone, fit to move a child's bowels to water with fear of
the Lord. Even now I could hear Brother Ellison's black leather
Bible slapping the soft pine lectern as women collapsed in the
aisles, shrieking in tongues.
"Error you error error," my
"Error me error. Your English
is getting worse." It wasn't properly meaningful even in the
aliens' fractured syntax, but it did make sense. Obviously I'd
misunderstood something important to my alien.
"Consume trespass you
atonement," my alien said slowly, precisely.
Okay, so trespass wasn't
the key here, at least not in the sense I understood it. My
alien was shuffling concepts, trying to reach me in front of its
audience. Try a different word. Atonement? It had said
"Something you think I need to
do," I said. "Something about my regrets." My mind flashed on
Ricardo's final, doomed struggle in the ready room. "I've got
regrets, all right, but I can't imagine you care."
"Error you error error." This
time my alien almost sounded urgent. One of the other aliens
stirred. Did that signal impatience in their body language,
too? "Consume trespass you atonement."
Trespass. The key lay in that
word. My alien didn't mean trespass in the sense of crossing
borders. What else did that word mean? Trespass as in
forgive us our trespasses? Sins against God. If that were
true, my alien would have fit right in at my grandmother's rural
I had to chuckle at the
thought. Not hardly.
My grandmother would have
called consume trespass 'sin eating' -- one of those
weird country customs I'd worked my way into space to get away
from. I was frustrated, thirsty, tired. "Your trespass, my
trespass, who cares? It's a whole damned war, not someone
sneaking across fence lines. You want an apology, fine. I'm
"Error you error error." Now
my alien somehow sounded defeated. The other three aliens
rattled their extensor arms. They were going to snap my neck,
just like Ricardo's.
"I didn't do it," I shrieked.
"I'm so sorry." I fought back a sob of panic. "I've paid, I'll
pay again. Whatever you want." The hard, cold metal fingers
clasped my neck. "I'll atone." The fingers stopped, the
pressure on my throat relaxed.
Oh for God's sake, was it
really about my grandmother and that leather Bible of Brother
Ellison's? That was beyond bizarre. But I was out of other
guesses. "You want me to be a sin eater," I said, trying to
calm my shuddering breath. "Take in the transgressions
of...us? You? This entire war?"
My alien settled visibly, as if
the tension had drained out of it. "Instantiate response
speaker affirmative." The other three stopped, turned back to
"All of our sins," I said.
"Into me." God knew I had enough to atone for, but this was
bigger and stranger than even I had imagined.
The four of them spoke the
words together, four flat, mechanical voices echoing in the
deserted flight bay. "Instantiate response speaker
You never escape your
childhood. No one ever did. Mine had followed me even here.
The Lord's Prayer thundering in my head, I wondered how in space
was I supposed to eat the sins of an entire war? All I could
think to say was, "Could I please have some water?"
They came back, the same four,
my alien carrying three one-liter fluid bladders for ship's
stores. One of the bladders was marked as water, the two
weren't -- they were normally used for non-potable applications.
"Consume trespass you
interrogative?" said my alien. It placed the two non-potable
bladders on the deck between us, then used its extensor to set
the water bladder to my left. Cracked and dry as it was, my
mouth found some saliva. I imaged that water flowing like life
itself down my parched, salty throat. Baptism all over again.
"What will happen?" I touched
one of the bladders in front of me. "Will this end the war?"
No more dead crews, no more broken ships.
"Truncate hostilities mutuality
"End the war. Okay." I had to
believe my alien. I couldn't see why it would bother to trick
me, not when it held all the power between us. Now I got
greedy. "What about me?"
"Consume trespass you
completion. Consume trespass mutuality completion."
That was the first time my
alien had ever used two sentences in a row in my hearing. That
also wasn't much of an answer. Completion and mutuality seemed
to be the key concepts. Away from the Bible, back to politics.
"We do it together, you and I.
All of it, to the end. Right?" I pointed at the bladders
between us to make my meaning clear.
"Instantiate response speaker
affirmative," said my alien. Yes.
"And the war is over?
Everybody goes home, we make nice, have a treaty, send kids to
each other's universities."
My alien didn't answer. It
pushed one of the non-potable bladders toward me, then folded
into its almost-cube shape, the bump peeking at me. An extensor
arm grabbed the other non-potable bladder. My alien's armored
cube hissed, then one of the panels folded back to extrude a
small funnel. It popped open the valve on the bladder and
I took the hint and popped
mine. I sniffed the opening. It smelled like blood and machine
oil mixed together.
What had they done with Ricardo
and the rest of the crew? My stomach kicked as I threw up
mangled olives and pasty chunks of cornmeal. Wiping my lips, I
stared longingly at the liter of water they had given me. I had
failed twice -- failed to raise the defenses, failed to fight
when the aliens had finally come for me.
To hell with my alien. I would
do this for Ricardo and the rest of the crew. My mouth already
tasted horrible, the flavor of my guilty soul. The sin-eater,
taking the wars of worlds within me.
Grandmother would have been
"To peace," I said, tilting the
bladder and pouring the ghastly mess into my mouth in a perverse
My alien drained its bladder as
I choked mine down in salty, oily gulps. My stomach kept
heaving, but I finished the entire liter.
Then I threw up again, oil and
bile and blood. As I retched, my alien rocked in its cube,
smoke issuing from the armored seams until the cube deformed
slightly and the bump collapsed.
When I could again focus
sufficiently to pay attention, I found the other aliens had
departed. Along with the armored shell of my alien, they
had left hundreds of liter-bladders of water on the deck
arranged in a spiral around me and the wreckage of my alien.
In my fever I lost count of my
sleep cycles, long after my food ran out. Eventually a human
crew came alien-hunting. I lay curled around one corner of the
ruined armored cube, counting light sources in the ceiling. A
tall woman walked up to me, her boots near my face. She bent
down to touch my neck.
"Can you hear me?" she asked.
I tried, I swear to God I tried
to answer her. The war was over, we had a truce, we could make
a treaty, my neglect hadn't killed Abraxas and her crew
for nothing. I had taken the ultimate Communion. I had drunk
the mixed wine of our blood and theirs. I had eaten the sins of
two cultures. Words crowded my head, fighting to spill out.
All I could say was, "Truncate hostilities mutuality
She looked up at someone I
couldn't see. "Medic!"
"Instantiate treaty mutuality
affirmative," I told her. It was desperately important, but she
wouldn't listen. She didn't understand. She didn't believe me.
At least she held my hand.
About the Author: