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Bonus Story

Sarah Craft

Jensen, a misfit with unique language skills, is sent on an uneventful mission, or so her superiors thought, to escort a spaceship of nonviolent traders. Pirates and a particularly unruly virus intervene.

Sarah Craft is a writer, editor, publicist, and artist who lives a chaotic life with her husband and three cats. She keeps her sanity by creating, whether it be with words, beads, thread, or polishing up someone else’s work. Her story The Coin Whisperer in The Best of Abyss & Apex Volume II, was given an Honorable Mention in Year’s Best SF (edited by Gardner Dozois) in 2014. She is working on several novels, short stories, and a few surprises You can find out more about Sarah, and her works at her website,, Facebook, and Twitter.


Cold Aggression

 By Sarah Craft


Jensen glanced at her orders and immediately looked up at her commanding officer. "You've got to be kidding me. Tharans?"  She wanted to plead for a different assignment, but after a few poor judgment calls in the past and a few things she had no control of, she knew better than to beg. Her permanent record wasn't the best, and with her contract winding down, she needed some good remarks on her file. She could refuse but…

"I'm surprised your choice of Intergalactic language has finally come in handy," the CO remarked, interrupting her thoughts.

Inwardly she groaned. Choosing Tharan as her Intergalactic language eight years ago had been more of a joke than anything. While not at war, humans and Tharans had danced around each other with showy displays of aggression. Each time the Tharans introduced a new ship, or colonized a planet in the Grey sector, humans upstaged every act and then upped the ante. Her skills had been handy when a random communication drifted through the data feeds, but she never thought she would have to use her skills personally.

"This should be an easy assignment even for you. It's a transport mission," the CO said as though Jensen was paying full attention. "They need to run supplies to a colony that's in the Grey zone. It's been on its own for a while, but there's a good chance the ship will run into our forces. With the pirates in the area, we've had to ramp up our patrols. That shipment will never get through unless we have an agent on hand. And since we are supposed to be doing our best to solidify diplomatic relations, we need to cooperate.”

Jensen didn't miss the subtle hint in that last word.

"All you have to do is show your credentials to any Earth Force ship that requests it."

"Yes sir," she replied, waited to see if he had anything else to say, then saluted and headed out the door.

She glanced back at her orders. The Tharan ship was already in dock. She'd have to hurry and pack as it was scheduled to leave in just a few hours.

"Jen!" a bright, cheerful voice said behind her as footsteps hurried to catch up. "What kind of trouble are you in this time?" her best friend Marg asked.

Jensen forwarded the orders through her wristcom.

"Tharans? Is the CO nuts? Doesn't he realize you almost started a war with the Ramibles the last time you went planet side?"

"That was hardly my fault," Jensen argued. "How was I supposed to know that ordering meat was against policy on the planet?"

Marg raised an eyebrow. "It was in the briefing."

Jensen said nothing as she read her orders again. "Well, I'm not screwing up this time."

"Mmhmm," her friend murmured. "Just in case I'll help you get ready and make sure you know the latest protocol concerning Tharans. By the way, have you ordered your food rations yet?"

With a big sigh, Jensen answered, "No but we'd better do that first because I leave in less than two hours."


Most of the time the EF chain of command moved slowly and methodically, but when it came to an emergency, all the cogs responded quickly. Jensen had been on the wrong side of such actions before, but this time, she quietly approved of the swiftness. All she had to do was walk into the Quartermaster's office, scan her ID, and verify her orders. Her request for food, sanitary supplies, and gear had already been approved. She was assured that everything would be on the ship before it took off.

Next, she headed to her quarters with Marg in tow, for personal belongings. The screen of her computer lit up as the two stepped inside, illuminating the small room. The sheets wrapped the bed in a tight, wrinkle-free embrace. A few odds and ends sat on the shelves.

"How you keep manage to keep your room so neat while the rest of your life such a mess, I'll never figure out," Marg commented.

Jensen didn't answer as she walked to the storage cabinet and began pulling out clothes. Marg wasn't lying. She was only mediocre at best at her job. Some of her personal choices hadn't been the smartest ones. She knew she wasn't the only person who could understand Tharan, but because of certain incidents on her record, she was more expendable than most. If things went FUBAR, well, her life wouldn't tilt the balance much.

"Oh don't worry about uniforms," Marg reminded her before she began pulling those out. "You'll be wearing the diplomatic escort style."

"Good to know," Jensen replied as she pulled out her best station uniform then pulled a couple of her older jumpsuits out. At her friend's frown, she explained. "I've never been on a ship yet where I didn't have to crawl in some dirty hole to repair something."

Marg shrugged. "Good point."

The two of them filled two bags with the necessities for the two-month trip. Jensen changed into a diplomatic escort uniform that arrived shortly after she started packing then looked around the room a moment before she reached under the bed for the repair tools she had stashed in a bin. "Just in case you know."

"Those will probably just sit in your bag, why waste the space?" Marg said. "You really should trust your CO more."

Jensen nodded and stuffed the repair tools in the bottom of her bag. "Look, I'm heading out on a mission with some aliens we are just barely friendly with. I'm taking everything I can just in case something happens out there."


The Tharan ship was unlike every spacecraft Jensen had ever seen. Unlike human vehicles, which tended towards either sharp angles or rounded lines, the brightly colored ship reminded Jensen of a tree. The core of the vehicle was tubular with strange appendage-looking projections in the front. During her studies, she had learned that the Tharan used those appendages to anchor the ships in their own stations. They also transferred fuel, waste, and other things.

Two-thirds of the way down from the nose other structures branched out. The largest were propulsion modules; smaller ones were stabilizers, communication antennae, and others that performed other various functions. The Tharan ships were semi-organic and came in many types, but this one seemed to be a small hauler series. It had limited weaponry, and the hull seemed flattened compared to some of the fighter ships she had viewed on screen.

Before the ship stood her CO and four creatures. Jensen hadn't seen a Tharan up close, only a few humans had—although now that there was a treaty in place, encounters were more common. The Tharan were a bipedal race, but that's where the similarities to humans ended. Some people called them Snouts, as the Tharan had a short trunk on their face that ended in very flexible lips. Instead of skin and hair, Tharans were covered in scales, some of which were attached to long shafts that looked similar to feathers. The colors of the scales ranged from blue to green, but a few instances of other colors had been noted. While they didn't wear clothes, they wore jewelry and had piercings that signified their rank. The aliens were long limbed and incredibly strong compared to humans.

Taking her other bag from Marg, Jensen squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and walked confidently forward. Of course, after about three steps she dragged her toe on the flight pad surface. The CO had his back to her and she noted the way his shoulders tensed, but the Tharans reacted much less subtlety than she expected. The three turned their heads, and the scaled shafts lifted, making them seem larger and much more threatening.

Jensen stopped two meters away, feeling her cheeks heat up, and stood still until her CO turned to see what was going on. A raised eyebrow and shake of the head showed his disapproval.  He motioned her forward as he turned back to the Tharans.

"And here we have your escort, Specialist Jensen Harding," he said into a small box. A moment later a gurgled mumble emanated.

Jensen noticed the stiffness in the way the Tharans stood and the way they clenched their fists. Her studies had told her they used more body language than vocalizations. It wasn't difficult to see the aliens weren't any happier than she was about this mission. She lowered her eyes and softened her own stance before she said in their tongue. "I am pleased to accompany you."

The largest Tharan tilted its head and the muscles around its lips pulled back. "We are not pleased."

Jensen had a feeling this would be a long couple of months.


At least the Tharans weren't overtly aggressive, although they made it plain they were not happy to have a human on their ship. Mostly, they ignored her presence, but she caught many comments that could be considered rude.

A room on the ship was equipped for human use, complete with a bathroom, shower, and bed. It was clearly EF equipment for planet-side deployment, which meant that things didn't always work properly. The Tharan's home world was more desert-like, and scales took less daily maintenance than human skin and hair. The dry air made her skin itchy and the temperatures were almost uncomfortable. While she should have worn her escort uniforms at all times, Jensen found she wished she had stuffed more jumpsuits into her bags. They, at least, were cooler.

Jensen flipped through the water filtration manual again, hoping for some sort of hint as to why the darn machine still wasn't working correctly. She had followed all instructions on the maintenance files and had gone ahead and changed out the parts that should have been changed before undocking. This unit was old and in disrepair. Either this trip was a true last minute emergency or it was expected to fail. Her suspicions were confirmed when the filtration unit was covered in slime as she pulled it out. She had never heard of a diplomatic mission so badly provisioned.

Although she had put the filtration machine back together, what was coming out of the spigot wasn't anything she was willing to drink, or bathe in for that matter. The user manual wasn't any help. Jensen pulled out the pack of tools she had brought along.

"Let's just see what's really going on here," she snarled to herself as she pulled out the tools to open the back casing.


An hour later, her door opened unexpectedly. Jensen was on her knees, head and shoulders deep in the machine as someone stepped in. So used to being around humans Jensen muttered "Just a moment, I've almost got it," before she remembered where she was and why she was here.

She jerked her head out and looked at the intruder.

The smallest of the Tharans, who had a green and amber tint to its scales, froze at her voice and the chaos around her. Panels, bits of tubing, a few wires, and even a circuit board were scattered around like discarded toys. It was a mess to the uninformed eye; however, Jensen knew what each piece was and where it went.

"Broken," she told it and pointed to the water recycler.

Its eyes darted to the machine and back to her. It took Jensen a moment to realize that no one on board had seen her in anything but her official uniforms. She had donned one of her old jumpsuits and a quick glance at her arms told her that things had gotten messy.

Tharans didn't wear clothing; they had very little need to. The brief visit to the station had revealed many humans, but mostly in the same uniform type. The thought that a human could look so different hadn't even crossed their minds. Jensen wondered what kind of response she'd get if they saw her naked or in non-regulation clothes.

She dragged her mind back as she noticed the smaller Tharan relaxing slightly. Jensen tugged at her sleeve revealing clean skin. "Clothing," she said in standard then changed to Tharan as she tried to explain. "Skin, clean. No scales. More maintenance."

This apparently fascinated the Tharan as it stepped closer and reached out a long limb to her. Jensen stretched out her hand and allowed it to touch her. It made an unfamiliar sound like rolling Rs before it pulled its hand back and turned its attention to the dismantled water recycler. "Broken?"

"Yes," she said, "but not for long." She had found the problem and had been retracing her steps as she put things back together. The issue, a cracked hose. While there was no replacement part, she had a roll of fix-all tape. It wasn't an ideal repair, but it would probably hold until the mission was complete.

Jensen picked at the end of the roll and teased the edge up. She grasped it with her thumb and forefinger and pulled.

After a few tries, a few snarls, and a wadded ball of wasted fix-all tape, Jensen was fairly confident that the leak was fixed.  The small, green Tharan had watched her with interest.


She stayed in her room for the first week, except for using the main computer for updates on the mission to her CO and to make sure that everything was going well. The water recycler was finally working properly. The Tharans pointedly ignored her, except for the small, green one. Jensen spent much of that first week reading updates on what others had learned about the aliens.

But research could only occupy her time for so long.

After putting on one of the good uniforms, she opened the door to her room and felt the rush of heat that her ship mates enjoyed. She had plugged up most of the vents, which made her room almost comfortable, but stepping out meant that she'd be sweating in just a few minutes. She made her way to the front of the ship, where two of the Tharans were always stationed.

Today the largest and a dark blue alien piloted the ship. Just as she walked through the doorway, she stumbled a little on the slightly raised surface. The smaller one turned. "Your presence has not been requested," it growled.

"No, but I have not been restricted to my room. I'd like to observe."

The smaller Tharan glanced at the larger one. It turned and seemed to consider the request before it turned back to its duties. "Observe."

Jensen took that as permission and stood next to the door. After a few hours, she found little of interest. While she could read Tharan, the flashing lights on the screens had no signifiers, so that meant nothing. Standing at attention for long periods wasn't one of her best qualities, so she began to look for something to at least casually lean against.

The Tharan cockpit was sparse. Only two seats and two command panels. The smaller Tharan sat at the forward station and the larger one sat at the one nearest the door. The walls were lined with a dull silver metal that seemed a bit cooler as Jensen edged her way a bit farther from the door. Once she knew that she wouldn't fall backwards if someone opened the door behind her, she casually leaned back.

An alarm sounded, as lights flashed and the ship shook. Jensen jumped forward just as the two Tharans looked her way. She looked behind her to see the panels she had leaned up against, lit up with colored lights, flashing in time to the sirens.

"Sorry," she yelled as she ran back to her room.


She looked through her gear again. "Where is it?" she growled to the empty room. Chills caused goose bumps to crawl up her arms. Of all the things that modern medicine had cured, the common cold wasn't one of them. Her kit was supposed to include medical supplies; however, she had yet to find them. She'd have to take a peek at the cargo container to see if the kit was there. That meant going outside her room.

Luckily, human diseases didn't affect Tharans, but she was sure they'd be alarmed. Jensen had already taken a look at herself in the small mirror. Her eyes were bloodshot, her skin pale, but her cheeks were rosy with fever. She had already soaked the jumper she wore with sweat. A slight cough was quickly deepening into something much worse, and her nose was running. Hopefully, she'd be able to dash to the cargo hold, find the medical supplies, and get back to her room without meeting any of her crew mates.

Luck wasn't with her. Not far from the cargo bay she came face to face with the smallest of the crew. The green Tharan stood frozen as she came around the corner. Jensen had begun to develop a relationship with this alien. As the lowest rank on the ship, it was assigned much of the repair and grunt work. When she was able, Jensen helped with minor repairs. Slowly the Tharan had begun to act less hostile and even greeted her by name. At least until now.

It squealed. The unfamiliar sound cut through her headache, making her flinch, and echoed in the ship. Before she knew it, the other three Tharans surrounded her.

The largest, whom she had begun to call "Captain," showed a full aggression display. The feather-scales were upraised, and it held its body stiffly. "What is this?" it growled.

"Sick," she replied. "Virus, don't worry, it won't affect you. I just need to get the med kit in the cargo container."


Jensen nodded carefully. "Not serious. I'll be fine in a few days."

Apparently, this was not a good answer as the larger Tharan showed more aggression and hissed at her.

A cough crept into her chest that she couldn't hold back. It startled the four aliens into jumping back. "Listen," she said, "I just need the medicine and some rest."

The smaller Tharan moved forward first. "I check, you stay in there." It pointed back down the hall to her room. It looked to the other three who were still clearly startled. Finally, the largest seemed to settle. Jensen took that as assent and walked back to her room and closed the door. New chills ran down her body so she crawled into bed. Fever dreams chased her into sleep.


She didn't know what time it was let alone what day it was. Muscles ached like she had gone through basic again. Her head fuzzy from fever and dehydration. Her lips chapped and her skin tight.

Jensen sat up and realized the ship wasn't moving. The soft rumble of the engine had died to a low whisper. When she had lain down, they were still five days out from their destination. It was possible she had slept that long but highly doubtful. She wasn't feeling good enough for that.

She got up out of bed and immediately regretted the change in altitude. Her vision darkened before it regained normalcy. Stumbling, she headed to the bathroom before finding out what was going on. The screen on the wall blinked and came to life. Tharan script flashed.

Enemy faction. Boarded. Stay.

"Lovely," she said to herself. While the Tharan fronted a unified body to the EF, in reality, they were factions of the same species. The most war-like populated most of the military; more peaceful sects colonized worlds. While the Tharans and the EF were standing off against each other, much of the disagreements between factions had been set aside, but now, those rough spots were showing through. Jensen wasn't sure what faction her crew was, but they weren't the most aggressive. She was sure of it.

Which meant it was probably a highly aggressive faction that had boarded. There had been several reports of Tharan pirates in the area, which was why the EF had patrols out this far in the Grey zone.

The ship wasn't large. It was somewhat crowded with the five of them. A boarding party would probably consist of only a few Tharan, five at the most. They'd be after the cargo, not the crew. Since the ship was currently stopped, it meant there was a good chance the pirates were still aboard.

Anger started to boil up. This was her mission. She wasn't about to stay here and let things go wrong. But she'd have to be smart about it. A plan began to bubble in her fever-crazed head. Jensen looked in the mirror. She wasn't for sure but there was a good chance she looked worse than earlier. Certainly, her hair made her look like she was crazy. Maybe it could work to her advantage.


Jensen moved quietly through the ship. As expected, no one was in the cockpit area, so she started to move towards the aft. She paused before she left the control center and slapped at the panel beside the door. Sirens and lights began to flash as she hurried down the corridor.

She had pulled on her oldest, most stained jumpsuit. With a few cosmetics, she painted bright lines over her wrists and under her eyes. She pulled some of the trim off of her other uniforms and used it to tie her hair into wild tails. If any of her crew mates had seen her, they'd have been sure she was nuts.

Perhaps she was, she thought as she moved through an alien ship to confront the pirates. The thought made her giggle a little then cough.

The sound drew the attention of an unfamiliar Tharan. It spotted her and began to shriek, but she growled and rushed forward raising her arms. The Tharan squawked and then ducked back into the cargo bay.

She followed right on its heels.

Her four crew mates huddled in the corner of the bay. In the middle of the room, six more Tharans stood over her crew. The largest was taller than Captain and had a purple sheen at the edges of its dark blue scales. The others were smaller, in colors ranging from nearly black to a pale blue. The strange aliens were in full aggressive display, clenching their long hands and standing as tall as they could.

Jensen had seen it before and had learned something in her studies.

Growling and stomping, she approached the group of pirates. She hissed and lunged and as she got closer, the aggression display of the pirates began to erode. The blue and purple Tharan began to lower its feather scales and shrink. The other Tharans cowered as she got within touching distance.

"Mine," she shouted at them.

They flinched, ducked and began crooning at her.


The unfamiliar aliens glanced at the larger one. It had recovered its confidence, the feather scales began to lift.

Then Jensen sneezed. Not a cute little baby sneeze, but the sort of explosive sneeze that comes only from the vile infection she had been suffering from. She didn't even have time to turn her head; it simply exploded from her.

And sprayed the aliens with thick, wet speckles of mucus.

The confidence of the pirates dissipated. If they had been dogs they would have tucked their tails and run. Instead, they backed out of the room in the most immediate way. Jensen didn't follow but listened as they moved back through the ship to the docking bay. She heard the rush of the door, then sounds of something unhitching.

She approached her crew. "Injuries?" she asked.

None of the four would look at her. They kept their heads low. A cough deep in her chest began to build again. It nearly doubled her over as she tried to wheeze a breath. The world around her spun a moment, but a firm hand held her upright. The smallest Tharan steadied her carefully.

When the cargo room stopped spinning she glanced back at the aliens. The feather-scales on Captain's body had lowered, and it seemed more relaxed.

"I'll just go back to my room now," Jensen told them. Now that the emergency was over, fear began to clutch at her. She didn't have any authority to act in conflicts between the Tharans. Who knows how many treaties she violated? The CO wasn't going to be happy.

She'd deal with it later, she told herself as she began to head back to her room.

A garbled noise made her stop. She had to think a moment in order to translate the word. Finally, she came up with the closest translation: Appreciated.

She turned to see the Captain once more standing upright and calm. Bowing her head she smiled as relief flooded her. Maybe it wasn't the mission her CO had intended but she'd take it as a success.



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