Today's Reading

For lack of anything better to say, he swallowed hard and asked, "You got need of an extra hand?" 'Do better'. He'd practiced this. "I'm a good worker." That part was true. "Don't bring any trouble with me." That part wasn't. "All I need's a meal a day and passage to your next stop, wherever it is." Long as it was closer to the interior, it didn't much matter to him.

The stranger arched an eyebrow, still smiling that inscrutable smile. "Who couldn't use a bit more help every now and again?" Their voice, a clear middle tone as pleasant as their smile, somehow seemed to be coming from everywhere. Above him. Behind him. "But I think we could do better than a meal a day, Mister&" they trailed off, expectantly.

"Tegan," he said. He'd practiced that, too. 'My name's Tegan. Call me Tegan. Tegan, Tegan, Tegan.'

The stranger's nose gave the faintest wrinkle, but it disappeared so quickly Jal thought he might've imagined it. "Welcome aboard," they said. "I'm Captain Eoan." 'Oh-ahn,' deliberately, like they didn't expect people to get it right.

'I know that name.' He couldn't remember where he'd heard it, but he swore he knew it. 'Why do I know that name?' Something felt strange about that ship. Something was 'wrong'.

Eoan extended a hand from the trim of their flowing robes, and Jal, too flustered to do anything else, reached out to shake it. Or try to, at least. His fingers passed straight through. Static pricked his palm, charged particles suspended where skin and bone should've been. No heat, no cold, just a current that stood the hairs on his arm on end.

Eoan's dark eyes laughed. "Figure it out?" they asked, and once again, it sounded like they'd had this conversation a time or two.

It was another first for Jal, but though he never claimed to be the sharpest pick in the mine, he liked to think he wasn't the dullest, either. "You're AI."

"Less of the 'A', if you don't mind," Eoan replied, still smiling. "You of all people ought to know that being 'engineered' and being 'authentic' aren't mutually exclusive."

A chill washed down the back of his neck, sinking between the blades of his shoulders like a cold rain. "Me of all people," he echoed past the tightness in his throat. "All due respect, Captain, you don't know me."

"I suppose that's true," they said, thoughtfully, and damned if Jal couldn't hear the 'but' coming before their lips ever shaped the word. "But I know your name isn't Tegan. And I know that you look 'very' different from your enlistment photo. Gone a bit long in the hair, haven't we, Ranger Jalsen?"

They held out their hand, and his face—his 'enlistment photo'— appeared above their palm. It was like looking at a stranger, or maybe at a ghost. At the base of the photo, around his shoulders, scrolled a bright orange banner.


Jal's mouth went dry, fingertips tingling as his blood started pumping to more useful places. Heart. Lungs. Legs. 'You're wrong', he wanted to say. 'You've got me confused with somebody else'. But he couldn't find the words, or the air to speak them. 'They know. It was a trap. They saw me, and they opened the door, and they fucking know'. Except knowing was only half the problem; it was 'how' they could've known. Scanned his face or ran his prints, that part wasn't too tricky. But to match them to his enlistment record? The only folks who had access to Guild records were—'No'.

"Captain Eoan." It sounded like someone else speaking, someone far away and muffled by the roar of blood in his ears. He 'had' recognized that name, though it felt like a lifetime ago that he'd seen it on his transfer request form, right next to that damning red 'DENIED'. "'Guild' Captain Eoan."

"The one and only, as far as I'm aware."

His lungs wouldn't expand in his chest, heart beating against his ribs so hard it ached. Jal glanced down the hallway. Fewer doors meant fewer chances for Eoan to block him in; he could make a break for it. 'Run,' he thought. 'Fucking run'. Because the way he saw it, the only way out of the minefield he'd strolled into was his own two legs and a hell of a lot of distance. He'd deal with the door when he got there. Somehow.

"Please, don't," said Eoan, as if they knew.

Too late. He was already halfway down the hallway, banking off the corner where the hall curved around the mess. His boot treads were long gone, but the floor's diamond texture kept his feet under him as he sped toward the cargo bay.

Eoan flickered into place a few decs down the hall from him. "Please, Ranger Jalsen. There's really no reason—" That projection blinked out as Jal ran through it, and another one blinked into place by the sickroom door. "— to leave in such a rush. If we—" Past another one, and the next appeared in the doorway to the cargo bay, expression flat. "—could only take a moment to discuss, I'm sure we could get it all sorted—"


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