The scene: Leo, a new member of the Zodiac Team is being shown around the Team's stolen spaceship, The Wheel, by another team member called Cancer. He is taken to the mess where he meets some of his new comrades for the first time.
Leo found it hard not to stare at Capricorn. The man looked alien, with metallic, ridged horns curling backwards from his temples, over the top of his head, and down to below his shoulders. The gunmetal horns tapered into a tangle of silver wires that suddenly splayed out at the very tip of the each horn.
Cancer, sitting opposite Leo at the table, noticed the newcomer staring down the table. “Wait ‘til you see him plugged in,” he said, while noisily chewing his food.
Leo felt momentarily embarrassed and looked back down at his plate, pushing the rehydrated vegetables around with his knork.
“Don’t worry,” said Taurus, interjecting from Cancer’s left. “It takes some getting used to. Even creeps me out sometimes.”
“Mind if I sit here?”
Leo looked up to see a petite young woman, holding a steaming plateful of food. She smiled at him and glanced briefly at the table, then back at him.
“Sure, no problem,” he said, shuffling along the bench in an accommodating way.
“Thanks,” she said, nimbly stepping over the bench and sitting down in a fluid movement. “Not everyone likes me sitting next to them.”
“That’s because you steal other people’s rations,” said Cancer, protectively encircling his plate with his arm.
The woman ignored him. “I’m Aquarius,” she said, smiling sweetly at Leo. The dimples in her cheeks made her look child-like when she smiled. She had large, dark brown eyes with incredibly long lashes, a button nose, tiny lobeless ears, and behind them gen-engineered gill-sacs.
“Leo,” he said, offering her a hand.
“No…” Cancer groaned as she took hold of his hand and shook it gently. She didn’t let go. Leo had a strange sensation, as if he was being tickled on the inside of his forehead. He blinked, screwing his eyes tightly shut. Cancer reached over and smacked their hands, breaking their connection.
“Get out of his head,” he said, brusquely.
“Fine!” snapped Aquarius. Her smile was gone now. She stabbed several protein chunks on her plate with her knork and put them in her mouth. Chewing quickly, she began stabbing more protein.
“Ow,” said Leo rubbing his forehead with the back of his thumb. “What was that?”
“She’s an empath,” said Taurus as he put another knorkful of food into his mouth. Cancer grunted.
Leo looked at the girl next to him, who was now devouring her food with a very definite sense of purpose.
“You read my mind?” he asked.
“Your feelings,” she said, without looking at him.
“My feelings… oh, right, like I believe that.”
“You don’t trust him” – she pointed at Cancer with her knork – “you’re awed by him” – she pointed at Taurus –“ and you are weirded out by him” – she pointed at Capricorn.
Leo opened his mouth, then closed it again.
Taurus grinned. Surprisingly, so did Cancer. It seemed he didn’t mind being considered untrustworthy.
“Oh, and you were attracted to me,” she said as a coup de grace.
Leo decided not to say anything and begin eating again.
“And I’m flattered,” said Aquarius, unexpectedly. She was smiling again. “You’re not so bad-looking yourself.”
“I’m warning you,” said Cancer, leaning across the table and emphasising his point by pointing his knork at Leo. “Blink and she’ll have that food off your plate.”
“That was one time, Cancer,” said Aquarius in a frustrated tone.
Cancer made eye-contact with Leo and raised his eyebrows. Then he shook his head, looked away and started eating again.
“They’re synaptic exo-brain units,” said Taurus.
“The horns.” The broad-shouldered soldier used an elbow to point at Capricorn.
“What’s he doing?” asked Leo. The man with the exo-brain horns seemed in a near catatonic state. His eyes were closed, but his eyelids flickered as his eyeballs moved rapidly underneath them.
Taurus shrugged. “I don’t know. Calculating corespace co-ords or something.” He sighed. “Thing is, he does look weird. Almost not human. But he’s the only human I’ve ever met who gets corespace. Really gets it, I mean.”
“I understand it,” said Cancer flatly, as if correcting Taurus.
“Please,” said Taurus. “I’ve heard you explain it and I understood it, which means that either I’m smart enough to get corespace, or you don’t get it.”
Leo sensed the two of them had had this conversation before. Many times before.
“Do you know about corespace?” asked Aquarius, addressing Leo.
“Only what they told us at the Academy. That we exist in the surface layer of the universe expansion and below us are dimensions of space that don’t exist in the same way. A dense object falls into that space and can then re-surface at any point. One of my lecturers said it was as if we lived in the skin of an apple, and then when we wanted to go to another point on the apple, we burrowed through the core.” Leo felt pleased with his explanation.
“Oh, please, that is nothing like corespace,” said Cancer. “That’s an analogy for idiots.”
“Palloshan ballsacks Cancer, you couldn’t explain it any better,” said Taurus.
“I have explained it better! I’ve explained it to you!” said Cancer.
“What’s an apple?” asked Aquarius.
“It’s a vegetable they grow on Earth,” said Taurus to Aquarius, before turning back to Cancer. “And your explanation makes no sense.”
“That’s because it’s a paradox,” said Cancer.
“It’s a fruit,” said Leo to Aquarius. “An apple is a fruit.”
“Look, the only thing I know with any certainty is that I don’t know what corespace is.”
“Not what it is, where it is. It’s old time. Corespace travel is movement through time.”
“They grow on trees.”
“Well how does that make any sense?”
“Time is the unmappable dimension. So when you drop a dimension, the density matrix alters relativity.”
“We used to have an apple tree in our backyard.”
“That’s nonsense. All I know is that out here there is one rule. If it works, don’t question it, and if you question it, it won’t work!”
“Oh, you’re impossible.” Cancer crossed his arms and looked away from Taurus, who breathed out heavily in annoyance, paused momentarily to steady himself, then carried on eating.
“On my homeworld, we didn’t have any trees,” said Aquarius sadly. She sipped from her squeezemug. “We had kelp forest though, dozens of feet tall. I used to swim through them with my school-friends, every morning, as the sunlight shone down through the water on the edge of the reef.”
She looked at Leo directly, and smiled again. But this time her smile was tinged with sadness. The faint crowfeet wrinkles in the corners of her eyes turned downwards and became more visible. In her sadness, her real age percolated through her child-like features.
“It’s all gone, now,” she said softly, like an innocent who had seen too much to remain innocent. “The kelp burned when the Palloshan poisoned our oceans with the gill-rot and the acid-mute.”
There was an awkward silence as Aquarius stared into the middle-distance as if she could see through the mess table, the deckfloor, possibly even the hull of The Wheel. She snapped back from memory into real-time.
“You going to finish that?” asked Aquarius peering at Leo’s plate. Her own looked pristinely clean as if she had licked up every last crumb.
Cancer grinned evilly, an ‘I told you so’ smile on his face.
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