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We Have Always Been Here

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We Have Always Been Here

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Author: Lena Nguyen
Publisher: DAW Books, 2021
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Misanthropic psychologist Dr. Grace Park is placed on the Deucalion, a survey ship headed to an icy planet in an unexplored galaxy. Her purpose is to observe the thirteen human crew members aboard the ship--all specialists in their own fields--as they assess the colonization potential of the planet, Eos. But frictions develop as Park befriends the androids of the ship, preferring their company over the baffling complexity of humans, while the rest of the crew treats them with suspicion and even outright hostility.

Shortly after landing, the crew finds themselves trapped on the ship by a radiation storm, with no means of communication or escape until it passes--and that's when things begin to fall apart. Park's patients are falling prey to waking nightmares of helpless, tongueless insanity. The androids are behaving strangely. There are no windows aboard the ship. Paranoia is closing in, and soon Park is forced to confront the fact that nothing--neither her crew, nor their mission, nor the mysterious Eos itself--is as it seems.


Excerpt

1.

The day after they landed on the new planet, Park woke to a pair of strong metal arms pinning her down.

Against all instinct, she ignored her initial sense of terror and automatically relaxed her body; she recognized an android's grip when she felt it, and her rational mind-the one that overrode the panicky animal one-knew that it was impossible for an android to hurt her.

Still. It wasn't a comfortable thing to look around and realize she had no idea where she was. She tried to focus her unusually bleary eyesight on whoever was holding her: she'd had her vision genetically corrected a few years ago and had already forgotten what it was like to be poor-sighted, which didn't help the bubbling panic.

"Where am I?" she croaked. She noticed her lips were cracked and sore, but they'd been like that for months, dry from the endless vacuum of space.

The android above her turned their head, looking off to the side as if asking for permission to speak. She thought she could make out blond hair, twisted in a tourniquet-like braid. Ellenex, then, the ship's medical android. No other robot on the ship had yellow hair.

"Go away," commanded another voice, this one sharp and rigid. What she thought was Ellenex moved silently away, leaving Park blinded by the sterile white light the android's head had been blocking off. Then another person moved into her watery field of vision, and this one she recognized more clearly: Chanur. The ship's physician.

Park was in the medical bay.

Now she did panic, sitting up and clawing automatically at her arm; she ripped off whatever medical tab had been glued there and said thickly, "Am I sick?"

Sickness should have been impossible on their ship, she knew. All thirteen members of the Deucalion's human crew had been rigorously examined, scanned, and tested for disease prior to boarding for the ten-month journey to Eos. And with no foreign microbes in space, the chances of incurring infection en route were vanishingly small. But just last night, Park had been informed that the expedition's roboticist, Reimi Kisaragi, was indisposed and being held in quarantine. And if Park had caught whatever she had... well. The last time something like this had happened, an entire fleet of military vessels had been compromised, a foreign virus blazing through their ships like wildfire. Park remembered reading about it in the news before they left Earth: a biological attack by the rebels. No survivors.

Chanur watched her struggle with a thousand grim possibilities like a scientist watching a pinned insect squirm. Finally the doctor said, without warmth: "You're not sick. Not in the way you're thinking, anyway." She sounded genuinely disappointed by that fact.

Park frowned at her. "What do you mean?"

"You spent the entire night throwing up in the waste cubicle," Chanur answered in clipped tones, folding her arms as if it were Park's fault; as if she were a child who had misbehaved. The doctor was a native of Phobos, and her voice always had the flat, tight tones of a human whose larynx had shrunk a little in space. Actually, all of Chanur seemed a little shrunken, a little hard: she was a compact woman with iron-colored hair and eyes, and a mouth that was perpetually pursed. Park had always thought that she would be better suited as a roboticist rather than as a physician. Or as a coroner. Despite her reputation in the medical field, Chanur didn't like people very much. "You essentially passed out from dehydration. The janitor bot found you."

Something jolted at the back of Park's neck. "I don't remember that," she said automatically, tamping down the bubble of fear in her chest. Then she welded her mouth shut; Chanur was raising her eyebrows at her.

"Are you saying that I'm a liar?"

"No," Park said. She thought fast. She didn't remember going to the bathroom at all, let alone spending an entire night in there. But it was true that she had woken up space-sick and nauseous every day since they'd launched out of Baikonur; she had never left Earth before, had never worked with a flight crew of any kind, so was it that much of a stretch that the long journey had finally taken its toll on her?

But all night?

She needed information first, not a fight with the ship's only physician. "I'm sorry," Park said, squelching any emotion out of her voice. "It must be the sedatives, fogging my memory. I don't doubt your word, of course. I just don't remember."

Chanur grunted, unimpressed. "Someone put something in your food," she said, consulting the medical manifest in her hand. She said it in a bored tone, as if she were reporting a change in the weather. "Emesis tabs. Not taken from the stockroom, so it must have been from the culprit's personal stash."

Park clenched her jaw to keep it from slackening. "Who? Why?"

Chanur gave her a look. "I don't know who. As for the why-what do you think?"

Park pressed her lips together. She was not popular with the crew, everyone knew this; and some of the space-born had mocked her ongoing queasiness, going so far as to call her a "garn"-after Senator Andrew Garn, an Earth politician whose intestines had bottomed out during the first lambda space flight. And they hated her for her role on the ship, and for what had happened in Antarctica, and for any number of things-but she'd thought the hazing and pranks had stopped on Earth. To go as far as poisoning her food...

She jerked her thoughts away from the topic, despite the heartsick feeling in her chest. She needed time to regroup her thoughts, away from Chanur's unsympathetic gaze. She needed to talk to Dr. Keller and decide what should be done. There was no doubt in her mind that punishment ought to be meted out. But to whom-and by whom-was something she needed to consider.

"Will there be any long-term effects?" she heard herself ask, as if she was listening to her own voice from another room.

Chanur looked like she wanted to roll her eyes. "Teenagers eat emesis tabs with their meals to lose weight. You'll be fine."

She turned away, perhaps to begin the process of discharging her, so Park said, "How's Reimi?" The abruptness of it was gauche, but she hoped she could surprise Chanur into answering. "Has her condition... improved?"

The doctor's shoulders stiffened, but she didn't turn around. "Officer Kisaragi is in cryogenic stasis," she said finally.

Park hissed in a sharp intake of breath, as if Chanur had punched her. "Cryo?" she all but cried. Then she gentled her voice and said in an undertone: "Surely it can't be that bad?"

The last time she'd seen the roboticist, Reimi had complained of stomach upset, but otherwise she'd seemed fine. How could her sickness have gotten bad enough that the young woman was placed in the "freezer," as the spacers called it-and what were they going to do without her?

Reimi was the Deucalion's lone engineer: the only person with the knowledge to service the ship's vast governing systems and all thirteen of its androids. Park supposed the expedition could muddle through with the robots maintaining the ship-but what would happen when they fell into disrepair? Darkly she imagined an explosion in the ship's innards, the silent bloom of fire in space. She said aloud, "Ten months out from Earth-no foreign microbes, filtered air. How could she have gotten sick enough to warrant cryo? It couldn't be latent, could it? Something we missed in the scans?"

A disease, she meant: something that had lain dormant in Reimi's system all this time, only to surface now. The part of Park that had grown up in a crowded biodome shuddered. Just please tell me it's not contagious.

The corner of Chanur's mouth twitched. "It's confidential medical information, Park," she answered, looking back at her with disdain. "You know I can't disclose that to you. Surely things work the same way on Earth?"

Park ignored the jab. "Then why not keep her in quarantine, at least? That way she could work on the ship and the androids in isolation-or at least instruct someone else on how to do it remotely. Why cryo?"

If she's unconscious, she meant, how can she help us? The ISF was not paying billions of dollars for their mission's only engineer to be frozen as literal dead weight. But Chanur didn't answer, and something else occurred then to Park. "How do we know she wasn't poisoned, her food tampered with-like me?"

From over the top of her manifest, Chanur's gaze flicked over Park with the hard precision of a scalpel. "I don't know what it is you want from me," she said finally, tightly. Her lips barely moved, as if she were practicing ventriloquism. "It's classified and not under your purview. More than that, I didn't realize I needed your approval."

Park tried not to flinch at the obvious hostility of the statement. She was one of the two psychologists on the ship, charged with monitoring the crew's mental health; Chanur was the physician in charge of their physical wellbeing. That meant they were both medical professionals-Hippocratic sisters, Keller sometimes joked-but Chanur obviously saw their roles as completely separate from one another. Worse, she seemed to perceive Park as some kind of rival, or a threat.

Stop antagonizing her, Park told herself. Stop worsening this divide-she has access to information you'll need, and making her hate you even more is unwise. But she said instead: "Did ISF authorize the freezing? You don't need my approval-but did you get ISF's?"

Something flashed over Chanur's face, then: a movement of the cheek, a hardening at the corner of her mouth. Park grabbed at the data and tucked it away for future analysis, using her neural inlays. Chanur, seeing what she was doing, turned her back.

"Of course ISF authorized it," she said, busying herself with the console terminal installed into the medical bay's left wall. Her shoulders were tight with derision and scorn. "You really think anyone would let me put Kisaragi on ice without their say-so?"

"But no one prepped us beforehand," Park insisted, still watching the doctor's back. She was trying to parse through her body language, recording subtly on the inlays installed into her eyes. "I wasn't informed."

"That's not my problem," Chanur said. She looked back once, her eyes unfocusing slightly as she seemed to contact somebody on her own inlays. "Is it?"

"No," Park said. Now she backed off, wary of an outright power struggle. "I suppose it isn't. But what are we going to do about the ship? The androids?"

Chanur made a discourteous noise. "You can take care of them," she said. It was an insult, not an endorsement of Park's skills. "You've seemed to have made that your priority, anyway."

Park felt her stomach tighten. But before she could fire back a response, a pair of heavy, regular steps from farther back in the medical bay interrupted them both. The ship's custodian android, Jimex, rounded the corner, accompanied by Ellenex again. Both had tepidly curious expressions on their faces, and Jimex moved instantly to Park's side. Ellenex, whose crisp linen uniform and tinny voice reminded Park vaguely of the nanny android who had raised her, said mildly: "Hello. There are elevated stress indicators in your voices." Her pale eyes turned to Park's. "Is everything all right?"

"I'm fine, Ellenex," Park assured her, just as Chanur said with an expression of dislike: "I already told you to go away."

Ellenex nodded politely and left the room again, her pale hands clasped serenely in front of her like a nun's. Chanur said with disgust, "Rotten thing is malfunctioning. It doesn't listen to a word I say."

Maybe you shouldn't have frozen Reimi, then, Park wanted to reply, acid frustration simmering in her gut. She's the only one who can fix them, after all.

But she held her silence, and Jimex, who hadn't moved, turned to Park and said, "I hope you have recovered from your gastric distress, Dr. Park."

She couldn't keep her lips from quirking ruefully, looking at him. Because he looked so human, it was easy to forget that Jimex was a simple custodial android, a janitor robot tasked with sanitizing and organizing things aboard their research vessel. His was a primitive model, far more basic than Ellenex's nursing AI, and the disparity between even their speech patterns was vast. His was not a product line known for glowing conversation, or even polite conversation: he didn't know how things sounded.

Still. She found something about him charming, even childlike, even though he was a slim, platinum-haired adult male who towered over her. Looking at him standing beside her cot now, she supposed she could see why the other crewmembers disliked the sight of him: he looked ghostly in the medical bay's pale light, gaunt of frame and sporting colorless eyes and a stark, rigid face. She'd even heard some of them calling him "Ecto," after ectoplasm, that trail of ghostly slime. He certainly haunted the dark spaces of the ship like some lost spirit.

"I've recovered, thank you," she told him, almost wanting to pat his hand-though he wouldn't understand the gesture. "And thank you for bringing me to the medical bay. Dr. Chanur says you were the one who found me."

He looked at her steadily, not acknowledging her thanks. "Has a reason been determined for your illness?"

She glanced at Chanur. "Someone slipped emesis tabs into my food."

There was a short pause as the processors in Jimex's head whirred. He didn't seem to know how to respond.

"In your opinion," Park continued, fully aware of Chanur watching her now, "who on the ship do you think is most likely to do that?"

Jimex blinked slowly. The buzzing from his head increased. "I do not understand the question."

"Who, in your opinion, do you think would try to poison me?"

Chanur wheeled on her then, eyes flashing with disapproval. "It doesn't have an opinion, Park," she said tightly. "Being a machine."

There was a little silent beat as Park waited for Jimex to respond to that. But the custodial android said nothing to dispute the claim; he only stood there, looking at them placidly. Park could suddenly feel the chill emanating from the walls. Finally Chanur turned away again and said, "Now, if you don't have any questions regarding your own health, I'll ask you to leave, Park. You're fine, and some of us have actual work to do."

And go to hell to you, too, Park thought after, hurrying down the corridor a few minutes later with Jimex trailing her steps. She was eager to get away from the medical bay, eager to be alone with her thoughts-but just a few steps in, she slowed and put a hand out to his sleeve. "Take me to the service tunnel, please," Park whispered, hunching her shoulders a little in the dark. The tunnel between the medical bay and the ship's private quarters opened up before her like a throat. Normally she relied on the map in her neural inlays to guide her through the ship, but there was that swaying feeling in her head, a remnant of the tranquilizer tabs and her recent illness. Jimex nodded and began to lead her down the corridor, marching strangely like an executioner leading his victim to the gallows.

Copyright © 2021 by Lena Nguyen


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