Star Light, Star Bright by Nina Shepardson

August 2023 | Utopia Science Fiction Magazine

Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
21 min readAug 30, 2023

Abhay Subramanian paced in circles around the bridge of the Goddard. The holographic display hanging in midair at the front of the room showed an image of the star system they were approaching. Although he knew it wouldn’t make a difference, Abhay couldn’t resist the urge to lean forward and peer at it, as if there were some tiny detail he was missing. Had the system truly been abandoned for uncounted centuries, the signal they’d detected the last cry of a long-dead civilization? Or was he about to make one of the most momentous discoveries in human history?

There was no doubt that there had been a civilization here at some point. The readings were proof of that. Pulsars were a well-known phenomenon, and even variable stars, whose pulses were irregular, weren’t unheard of. But no star would naturally pulse in the first ten digits of pi.

“Switch sails to braking configuration,” he ordered.

“Switching sails,” Alice Pindris confirmed. She swiped her fingers across her holo-console. The main display switched to an image of the photon sail that trailed behind the Goddard. With a grace that belied its enormous size, the alumina sheet split into two pieces that shifted into a precise orientation. Now, instead of speeding them on their way to the destination star, the laser beam sent from the colony at Kepler-438 would reflect from the outer sail onto the inner one, countering their momentum and slowing them down.

“J’Erisen, are we picking up any signals that could potentially be a form of communication? Any clearly artificial objects in the system?”

J’Erisen’s fingers poked at his console. “No signals other than the star itself, Director. And I’m not picking up any indication of other ships.” He tapped his fingers and thumbs together, as he often did when he was thinking. The two thumbs on each of his hands were no shorter or thicker than the two fingers, but humans called them “thumbs” because they were opposed to the other digits. “I also don’t see any structures on the planets that are likely to have been built by a society with this level of technology.”

Abhay turned to one of the other stations, this one occupied by a human man with red hair and twinkling blue eyes. “Crispin, start broadcasting the Standard Greeting Signal.”

“It’s going out now, sir.”

Abhay forced himself to stop pacing, took his seat at the central station, and waited for an answer.


Abhay shoveled another forkful of noodles into his mouth. Ship’s meals were designed to be suitable for long-term storage, both in terms of perishability and space required. While taste and variety had both been dramatically improved over humanity’s spacefaring history, the military personnel on the ship still referred to them as MREs (which, depending on who you asked, stood for either “Meals Ready to Eat” or “Meals Rarely Edible”).

With his other hand, Abhay gestured at the holo-display shimmering above his desk, moving an embedded video of the star from one section of his report to another. Abhay was used to writing reports. As a junior engineer on one of Marimbrium Corporation’s exploratory vessels, he’d written reports for the senior engineer. After being promoted to senior engineer, he’d written reports for the director. Now that he was a director, he wrote reports to the central project liaison. Reports seemed to be one of the fundamental constants of the universe.

Both his meal and his latest exercise in boredom were interrupted by a blaring intercom. “Answer call.”

A beep acknowledged the command, and the excited voice of Yan, the night shift communications specialist, came through. “The signal has changed, sir. It’s now repeating our Standard Greeting Signal.”

Abhay swallowed an exuberant “Yes!” He contented himself with the more professional-sounding, “Tell J’Erisen to come to my office.”

The lanky native of the Barnard’s Star system entered the office and sat down without ever taking his eyes off the tablet in his hands. His face was flushed a deeper green than usual.

“Well, what do you think?”

“There’s no doubt, Director. The signal has obviously changed, which means it isn’t just a pre-recorded message. Someone must be present in the here and now to have received our signal and changed their own message to replicate it.”

“Then it’s true! Do you have any idea what this means, J’Erisen? A species capable of manipulating the total energy output of a star!”

“If they’re friendly and willing to share their technology, it could represent a quantum leap forward for the Intersolar Confederacy. If they’re unfriendly…”

Abhay waved a hand, as if brushing away a gnat. “If they were unfriendly, they could have obliterated us the moment we entered the system.” He pushed himself from the chair and started to circle the room. “The question is, where are they? Why haven’t we seen their ship or station or whatever they have?”

J’Erisen tapped his fingers and thumbs together. “A society that could manipulate energy on the scale of a star might be able to build ships that don’t bleed off a significant amount of waste heat into the space around them. Since that’s our primary method of detecting other ships, it would render them effectively invisible.”

“Well, keep trying to find them.” Abhay tried not to wince. Yes, because I actually need to tell him to do that.

“Of course.” J’Erisen stood. “Oh, by the way, Doctor Hanscomb and I were planning to get together for a couple of games of almazek after dinner tomorrow.”

“He’s still practicing for the tournament?”

“At this point, I think he’ll keep practicing after the tournament’s over, just on instinct. Anyway, I was going to ask if you wanted to join us.”

Abhay had moved his holo-display off to the side while talking to J’Erisen. He squinted at it. If I finish up the report and send it off tonight…

He smiled. “Sure.”


Abhay’s fingers twitched over the yellow disk. The green disk hovered at the edge of his vision, taunting him with the prospect of more points. It was also a riskier move, but he was only ten points ahead of Hanscomb. I think I need to take the risk. He tapped the green disk and sat back in his chair.

Abhay had been on his college’s almazek team, but he was out of practice and lost the game to Hanscomb after a few more turns. He and J’Erisen switched seats so the Barnardian and the doctor could play a round. Watching them, Abhay thought that Hanscomb’s opponents in the tournament would have their work cut out for them.

“Excuse me, Director.”

Abhay looked up and saw Alice Pindris standing at the edge of the area set aside for game tables. Behind her, the holo-display at the other end of the recreation room was showing a news broadcast. “Hi there, Alice. You want to help with Mark’s tourney practice?”

Alice shifted from one foot to the other. “Um, well, I saw you weren’t playing and figured you might want a game.”

“Sure.” He gestured to the next table over.

Hanscomb looked up from the array of disks. “We can switch partners after we’ve each done a game, if you want.”

Alice nodded and sat down across from Abhay at the empty table.

“I didn’t know you were interested in almazek,” Abhay said after the third turn. He already had a good-sized lead.

“Oh, I’m not. I mean, I don’t hate it, but it’s not really my thing.”


Alice glanced over to where four of her crewmates were watching the holo-display. “They’re doing a lot of coverage of the situation at Kepler, and I guess I needed a distraction.”

Abhay followed her gaze. The sound on the display was off so as not to bother the people reading or playing games, but a caption scrolled across the bottom of the image. “The Administrator has rejected the latest offer from the IC Parliament, insisting once again that the Kepler colony be granted fully independent status.” He nodded. “I know things are pretty tense, but we’ve been through this before with the Lunar and Martian colonies. We’ve got experience that’ll help us work this out peacefully.”

Alice’s shoulders relaxed a little, and she poked at the blue disk. “You’re probably right.”


J’Erisen adjusted the settings on his holo-display projector. The screen expanded to cover three of the walls of his cabin. Images flickered into view, showing the rest of the communications team as if they were all sitting around a conference table. After briefly confirming that everyone was up-to-date with the situation regarding the unknown entity, he asked, “Does anyone have any ideas about how we might be able to establish communication with it?”

Clementine leaned forward, auburn curls spilling over her shoulders. “They’ve acknowledged our Standard Greeting Signal by repeating it back to us, but we have no idea if they really understand it. It contains a lot more complex information than the simple mathematical sequences they were sending out on their own. If their natural method of communication is radically different from ours, they might not be able to decipher it.”

“What are you thinking?” Yan asked.

Clementine spread her hands. “There are species on Earth that communicate concepts using pheromones or colors or body movements. What if we pair concepts we want to convey to this entity with a chemical structure or something like that? Make a bridge between our words and other ways someone might communicate?”

“We could put some little holo-display projectors on the hull to make lights,” Antoine suggested.

Yan snapped her fingers. “What about pairing words with their translations in American Sign Language? Maybe they’ll understand a gestural language better than a spoken one.”

Clementine had turned to the side, clearly consulting a supplemental holo-display. “According to our records, the Talar have been through this region. There’s no indication that they encountered an unknown intelligence, but it’s not exactly an exhaustive report. We could try translating the SGS into Talar.”

Nodding wasn’t the way Barnardians naturally showed affirmation, but with a mostly human team, J’Erisen had trained himself to do it. “Those are all good ideas. Translating the SGS into Talar is the easiest to implement, so let’s start with that. Clem, you’re the best Talar speaker here, so I want you to take charge.”

“I’ll want to check a couple of things with O’Malley’s lexicon, but it shouldn’t be too hard.”

Antoine snorted.

“Antoine, is there a problem?”

“Ciaran O’Malley’s been one of the biggest agitators for Keplerite independence.” Antoine leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “I don’t like the idea of using his work for something where we’re supposed to be representing everyone.”

Clementine rolled her eyes. “The Keplerites basically were independent for a decade. They had to be. And the design flaw that took the FTL ships offline for that time was an Earthborn engineer’s fault. Maybe after all that, we should be willing to treat them as equals.”

Antoine cast a disbelieving look to his right, which was clearly where Clementine was showing up on his holo-display.

J’Erisen opened his mouth to cut off the budding argument, but Yan beat him to it. “Guys, this project is important. We’ve got to use whatever resources give us the best chance of talking to whoever’s out there.” She paused, and her eyes flicked to each of her combative colleagues. “Besides, imagine if these super-advanced aliens figure out we’ve been arguing about politics. They’ll be like, ‘Nope, I’m gonna shut up now and hope the primitives go away.’”

Antoine sat back in his chair and sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. I guess I got a little carried away.”

Clementine shrugged. “It happens.”

J’Erisen rolled his shoulders in the Barnardian equivalent of a smile. If she keeps showing conflict-resolution skills like that, she’ll be ready to lead her own team soon. “Okay, let’s get started with the Talar plan. If that doesn’t work, we’ve got plenty of good backups on the table.”

After various indications of agreement, everyone signed off.


“Director, we’ve got it! I mean, we’re getting it! I mean, we’re getting something!” Yan sprang up from her seat.

Abhay wasn’t supposed to be awake, but he couldn’t bear to sleep through the moment that could change humanity’s course forever. He reached up and let his fingers brush the electrodes that stimulated some brain regions and depressed others, putting off the need to sleep. It was much more sophisticated than the chemicals people had taken in the old days, but it could still only go on for so long. “Tell me more, Yan.”

“It’s the original SGS we first sent, but some of the words have been replaced. With Talar, I think.” She held up a finger and tilted her head, listening to something in her earpiece. “Yes, it’s definitely Talar.”

A’Tevrik tapped her fingers and thumbs together. “Maybe they have some familiarity with Talar but aren’t fluent. They lined up the two languages and replaced the words they know.”

“Okay, that gives us a starting point.” Abhay propelled himself out of his chair and strode to a position next to Yan. “Let’s see if we can teach them some more Talar. If we can get them to understand the whole SGS, we can use that as a basis for further communication.”

“Will do, Director.”


“The big issue,” Yan said, “is the difference in anatomy. The Talar words for describing movement, orientation, and direction reflect the rotational symmetry of their bodies. We’re having a hard time asking about where the aliens came from or telling them what we look like when they don’t seem to understand those terms.”

“Hmm,” said Abhay. “Could we try transmitting images to bridge the gap in understanding? Send them pictures of ourselves?”

Yan smiled. “That’s exactly what J’Erisen wants to do.”

“Good, it sounds like you have this — ” Abhay broke off as his holo-display rose into view between him and Yan. It should only do that in an emergency. He tapped the flashing icon in the center of the display.

The worried face of a middle-aged human woman appeared. “Director Subramanian, I’m Alyssa Morgan, administrator of the Kepler-438 colony.”

Abhay was even more concerned now. He’d spoken with the director of Kepler’s interstellar laser facility before, but if the chief executive of the whole colony was on the line with him, something momentous must have happened. “What’s on your mind, Administrator?”

“I’m afraid I have to give you some disturbing news. There’s been an attack here.”

Oh, Ganesha, no. “What kind of attack? Was anyone hurt?”

“The target was our laser facility. There were no fatalities, but the laser itself suffered catastrophic damage. We’ve got every engineer at the colony working on it, and we’ve requisitioned every replacement part we can, but…Director, I don’t think we’re going to be able to bring you home.”


Abhay frowned as words appeared on the holo-display in front of him. “I think it’s saying it doesn’t have a ship?”

J’Erisen nodded. “That’s been one of the many flowers that refuse to open. It claims to have no companions, no ship, no limbs, no ocular or vocal organs. No machinery to manipulate the star with, either.”

Abhay got up and circled his station. “What about the plan you and Yan came up with to communicate in pictures?”

“Oh, we’ve sent it plenty of pictures of ourselves. It seemed surprised that both humans and my people are bipedal. Since the Talar were the first sapients it encountered, it probably assumed any others would be like them.”

“But it hasn’t sent us images of itself in return?”

“Every time we ask, it just returns the images of Sol and Barnard’s Star we sent. Yan thinks it might be unwilling to show us what it looks like but considers a blunt refusal rude.”

“Okay, well, let’s try…” Abhay returned to his seat and tapped at the keyboard section of his holo-display. “Can you show us the leader of your people?” He broadcast the message along with a picture of Intersolar Confederacy President A’Lihev.

After a few minutes, more words appeared on the holo-display. “A leader is for a group. I am not a group. I am me. The name I used to speak to the Talar is Estheni. There is no me that is not Estheni.”

“Well, we’ve circled back around to it having no companions. At least we got a name this time,” Alice said. Although the dialogue with Estheni was primarily the responsibility of the communications team, everyone stationed in the command center was helping out. Until the engineering teams at Kepler managed to fix the laser, there wasn’t much else for anyone to do.

“You know,” J’Erisen said, “if Estheni really is alone out here, it’s a miracle we can talk to it at all. Any being that can stay sane in complete isolation must think really differently than we do.”

“Maybe that’s part of why we’re having so much trouble, even though we’re speaking the same language,” Abhay suggested.

“Director…” J’Erisen was tapping his fingers and thumbs together so fast, it sounded like a racing heartbeat.

“What is it, J’Erisen?”

“My Talar isn’t that great, so I didn’t realize this right away, but the name Estheni means something.”

“And the translation software isn’t handling it?”

“No, the software’s working just fine. The word has the diacritical marks that Talar uses to indicate a word should be pronounced phonetically.”

Abhay thought for a moment. “Oh! You mean it isn’t supposed to be translated. Like how no one calls our CEO ‘Sky’ even though that’s what the name ‘Sora’ means.”

“Exactly. But Estheni called that ‘the name I used to speak to the Talar,’ as if it just came up with that so the Talar would have something to call it. And it stands to reason that it would have picked a name that would tell them something about it.”

“Okay, so what does ‘estheni’ actually mean, then?”

J’Erisen had stopped tapping his fingers and was instead scratching his bald head in excitement. “It means ‘star’.”


A week after their breakthrough with Estheni, Abhay prowled the Goddard’s central corridor. This was his third circuit. He remembered Hanscomb’s comment when they’d first come on board. “Well, they’ve certainly picked the right ship for a director who walks in circles whenever he’s thinking hard.”

A week ago, when everyone had still been sure the damage to the laser was just a temporary setback, he’d practically bounced around the ship. Every news program in the IC was trumpeting the monumental discovery of a sapient star. There were exactly two crews in human history who could claim to have made first contact with spacefaring aliens, and now the personnel of the Goddard would stand beside them. They would be, as J’Erisen put it, the highest leaves on the tree.

That was if they ever got back to IC space.

After the latest news from Kepler, Abhay was no longer bouncing. The separatists had done a truly spectacular job wrecking the laser. Tsiolkovsky University had cannibalized some of their research equipment for parts, and other materials were being shipped in, but even the most optimistic estimates were putting repair times at two or three months. Even a personal call from Sora Yamaguchi couldn’t make a complex instrument magically fix itself.

“What about the FTL ships?” he asked.

The wrinkles in Administrator Morgan’s face looked deeper than they’d been the last time he’d talked to her. “All five of them are still dealing with the asteroid strike at the Barnardian colony in the Trappist system.”

Raised voices drew Abhay out of his reminiscence. Ahead of him, the door to the Garden — the hydroponics facility where some fresh vegetables were grown to supplement the pre-packaged ship’s meals — was open. Alice stood in the doorway, hands on her hips.

“Is something wrong, Alice?”

Alice turned to face him, as did a man whose blond hair was beginning to thin on top. A patch on his chest marked him as a member of the military detachment that had been sent on the Goddard in case the source of the mysterious signal proved to be hostile.

“I wanted to help out a bit in the Garden, Director,” Alice explained. “With the ship stranded, there isn’t exactly a lot for me to do.”

The look on her face reminded Abhay of the one he’d seen in a mirror the other day, pacing back and forth while talking to Hanscomb.

“I just don’t feel right sitting around while everyone else is working their asses off. I didn’t want to become a director so I could fob off problems on other people.”

Hanscomb cracked a smile. “As one of the people you’d be fobbing problems off on, I’m glad to hear that.” His smile faded as he sat back in his chair. “But it’s not good to try and do everyone’s job for them, either. When I was first promoted to Associate Director for Medical Staff, it took me a while to learn that.” His gaze fell to the table. “I’m lucky nobody died.”

Abhay nodded. “I don’t see a problem with that.”

“Well, neither did I, Director, but apparently Lieutenant Brantz does.”

Abhay turned to the man blocking the doorway. “Lieutenant?”

Brantz squared his shoulders. “Sir, in light of the terrorist attack that got us stuck here, I felt it would be prudent to limit access to the ship’s food supply by non-assigned personnel. Depending on how much longer it takes us to get home, a renewable supply of supplemental food could become very important.”

“I didn’t give any orders for such a restriction, Lieutenant. And even if I had, Alice’s cross-training in botany makes her qualified to look after the plants.”

“With all due respect, sir, I’m not concerned about her qualifications.”

Although Abhay knew where this was going, he raised his eyebrows as if in genuine curiosity. Maybe if Brantz had to say it out loud, he’d realize how stupid it was. “I can’t imagine what other considerations there’d be.”

“Well, sir, it was Ms. Pindris’s people who carried out the attack.”

“No, Lieutenant, it was not.”

“Sir, all the information we have — ”

“It was some people who happen to be from the same planet as Ms. Pindris.”

“But she — ”

Once again, Abhay overrode him. “She has an exemplary record — which you do not, as of this moment — and has the necessary qualifications to do what she’s asking to do.”

Brantz’s shoulders slumped, and he stepped out of the doorway. “Yes, sir. I was just trying to do my job, sir.”

“Your job is to maintain a state of readiness in case Estheni decides we’ve offended it somehow and tries to attack us. But we are all one crew here, regardless of where anyone was born. If you can’t wrap your mind around that, your job will be to sit in your room and explain to your commanding officer back home why he’s received a formal complaint from the Marimbrium Corporation. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

As Brantz sidled off down the hallway, Abhay turned back to Alice. “If you’re going to be checking on the plants regularly, I’d appreciate if you could make some notes, same as the dedicated agricultural staff do. If we need to stretch our food supply, keeping the plants healthy will be essential, so we can use as much data as possible.”

Alice flashed him a grateful smile. “Yes, Director.”


Abhay looked back and forth between the blue and yellow disks for a few seconds before tapping the yellow one. Alice barely hesitated before stabbing the green disk. Since their first game several weeks ago, she’d gotten much more confident in her play.

Antoine and Clementine entered the recreation room and walked over to one of the other tables. Antoine glanced at them, paused, and nodded at Abhay. Abhay returned the gesture. He’d been making an effort to spend some time in the recreation room with Alice and the other two crewmembers from the Kepler system, partly to show people that the director wasn’t panicking over the situation, and partly to show that his Keplerite subordinates had his trust. So far, there hadn’t been any other incidents like the one with Brantz.

“Director, I had an idea I was hoping to run by you,” Alice said.

Abhay looked up from his scrutiny of the disks, giving Alice his full attention.

“We’ve made some headway in talking to Estheni, right?”

“Yes, J’Erisen and his team have made a lot of progress.” Not being able to help with the propulsion situation, the linguists had been determined to contribute in other ways and had redoubled their efforts to achieve clearer communication with Estheni. Their efforts had paid off. They were pretty sure Estheni understood that humans came from the Sol system, that they were part of an interstellar community with the Barnardians, and that they traded with the Talar. In exchange, they’d learned that Estheni had been aware of other sapient life in the region for a long time but hadn’t been interested in reaching out until it had met the Talar. Real-time communication with another species seemed to have awakened its sense of curiosity.

“Well, I was thinking, we know Estheni can modulate its own output. And at its most fundamental level, a laser is a tightly constrained output of light. Is there any chance Estheni could help get us home?”

Abhay rose from his chair, the familiar urge to pace making itself felt, then sat back down. “The beam would need to be much more coherent than anything we’ve seen from Estheni so far to be useful. And I don’t know if we have the ability to even explain what we need.” Abhay remembered the latest reports from Hanscomb and the quartermaster. To get home without stretching their supplies too far, some of the crew would have to take medication to slow their metabolism. “But I don’t think we have anything to lose by trying.”


Three weeks later, Abhay’s habitual pacing had become a façade.

The engineering and linguistics teams had cobbled together a message for Estheni explaining the Goddard’s plight and asking for help. From the start, it had been obvious that Estheni was willing — even eager — to offer them any aid it could.

“From what we can tell, its interaction with the Talar piqued its curiosity about humanoid life,” J’Erisen had said. “It seems very interested in the idea of community. Helping us would let it experience the feeling of working together with other beings toward a shared goal.”

There had, of course, been some difficulty in conveying the details of what they needed. At first, Estheni had thought they were a colony ship and had granted them permission to settle on one of its four orbiting worlds. That would have been a reasonable last-resort plan if any of those planets had been habitable to them. It had been intrigued by the idea that it could be a power source for their ship and had dutifully set about scrunching regions of its photosphere into different configurations.

Abhay wasn’t sure if Estheni truly understood the seriousness of the matter. It seemed to treat the whole thing as a science experiment. Maybe it’s better that way. Estheni had reached out into the dark and sought to understand beings immeasurably different from itself. What would it be like to do that, only to discover that you held those beings’ lives in your (entirely metaphorical) hands?

“Estheni’s reporting that it’s ready to make another attempt,” Crispin announced.

Estheni had tried one permutation after another, and none of them had worked. Although it never became discouraged, the same couldn’t be said of the crew. That was the main reason Abhay kept up his pacing. Slumping in his chair, which was what he really wanted to do, would make him look like he’d lost hope, and that would only worsen morale.

At the start of this, Abhay had braced himself every time Crispin said that, but now he just said, “Proceed” as he sat back down.

Like the attempt itself, the visual effect had once awed Abhay but now only provoked a flicker of appreciation. On his holo-display, Estheni’s photosphere swirled like mist. Incandescent gas spiraled tighter and tighter. It was primal, Prometheus’s fire not stolen but given freely. Despite himself, Abhay imagined astronomers on Earth and Proxima and Kepler watching as it lanced out from the surface, hoping it would speed their lost ship home.

The beam hit the latest configuration of their photon sail. Alice had designed it and then modified it at a suggestion from Brantz, who had made the recommendation while staring at a point about three feet above and to the left of her head. Abhay’s fingers clenched the arms of his chair as the Goddard began to move, but he forced them to relax.

As he had on every prior attempt, J’Erisen periodically called out their current speed. Abhay willed himself not to get his hopes up as they inched closer to their target. If the crew couldn’t see him hoping, they wouldn’t see his disappointment when it didn’t work.

None of Estheni’s previous manipulations of his own substance had gotten them past half their target speed. When J’Erisen announced that they’d hit the fifty percent mark, his cheeks flushed green.

Abhay caught his fingers clenching again and stretched them. No. Stay calm.

At seventy percent, Crispin stood up from his chair and leaned forward over his console. His face penetrated his personal holographic display, its light flickering over his skin and making his eyes glow.

At eighty percent, Abhay lost the battle and joined Crispin on his feet. “Just a little farther,” he whispered. “Give us a chance.”

“Ninety…” J’Erisen cleared his throat. “Ninety percent.”

Abhay imagined he could feel the Goddard straining to reach its appointed speed. Come on, come on.

J’Erisen leapt from his chair and rolled his shoulders. “One hundred percent! We have reached target speed! We’re going home!”

Proper director’s decorum or not, Abhay couldn’t resist whooping and pumping his fist in the air. “Crispin, send messages to Earth and Kepler. Tell them we’re on our way back!”

Crispin sat back down and carried out the order with a grin on his face. Then he said, “Director, we’re receiving a transmission from Estheni.”

The voice was toneless and affectless due to the vagaries of the translation software. “This is your needed thing, correct? This is success?”

“Yes, this is success. Thank you. All of us thank you.” He was beaming as he said it.

“Gratitude is going in the wrong direction. I spoke to Talar, but we did not build, create, make things happen. We have moved your ship together. This is a thing friends do, correct?”

Mackenzie. Thandiwe. Every schoolchild in the Intersolar Confederacy knew the names of the captains who had made first contact with the Barnardians and Talar. Not just because of the momentous scientific discoveries, but because they had allowed humanity to join hands with other people across the vastness of space. Now they would know the name Subramanian for the same reason.

And, he hoped, the name Estheni. “Yes, you’re right again. This is a thing friends do.”

The voice was still flat, but Abhay thought that if Estheni had a human face, it would have been smiling. “Then I am correct. Gratitude should be moving toward you. Thank you for letting me be a friend.”


Originally published in the August and October 2023 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.

Nina Shepardson (she/her) is a scientist who lives in New England with her husband and an ever-expanding collection of books. Her short fiction appears in On Spec, MetaStellar, and the BSFA’s Fission anthology series. She blogs at