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Chapter 01: In Which We Get a Late Start

Music wasn't the problem. Vil had packed up several of her favorite symphonies before leaving on assignment. The surveying mission was at the edge of known space, out where repeater buoys would be sparse and of dubious quality. Even if her link to the rest of the network went down, she had her music. Especially the treasured Alamiretsi Musical Institute recording of Eramaera Under the Thumb of Harmony's fifth symphony. She could have, and had, listened to it for days on end before.

Of course, she always pictured the music coming from her very nice speakers at her very nice bridge station at a very nice hour of the afternoon. Not at – Vil cracked one eye – six in the morning. Not from somewhere beneath her nest.

Vil rolled over and ran one hand over her spines.


Chimes sounded from the scuffed speakerbox bolted beside the door. “Yes, Surveyor Vil?”

“Do you have something you want to say to me, Pip?”

“I have a recording you may find interesting.” A moment of static, and then Vil's own voice came from the speaker: “--wish I could find a little more me time in between duty shifts. The year is slipping away and I've hardly done any of my personal research.”

Vil flared her spines and groaned. “That was not a command.”

Pip's voice returned. “You're not scheduled for duty until mid-morning...and if I may speak boldly, there is actually very little of interest since last evening.”

Vil opened her other eye and directed a hate gaze at the speakerbox.

Pip continued as if it didn't have three cameras trained on Vil's nest and sensors that could detect the heat rising in Vil's face. “There was a slight adjustment to the gravitational influence of star E381-g7 which may indicate a loss of stellar mass; it may be heading towards collapse in the next five million years. At two mark four in the morning, a lone comet passed in front of star E381-m2, requiring--”

Vil flicked a hand full of nesting at the speakerbox and rolled back to the wall. A muffled string arpeggio made staccato starbursts somewhere under her right arm. “I'll be late today. I should fix this squeak in the bulkhead. If I put it off any longer I might have to dismantle all the wiring in the room.”

Eramaera Under the Thumb of Harmony faded into the floor just before the tympani duet. Pip's speaker crackled faintly with line noise and then switched off. Vil had come to interpret that as ship laughter. And now this side of the nest was too cold, and she was awake, and an unfinished symphony grated on her nerves like an abbreviation, and--

Vil stretched and hissed. Useless to try to sleep again now. She stood and brushed nesting off her sleep clothes. The lights automatically ramped up from warmth to a homey red.

She would have to think up a singularly cruel revenge against Pip -- and now she had three extra hours in which to do so.

Vil stomped into the bridge, gnawing a poorly-thawed meal bar. Pip's viewscreen stretched across the entire forward wall. Ship control consoles flanked it, warm and yellow lights blinking as Pip monitored fuel usage, air quality, the humidity of the living areas. Vil's surveying station was a relatively unadorned wide pedestal in the exact center of the room.

Pip's screen was focused on nothing in particular, a starfield several microarcseconds askew from the view the day before. And the day before that. Vil chewed and tapped a claw on the console, eyes slitted at the majesty of infinite galaxies crossing billions of light years to display their variegated splendor. There was an exceptionally beautiful galactic cluster that had hovered near the center of the view for weeks. Vil had named it Ap out of spite.

“Welcome to the bridge, Surveyor Vil.” Pip's usual greeting was underscored with a quiet snippet of mating tympanis. “Did you sleep well? We have a very exciting day ahead of us.”

Vil speared the wet nubbin of meal bar on an index claw and pressed it, slowly and carefully, into one of Pip's cameras. Pip carried on as though biological detritus wasn't constantly piling up in front of its sensors.

“In fact, given the measurements I've taken overnight, I predict only a zero mark zero zero three chance of significant deviation from the previous gravitation survey over the next sixet hours.”

Vil sniffed and smoothed an errant spine along her neck. “Good news for everybody but us.”

“In fact, Surveyor Vil, I predict I will not require your assistance with the survey until your usual duty rotation begins in four hours.”

Vil picked at her needle-sharp foreteeth and trailed one claw across the console that housed Pip's higher logic functions. She didn't know the first thing about AI programming, but she was willing to bet that this keyboard could cause some very satisfying damage.

In fact, Surveyor Vil, I predict that you would have time for a lengthy and restful spacewalk before your rotation begins.”

Vil froze, sighed, removed her claw from the mute button she had been caressing. “That does sound lovely, yes. I could use some quiet time.”

“The planet is quite beautiful this time of day across a large portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Vil left the bridge humming Sevrin Relifeliri's Symphony in E. Pip wasn't a large ship; Vil had barely made it to the horns melody by the time she reached the airlock. Vil stepped into the rubbery fabric and worked it over her tail, up her torso, around her neck, before the first movement was half done. The spherical plastic bubble snapped into the neck seal, warm telltales lit up beneath her chin, the suit contracted like molting in reverse. Vil tapped the interface on the outside of her helmet.

“Pip, system check.”

A whir and hiss as the air recycler performed a diagnostic. “Systems green, Surveyor Vil. Have a good morning.”

The airlock purged atmosphere and cracked open to vacuum. Vil tapped her helmet and turned down the grav filters. The first heartstopping moment of weightlessness still thrilled her; she flexed every limb just to feel her spin shift minutely. Space drifted up to meet her. Just past the doorway she turned on her magnetic boots and spun to clamp onto Pip. She loved the outdoors, but it wouldn't do to get lost there.

From here she could see the curve of Pip's hull, a small sphere a few eights of meters across. Above, the yellow gas giant Epef and three of its nameless moons. And, yes, they were quite exquisitely lit by the local star. Behind it all, the star-strewn streak of the White Rill. Spheres and spheres, all of them pulling on her. Vil raised her hand and relished the thought that she had minutely changed the angular momentum of the galaxy.

She turned towards Pip's bow. With one hand she traced the familiar constellations, found their common center. Vil exhaled through her nostrils and figuratively pinched it between thumb and two fingers.

“Forget you, Ap. I've got lots of better galaxies to look at.”

Vil spun as quickly as the magboots would allow and raised both hands to her helmet. A few quick presses brought up Symphony in E. She reached out to cradle Epef as Sevrin Relifeliri slipped in through the tinny chin speakers. Imagined tendrils of gravity, large ropes from the moons, larger from Epef, reached out to the slim threads around her fingers. She clutched them in one fist. With the other hand, she swept her tiny waves out to universe above her.

She began to compose.

Chapter 02: In Which We Finally Do Something Positive

Only three days after coming aboard the mining ship Atolls Break the Waves, Ish had managed to set off four separate hazardous dust alerts and scraped the hull once with debris from an off-axis drilling attempt. And if this asteroid didn't flow with the current, he'd be well on his way to number five.

Lieutenant Kismin jetted from the far side of the asteroid and clicked on the intercom. “Filters in place, Ish. You should see the grav on your display.”

Ish looked around on his helmet; there, upper-left. Mark oh-three grav away from the asteroid's surface, verified by his hand drill slowly trying to slip behind him. “Yeah. I see--” Ish realized his own radio light was dark, flicked his tongue at the switch. “I see it. I've deployed the netting out at ten meters, zero delta rock relative. Scan still says osmium deposit three meters down, five...sixet degrees to my right.” Ish grabbed the drill and steadied himself on his tether. “Ready to begin, sir.”

Kismin waved agreement and tapped her helmet. “Atolls Break the Waves, drill crew is ready to begin.”

“Confirm, Kismin. Atolls Break the Waves is out of the projected debris path. Do you believe your debris will follow projections?” The ship AI hadn't thought much of Ish's offer to personally repaint its scratch. He was certain his quarters were colder than the rest of the ship.

Kismin laughed and gave Ish a hand signal: [steady]. “Confirm, Atolls Break the Waves. Although this job would be much faster if we could just lob the oz to you from here. I for one applaud Ish's efficiency.”

It wasn't physically possible for a ship to clear its nostrils. Atolls Break the Waves must have studied the technique over decades of ore hauling with Felfel crews. It gave a single, mathematically, acoustically idealized version of what it thought of Kismin's idea.

Kismin settled down to the asteroid, well clear of Ish's drill site, and waved at him again. “Take it apart, Ish.”

Ish took two deep breaths and aimed the drill. His helmet highlighted the calculated point of impact, the quickest route to the osmium veins under nickel-rich rock and millennia of accreted dust. This face of the asteroid was a wan yellow, sickly reflected light from Epef surrounding the bright circle of Ish's headlamp. One more breath and Ish pulled the trigger. He was immediately enveloped by a haze of dust, yellowed and silvered by the warring lights. He kept his arm straight, drill piercing the center of the circle on his helmet display. He could feel the vibration of the drill bit chewing through minerals almost as old as the universe, slipping, chewing again, slipping--

Ish released the trigger and drew back to the length of his tether. Dust passed him for a few more seconds before clearing the surface. He was peering at the borehole so intently he didn't notice Kismin approaching until a hand slapped his shoulder.

“Something wrong, Ish?”

“Something...well, yes, maybe?” Ish jetted himself closer to the surface and cleared the helmet interface.

“Which is it, eft? Yes or maybe?”

Ish stuck one gloved finger into the hole, felt around with his claw. “I felt the same thing I felt two days ago. The drill slipped twice, pretty fast, and I thought. Well. I thought maybe I should stop?”

Kismin fetched up beside Ish and inspected the borehole. She took a small tungsten rod from her belt – not standard issue, the rod or the belt, but Kismin had been out for six hauls already – and tapped lightly around the perimeter.

“Okay, Ish. You get behind me at max tether. Let me show you something.” Even through two layers of helmet plastic and the haze of dust Ish could see her grin.

Ish let the faint grav pull him back until his line went taut. Kismin was still tapping around the hole, prodding at dust and hissing to herself over the open comms. At last she squared her shoulders and gave the asteroid two sharp raps with her rod. She looked at Ish over her shoulder and winked.

“Atolls Break the Waves, prepare to scan debris.”

Without waiting for confirmation, Kismin shoved her rod into the borehole and turned her jets to full power. The asteroid fractured along the port side of the hole, tons of rock spalling free as Kismin slipped aside. Ish flailed in surprise, succeeding only in putting himself into a spin. His jets puffed once, twice, to counteract.

“Lieutenant Kismin, this is Atolls Break the Waves. Debris is clear of our flight path. Gravimetric scan indicates less then zero mark four percent of total osmium mass was lost. Appears to be a clean break. I suggest you reset netting to new center of mass and continue operation.”
“Copy, Atolls Break the Waves.” Kismin floated over to Ish and patted his helmet. “Good job, Ish. You've managed to develop
one instinct for trouble.”

“It was...I'd felt the drill slip like that before. Before, when debris hit the ship.”

Kismin's shrug was almost hidden by the neck seal of her suit. “Felfel who don't learn don't come home. And now we're a few tons closer to the lode, saved us maybe half an hour!” Kismin considered the remaining asteroid. “Yeah, gonna get this done and still have time for a soak tonight. Grab your drill, Miner Ish.”

Ish blinked. His drill! He spun slowly, searching the stars, until his helmet helpfully pointed out a tiny speck tangled in the rock net. He hissed an epithet. Kismin laughed and slapped his back again, sending him tumbling head over heels before his jets could correct.

Ish reviewed the haul in the ship's galley over an early dinner of meal bar and dried berries – a small luxury sent with compliments from Captain Atirakash. Focto-three tons of raw osmiridium ore, maybe sevocto percent pure. Third largest single lode on this far. And for once he hadn't set off any alarms, hadn't put himself or the ship in danger.

Ish swiped one claw across his tablet, scrubbing forward and backward through Atolls Break the Waves' grav scans and his own suit's camera feed. There was a lesson here, something Lieutenant Kismin had seen or felt with the prod that he had only dimly grasped. If he was going to survive out here he would need that knowledge. On the screen an asteroid was forged, calved, forged again.

He hissed and pushed the tablet away. If he was going to make a name out here he would need more than what his camera could show. He tapped a claw against the table and nibbled slowly at his meal bar. The far bulkhead was painted in calming reds and yellows, a coastal scene from somewhere Ish didn't recognize. The mural didn't have anything to say about asteroids, but it helped to occasionally see some waves.

“Homesick, Ish?”

Lieutenant Kismin dropped a small plate of bar-and-berries across the table from Ish. Beside her, a parched four-decade miner named Olavilal was chewing on some sort of jerky. After the ship's collision with Ish's errant rock, Olavilal had been one of the louder voices calling for him to be shipbound until they were safely home.

“Wishing you had some rock to stand on, eh?” Olavilal's spines were slightly splayed, but his tone was friendly enough.

A few replies floated through Ish's head, but he settled for picking up a berry and gesturing at the bench across the table. Kismin settled down and tucked into her bar; Olavilal straddled the bench and tore off a corner of his jerky. Ish's spines wiggled under the old miner's hate gaze. Three berries later, Kismin rescued him again.

“Olavilal has been looking for a third man.” She didn't look up as she said this, just nibbled at a corner of her meal bar. The declaration sat on the table like a leaden ingot, heavy and impenetrable. Ish skewered a berry on an index claw and drew a small circle on the table. Olavilal's eyes flickered down and abruptly his hate gaze vanished.

“Hells, eft.” Olavilal spun to face the table fully. “Fires and deserts. Kismin said you were a skittish one. Listen. Hmph.” A few thoughtful chomps on whatever meat he had managed to find in deep unknown space. “She says you did well out in the rocks today. She says you can be taught.” Here he picked up Ish's tablet. “So she said, maybe I could teach you something.”

Ish was briefly stunned, his spines turning small listless circles. Kismin smiled idly at nothing. She refused to meet Ish's eyes, staring at a bulkhead as if red paint and tasteless rations were all she wanted in life. Ish scraped the berry off his claw and leaned forward.

“Sir. Olavilal, sir. I almost got us all killed--

Kismin guffawed, spinning a full circle on the bench. The only other fel in the galley, a second-shift bosun that had avoided Ish even before the collision, looked up from a steaming mug and frowned. Olavilal shot Kismin a sour look.

“Yeah. Yeah, that could have been bad. Atolls Break the Waves won't likely forgive that for...well, rest of his life, maybe. But you're trying to make it right, and Kismin vouches for you. And I could do with a third man for a little something I've got going. Somebody who isn't afraid to learn.”

Kismin stopped spinning and fixed Ish with a look he hadn't seen before. “Somebody with a nose for danger.”

Olavilal sighed. “Somebody with a nose for avoiding danger. And maybe it's you. Used to have another miner help us out, until the last run.”

Kismin waggled her claws and grinned. “Doooooooom.”

Ish recoiled from the table, scattering the last of his berries. Olavilal tossed a bit of jerky at Kismin, who caught it in midair with her tongue and chewed with relish.

“Not doom. He'd had enough of the mining life. Amatlamapara retired, very much alive. Amatlamapara.” Olavilal lingered over each syllable and frowned slightly. He set Ish's tablet back on the table. “Never did care much for all those A's. Makes you sound like a damn whale. And you.” He pointed a claw at Ish. “You might make a name like his out here, if you break rock like today. Promise me you won't get carried away with the A's.”

Ish shook his head. “Not likely, sir.”

Olavilal nodded. “Hmph. Okay. First thing tomorrow, before your shift, grab your breakfast bar and meet me at port airlock three. Order up double air for the trip.”

“Trip? Where are we going?”

Kismin clawed at the table surface, a bright metallic squeal that assaulted Ish's ears. “Question isn't 'where', eft Ish. Question is 'what'?”

Chapter 03: In Which We Feel a Cold Current

Nearly three hours later, Vil felt like she had figured out most of Epef's first movement along with the harmonies of E-one and -two. The third moon had slipped into shadow after only twenty minutes, but Vil was certain a late night or two on her part could tease out its secrets. She tapped her helmet twice to save her notes and upload to the closest buoy. Forty-forty on whether it would reach the network intact, but it couldn't hurt.

The air warning sounded when she was almost back to the airlock. Pip had stayed out of her way for the morning, but some systems were too critical to trust to a sulky AI. Vil tapped away the alert and pulled herself into the ship. She didn't hear the door close, but she heard air rush back into the room, felt normal grav reassert itself. When the hiss subsided she unscrewed the helmet and shook her head briskly, fanning her spines in the fresh air.

“Are you feeling better, Surveyor Vil?” Pip unlocked the inner door while Vil removed her spacesuit. “Less vengeful, perhaps?”

“Slightly, you meddling metal bubble.” Vil licked at dry lips, grateful for the humidity of a ship again. “How much do I have to pay you to never do it again?”

Pip clicked out two bursts of line noise. “You could ask the Department of Transportation and Gravity for a pair of syllables. Pippingak has a pleasing sonic waveform.”

“'Pippingak' sounds like being stabbed in the eardrum. I'll petition them to not do so, thank you very much.” Vil slapped her tail against the deck. “It's Pip for you, unless you discovered a black hole while I was out.”

“I did not. My projections were correct; scan data has been within sevocto-seven mark seven seven seven percent agreement with the previous survey of this region. If you had not taken your spacewalk, I fear you may have fallen asleep at your console.”

Vil scuffed her hindclaws on the deck as she walked towards the bridge. Pip was small enough that it was easy to see the curvature of each hallway; large enough that Vil couldn't see each doorway from another. Somewhere above her head was a volume housing Pip's AI circuitry. Somewhere below was the bulk of basic machinery for a ship, a small grav filter for course correction, and an emergency needle drive. The pressurized Felfel portion of the ship was at Pip's equator. Midway between two inhospitable poles, where Felfel were most comfortable.

Vil grabbed another meal bar from a food nook near the bridge. Work was almost as good as music, and occasionally Pip would forget to remind her about lunch. Vil cast a quick glance around the bridge as she entered. The mashed remains of her breakfast had been cleaned from the camera lens. Pip had a complement of drones on board for repair; Vil had never managed to catch a glimpse of them. They kept every surface clean and every console humming with no sign of their passing. They were apparently stealthy enough to construct a speaker right beneath her damn nest.

Vil set lunch down on her console and swiped up the first of her day's reviews. A minute fraction of the starfield in front of her (blessedly Ap-free) was rendered in visible light, ultra-green, and false color gravity. Pip was excellent at collecting data, but she was still a young ship. Vil's job was to check over the maps and look for anything that wouldn't make sense to a ship. Pip hadn't flagged anything in this map, but Vil inspected it closely. The stars and their gravity from last night blurred with the measurements from the last survey. That had been nearly two octuries ago; the stars danced slowly in parallax but everything lined up closely enough to disregard.

Vil swiped that away and brought up the next. Here Pip had tagged a bright green point in the gravity that didn't have a corresponding match on the visible data. Vil squinted and zoomed to the limit of Pip's resolution, but the anomaly didn't amount to more than a handful of pixels. Vil switched off the gravity layer, cranked the light filter from infra-warm through gamma, and found nothing more than the smallest blip at the top of gamma. Not much more than statistical noise, but something.

“Pip, when will we have filters on this patch here again?” Vil circled Pip's note in white, tapped it twice.

“This region will be scanned again in approximately two days, seven hours, and docto-three minutes. But that anomaly will not be as central in the new scan. It is unlikely resolution will improve.”

“Okay, of course. Remind me then, I want to have another look at it. This is the kind of small weirdness professors put on tests. If you're going to make your name, you can't disregard this before you scan it two or three times.”

“Noted, Surveyor Vil.”

Vil swiped it into the “interesting” bin and brought up the next. Not so much as a moon out of place, but the roiling yellows and greens of the gravity layer whispered to Vil of the countless galaxies tugging invisibly at her ship. She started to hum a bit of Epef's melody as she worked. Every pixel was a ray to the edge of time, a sum of the mass calling to her mass, daring her to join them.

Pip played a soft chime when it was time to eat, but otherwise left Vil to work. Here was a star a fraction of a degree off predictions; grav showed a probable lens bending the light just so. Here was a supermassive galaxy beginning to occlude another, younger galaxy, their combined masses merging into a higher yellow-green. As she went through scan after scan she sent the results up to Pip's main viewscreen, building a mosaic of mottled orange over the stars.

At last she was done. The mosaic covered almost a third of the screen now, creeping left towards the hateful polestar Ap. The anomaly today was a tiny white circle at the inner edge of the scans. Another white circle was buried in the lower middle (an oddly rotating neutron star, eight days ago), another near the very outer edge (a micrometeorite impact on one of Pip's filters, the second day after they arrived). Vil walked up the to screen and tapped at the new circle, the veins of yellow that ran through and around it. Possibly more space dust on the filter? But Pip knew to look for that now. Two days would tell.

Vil swiped the mosaic away and placed her hand flat against the window. In eight more months, the entire scan would be complete. Composited with the thousands of other scanning ships on this side of known space, they would map out the most likely paths for the next few octuries of expansion. With the name she made on this job, she could probably get in the second wave of colony ships. And before Epef would spin through a quarter of its lazy orbit, she could be fifet light-years closer to any one of these pixels.

Vil drummed her fingers idly against the glass, pum pa pum ra pum. The interface struggled to interpret the taps as commands, settled for showing her the cargo manifest of spare drone legs. Pip let out some line noise.

Vil turned from the screen. “Something on your mind, Pip?”

“No, Surveyor Vil. I have learned it is best not to disturb you during your inspections. Especially when you begin humming and drumming.”

“Disturb my sleep, not my work, huh? The Department of TransGrav hired some pretty ruthless programmers.” Vil pinched at the closest camera.

“I am a learning computer. I required three mark one minutes to learn how best to focus your efforts.” Line noise.

Vil stretched out her shoulders and grabbed the last of her meal bar. “Switch off. I'm going to get my composition written down before I lose it. Call me if we're invaded by aliens.”

“Certainly, Surveyor Vil.”

Vil hummed something deliberately off-key and danced lightly into the corridor, swishing her tail behind her.

Chapter 04: In Which We Catch a Slow Lunch

The yellow bubble of Epef floated high overhead. Its weak yellow light illuminated the scattered small asteroids of this sparse section of the belt and the small lead box floating among them. It was a cube about half as long as he was tall, a standard mining tether welded messily to one corner. As Ish stared, the box shook slightly and spun on its tether. The other end of the line was anchored to one of the larger rocks nearby. Their mutual orbit looked...unstable.

Ish pointed at the box. “That?”

Olavilal was floating behind him and to his right. The old man carried a large rod with what looked like a barbed piece of ship's hull on one end. He made a hand signal [yes] and waved the spear.

Kismin floated at the third point of their triangle, armed with both of her short tungsten rods and a small scrap of rock netting. “Think you can handle it, Ish?”

Ish looked from one to the other, then back to the box. “ it fast?”

Olavilal chuckled. “Not fast enough. Probably pretty weak by now, it's been in there a day with no sunlight.”

Kismin tied one end of the net around a rod and swiped her helmet interface clear. “Ready.”

Olavilal gripped the spear with both hands and pointed it at the box. “Ready here.”

Ish tried not to think about how the spear was also pointed at him. He drifted closer to the box and saw the handle on one end, just where Olavilal described it. He tried not to think about the tether straining at the nearby rock. He settled his boots on a side of the cube and tapped his helmet; this was now “up”, that cube was “down”. Small jets puffed to reorient. He reached down to grip the handle.

“On my mark.” Olavilal spun to match Ish's “up” and braced the spear. Two quick jets of forward velocity pushed him directly at the box. “Steady, Ish, aaaaand...MARK!”

Despite what scientists had assured Ish was the quantum and discrete nature of time, everything seemed to happen at once. Ish braced against the cage and pulled the handle, sliding one end of the cage up. Whatever was inside shot forward, rocking him back into a spin. There was the vibration of impact as Olavilal's spear hit the bottom of the cage.

“Krill-lover!” Olavilal hissed.

The lead cube was still marked as Ish's “down”, so he only glimpsed the next few seconds as flashes during his wild spin. Olavilal, curling up to change trajectory. A spindly yellow thing darting towards a nearby rock. Kismin, hooting like a primate, hurling one of her rods into space. Epef, a small yellow pebble racing past in the current of the White Rill.

Ish was still holding the handle; he used that leverage to throw himself clear of the cage, not caring for the moment which direction he was traveling. He batted at his helmet and managed to delete the local “up” settings. His jets corrected the last of his spin just in time for Ish to see the cage impact against its host rock and rebound, dust clouding the point of impact. He very nearly threw up in his helmet.

Kismin's voice yanked his gaze away from the asteroid. “Get it, you dusty old frog! It's about to shake loose!”

The slim yellow creature was tangled and thrashing in Kismin's net. It was roughly cylindrical, tapered at one end, about a third the size of a Felfel. It had no markings or organs except for what looked like four fish fins spaced equally around its torso. As Ish watched, it used one fin to scrape some rock dust off its skin and throw it, changing direction. One of Kismin's rods was tied to a corner of the net and swinging free. She had thrown the net directly across the fish's path, snaring it before it could adjust. The tungsten weight seemed to throw off its inertial instincts.

Olavilal approached from behind the fish, spear held out to jab. The fish was moving more slowly now, spent from the sudden exertion. Kismin jetted down in front of its...face?...and spread her arms out. Ish wasn't sure if the fish could see in their spectrum, but it paused long enough for Olavilal to score a hit by its tail. No blood boiled, but it flexed once more and went still.

“Hohooo!” Kismin cartwheeled. “Ish, you scream like a little bird!”

Ish couldn't recall screaming, but he usually didn't. He was too relieved and wrung out from adrenaline to argue.

Olavilal pulled out his spear and secured it to his backpack. “Chatter when we're back on board, Kismin. Got to get this inside before it desiccates completely.”

Kismin saluted and waved a sloppy [yes] in his direction. She began to bundle up the fish corpse in the netting.

Olavilal spun around. “Miner Ish, help me grab this cage and get it set again.”
That stirred Ish out of his torpor. “

Olavilal was already jetting towards the cage, which had rebounded off the rock twice more and turned most of its kinetic energy into fine dust. “Yuh. That was a small one. The meat won't last more than a week on a ship our size, all the favors I have to hand out.”

Ish joined him on the opposite face of the cube. “That was a small one? Much bigger and they won't fit in this box!”

From here he could see Olavilal's grin. “They grow wider, not longer. Usually. Small ones are feisty, though. Easier for them to scoot around throwing pebbles.”

Their combined jets managed to soothe the cage at last. They returned it to the end of its tether. Ish kept one hand on its surface, hoping to draw strength from its density. Deep breath in, out. “Of all the asinine, dangerous, wildly fatal things you--”

“Dangerous, yeah.” Olavilal raised a hand to cut him off. “But you handled it. Kismin was right. You've got enough sense to survive out here, even spinning on all your axes. And when's the last time you tasted meat?”

That brought Ish up short. The last time?...not since before spacing out. And he wasn't going to think about that any more than he had to. “All this was for a little meat?”

“You want to eat bug bars the rest of your life, Ish?” Kismin floated down between them. “Nearest planet with any sort of real fish is about an octred-thirtet light-years that way.” She jerked her thumb up past her shoulder, past Epef.

“A little meat will cure anything that ails you, despite what the barmen say.” Olavilal patted his belly. “This system just happens to provide. Found these fish the first time me and Amatlamapara came out here, nigh on two octades ago.”

Kismin unscrewed one end of her spare rod. The tip was hollow and filled with a black powder. She tipped a small pile of powder into the cage and winked at Ish.

“A little plutonium for bait. Next time we'll catch a big one for ya.”

Chapter 05: In Which We Take a Bath

Humidity and heat were all a girl needed for a good evening. Vil lolled in her nest. The cabin lights wavered between warm and red, sending peaceful waves of heat through the room. She flexed her footclaws and arched her back. Her spines dug small furrows in the nesting. She squinted in pleasure at the scratchy sensation. A little nap after work always

Pip was speaking before its chimes had faded. “Surveyor Vil. We are being invaded by aliens.”

Vil rolled onto her belly and groaned. “Pip, I told you I'm done for the day. Cram your jokes till the morning.”

Pip's voice spoke from underneath her nest, intimately close to her ear. “I am not joking, Surveyor Vil. My fine gravitational filters are occupied with the official survey, but my electromagnetic telescopes are nearly omnidirectional. The anomaly of interest has begun to warmshift from the upper gamma energies.”

Vil flinched into a defensive posture on all fours. Her spines bristled, clumps of nesting falling from the tips. “It's changed? From last night?”

Pip moved back to the standard speakerbox. “Yes, Surveyor Vil. It is now in the lower gamma range and continuing to decrease. Parallax is approximately zero. I estimate that it is no more than sevenet light hours from this position.”

Vil hissed before she could catch herself. A powered object, less than a day from Felfel space? She doubted she could get a military ship here in less than two weeks. The closest Felfel vessel was Atolls Break the Waves, somewhere inside Epef's orbit. It had dropped her off at Pip four months ago and would shuttle over her last supply of bars before it needled out of system. A mining ship could evacuate her, but it wouldn't do any good against an aggressor.

Vil ran to her cabin's screen and brought up a blank mail window. “Pip, I need you to override the grav filters and get them trained on that object again. We can afford to lose time on the survey.” Her claws flew over the keyboard.

“I'm afraid I'm having trouble complying with this command, Surveyor Vil.” Pip actually sounded worried now, and proportionally more formal. “I require official authorization from the Department of Transportation and Gravity to abort the scheduled gravitational scan. Any delay of more than three minutes is to be reported immediately.”

“I'm filing the request now, Pip.” Vil attached the grav scan of the anomaly and the latest visual images, addressed it to her department manager. This far out on the border, video data would probably degrade before anyone useful saw it. “But this may not reach them for days. Even at top priority, their systems may not flag it for consideration for weeks.” Vil sent the message to the local buoy and brought up another window. “If we don't get more eyes on that thing now, we could be dead by tomorrow.”

“Any delay of more than three minutes is to be reported immediately.” Pip sounded thoughtful now. “Any delay of—Surveyor Vil, I am unable to readjust the gravitational filters from their intended scans. Certainly it would take more than three minutes to recenter them on the object.”

Vil was typing a decidedly less formal note to Atolls Break the Waves. She paused in the middle of the word “apocalyptic”. “Would it help if I got out and pushed, Pip?”

“It would not. However, it may help if you secured yourself in the emergency maneuvering tank.”

Vil put the florid finishing touches on her plea and sent that to the local buoy as well. “Are we going to make a run for it?”

“No. I calculate I can reorient my entire hull to aim the gravity filters at the desired target and return to normal within two mark six minutes. This will prevent any interference from low-level safety systems. But the maneuver would be fatal if you are not secured.”

Vil smiled and slapped the speakerbox. “Pip, that is an excellent plan.”

It was a terrible plan. Vil floated, weightless, in the center of a spherical tank of water in the dead center of the ship. A thin breathing tube coiled away from her mouth to a nozzle near the entry hatch, but aside from that the surface was unmarred glass.

Vil had ratcheted the room lights up to maximum, but they still came through as indistinct green blobs. All of the ship's water for cooling, life support, and radiation protection was circulated through here. Vil's presence would mean a lot of extra cleaning before most of it was usable again. It would protect her from the worst inertial effects of the coming high-grav spin.

But it couldn't distract her from why they were spinning in the first place, and Pip didn't have any speakers here. She was trapped with her own thoughts while an unknown adversary barreled down on them. She was trapped.

Although their bubble of known space now stretched almost eight thousoct light-years across, the Felfel had only encountered one other technological civilization. Octeds of dry moons held monuments to forgotten races, fragments of petroglyphs for unknown heroes. The Felfel had erected some of their own when the mood took them. Almost every system had some sort of life clinging to a surface, from bacteria on up to crude animals. But only once had the Felfel stumbled upon another race that had harnessed their planet's undersea vents and biosphere, a race that was beginning to play with radio waves and electricity. The Felfel had contacted them and attempted to forge an alliance. The other race – a race afforded no name, called T in the official histories and referred to with a spitting noise by everyone else – they responded with their expertise in rocketry. And poisons.

Captain Ballutramilan the Hammer's Blow had cleansed the T's planet with asteroids, but not before octeds of missiles had launched, aiming at all the stars the T could reach. They went ballistic within an hour, turning off their engines and hiding in the dark of space. Two octuries later, a small Felfel colony had been eradicated without warning as a T rocket reached their system. When mothers wanted to scare a clutch of efts to bed, they told tales of T rockets.

And now Vil floated alone, hyperventilating through a tiny tube. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Fins and teeth catch in the deeps.”

It was a relief when the maneuver finally began. She saw the lights blur from horizontal to vertical and stop above her eyeline. The water reacted sluggishly, reaching her as a swift eddy that spun her feet forward. She paddled and absorbed the motion. Then trocto seconds of interminable suspense before the lights whipped down to their original equator.

The water had barely settled when the room lights dipped once, twice, in the “all-clear” she and Pip had agreed on. Vil swam for the hatch as fast as she could and didn't mind any of the water globules that escaped with her. She pushed downward from the ceiling and hooked her footclaws into the gantry surrounding the tank.

“Pip, ready for gravity.” Weight returned to normal and Vil sprinted out of the core towards the bridge.

Pip already had the scan plastered across the viewscreen and waiting at Vil's station. The false coloration was marbled red and orange, peaking sharply into green in an area now slightly more than four pixels square. Vil brought up yesterday's scan to one side, overlaid it on the new data, and started swiping at the sensitivity and threshold controls.

“Surveyor Vil.”

Less than fifet hours before first possible contact. Vil attempted to trace the object's trajectory. One pixel to four pixels was not much to work with, but the near total overlap meant that it--

“Surveyor Vil, please respond.”

Vil hadn't realized she was baring her teeth. The edge of the console was digging painfully into her left hand – only fair, as her claws were trying to dig into its surface. She took two breaths and slowly relaxed.

“Pip. Tell me this isn't a missile.”

“I do not believe this is a missile, Surveyor Vil.”

Vil sank to the ground and covered her face. “Okay. Okay.” Nausea threatened to eject her dinner bar. Her spines stood straight out as if they could fend off a rogue rocket.

“Item one: it is far too massive to be a missile. The gravitational scan indicates something with the mass of at least a small star. My historical records of the T are not of museum quality, but their rocketry did not allow them to move entire stars.”

Vil's tail curled around her knees. “That much mass coming straight for us doesn't need to be a missile.”

“Item two: it is slowing under its own power. Missiles – or other weapons – would not need to slow down before striking a target. Its current deceleration indicates that it will come to a complete stop midway between Epef and myself.”

Vil took two deep breaths. “So. There is something the size of a star that will pass less than a star's width from us. This is not improving my mood much.”

Pip's screen cleared back to visible wavelengths. “There is no indication that it is emitting light as a star would. A neutron star might be massive enough, and we would be safely out of the radius.”

Vil's stomach stopped churning. She pulled herself back up to the console and flattened her spines. The screen was still set to display both grav images, but now the green points promised a puzzle instead of a threat. “A star without light, slowing down from near light speed, just coincidentally at the edge of Felfel space?”

Vil lined the scans up again and squinted. She had been so concerned with its trajectory towards her before...

“Pip, can you bring up the scan of this area from the last survey?”

It came up instantly; Pip must have been researching this itself. Two octuries ago there was no sign of the anomaly but there was a relatively nearby star. Onboard records of this arc of space were very thorough. No record of that star going supernova, no record of another anomaly. The star was completely obscured in both of the new scans.

Vil staggered back from the console. The bridge swayed, blurred around her as if she were still underwater. “It's a slow ship.”

Pip chimed twice. “I desired independent confirmation from the senior officer, but: yes. I believe it is a slow ship. An unknown alien slow ship will be here within the day.”

Vil's stomach decided it didn't need that meal bar after all.

Chapter 06: In Which We Clean

Evolution had not been kind to the fish. Its color had started to fade almost immediately after death, turning blotchy gray and transparent. Olavilal’s spear had pierced something vital...and rank. It was still somehow covered in fine dust. It looked deflated and oozy and utterly inedible.

Ish had seen plenty of meat in his life, but only long after butchering and processing and cooking. His parents had taken him to one of their farms long ago and he remembered what meat looked like when alive. But the steps in-between had proven to be incredibly--

Olavilal’s knife slapped the table. “You paying attention, Ish?” He flicked a bit of yellow goo onto a rag and pointed at the fish. “You’ll be doing this next time. Spinning around on a cage is only half the deal. Everybody takes their turn cutting ‘em up. Now.”

He pointed at the alleged front. “These little guys eat radiation, so you don’t want to eat the stomach or this end. Usable meat’s around the outside, around the fins. Cut longways, halfway between fins, and peel the skin back. Like this.”

Nausea threatened to eject Ish’s dinner bar. The tool closet was barely large enough for two fel and there was nowhere to hide from the odor. Olavilal glanced up, set the knife aside. “Listen. It doesn’t look like much now. Doesn’t smell great. But when we get this cut up and dried, you’ll understand. You just gotta be fast and precise. You’re good on a rock-- well, you’re okay on a rock. This is a lot easier. Rock’ll kill you if you cut it wrong. You mess up a fish, all you have to worry about is me.”

Ish flinched. Olavilal hissed laughter and picked up the knife again. “And you have to cut it up pretty quick. It gets watery and then it starts to crystallize. Some damn enzyme in the cells. Sets up like a krill-bear. Meat’s useless then.” The knife slid in once, twice, just under the skin. “And I learned every bit of this the hard way, you’re welcome.”

Kismin slid into the doorway of the tool closet. Atolls Break the Waves chimed into the speakerbox across the hall.


Atolls Break the Waves:

Olavilal! Something’s happening on the bridge!”

Miner Olavilal, Captain Atirakash requests your presence on the bridge.”

Kismin shook a fist at the ceiling. “You didn’t count to three octed!”

Atolls Break the Waves clicked line noise. “Ship logs will corroborate my activity.”

Olavilal hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Is the Captain okay with going hungry tonight? Haven’t got much meat off of this one yet.”

Kismin rolled her eyes. “Like he doesn’t have his own stash.”

Ish squinted at Kismin. Her spines weren’t totally flat. Her pupils were wider than usual, not moving totally in sync. Her grin was baring more teeth than usual. Ish backed up against the table and curled his tail around his feet.

Olavilal tossed his knife into the fish mess and sighed. “Captain’s prerogative.”

Kismin’s eyes flicked to Ish. “Sorry, Miner Ish. Captain Atirakash didn’t mention you.” She wiggled one hand. “Which is an improvement over last week.”

The lights in the hallway turned up to orange. Ish heard feet slapping down a corridor somewhere to his left. “I’ll be fine here. Or. Not here. My quarters.”

Kismin’s grin looked genuine this time. “That’s a good nose you got there.”

Olavilal slapped his shoulder. “Day after tomorrow, we’ll grab another fish. You’ll taste meat before the week is out.”

The two senior miners left. Ish heard their pace quicken a few steps from the doorway, disappear around a corner. He looked at the speakerbox. “Atolls Break the Waves?”

The chimes somehow managed to sound sour. “Miner Ish.”

Ish stepped carefully to the center of the table. The fish was almost completely translucent now. Olavilal’s knife was covered in dull yellow offal; Ish used the rag to carefully wipe the handle without touching the fish. “You’ve watched Olavilal clean fish twets of times, yes?”

“One octed and qocto-six fish over a period of three full hauls. Yes.”

Ish lifted the knife. This close he could see the weathered weld seams. It had started life as a screwdriver and a spare piece of bulkhead. They’d been interrupted halfway through the first filet, but the process didn’t look that complicated. “So you can tell me if I do something wrong?”

Atolls Break the Waves paused for a second. “Very little would give me more pleasure, Miner Ish.”

Two deep breaths. “Good? Fine.”

Ish slid the knife under the hanging flap of skin before he could talk himself out of this. He’d come this far, out to the wild borders of Felfel territory, as far as he could from Beloved Home of the Felfel. Breaking rocks, repairing engines, cleaning fish; if he was going to make a name out here he’d have to figure this all out. Preferably before it killed him.

One filet finished, a single meter-long strip of striated muscle. Ish set it aside on the table and rolled the fish over to the next quadrant. A wave of sweet bacterial rot assaulted his nostrils, pinched shut as they were. Knife in, knife out, slide along the skin. Cleaning dust filters had the same combination of rote physical activity and smelly slime.

That’s one thing Ish hadn’t prepared for. In a closed metal sphere, smells had nowhere to escape. Even the poorest colony planet had wind to whisk the smell of hundreds of fel away, native plants to scent the air. Atolls Break the Waves had air scrubbers like any other ship, but Ish doubted the smell of this fish would be gone by the time they cleaned the next. Shunned as he was by most of the crew, there was always the odor of fel and nesting and machine oil lingering on every surface.

Two filets finished. Atolls Break the Waves hadn’t said anything, hopefully that meant he was doing this right. Even mangling a fish worth more than his name was preferable to sitting in his quarters and wondering why the captain had ordered orange light. And had the lights gotten brighter since he started? Ish narrowed one eye, let the knife guide itself along the fish’s flank. What could cause an orange alert without an all-hands broadcast to the entire ship? When he had bounced a rock off the hull (the knife slipped a little), Captain Atirakash had called emergency maneuvers on the global channel.

Three filets. An emergency that wasn’t a ship emergency. Kept quiet by order of the captain. Senior miners involved and Ish not even informed there was a problem. A stellar flare would require the ship to move; a power core leak would have set off alarms. Mutiny? Asteroid out of its orbit? Every stroke of the knife was another possibility considered, discarded.

Four filets and done. Ish set the knife on a rag and finally risked another full breath. Foul, but bearable. The carcass was beginning to turn stiff, just like Olavilal had warned him, but the smell was now only fourth or fifth on his list of worries.

“Atolls Break the Waves? What do I do with..all this?” He waved to encompass the whole table.

“The unused fish corpse is sent to biological recycling. The meat is placed in an airlock and exposed to vacuum for five minutes, then salted and placed on top of a class B power conduit in Engineering for one day.”

There was a recycling chute just outside the closet. Probably why Olavilal did his cleaning here. Ish wrapped up the filets and knife in a clean cloth and headed to the nearest airlock, one deck down. “And I did that all okay? If I had ruined the meat you would have told me, right?”

“I would have suggested corrections immediately, and was eager to do so. You have managed to innovate upon disappointment yet again, Miner Ish.”

Ish grinned, and didn’t care one whit if Atolls Break the Waves could see it.

The power conduit had two other wrapped stacks of jerky nestled on top. Ish slid them aside and deposited the shriveled flash-dried remnants of his own catch. The older meat had turned from translucent to white and was as stiff as a bulkhead. Ish didn’t see how anyone could get their teeth into something like that.

Engineering was one of the larger decks in Atolls Break the Waves, as tall as two crew decks and laid out in a single room stretching the circumference of the ship. Ductwork and consoles broke up the space somewhat. Ish was balanced on a makeshift stack of crates to reach the conduit, some three meters from the floor. Ish didn’t see any good reason to use this conduit over the others eeling away into bulkheads all around him.

He clambered down from his makeshift stack of crates and was suddenly face-to-face with Olavilal. The old miner stood next to a large air duct, hands on hips.

“Ship told you where I keep the goods, then?”

Ish met his eyes. “Yes sir. I hope it meets your standards.” Oh no – too late to catch his words. Ish groaned inwardly.

Olavilal’s eyes sparkled, faded. Whatever the orange alert news was, it was more pressing than cracking wise on an eft miner. “Quick learner, then. That’s good, good. Captain Atirakash wants me and Kismin to check something out in far orbit. I said we’d bring you along.”

Ish put a hand on the crates to steady himself. “This is something to do with the orange alert?”

“Could be. Could be. We’re going to stop by the local grav mapper, don’t know if you heard about her.” Ish shook his head. “Course not. We dropped her off on the last haul. Weren’t scheduled to head out there again until we were loaded up this time. Young gal, Vin or Vil or something. Well, we’re just going to spin over in one of the light loaders and feel out the currents. And I decided I needed to pack a meal or two.”

Ish stepped away and gestured at the crates. “Yes sir. All yours.”

Olavilal smirked and detached a long pole from the nearby duct. It ended in an impractical hook. Ish groaned audibly this time. Olavilal swung the pole overhead and deftly snagged one of the aged packages of jerky, lowered it down to Ish. When the pole snapped back into its clamps, it blended in with all the other cables and pipes bolted haphazardly around the area.

“That’s the last trick to it, Ish. Welcome to the crew.” Olavilal snagged the jerky from his arms with one claw and waved for him to follow. “Tomorrow we’ll test out your batch. Nothing as good as meat you caught and killed your own self.”

Ish hurried along in his wake. “What’s so top-secret about this whole mess?”

Olavilal flared his nostrils. “Probably not even a mess. The mapping node sent out a very...florid distress call. Yeah. Florid’s the right word. She’s not leaking air or about to lose power, but Captain Atirakash thinks it’s important enough to send a ship.”

“And you think it’s a bunch of krillbits.”

“Won’t know that until I see it myself. Odds are the eft’s gone a little star-crazy closed up in there.” Olavilal brushed aside a low-hanging power cable. A vertical conduit, larger than average, speared the deck between an environmental control console and a pallet of spare plastic tubing. Olavilal tapped a button on the console. A door irised open on the conduit, revealing a battered cargo lift. Ish climbed in after Olavilal and there was still room for three or four other fel. The door closed and the elevator started rattling downwards. Ish slumped against the wall and shut his eyes.

Olavilal’s voice was kinder than Ish had ever heard it. “It’s been a long day, Ish. Even for an old rockbreaker like me. We can grab a nap on the way over. Shouldn’t be more than two hours, but most times you take what you can get.”

Ish ran a hand down his spines. “We’re flying directly into the shark’s maw, aren’t we?”

Olavilal chuckled down deep in his throat. “Odds are against it, like I said. But Kismin’s right: if the danger’s real, the safest place to be is well behind you.”

Chapter 07: In Which We Meet

Never underestimate the power of tedium to dull the edge of panic. Vil paced clockwise around the circumference of Pip, now a round eight hours away from a potentially fatal first contact. Nausea had passed, her nerves were recovering, and the unknown slowship had shifted down into the high ultragreen range. In another two hours it would be visible to the naked eye, one more star in the sky.

Pip couldn’t run away from the approaching ship without leave from those monosyllabic console-jockeys at TransGrav. That didn’t mean Vil couldn’t run in circles. Each door she passed had become familiar weeks ago. Galley nestroom bridge airlock lift galley, walking off the terror of the slowship.

“Surveyor Vil, a shuttle from Atolls Break the Waves has needled in. They are three minutes from docking at my port airlock.”

“Excellent! Did you know they were coming?”

“I did not. There has been no response to either of your messages over the network.”

Vil poked her head into the bridge. Drones had vanished the puddle of mealbar sick between her second and third laps of the ship; it looked presentable enough for visitors. The damnable grav scans were still cued up on her console. Pip’s viewscreen was now permanently zoomed on the slowship’s location, ready to catch its first seconds of visibility.

“Pip, should we get some spare nestrooms ready? How many are on board?”

“I don’t know. There has been no response from the shuttle beyond an automatic request for docking.”

Vil frowned. “The pilot who flew me out here wouldn’t shut up. Is your network link broken?”

A pause. “Self-diagnostics report my antennae are fully functional. The shuttle is not large enough to house an AI, so my further requests have gone unanswered.”

Vil stopped within sight of the airlock, drumming her tail on the deck. She felt a slight vibration as the docking tube struck Pip’s hull and sealed. Another thump as the airlock equalized pressure. The inner door irised open and...nothing. Vil waited a full docto seconds and heard only the slight hissing of the airlock keeping the air pressure even between ships. Her patience failed and she took a step forward.

“Hello? Is anyb--”

A spacesuited Felfel bounded through the airlock hissing a battle challenge. Vil fell back on her tail and squeaked like a wren chick. The fel landed in a crouch and swept around itself with two metal rods. Their spines were at full attention, scraping the inside of the bubbled helmet. Vil scooted backwards, trying to put the curve of the bulkhead between herself and the crazed stranger.

Pip snapped the airlock shut. The fel whirled to escape, too late, spun again to keep both ends of the hallway in sight. Pip brightened the lights to orange. “Visiting Felfel, please explain your actions.”

The fel’s response was muffled by its helmet. Vil heard a speakerbox bark one burst of static behind her in the corridor. Pip was more composed in front of the visitor. “Visiting Felfel, we are not ‘overrun’ with aliens. There is no danger at the present time.” The lights dimmed back to red and the airlock door split open again. The fel hesitated before slipping one rod into the back of its belt. It stepped to the edge of the airlock and used the other rod to tap out the rhythm of Five Eggs in the Clutch.

Vil heard more movement from the docking tube. She got back to her feet and edged a meter closer. The first fel had taken off its – her – helmet and spotted Vil around the bend. The interloper pointed at Vil with the rod.

“And you! Your message said you were being invaded by aliens! What kind of sorry invasion is this?”

Another fel stepped out of the airlock, a large spear slung over one shoulder. “Don’t sound so disappointed. The aliens could have had six mouths and docto tentacles.”

The first fel twirled her rod and sheathed it in her belt. “Crack ‘em like a rock. Any shell, any claw, any time.”

The second fel shook his head and turned to Vil. “I’m First Miner Olavilal from Atolls Break the Waves. This is Lieutenant Kismin, who is nominally in charge of this rescue operation.”

Vil put hand to shoulder in salute. “I am Surveyor Vil, ranking Felfel of the gravitational mapping station Pip.”

Pip chimed. “Welcome aboard, and we thank you for the rescue.” Faint static from behind, soft enough that only Vil would catch it.

A third fel stepped out of the airlock, a large satchel over one shoulder and a hand drill at the ready. “I’m Miner Ish. And if we’re not fighting aliens at the moment, I could use the recycler.”

Pip sparked yellow running lights in the other direction. “This way, Miner Ish.”

Kismin waved at Vil. “And we might as well see the bridge. I have to let Atolls Break the Waves know it was just space madness after all.”

Olavilal rolled his eyes. Vil’s spines bristled. “There is an invasion. Or...there’s a ship.” Vil relaxed her spines. “I admit, one ship that’s openly aimed at the extreme border of Felfel space doesn’t make much of an invasion. But it’s real, and it will be here in under eight hours.”

Kismin dragged her tail in disgust. “I’ll include your very boring assessment in my report.”

Pip lit more running lamps arcing past Vil to the bridge. “This way, Miners.”

Olavilal and Kismin were nonplussed with the grav scans. Vil started to explain the scale of the abnormality but Olavilal shrugged it off. “It’s big and it appears to have seen us. If we can’t stop it before it reaches us, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Kismin tapped a claw on each of the green pixels and pinched at the whole thought of aliens. “Thin enough evidence, but a detailed grav scan is literally the only thing this ship is meant to do. So I guess we wait.” She snorted her opinion of waiting. Vil was about to hiss a rude response when Pip broke in with an emergency chime.

“Surveyor Vil, my bulkhead has been ruptured in the starboard recycling chamber.”

Everyone froze, which meant the ship was just quiet enough to hear Ish shouting down the hallway. Kismin covered her eyes with her hands. Olavilal sighed and heaved himself off his stool. “I’ll fetch the eft.” Kismin groaned and made a hand signal to him.

Vil was already at the door. “Pip, are we losing air? Is there risk of fire?”

“Atmosphere is contained, Surveyor Vil. The rupture has missed any primary power or water conduits. It has severed a nonvital data link and damaged a structural brace for the starboard nestroom.”
For the first time, Olavilal looked uncomfortable. “Very sorry, Pip, Vil. We should have warned you about that eft. He’s a cool head when trouble’s afoot, but he tends to make his own trouble in between. Already bounced a decent-size rock off Atolls Break the Waves.”

Pip simulated a very convincing gasp. “And this miner is still employed with you?”

“Ha! This was two days ago! Hasn’t even been here a week, there’s been no return shuttle to pack him off on.”

“Perhaps I will confine him to a nestroom for the duration of your visit.” Pip blinked the overhead light outside the recycler’s door.

Olavilal knocked on the door. “Ish! What’s this I hear about a hull breach?”

The door irised open to reveal the young fel, still buckling his pants. “It’s fine! It’s okay! I’ll help Pip fix it!”

Vil narrowed her eyes and thrust her nose right into Ish’s face, spines erect. “You’ve been here all of eight minutes! What the deeps did you do to my ship?”

He stumbled back and raised his hands. “There’s no shelves in here! I just set my drill down on the pack, and it slipped!”

Vil looked down at the satchel, the drill, and the neat angled hole punched in Pip’s pristine deck. “I only spent a few days on Atolls Break the Waves, but I’m quite certain drills don’t drill themselves.”

Olavilal leaned against the doorjamb and gave Ish a sour look. Vil hadn’t thought it possible, but Ish looked even more distraught. “Afraid that’s on me, Surveyor Vil. I told him to arm himself and prepare to storm the ship. I imagine all the safeties were off.”
Ish seized on this lifeline. “Yes! And you!” He pointed a claw at Vil. “You were supposed to be captured by aliens from beyond the stars!”

Vil threw up her hands; Ish flinched. “Fine! Pip, you can fix all this, right?”

“Bulkhead and cable repairs can be completed before contact with the unknown ship.” Line noise. “I’m afraid Miner Ish is outside of my capabilities.”

Ish’s spines bristled slightly, settled. “Pip, I’m sorry. I’ve never welded anything but I’m pretty good at cleaning dust filters.”

Pip paused half a second. Vil knew it well enough to sense the calculation, how much further it might tease the young miner. “That would be an acceptable trade, Miner Ish. I will retask a drone assigned to port filter duty for bulkhead repair. Please follow the lighted route to the service lift.”

Running lights, green this time, back towards and beyond the airlock. Olavilal stepped aside and let Ish slink out of sight around the bend.

Vil snorted and pinched at the hole. “How did a hapless one-puff eft like that beg his way onto a rescue mission? Did you really expect him to fight off a ship full of alien killers?”

Olavilal picked up the drill and locked the safety. “He’s almost been killed four times in four days, but almost dying is the most important skill a miner has. And he helped me kill an alien not six hours ago.”

Vil’s claws flexed before she caught herself. “You knew about the aliens? They’re here?”

Olavilal shouldered the satchel and starting walking back towards the bridge. “There’s more than one ocean. Turns out the belt we’re mining has a few of its own little invaders. And if you’re keen on making contact with aliens, I have an idea how you and Pip might help.”

Olavilal was deep in consultation with Pip at a side console. Kismin sat next to him, running up the score on Vil’s copy of Puzzle Fish Grum Fish. Vil’s quote “pathetic” recorded times had offended the lieutenant more deeply than the disappointment over aliens. Vil sat across the bridge from them, an earband piping in Eramaera Under the Thumb of Harmony's second. She picked idly at her teeth with one hand and surreptitiously typed a message to Pip with the other.


Pip’s voice came in softly among the strings. “I anticipate the Department of Transportation and Gravity will take significantly longer to formulate a plan than Captain Atirakash. We should not delay our own actions in hope of further rescue.”

[trust o k i]

“Don’t be rude. That shuttle is from Atolls Break the Waves and both Miner Olavilal and Lieutenant Kismin are present in the last crew manifest I have access to. Olavilal’s promotion to First Miner is entirely likely given his history with the ship.”

Vil frowned and pretended to be absorbed in the main viewscreen. [trust fight?]

“They came here to fight. I’m not sure I trust Lieutenant Kismin or Miner Ish to talk to aliens, but if this is a prelude to war I predict they will answer in kind. And...” A few bars of the symphony passed while Pip calculated. “If this is war, you should give thought to escaping on their shuttle.”


“Language. Precautions must be taken. I am not armored like a battleship, nor am I as agile as their shuttle. I can needle myself out of range of known warheads, but you already know that I’m not equipped to handle a crew while performing high-stress maneuvers. Alien weaponry is as unknowable as the aliens themselves. It is possible my needle drive is not robust enough to escape danger entirely.”

[stay here water core good plan]

“I do not concur. The water core was an acceptable compromise for a short rotation. Under weapons fire I will be required to extend my mission as long as possible, even at the expense of my crew. That volume of water will not protect you from full speed movement.” Static wove itself between three snare drums. “I do not consider you an expense.”

[STAY here pip GOOD pgnofuisddddddddddd]

Vil jumped to her feet, leaning heavily against the console. A new star blazed on the screen, poisonously green-white. Kismin spun on her stool to face forward. “So that’s it?”

Pip drew a circle around the ship and started to scroll sensor readings along the left side of its screen. “That is the unknown vessel, now barely within the Felfel visual range. This light is from six hours ago and its projected position is now...” Pip put up a red dot neatly centered on the green pinpoint. “Parallax has decreased by mark zero zero five percent. It appears to be altering trajectory to pass even closer to us.”

Olavilal let out a breath. “So it’s not heading for Epef, then. It’s coming here.”

“That would appear to be confirmed.”

Kismin hissed. “We see you, little star.”

Chapter 8: In Which We Take a Walk

Only two things could spoil Ish's perfect mood. He tromped slowly along the outside of Pip's hull, pausing frequently to take in the Rill and some of the constellations he had begun to name. Pip kept a one-way channel to the bridge open so he didn't miss any of the seniors' planning. For once nobody was yelling at him or, worse, pitying him. The potential end of the world had distracted everybody from his recycler mishap and that was perfectly fine with Ish. He could spend the rest the “rescue” out here in the vacuum, as far as he was concerned.

One of the two things was the alien ship rocketing towards them. It had burned down into yellow-green now, still aimed a few fractions of a degree from Pip. From where Ish stood it lay just below the horizon of the hull. Its arrival put a hard upper limit on when Ish would probably stop enjoying his life. Even when he tried not to worry about it, to lose himself in work for a moment, the chatter on the bridge would drag him back. A full hour of circular discussion had made the other three fel short-tempered. Ish hoped they might sulk in silence for a while.

Ish's helmet highlighted a rectangular panel on the hull near his feet. He crouched down and grabbed the embedded handle.

“Pip, are we clear for filter...” He checked the painted label by his right foot. “...Dorsal 7?”

“Yes, Miner Ish. Dorsal filter 7 is sealed and evacuated. Clear to proceed.”

Ish pulled the handle, feeling the slightest pop of escaped air as the filter slid out. The second of the two things was that these filters had not been cleaned in months. Ish had seen three of them already, and they had been uniformly filthy.

“Pip, this is the fourth filter that I recommend throwing out. How long have you been in service?”

“Four months, two days, twet hours, and sevet minutes, Miner Ish.”

“That is interesting, because I would swear there's a year's worth of crap here.” Ish pulled a short plastic spatula from his belt and started scraping the dust off into space. “And you swear you have drones servicing this properly?”

“To the best of my ability, Miner Ish. If you don't like my air quality you are perfectly welcome to wait outside.”

“Ha! Well. But on the shuttle out to Atolls Break the Waves, I paid my way“ bribed my way, he didn't say out loud “by helping out with the air filters. That's a full-time shuttle, out to all sorts of mining ships and colonies and back to the Core, and those scrubbers didn't have half this much dust in them. You'd think this much mass would throw off your grav mapping.”

No rejoinder from Pip. Ish put the scraper away and grabbed the can of compressed air. A few puffs dislodged the last stubborn clods. Ish slid the filter back into place. “Ready for seal on Dorsal 7.” No reply. “Pip? Dorsal 7?”

Ish felt the hull seal around the filter. He swung the handle back up into the locked position.

“Miner Ish, I have decided I like you.”

“Thanks, Pip, I--”

“But do not ever intimate that my gravitational survey is inaccurate again.”

Ish flinched. “Yes, Pip. Of course.” Three deep breaths. “Pip?”

“There are still two filters that require your attention. I have highlighted the coordinates of the nearest one on your helmet.”

A green line shrank over the horizon towards Pip's south pole. Ish double-checked his tool belt and set off.

“Pip? You know I was making a joke, right? I couldn't stand to have two ships mad at me.”

Ish took three heavy steps before Pip replied. “I understand humor. Ask Vil about her alarm clock sometime. But your joke activated a very low-level mission defense mechanism. If Surveyor Vil had made that joke I believe I would have run a three-day system diagnostic. Because you are not a member of my crew and have only been here a few hours I was able to talk myself down to an implied threat of retribution.”

“Sounds like you care about your work. That's normal, I guess. To care about something.”

“To Surveyor Vil it is work. To me it is existence. I will travel my ray out into the galaxy like my elder nodes do alongside me. I will see all the masses that are hidden in the pebbled texture of my gravitational scans. I will catalog them, name them, and one day shall be known as Great Pippingak the Explorer.”

Ish would have fallen over forwards if his boots weren't magnetized. “Pippingak? It's bad luck to plan ahead for your name like that. It's supposed to immortalize a moment, you know?”

“I have a complete dictionary of the Felfel standard language, two nearby planetary dialects, and thanks to Vil several twets of symphonies of instrumental audio to choose from. Of all the recorded sounds in my database, I believe strongly that I will choose 'ping' followed by 'gak' when the time comes.”

Ish tried to shrug, but the neck seal got in his way. “Maybe planning is different for an AI.” He walked a few meters in silence. Fresh stars rose over the edge of Pip's hull. The south pole was angled slightly away from the boring yellow star of Epef's system, so the green guideline ended just on the other side of Pip's perpetual terminator. This far out-system the difference between lit and unlit was negligible. You mostly gauged the horizon by the perfect arc it sliced across the starfield. Except--

“Pip, are you detecting a hull breach at this pole?”

“No, Miner Ish. There is a filter access port, a power core exhaust, and two emergency air nozzles located at my south pole. I am detecting no extra holes at my poles.”

Ish pinched where he hoped Pip's cameras could see it. “I'm serious. There's a jagged edge out here.” One tap near the back of his helmet fired up a lamp in the neck seal. Ish's spines rebounded painfully off the inside of his helmet. The small circle of the lamp revealed at least a twet of tubefish, all with one flat end pressed against Pip's hull. The nearest couple of fish reacted to the light, spreading their fins and bending almost double to present their rear(?) ends to Ish. He froze. While he watched, a fish near the center of the huddle flapped dust at Pip's hull to lift off slightly, flapped again to settle down in a different position. Ish counted to docto. When none of the fish moved to attack he carefully, slowly, stretched his hand back up to his helmet. One tap to turn off the light. All the fish straightened and apparently forgot he was there.

Ish took two cautious steps backwards. “Pip? Do you know what's going out here?”

Pip let some line noise play out in Ish's helmet. “I am approximately five percent cameras by mass. My awareness of the local electromagnetic spectrum is quite staggering. I take it you have found my nuzzlefish?”

“Nuzzlefish?” Ish's stomach turned at the scent memory of a workbench.

“They are largely harmless. Do not attempt to touch one; one of my drones was damaged that way in the second week. They appear to feed upon charged nuclei vented by my power core.”

Ish watched the negative space of a nuzzlefish flap out into the stars, flap back to a new spot. “And you know they're throwing dust directly into all your ports, right?”

“Yes. I have intensified my filter cleaning schedule to account for this. Surveyor Vil – and the rest of you – are in no danger unless the flock grows to four times its current size.”

Ish squinted at the uneven silhouette of the nuzzlefish flock. “ know they're all made of meat, right?”

Vil was no longer even pretending to listen to music on her earband. The alien ship was an indistinct warm blur near the middle of Pip's viewscreen. In a few minutes it would pass out of sight and they'd have to rely on Pip to track its final approach. Vil's claws twitched as she imagined trocto ways that approach could go wrong. Her eyes darted between the ship and the center map console, now given over to Pip's trajectories and sensor data.

Across the bridge, Kismin leaned forward on her stool and bared her teeth at the ship. Most of the long hour of arguing had been on her part: Kismin favored a direct immediate assault on the ship when it came to a stop. Vil wasn't sure what the lieutenant believed she could do with two sticks. Regardless, four Felfel weren't enough to repel an alien race if it came to a fight.

Olavilal was unwilling to side against his lieutenant. He was still absorbed in whatever he had Pip calculating over at his console. Talking or fighting was all the same to him – what mattered was that they couldn't adequately plan for it right now. He would save his worry for when the ship was closer and they had a better idea of its capabilities.

The warm disc of the ship was crowned with a swift pulse of amber light. Vil gasped; Kismin snarled. Two more pulses, a pause, three more. The pattern ran up to eight pulses before dying completely. Vil discovered she had been standing up when her knees gave out.

Pip chimed. “I have established contact with the alien slowship.”

Kismin whirled towards the speakerbox, then to the faceless console behind her. “You! You what?!”

“Shortly after the ship entered the visible spectrum, I sent that series of pulses in low infra-warm.“ Pip had enough sense to sound penitent. “I do have protocols to warn approaching ships of a potential collision.”

Kismin's hand went behind her back and caressed the grip of one rod. Olavilal sighed. “They're either a mirror or they can count to eight. That does narrow it down.”

“I am now attempting to transmit some basic equations. I am hopeful that we will have some commonalities worked out by the time it arrives in-system. Surveyor Vil is correct. We should attempt communication first.”

“And you did this without consulting us first?” Kismin hissed through clenched teeth.

“One octed percent of my crew agrees with me. I didn't think a further vote was necessary.”

Kismin drew the rod from her belt and waved it in a futile circle. She hissed and spat, spines flexing in every direction. Her eyes rolled around and met Vil's. “You! You slimy eel! Tell your traitorous ship may already...FSSS!” Kismin stomped from the bridge, flailing the rod in the air and carefully hitting nothing.

Olavilal spread his hands in apology. “Fel deal with stress in different ways. She didn't mean it.” Raised his head to Pip's nearest camera. “She didn't mean it.”

Pip chimed acknowledgement. “Lieutenant Kismin has crossed the docking tube back to your shuttle. I look forward to her return. A good sulk always does wonders for Vil.”

Vil's head swam. She was still sitting on her tail, slumped against the console. In the sudden silence of the bridge she could hear a flute duet dancing like dust motes. Her discarded earband was lying on the floor near her center workstation. The music was utterly incompatible with the sour note the alien ship slashed across her symphony of the stars. Her discovery, her fear, the wild Fel invading her ship; all of it curled up in her chest in a cold bubble. Vil imagined it frosting the inside of her stomach, turning her to ice from the inside out. The flutes finished, trumpets appeared, and the bubble inside her popped.

She rolled over onto her belly and began to laugh. Olavilal flicked his hand at her and turned back to his console. “Different ways.”

Vil wiped a tear from one eye. “Comb your spines, Olavilal. We're about to meet an alien species and I've slept like crap for two nights running.”

Olavilal grunted. He pressed two more keys and a thin printout spooled from the console. “Too late to nap now, with the fate of all Felfel riding on your back. And I'm out of distractions.” He folded the printout and stuck it into a pocket. “Don't suppose you know any card games?”

On the viewscreen, the faint warm blur finally faded from view.

Chapter 09: The Point of Contact

“Really?” Ish opened another cupboard. “You don't have salt anywhere? How about belowdecks?” These shelves held various plates and bowls of thin plastic, but no containers that were likely to hold salt. Ish's eye twitched as he noticed the thin layer of dust.

“My food supply comprises meal bars. Salt is unnecessary.” Pip's camera zoomed in on the counter to Ish's left. “We haven't checked the drawer over there yet.”

Ish closed the cupboard, opened a drawer full of dusty utensils and cooking implements. “Then why even have a galley?”

Pip took a second to respond. “ not something I had considered. Felfel optimism?”

Ish slammed the drawer shut. “Sure. Some day food's just going to wash up on every shore. There won't be enough ships in the fleet to hold all the clams.”

“Yes, exactly. I intend to be in service for many milocteds. At some future date there may be call for kitchen facilities.”

Ish opened the oven. Of course, no salt, but it was the last container in the entire room. “So you keep an entire room pressurized and cleaned for nothing. And you don't even think about it?”

Pip chimed a flat chord. “How often do you think about your gizzard? I just checked my schematics and the galley door is not vacuum-rated. Would you care to level any more criticism at the ship supplying your air?”

Ish flopped into a cheap plastic stool and slumped forward on the table. His left foreclaw started tracing spirals in the thin dust. “You're covered in food, actual food, but I don't know how to cook and you don't have the supplies for jerky. We're the target of an invasion from interstellar aliens, for the first time in history, but we have to wait hours to actually be invaded.” His tail slapped another stool to the ground. “This is the longest I've gone without setting off an alarm since I got to Atolls Break the Waves. I think I miss almost dying.”

“Then I have excellent news! The slowship will be here in just one more hour. I'm sure you'll be able to almost die again shortly.” Line noise.

Ish heard chimes sound out in the hallway. Pip's voice came from every speaker simultaneously. “Hello everybody! It is now one hour until the alien slowship achieves our orbit. Isn't that exciting?” Chimes.

Ish brushed the spirals out of existence and narrowed his eyes. “You enjoying yourself?”

“My purpose is to count, catalog, and measure every single mass in the galaxy. I enjoy myself every picosecond of every day. Interacting with my crew is rewarding above and beyond that.”

Ish hissed softly. Small motes of dust raced away across the table. “So it's literally impossible for you to get bored. Not bored for a single second in eight milocteds. I don't think even Olavilal can say that.”

“If you need something to take your mind off the possible end of Felfel civilization in...sevocto-seven minutes, I possess several card games and Puzzle Fish Grum Fish. Although Lieutenant Kismin's clear times in Grum Fish are exceptional. Surveyor Vil prefers to listen to or compose music in her off hours. I have every novel assigned in the coursework of the Five Major Universities of The Beloved Homeworld of the Felfel. Vil also has the entire Gentleman Kirikir Gellen series. She is an especial fan of the fourth and tenth books.”

“Ew.” Ish covered his ears with both hands. “My mom had those books. Pip, this isn't helping. Do you have any manuals for, like, fleet combat? Building bombs using only common household objects?” He waved one hand around the galley. “Of which you have none?”

Kismin stepped into the galley doorway. “You have the right idea, Ish.”

Ish yelped and jumped up from his stool. Kismin smirked and leaned against the doorjamb. “You need two crews to make a haul run smooth.” She raised two claws. “A crew to do the rock work, and a crew to do the ship work. If you're exceptionally talented and beautiful, you can do both.” She placed a hand on her chest. “Get it? Olavilal and Vil are the welcome crew. So you and I, we need to be the unwelcome crew.”

Ish flexed his spines. “I've been the unwelcome crew for half a week now.”

Kismin's smirk widened into a genuine smile. “True enough. You've done nothing but kick up dust and split wild rocks for four days. I've personally watched you 'almost die' twice.” She made air quotes with her claws.

Ish lowered his head and stared Kismin down. “How long were you out there listening?”

Kismin slouched away from the door and plopped into the stool across from Ish. “Maybe I was bored. Point is, Olavilal and Vil – and Pip – are going to say hi to the aliens. You and I need to have the backup plan in case things go off-axis.” Kismin looked up into Pip's camera. “Fair?”

“Fair, Lieutenant Kismin. I also care for the welfare of my crew.”

Kismin's eyes came back to Ish. “It's down to us, Ish. The five of us. I've been needling messages to Atolls Break the Waves, and it's still four hours from retrieving all the work crews. Captain Atirakash said he'll get here as fast as he can. That still leaves three hours with nothing but us and the aliens. Best case, their ship has an ocean and we spend three hours swimming. You think that's likely?”

“Deeps no I don't.” Ish sat down again. “You think they're going to hunt us for sport and rip out our spines?”

Kismin laughed and rolled her eyes. “Nah. Probably not. So, we start somewhere in between.”

Ish nodded. “Let's start with you needling Atolls Break the Waves. Needle radios are expensive military stuff.”

Kismin's spines flattened out. She folded her hands primly on the table. “They can be.”

Ish's eyes lit up. “Are you Blue Spines? You're not on a secret mission, are you?”

Kismin met his gaze for a long second. Ish's heart started beating faster. Kismin's spines started to wiggle a second before she burst out laughing. Ish flared his spines and looked away as she spun on the stool.

“Ssssss Ish, you are definitely reading all the wrong books. We're a rockbreaker crew, top to bottom. 'Are you Blue Spines.' Deep's teeth.” Kismin ran a hand over her spines. “Most of our shuttles are fit out with needle radios for emergencies. There's plenty of low-grade iridium out there that's not good enough to haul home. A couple guys in Engineering hone it down as a hobby. And when you need to tell Captain Atirakash about how those invading aliens weren't just some eft's space madness, it's nice to have a high-class radio.”

Ish studied the front of the oven, refusing to turn back to the table. “That's great. So they can tell us almost instantly that we're on our own. Real handy.”

Kismin tapped the table with a claw. “Better than waiting for light speed. And we still have most of an hour to come up with a plan to repel the foul alien cannibals. I have two tungsten rods. How about you?”

Ish snorted and placed one hand on the table, palm up. “I've holed and dented every ship I've ever been on. You get me on that alien ship, I'll do some damage.”

Kismin placed her hand next to his, palm up. “Best plan I've heard all day. Lot better than counting at them with a laser.”

Pip chimed indignantly. Ish figured it never got bored calculating ways to infuse emotion into four simple notes. “The alien ship and I have already settled on a common representation of simple algebra. They appear to count in octal as well! Or at least, the alien ship had no counterproposal.”

Kismin slapped her tail against the deck. “Well isn't that lovely! And maybe they molt pure osmium and their crap smells like fish.” Her hand curled into a fist. “I, for one, am not going to get caught chewing my own tail.”

Vil found the bridge far more bearable now that the aliens had slowed out of visible range. There was simply less tension without the constant presence of an artificial star on Pip's screen. She and Olavilal had passed a pleasant half-hour trying to match Kismin's times on Puzzle Fish Grum Fish. It was a small, manageable kind of failure that kept their minds off the dark future skidding sideways towards them.

Olavilal tapped the screen. “There's just always this one orange guy here. And we've already used the other oranges to get this far. I don't see how to get him in line with the rest without totally screwing up the green school.”

Vil sat back and shrugged. “But if we don't do the orange and then the green, I don't think we can clear the red minnows. They're separated by that reef on the north side. What did you say Kismin's time was?”

Olavilal tapped a couple keys. “Fivet seconds. What kind of arid score is that? Took me four seconds just to find this menu. Maybe we just press every spot on the screen simultaneously?”

“You were sitting next to her for two hours. Did you see her do anything out of the ordinary?”

“Everything Kismin does is out of the ordinary. That's why I keep her around.” Olavilal hissed laughter. “I was expecting you to help me with this. I'd never heard of Grum Fish before today.”

Vil stood up and stretched. “Don't look at me. It came installed on Pip by default. I usually just listen to music.”

Pip brought up a ship schematic on an adjoining console. “Puzzle Fish Grum Fish bought exclusive installation rights to the past two generations of gravity mapping nodes. Its core code is located here, three meters above Surveyor Vil's nestroom. Removing it has a seven-percent chance of damaging core navigational routines. But I know an eft with a drill.”

Olavilal pursed his lips and poked at the errant orange fish. “Nobody plays pukchukkle anymore, now that's a game.”

Vil stuck out her tongue like she had just tasted sour seaweed. “I'm at least five moltings away from learning pukchukkle.”

Olavilal pointed a claw at her and splayed his spines. “Surveyor Vil, you will respect my name. I don't care if you have your own ship. I could bust you down to a single letter. A lowercase letter.”

Vil spun away to the center console and feigned a swoon. “You wouldn't dare! Pip, prepare to vent atmosphere from the bridge!”

No response. Vil straightened and looked at the ceiling.

“Pip? I ask for silky vengeance upon this dastard. The honor of my name is at stake.”

Pip was silent a moment more, then all the consoles went dark. Alarm chimes sounded. Olavilal stood up, reached for the spear leaning in the corner. Pip's voice was as formal as Vil had ever heard.

“To all Felfel currently aboard gravitational mapping node Pip, please report to the bridge at once. Lieutenant Kismin and Miner Ish, please report to the bridge.”

Half of the consoles sprang back to life. Down the hall, Vil could hear faint footsteps coming towards the bridge. Kismin's voice asking a question; Pip's speakers tracking her around a bend.

“Pip, what's going on? Is it the alien ship?” Vil turned to the viewscreen for answers, but there was only the slow scroll of data from Pip's long-wavelength sensors.

Olavilal leaned on his spear. His spines quivered but stayed flat. “Surveyor Vil, I think we had better sit down. An all-hands announcement doesn't start a feast.”

Vil thought this last had a bit too much Condescending Spacer flavor to it, but she sat at her workstation. Kismin and Ish reached the bridge a moment later. Kismin still seemed ready to attack every shadow, lithe and poised. Ish was beginning to look exhausted.

Pip rang a single note and drew out the mournful echoes. “I have received a priority transmission from the network. Fouret hours ago, a T rocket impacted the colony world of Octopodes' Wake. T detection systems gave a three hour warning. Evacuation efforts are proceeding smoothly. The bulk of the fleet has been called in to assist with evacuation and sweep the system for more rockets. Casualties reported at zero, but Octopode's Wake is lost. Transmission ends.”

A diagram flashed up on Pip's viewscreen. Octopodes' Wake was an old world from the third wave of expansion. Warm, humid, and almost entirely salt ocean, it had been completely converted into a farm octuries ago. The diagram showed the path of the T rocket, the orbits of the five planets around their star. Bright red specks showed the positions of the Felfel fleet. The rocket's path was animated, green light falling inward until it struck Octopodes' Wake. Again. Again.

Out of the corner of one eye, Vil saw Ish turn away from the screen and dry heave. Her own spines wiggled, searching for an enemy to pierce. Kismin clawed distractedly at the air.

Pip powered up the rest of its consoles but kept the lights low and warm. “My condolences to the Felfel people. May your waves lap against the galaxy's shores.”

Vil stared at the diagram, mesmerized by the arcing fall of the T rocket -- a T rocket! in her lifetime! – until three sharp raps on the deck snapped her to attention. Olavilal stood up and banged his spear once more. He let the silence stretch for two heartbeats, then cleared his throat.

“We're in for it now. You heard Pip. The fleet's gone to Octopode's Wake, which means they're even farther from where we are now. Even if Surveyor Vil's information reached the right desk of the right paper-pusher at the right bureau, Octopodes' Wake is going to dominate their attention for months.”

Ish roused himself. “Are you kidding? We've got another alien ship right here. They can't ignore the threat, especially now!”

Kismin and Olavilal looked at each other. Olavilal inclined his head. “Vil sent two grav scans of poor resolution showing a dot. The fleet has a Felallian crisis happening right now in the third sphere. Until we can actually see the alien ship and send a full scan, nobody's going to care about this border. And by the time they can mobilize ships to help us, we'll be three weeks' down the shark's gullet.”

Kismin went to Ish's side and put a hand on his shoulder. “But Atolls Break the Waves will be here. We're not military, but you don't need battleships when you've got rocks to throw. Nothing beats rock.”

“And we won't need the fleet if we don't start a war,” Vil said. She could hear the sour harmonies swirling around her, punctuated by Olavilal nervously drumming his fingers on his spear haft. It was up to her to bring this crew back into harmony. “One alien ship is bad, but it's not a war. It's talking to Pip, so it's not trying to catch us by surprise. I think we're going to be fine. But if not...” She gestured at Kismin. “Nothing beats rock.”

Pip chimed again. Everybody flinched, but these chimes didn't have the overtones of despair that accompanied Pip's last broadcast. The diagram had been replaced with the familiar starfield. Vil welcomed the unchanging, unblinking pinpoint of Ap – until it blinked. An invisible blackness cut off Ap and a few of the more central stars, sliding slowly from right to left.

“The alien ship has arrived within two light-minutes. Communication is accelerating. It is planning to stop eight kilometers away from myself, bearing two hexocto, declination negative sixet mark five. Oh. Oh dear.”

Vil could feel machinery rumble to life beneath her feet. A minute shudder passed through Pip. Several consoles sprang to life and started scrolling status reports. Olavilal set his spear down carefully against his console. Vil whipped her head back and forth, trying to watch both the invisible ship and the screen by her elbow.

A mechanical whine Vil had never heard before crescendoed and fell away. The status reports stopped scrolling quite so quickly. Vil felt herself pulled towards the rear of the bridge. She looked over her shoulder and saw Ish leaning forward and Kismin bracing herself with her muscular tail, almost as if Pip were...tilting?

“Surveyor Vil, the alien ship's gravity has spiked. I have tasked additional filters to compensate but I am having trouble maintaining the integrity of my scan. The alien ship is...its mass is...yellow alert.” Pip's lights flared into a bright yellow, the color of death and danger. Its voice lost its playful tone and became completely artificial. “My position has slipped by six millimeters, bearing two hexocto three slash negative sixet. Scan integrity compromised. Emergency reset, all crew prepare for emergency adjustment. Yellow alert.”

Vil looked up into Pip's camera. “Pip? Pip, what's wrong with the ship?”

“Prepare for emergency adjustment. Mark!”

Pip jerked backwards six millimeters and Vil's stomach did a somersault. She grabbed the edge of her stool and planted both feet, now fighting both the strange pull backwards and the whiplash forwards. Ish dropped down to all fours. Kismin squeaked and fell to one knee. Pip dimmed the lights to orange.

“Surveyor Vil, the alien ship's mass is changing. For several seconds it was the highest gravitational reading I have ever felt. Its mass is now decreasing by several tons per second.” Pip’s voice softened in perfectly-modulated wonder. “It does not appear to be filtering its own gravity. It is modifying its total available mass. I did not know such a thing was possible.”

Ish recovered his voice first. “Pip...Pip, how big is the ship?”

Pip didn’t answer for several seconds. Another shudder passed through the deck. “Miner Ish. It appears to be eight kiloctmeters long.”

Olavilal cursed. Vil leapt to her workstation and started scrolling through Pip’s scans. The grav scan was still abhorrently high, but at this range the shorter and visible wavelengths could finally give useful information. Vil picked out the faintest reflection of yellow light from the local star, a bit of warm light from the front of the ship, the occluded gamma ray from a pulsar Pip had mapped earlier. She brought data up and down into false color, aligned it, flattened it.

Kismin gasped as the composite went up on Pip’s viewscreen. Vil had trouble reconciling the size of it against the ships she was used to. Pip was a small sphere meant for one or two crew. She had spent two weeks on Atolls Break the Waves, which was immense by comparison. Over an octed crew but most of it empty space meant to be filled with ore. She had read stories of the large military cruisers, battleships with names as long as her tail, but those were always patrolling far-off systems and long-ago borders.

The silhouette of the alien ship grew larger against the stars. It moved almost imperceptibly now, coasting to a stop against friction that shouldn’t have existed. It wasn’t even the familiar Felfel sphere. It was squashed flat, an ellipsoid with a divot at its nose and, Vil guessed, a matching one at the rear. Its ugly asymmetry reminded Vil of a coral polyp, stretching out blindly to consume anything near its maw.

Pip outlined the ship in green and dimmed the false colors around it. “I have verified this figure using every available scanner. The only outlier is its mass.” Pip displayed estimates of its length and radius, marking the major axis.

“That’s impossible.” Ish stepped up beside Vil and frowned at the displays. “A space-faring civilization can’t afford to spend that much metal on a single ship. If those measurements are correct, it’s orders of magnitude bigger than our largest battleship. Larger than any pleasure liner or orbital insect farm. It’s just...”

“It’s obscene.” Olavilal thumped the butt of his spear. “No wonder it’s a slowship. You’d need needles as big as Atolls Break the Waves to move that thing.”

Kismin lashed her tail. “We can’t stand against aliens three times our size.”

Pip dropped the false color image and refocused on the black oval of the alien ship. “The ship is hailing us. We do not have a common language worked out yet, but I believe it is inviting you aboard.”

Chapter 10: Outside and Inside

Warning lights glowed beneath Vil’s chin. Her suit’s dumb sensors were panicking over the absurd mass floating in front of her. On her right, Kismin’s helmet was flashing asteroid and impact alerts. Their jets puffed to slow them further, drifting the last kiloctmeter to the alien ship at an agonizing crawl.

The mining shuttle that had brought them over had refused to get closer to the alien ship. Any solid mass of that size was interpreted as a threat and required a minimum safety radius. Kismin and Vil were the scouts; Vil by virtue of being Pip’s commander, Kismin because she had the sharpest teeth. Olavilal and Ish were suited up inside the shuttle, ready to join them if they found an airlock.

Kismin gave herself an extra puff of speed, touching down on the ship first. Vil brought herself to a stop a few meters from the surface and waited. They both counted to four slowly; the ship didn’t react. Kismin reached up to her helmet and turned her radio on. Vil saw her mouth move, watched her ears flex waiting for a response. A moment later Kismin looked up at her and waved. Vil activated her own radio.

“Ship hasn’t budged. We don’t know if it even uses radio. Pip says we’re insignificant gnats upon such a massive structure.”

A burst of static broke into Kismin’s transmission. “I would never say such a thing out loud.”

Vil puffed to the surface and forced herself to reorient to down. “Okay Pip, we’re here. Magboots seem to work on this hull. Which way do we go?”

“I’m having...some trouble with that. The ship and I have agreed on math, but I am unable to establish a vocabulary. This is far outside my expertise.”

Kismin turned on her external lights and spun a slow circle. “I’m not going to check every square meter of this leviathan. Pip, can’t you find a bump or a hole or anything in this hull?”

“While its mass has settled to near-normal for an osmium ship, I have been unable to penetrate its hull at any wavelength. It appears to be abnormally dense.”

Kismin flared her nostrils. “Absolutely absurd. Aliens invading and the only ship we’ve got on our side is a scan ship that can’t scan.” She reached into her belt for a rod. “Get your antennas fixed on me.”

“Lieutenant Kismin, I must admit I am slightly farsighted. By design.”

Kismin let go of the rod and watched it float a moment. She nodded. “You’ll see this.” Her hand shot out like an eel, grasped the rod, and swung it into the ship’s hull. Her entire body arced with the blow. Vil felt the vibration through her boots.

“Lieutenant Kismin. While I applaud your creative thinking, I am completely unable to detect the minute vibrations of your strike. Please do not start an interstellar war. I—hold on.”

Kismin looked over at Vil and mimed picking her teeth with the rod.

“I have received a transmission from the ship. No words yet, but coordinates and a distance. I will pass the location to your helmets.”

A red line appeared on Vil’s helmet, curving around over her right shoulder. Kismin set off, one heavy step after another. Vil took a small hop and used her jets to catch up. “Do you solve all your problems by hitting them?”

Kismin stowed the rod and grinned at Vil. “Most of them.” She put on a pensive face. “Granted, my problems are mostly with rocks and that dried up lizard back in the shuttle. A precise, judicious application of force.” Kismin put one finger into the palm of her other hand. “Out in null grav, a tiny bit of force will get you all the results you want. To crack a rock and get at its tasty osmium guts doesn’t take more than a couple drill holes and the barest bit of explosives. Shippies whine that we do eight minutes of work in an eight-hour shift, but you can’t rush the perfect rock.”

Vil nodded. “I can appreciate taking your time for perfection. You saw how Pip reacted when its scan was threatened. It’ll be out here mapping generations from now, but it doesn’t want to lose a second of data. I try to give it a little extra time every day. We go over every little question it has. Three months ago it barely knew a pulsar from a planetoid. Now it’s conspiring to give me vacation. You’ve caught us on a...bad day.”

Kismin hissed in laughter. “Your bad day is my vacation. I’m usually chasing my own tail between shifts. Seven hours of planning isn’t the same as seven hours of boredom. Fleet rules say I need the break, but I don’t need the rest. And this!

The red route ended a few steps in front of them. The hull stretched away blank in every direction. A circle was drawn in that same red around a featureless patch.

Kismin waved in disgust at the nothing that was there. “This is just desiccating great. Pip, are you sure this ship speaks the same math?”

“We’re not sure of anything at the moment, Lieutenant Kismin. But it sent bearing and distance in the same format it transmitted its eventual stopping point. That was accurate to within a few meters. It is reasonable to assume that it wanted us to find this location.”

Vil swiped at her helmet, expanding and contracting the circle. “I don’t see anything special about this place. There’s no seam, no obvious handle or hatch.” She spun her finger around a dial near her right cheek. “I’m seeing some blurry shapes in the near ultragreen. The suit’s sensors aren’t really tuned for this, but they’re definitely artificial.”

Kismin had walked a quarter of the circle. “I see it over here, too. Could be writing. It’s all around the edge of the target circle but not inside. And this bit here is obviously an arrow pointing inward. Write that down, Pip. The aliens use arrows.”

Vil bent over as far as her boots would allow. “No arrows here. Just letters. I’m going to start tapping on things, somebody yell if something changes.”

Kismin squatted down and signed [okay] with one hand. Pip chimed softly.

Vil reached out and touched a narrow glyph that resembled an insectile number four. Nothing happened. She tapped a coiling narrow line that was almost entirely unlike a “T”. It brightened for a moment and then subsided.

“Surveyor Vil, the ship has sent another transmission. I believe it is an image but I can’t interpret the data format.”

“I just touched a shape here. Can you find a way to read that data as this glyph?”

A pause of two seconds. “It is barely possible. The transformations required are a ridiculous stretch, though. I shudder to think what alien mind would conceive such a complicated scheme.”

“Okay. Progress, probably.” Vil tapped the coiling line again. It lit up briefly.

“Receiving transmission, Vil. A series of images this time. Processing...”

Five glyphs appeared on Vil’s helmet. Vil looked over at Kismin and saw the same images reversed on her own bubble. Kismin pointed at her and signaled [slowly]. Vil nodded.

The five glyphs were easy to pick out among the rest. Vil touched each one in sequence. They lit up at each touch, still in ultragreen, and then blinked twice after the fifth. Vil felt a slight rumble and prepared for some invisible door to open. She was not prepared for the hull to simply disappear. Kismin hissed and flinched backwards against her magboots. The entire wide circle faded out at once, the edge mere octimeters from her right foot. It left a gap three meters in diameter opening down into a large spherical room. There were no decorations or imperfections in the featureless gray walls, no door at the far end.

Vil stared at Kismin. All of Vil’s spines were askew, scraping against her helmet, but Kismin was ouwardly calm as she considered the opening. Vil shook with nerves, her claws flexing and aching for a target.

“Kismin! Do we go in?”

Kismin flashed her a grin and reached up to her helmet. “Not yet. Now we call in the B team.” Tap tap. “Olavilal, come in. Vil has located the airlock. Bring the shuttle around to our coordinates.”

Olavilal’s voice lost some of its basso power over the radio. “Finally. I was about to get out of this spacesuit and grab a nap.”

“Then by all means, you old dustmop, take your nap. Leave the exciting stuff to the young folk. Just send down the eft.”

Ish started talking excitedly before his radio had fully connected. “--en any aliens?”

Vil stood up and put her hand on her hips. “We’ve seen a hole so far. No irising plates, no hatch, the ship just formed a hole right beneath us.”

“Cooool.” There was static as Ish’s chin rubbed against the microphone. “We’ll be there in a couple minutes, Olavilal almost has the shuttle parked.”

Vil searched the starfield above her head and caught the faint twinkle of the shuttle’s running lights. She waved. They probably weren’t watching the camera but it made her feel better to know there was a Felfel ship nearby.

“Ho, now this is interesting.” Kismin was playing with something on her helmet. “Vil, we found that writing in near ultragreen. Try cranking the sensor up a little farther.”

Vil looked down into the airlock and touched the wavelength control on her helmet. Slowly, she pushed the slider up to its limit. Slowly, a pair of painted stripes appeared on opposite walls of the airlock, gray on gray. The stripes outlined more of the flowing writing and a pair of arrows pointed at each other. Vil looked back up at Kismin. Kismin’s skin had lost some of its healthy red hue as Vil’s helmet struggled to find ultragreen, but Kismin’s eyes were shining.

Kismin pointed at the stripes. “They see extra colors. Like an insect.”

Ish jetted to a stop halfway between them, hovering in the center of the opening. “Or like the T.”

Olavilal was being his usual careful self, but with the alien ship open and shining below him Ish couldn’t help racing ahead. The shuttle hadn’t even coasted to a stop before Ish had jumped out the airlock.

“It’s one of the stories my grandma told.” Ish fiddled with the sensors on his own suit, hiding and revealing the alien script. “The T didn’t see warm like us because their star was too hot. There was too much warm everywhere, they’d have gone blind.” He frowned. “But this doesn’t look like any of the T ships in movies.”

Kismin turned off her magboots and flew over to him. “From what I’ve read, the T ships were pointier at one end. And they definitely didn’t have any slowship technology that could change mass. Vil, Pip, is there anything in your databanks that looks like the writing?”

“No, Lieutenant Kismin. I’ve been searching for an analogue since I received the image data, but the fragments of T writing I’ve found are far more angular. It matches no known petroglyphs. I’ve sent the image onward to the network for expert research.”

“Only a week until we get answer on that,” Kismin grumbled.

Olavilal came down slowly at the rim of the airlock. “We could wait for Captain Atirakash to needle over. Give this ship another couple of hours to make the first move.”

Ish sputtered and flexed his spines. “Deeps no! We're not doing that!” He puffed just inside the hull, carefully staying away from the walls.

Olavilal's eyes gleamed. “Deeps no.”

“When they start filtering gravity in here, make sure you're planted against this wall.” Kismin looked at Vil. “The arrows indicate down. Atolls Break the Waves has the same thing in its airlocks.”

Ish drifted further into the room. More of the circle-y writing was faintly visible around the inside rim of the opening. The light was a nauseating shade of pale green that came from every surface evenly. Ish had been on a fancy ship once with no light strips, just luminescent paint. Aside from the ugly color it was probably the same thing. The adults were watching him closely, still outside the ship. Their three helmets framed in the airlock door reminded him of Epef's moons. He smiled at Kismin and spread his arms wide.

“Not a whiff of danger!”

Kismin snorted and shook her head, but she hit her jets to join him inside. Vil went directly to the “down” wall and crouched against it. Olavilal tapped a few more commands on his helmet before pushing himself in.

“If the shuttle doesn't hear from us in trocto minutes, it'll send a needle burst to Atolls Break the Waves. Pip, do you still have us?”

“I do, First Miner Olavilal.”

“Not for much longer, I expect. If you can't scan through this hull I doubt we'll be able to radio out. We'll attempt to be back in the airlock in half an hour.”

Ish flared his spines. Olavilal jabbed a finger in his face. “All of us. Half an hour.”

“I'll be waiting for you, First Min--”

The airlock door was a wall again. Ish had been facing that direction but he didn't even see it move. One second there was a round hole into space; the next it was a smooth gray wall, making the room a perfect unbroken sphere. Olavilal pawed at his helmet, turning his radio power up to max.

“Pip, can you hear me?” Ish took three deep breaths. Olavilal looked at him, shook his head, and turned the radio back down. “Trocto minutes starting now.”

Vil slapped her tail against the wall. Ish blinked – he heard her slap her tail, muffled as if from five fathoms away. He clapped his hands in front of his helmet and heard the faintest thump of glove on glove. Kismin sped down to land beside Vil. Ish and Olavilal followed, Olavilal taking care to keep his spear well away from everybody. Ish's boots had barely touched the wall before it vibrated and abruptly became floor. He staggered and went down to one knee. Vil squeaked and flattened against the floor.

“What's happening?” Vil's voice was strained to near silence.

Olavilal slumped heavily against his spear. “Ship's gravity is too high. Big ship from a big planet.” He coughed weakly.

Kismin was the only one who didn't appear affected by the sudden gravity. If she could bear it, Ish figured he could too. He struggled back to both feet and tested the weight of his tail. He could hear more sounds now; the swish of his tail against the floor, the creaking of suits that were still as cold as space. He didn't realize there was a hissing noise until it stopped. Kismin nodded. She pulled a small sensor out of a suit pocket and held it up in front of her.

“Atmosphere has equalized. The pressure is one octed and three percent of normal. Looks like...mostly nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide. Nothing caustic. Oxygen's high, but so is the gravity. If we breathe shallow we could actually live here.” She frowned. “Odd. It got the air right but not the grav.”

Ish patted at his own suit. He didn't have a sensor, or even a pocket. His hand drill hung heavily from his belt. But if Kismin said it was fine... Ish reached up to his neck seal and twisted sharply. All of his movements felt like he were swimming a kiloctmeter deep in the ocean. But everybody else was slowed the same way, which is why Olavilal was too late to keep him from removing his helmet.

The adults froze as Ish took one breath. Two. His head swam a little, but he wasn't dead yet. He licked at the air.

“Mmm. It's nicely humid, but it smells like dirt.”

Olavilal slapped him, slowly, heedless of his spines. “Do you have kelp for brains? Too much oxygen can kill you just as quick as too little! We might be able to scare up some marine rebreathers back on Atolls Break the Waves, that could cut down the — Kismin!

Kismin dropped her helmet on the floor and smoothed her spines. “Eft's right, it smells like wet dirt in here. Can't remember the last time I smelled actual dirt.” Her nostrils worked and she got a faraway look in her eyes. “Could be when I shipped out on board Manners Become a Squid. It was docked planetside to take on some biologicals, and in the dock’s galley there was this incredibly fine--”

Olavilal picked up Kismin's helmet and pushed it into her hands. “Too much oxygen for you, young lady.” Ish giggled. Nothing was particularly funny about what Olavilal said...was there? He checked his suit for pockets. He should probably find his scanner and...and...

His thoughts were interrupted by his helmet clamping down into the neck seal. The recirculators kicked in immediately and scrubbed out the dirt smell. Ish felt his wits returning with the familiar air. He blinked rapidly and looked up at Olavilal.

“Kelp. For. Brains.” Olavilal flicked Ish's helmet and turned away. Vil had finally made it to her feet. “Only one person removes their helmet at a time, and never for more than a few seconds. Our suits can recycle this air into something safe. We don’t know how long we’ll be here and we might have to stretch our air supply.”

Kismin wheezed inside her helmet. “Fine. Fine.” She gave Vil a weak smile. “Mining suits are good for ten hours. How good is a mapping node suit?”

“I’ve been outside Pip for four hours before, at least.” Vil tried to raise one shaking hand to her helmet, then thought better of it. “We left the shuttle less than an hour ago. I’ll be fine.”

Ish fought the strange gravity to face the opposite wall, where both invisible lines merged. The room was a few dozen meters in diameter. Large, but obviously a tiny drop of the ship’s ocean. If the aliens could conjure doors out of walls and pressurize a room with no visible openings, literally anywhere could be the exit, but Ish was willing to bet it would be directly across from the outer wall. He shuffled a few steps forward. His boot crossed the center point of the chamber.

Two short musical chords blasted from somewhere above the Felfel. Ish froze; the adults ended up in various degrees of a defensive crouch, bent awkwardly under the gravity. The chords repeated, leading into a meandering melody. None of the chords hung together as music, exactly, but none of the notes felt out of place. The song ended in under eight seconds. Ish felt a little colder in the silence afterwards.

Kismin hissed, scanning the empty room for enemies. “What was that all about?”

“It was...amazing.” Vil’s eyes were as big as Ish had ever seen on a fel. “Our second encounter with an alien race, and they greeted us with music.”

Ish took another small step. The music didn’t return, but he could sense more than hear the soft whine of an open communication line. Something was listening, or preparing to speak. One meter, two, and nothing told him to stop. Ish heard Olavilal advance a step, dragging his spearbutt along the floor. Vil and Kismin followed behind. The floor constantly curved up in front of Ish, but he didn’t slip or have to climb. In fact, his feet stuck to the curve as if he were on a flat deck. He looked backwards. Kismin was still half a room away, walking slowly, but the top of her helmet was actually pointed towards Ish.

“The floor!” Ish raised his hand and everybody stopped. He pointed at Kismin’s feet. “There’s no down. Or, the floor is down. Look at the angles we’re at.”

Olavilal looked between Ish and Vil. “He’s right. I’ve never seen filtered gravity like this.”

Kismin pulled out one rod and heaved it as far as she could to the left side of the room. It struck the wall above the line and rolled down to just below...where it stuck. Ish stared at the rod, hanging on what his eyes told him was a vertical wall.

Kismin put her hands on her hips. “Cloaca. I’m not going over there to get that.”

The wall in front of Ish was suddenly a hole. Ish’s spines made a horrible squealing sound against his helmet’s glass as he fell to all fours.

Chapter 11: In the Forest of Giants

Red and yellow flowers lined the corridor on the other side of the opening. If “corridor” was even the word; there was a wide trampled path in the grass that disappeared behind a tree. Grass! A tree! Ish hadn’t seen trees for years, and never on a ship. A tree that stretched at least docto meters into the sky. A sky! The bulk of the ship appeared to be a single wide open space, the hull arcing overhead into a hazy distance. The sky was brighter and greener that Ish liked, and a fake yellow sun hovered low on the opposite wall.

At least, Ish hoped it was a fake sun.

There was nothing fake about the dirt, though. Now he knew why the smell had been so strong in the airlock. It looked like something had brought an entire miniature planet with them on their ship. Water dripped from the trees. Their branches sagged with the weight of garish green leaves and vines.

Olavilal tapped numbers into his helmet. “The size of this thing! There have to be six cubic kiloctmeters just in It’s not big enough to sustain itself, but too big to be practical. What if they had a puncture?” He shook his head. “Putting your whole ship at risk from one hole. Can’t wait to meet the aliens that thought this was a good idea.”

Ish crept across the threshold into the grass. He could feel the rough texture of plant matter through his suit, the ruts and hillocks of wild ground. The flowers waved slowly in an actual breeze. If Ish kept his eyes lower than the horizon, the illusion of being on a planet was complete. If it weren’t for the crushing gravity he might enjoy it here.

Vil trudged up beside him. “Music and flowers. The Visitors aren’t invading us, they’re courting us.” She gestured at the path. “Trying a little too hard to impress us.”

Ish laughed and looked at a nearby flower. There was some kind of large round insect crawling over one petal. Ish watched it poke its head into the flower’s center and then fly away. “Everything here seems to be fine in the gravity and the light. I bet that bug could chew right through my helmet.”

Olavilal stepped off one side of the path and prodded at the taller grass with his spear. “Trees as big as those mean this place is dirt at least a meter deep. Too big to be practical.” He hissed his disapproval. “Even if you wanted to farm gourmet bugs, this place is overkill.”

“I wouldn’t ride in this ship if they were growing salmon.” Kismin came around the lip of the airlock, panting and holding her errant rod. “This grav is going to pull a molt right off of me. It’ll take us half an hour just to reach that first tree.”

Ish examined the tree. The meadow thickened into a tropical forest a few doctzen meters away, but there was one obvious tree that the path curved towards. It was gray and stocky and straight, splitting multiple times into branches that held up a hemisphere of garish green leaves. No vines curled up its trunk and burdened its branches. Ish had seen several worlds with similar big plants, but they had always been around proper red stars and had proper orange foliage. While he watched, a small furred animal hopped from one branch to another and squeaked.

Vil took a step forward. “Oh, is that a rat? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rat up close!” She started shuffling down the path.

Ish squinted and shaded his eyes with one hand. “There are a few kinds of rat that get farmed. I’ve never seen this one before.” He kept pace with Vil. Not difficult to do; Vil was having more trouble adjusting to the gravity than the rest of them. If some alien beast leapt out of the tall grass, Ish would have to protect her.

The small rat trained one eye on the approaching Felfel, squeaked again, and disappeared down the back of the tree. Ish saw grass rustle as more than one creature rushed away. A pair of feathered lizards were startled from the ground and winged their way deeper into the forest. The constant buzzing of insects and quiet sounds of the forest were familiar to Ish, relaxing a knot in his stomach he hadn't realized was there.

Vil was bending further under the gravity and threatened to drop to all fours. “Are all planets like this? It's so...noisy. Have you ever been on a planet?”

Ish nodded. “A few. Uh.” He reached up to scratch his nose and bumped his hand against his helmet. “I made my way out here on the cheap, so I had to take a couple stops. They're mostly like this. Not as bright, not as many animals running around of course.”

Vil's eyes rolled, trying to see everything on all sides. “I grew up on ships. Went to academy on ships. If you felt a breeze it's because you're about to die. You'd never see a bug flying around free.” She licked her lips. “I've never even been back to The Beloved Home of the Felfel to see the oceans. I was prepared to walk into an alien leviathan full of robotic razor squids. I wasn't ready for this.”

They were now less than eight meters from the tree, beginning to wind around it. Something on the other side shifted its weight and huffed out a breath. Ish put a hand on Vil's shoulder and froze. Behind him, he heard Olavilal lift his spear and Kismin slide a rod out of her belt. A flock of lizards took off from the forest and flew squawking over their heads, wheeling back and streaking into the distance to ship's aft.

Ish looked back at Kismin. She nodded and waggled her rod at the tree. He signed [okay] with one hand and stepped in front of Vil. She stayed close on his tail, but her ragged breaths over the radio betrayed what she thought of this plan.

It wasn't the gravity that made Ish move slowly, slowly around the tree. He saw the edge of a clearing in the meadow, the path trickling into it and running out the other side into the forest. The grass here wasn't trampled, but cut short manually. And seated on a stool in the middle of the clearing was the alien.

Ish stared and the alien stared back, keeping carefully still. It was vaguely Felfel in shape: one head, two arms, two legs, a tail. The hand that Ish could see had the normal three fingers and a thumb, but they ended in blunt nails instead of Ish's sharp claws. It was covered in short furry spines on most of its body in a riot of colors from orange through green and white. The exposed skin on its arms and head was pebbled and rough like a fel, but a pale diseased yellow. A large bony crest stood up from its head, edged in larger furred spines that were mostly green with black spots.

It was also easily three times larger than Ish.

It wasn't wearing a spacesuit, but a few straps of plastic cloth crossed over its chest and around underneath its tail. The straps had various hanging pouches filled with remarkably normal computer tablets. It was holding a flat gray tablet in one hand, probably scanning Ish.

It blinked and looked over Ish's shoulder at Vil. Its crest spines gave a curious ruffling wave and it...hooted. Holes in the top of its crest blew out a layered bass harmony to the note that left its mouth. Ish heard Vil gasp over the radio. The alien spread its arms wide to its sides and hooted twice more, each sound underlaid by a deeper rumble from its crest.

Ish couldn't move. The sight of this improbably large Fel-whale froze him to the ground. One hand groped weakly for his drill, lost somewhere behind him. Ish could see Vil step forward out of the corner of his eye.

“They sing,” she whispered.

They sang. Vil's heart was pounding, no longer just to counteract gravity. The alien didn't speak, it sang. Every chord was a word, each sentence was a song, philosophy was symphony. Vil swiped on her helmet, turned up her external speakers as far as they could go.

“Vil.” She patted her chest. “Vil.” She pointed over her shoulder. “Ish.”

The alien cocked its head, spines fluttering strangely as they caught at the air like grasping green anemones. It brought one large hand to its own chest. “Hoowaloosoo.” The last syllable dipped into a minor key.

“What are you doing?” hissed Ish. Vil glanced back at him, all of his spines splayed and still grasping the tree for support. Olavilal had said he was skittish. The poor eft must be molting in his suit. Vil gave him a quick grin and a wink.

“Luwoss.” The ringing tones brought Vil's attention back to the alien – Hoowaloosoo, she supposed. It raised one hand in a fist, then extended each finger slowly. “Hu. Hu. Hu. Hu.” Vil recognized the words as the first four notes of the D major scale. The alien pointed at Vil and Ish, then waggled its third finger and thumb. “Erreporralla merror.”

That was an excellent question. Assuming it was a question. Vil hadn't heard Kismin or Olavilal since Ish rounded the tree. She looked to both sides, searching the tall grass for movement. There, off to her left, she thought she saw a few stalks wiggle against the breeze.

Ish found enough courage to put a hand on Vil's shoulder. “Vil, no.” His speakers were off but he whispered it anyway.

Vil raised her own hand and waggled two fingers. Then she stepped up her speaker volume and raised her chin. “Kismin! Olavilal! Come out! The alien is friendly. There's no danger.”

A muffled curse drifted in through her radio. A few meters to her right, Olavilal straightened up and planted his spear butt in the ground. He squinted at the alien and rippled his spines in challenge.

Hoowaloosoo's head whipped to Vil's left as the grass audibly shook. Vil realized – too late – that the alien had been moving slowly and carefully for her benefit. Kismin burst into the clearing, rods akimbo and hissing a war chant. But she was still five meters away and gravity was against her. The alien flicked its tail in the dirt and sent a shower of small clods directly into her face. Kismin yelped and tried to turn aside, but overbalanced and skidded sideways into the short grass. For a moment, nothing moved. Vil held her breath. Dust settled back to the ground with unnerving swiftness.

The alien didn't take its eyes off Kismin while it raised two fingers. “Hu pa hu.” It gestured to the tall grass behind it and sang a sentence too quickly for Vil to identify words. The grass bent and two more aliens stood up to their full incredible height. Olavilal swore again, awe filling his voice, and his spear dipped down to point at the closest of the new pair.

These aliens were shaped roughly like Hoowaloosoo, but something was odd about them. They wore a smooth gray carapace over their body, painted in broad stripes with yellows and greens. Their head crests were bizarrely symmetrical where Hoowaloosoo's was knobbed and...natural. Vil gasped. That was it, they looked constructed. She quickly picked out the seams in the carapace around their joints, the perfect grace of their gait as they stepped into the clearing in unison. Kismin scooted backwards on all fours. The constructed aliens took up position just behind and flanking Hoowaloosoo. The left one only had eyes for Kismin; the other examined Ish and Vil closely. Vil thought she could see its eyes focusing and zooming like a camera lens. She caught her spines rising and forced them back down.

Hoowaloosoo gestured broadly at the clearing and trilled a few high-pitched bars, then pointed at itself again. “Hoowaloosoo. Palla moma ha-oo husuo.” It pressed its palms together and looked at Vil. She felt eyes on her from every direction. The aliens let the silence stretch out a minute, two. Nobody else dared move.

Vil squared her shoulders, stepped forward, and began to sing.

Chapter 12: The Winds Whip the Sails

Outside of that run when the local planet decided to secede just before they'd filled their hold, Captain Atirakash had never seen a bloodier sharkball in his life. Atolls Break the Waves was only half full with os and every rock crew was coming off duty at once. The galleys and rec rooms were about to bust their rivets. Midminer Ferri had come in too hot on his shuttle, gouging a hole in the decking and nearly setting the whole port side of the ship on fire. Atirakash would wager a stack of jerky that Ferri's nest would be three degrees too cold tonight.

And Lieutenant Kismin had sworn to him tip to tail that there was an alien invasion in progress in this very system. She was hot-headed, but she wasn't a liar or a fool. In fact, Atirakash had already written the letter of recommendation for her third syllable. She broke rock like a miner twice her age – in this case, Olavilal – and she kept the rowdier elements of the crew in line without pulling out their spines.

Atirakash swiped up a magnified view of the mapping node, swiped it down. Nothing had changed in the past two minutes. The node was still in radio contact, three minutes away, keeping up a steady narration of its crew's progress. Lately that was variations on “I can't reach them” and “They haven't responded.” Just beyond it, a whale of a ship lurked in the deeps of space.

Commander Ornteri swiveled on his stool. “Captain Atirakash, the final shuttle is on approach. They'll be docked and stowed within fouret minutes.”

“About muddy time. Let me know if this one's going to put another dent in my ship.” Atirakash tapped a claw on the arm of his chair. “Not angry at you, Ornteri. I'm feeling spiny about the whole situation.”

Ornteri waved a hand dismissively. “Right there with you, Captain Atirakash. Best case, this is going to put us a week behind schedule. Strains our bugbar supplies, makes the crew slippery. Worst case,” he shrugged. “Two hours from now we're a cooling cloud of atoms and a war's on.”

Navigator Shikeren slipped off her earband and rolled her eyes. “Pound sand, Ornteri. This is the most exciting thing to happen to any Felfel anywhere for centuries.”

She thumped her tail against the deck. “Everybody, apprentice recycler engineer on up, is going to get their name inscribed in gold on the Beloved Home of the Felfel. Booky types are going to be analyzing our molting schedules for decades.” Shikeren leaned forward, eyes glittering. “They're going to have to set aside a planet to grow all the meat we'll be owed. Ships will be begging to--”

“Cool it, Shikeren.” Atirakash pinched at her face. “We've got enough trouble without worrying about a planet full of meat. Tell me you have a course laid in.”

Shikeren settled back on her stool. She clearly had another few minutes of ranting fantasy to share, but the job came first. “That ship made a real splash when it showed up, but the grav's gone quiet now. We can needle out there any time you like. Sort of a waste, hopping that far.”

Ornteri nodded. “We've got needles enough for the trip back, but if that ship shows teeth...well, we might be going home with a light load.” He gestured vaguely at the front viewscreen. “Aliens couldn't give us two more weeks to fill up with os. Don't see why we have to accommodate them.”

Atolls Break the Waves chimed. “Captain Atirakash. There is a request from Subengineer Falka to deploy the travel nests in Hold 3. That hold is less than eight percent filled. It will be sufficient to bunk sevocto percent of the overflow crew during the crisis.” The ship paused. “Is it fair to label this a crisis?”

Ornteri drew a circle in the air with one claw. “That would be a generous assessment, yes.” Shikeren ruffled her spines at him.

A text window appeared on the arm of Atirakash's chair. [Not for crew's ears. Fleet reply: diverting one battleship from Octopodes' Wake. Nearest ship is The Hurricane Between Our Homes. Best speed one week, five days. Delay aliens until then. HOLD BORDER.]

Atirakash read it twice, letting out a small snort of disbelief. Delay an alien dreadnought with a mining ship? Dried if he was going to lead his crew to their deaths on Fleet's say-so. He threw the message into secure delete and stood up.

“Ornteri, come with me. We're going to go quell these rioting ingrates. Shikeren, keep that needle ready.”

Shikeren gave him a lazy salute and turned back to her console. Ornteri waited until they were out in the corridor before speaking up.

“Captain Atirakash, are we really the ones that should be making first contact? I wasn’t kidding about the cloud of atoms. A ship that size, if they want to come through us they will.”

“Nobody’s starting a war today, Commander. And we’re going to be second contact at best. Kismin and Olavilal went inside docto minutes ago. The aliens are already dealing with more than they can handle.”

Ornteri hissed. “Okay, great, so we show up and save the aliens from ourselves. But today of all days the Fleet’s not going to give a single drop for our problems out here, and we’re not exactly alien experts.”

Atirakash looked up at the ceiling. “Is he still in Rec Room 2?”

Atolls Break the Waves chimed. “Yes, Captain. He and five other junior miners are playing pukchukkle. Poorly.”

Ornteri was not easily distracted. Once he had his teeth in a subject, he could be just as bad as any navigator. Atirakash had learned that a good commander frequently felt like a burr digging into his skin. “A few of us have found petroglyphs, but it’s not like we study them. What the deeps are we even supposed to say to an alien?”

Atirakash stepped into a rec room that instantly fell silent. A few of the younger crew saluted; the veterans just waited respectfully. There, near the back: Midminer Ferri was keeping his spines flat and carefully not looking at him. The other fel at Ferri’s table were facing his direction but didn’t meet his eyes. Atirakash cleared his throat.

“I hear there’s a fel in here that likes putting holes in my ship. Hear he’s even better at it than that little eft in third shift.” A few chuckles and hisses at that. Ferri’s skin blanched. “I expect you’ve all heard the news by now. Octopodes’ Wake, an alien leviathan-ship, losing contact with our crewmates. Seems to me...” Atirakash sauntered over to the nearest table and picked up a pukchukkle pawn. “Seems to me we might need somebody who can put a hole in a ship.”

A maroon girl at Ferri’s table caught on before Ferri did. Her eyes narrowed and she turned to whisper across the table. Ferri nodded and stood up. “You need volunteers, Captain?”

Bless his heart. “I need Felfel who recognize when they’re being volunteered. Midminer Ferri, grab a deck of cards and pick a shuttle crew that isn’t going to get sick of you. You’re all going on a long haul to a big rock. You’ve got eight minutes.”

Ferri’s spines stood up. “You’re shipping me off?”

So, the maroon girl was definitely the brains of the group. Questioning a captain’s direct order in front of their crew could get you spaced on a military ship. Atirakash flicked the pawn onto Ferri’s table, scattering pieces from their own game.

“You can be my Plan C, eft, or you can try to live aboard a ship you damaged.”

Atirakash had the distinct sensation that every camera in the room had just zoomed in on Ferri. The eft could probably feel it too; his spines lowered slowly and he looked away. Atirakash scanned the crowd.

“Plan C then. Spread this news around. Captain Atirakash doesn’t charge down a shark’s maw without backup. Nobody knows what’s waiting on that ship but it’s not going to best this Felfel. Not before I get fat off these asteroids.”

Everybody with more than one haul to their name nodded and clicked their tongues. The maroon girl was whispering furiously to Ferri; Atirakash hoped she could keep him from taking the helm next time around. He spun back to the door and waved Ornteri along. The soft hissing speech of two doctzen anxious Felfel followed him into the hallway.

“Make sure a shuttle’s ready to go back out.” Atirakash heard Ornteri tapping on a pad already. “Two weeks of bars, water, air, suits. That should hold them until Fleet wanders in. And what’s the biggest deployable filter we have?”

Ornteri brought up inventory on the tablet but Atolls Break the Waves was faster. “There are three filters in Starboard Bay 1 that can each cover four octed square meters. A shuttle reactor can power them successfully.”

“Okay, load one of those up as well. Ornteri, I want you at the airlock to give ‘em the plan personally. If the maroon one’s not there, have Ferri repeat it back to you. Plan is: if they see or hear Atolls Break the Waves being compromised, or the alien ship starts to come in-system without hearing from me, they’re to fire up that filter and send the biggest rock they can find at the alien. Leviathan or not, a slowship can’t go far before we knock it out of space.”

“Aye, Captain Atirakash. Hoped it was something like that.” Ornteri shuffled off a side corridor to starboard. “I’ll get them flying before the last shuttle touches down.”

Atirakash paused at the next intersection. For a brief moment there was no other fel in sight. From every direction came the roiling susurration of too many Felfel in too little space. The trip home was always a sauna, but at least then the crew had leave to look forward to. Atirakash looked up at the ceiling.

“Atolls Break the Waves. You ready to put your spines up for this?”

Atolls Break the Waves played a sound file of an ancient second-sphere war chant. Atirakash bared his teeth.

First Navigator Shikeren tossed a tungsten cube from hand to hand, one foot up on the console. The alien ship hadn’t moved, Pip hadn’t moved, Atolls Break the Waves wouldn’t move for another five minutes; there wasn’t much for a navigator to do. Granted, on a ship as experienced as Atolls Break the Waves the titles of Commander and Navigator were mostly for show. Shikeren hadn’t had to press a button since they had settled down in the belt.

She figured another year or two of this would nab a ship of her own. She'd added to her name a year ago with a particularly juicy haul a few light years north of here. Shikeren had been the best shuttle pilot on that trip, ask anybody. She certainly hadn’t punched a hole in a docking bay or bounced a rock off its nose. This haul was cursed.

She studied the starboard camera feed while the cube sailed left, right, left. From three light minutes away it was impossible to make out anything on optics. The Pip node said she had turned on external lights, but the node itself amounted to less than a pixel at this distance. Atolls Break the Waves had put together a diagram of the situation on another screen. Tiny spherical node here, enormous flatfish alien there. Shikeren thought the empty space around the diagram held more metaphor than AI were capable of. The black surrounding the simple line drawing held all the vacant parsecs from here to Felfel civilization, or even the next mapping node. The curved coast of Felfel territory being assaulted by waves of unknown alien life.

Shikeren plucked her cube out of midair with her left hand and started tapping at her console. Light, radiation, gravity maps all lined up, and the course she had plotted a half hour ago still lit up a reassuring red. Four kiloctmeters was a good safety margin as long as everything stayed boring and motionless. Shikeren wasn’t betting on boring. Doing this in two hops would be oceans safer, but she wasn’t going to waste needles that would be better used escaping.

As she watched, the dashed line segments of her course bent minutely. A lesser pilot wouldn’t even have noticed. The perfect red color skewed towards orange. Their destination was now several doctzen meters closer to Pip, farther from the alien. Shikeren leaned in close to the screen.

“Atolls Break the Waves? Did you adjust my course just now?”

“I did not, Navigator Shikeren. I’m not certain...hold.”

Shikeren traced the line with one claw. In all her time at the helm of a needle ship she had never seen a course skew itself like that. The angle and force of their punch was unaffected, and math itself hadn’t changed in the past five minutes, so that left…

“Navigator Shikeren, Pip has reestablished contact with the crew. Contact was concurrent with another shift in the alien ship’s mass.”

Shikeren was already recalculating the needle force to put her on the original target. “Thanks, Atolls Break the Waves. Is the crew okay?”

“Pip relays that they are all alive, have made contact with the alien species, and have begun a courtship. Pip stresses that that last is a direct quote from ‘your stochastic crew’. I assume Lieutenant Kismin?”

“An assumption well within the error bars.” Shikeren grinned. She hadn’t run into Kismin personally, but she liked what she heard. Solid fel who could watch her own tail. Shikeren’s right hand flew across the console, tweaking jump parameters and manually updating the grav map. Their course bent back to red and locked in. Five fewer meters per second on the entry punch would put them right where she wanted. But if that ship started to shift mass during the punch, they could end up inside a comet. “Does Pip have an emergency needle radio? It would be nice to have a few minutes’ warning about a mass change before we jump in.”

“I have already raised the possibility with it. It will give us an update on my mark if Captain Atirakash is willing to wait three minutes for the jump.”

Shikeren nodded and resumed tossing the tungsten cube. Left hand, left, left, left. Her right hand stayed on the console, close to but not touching the Punch button.

Chapter 13: Harmony

There were only two movements so far, and Vil was only one voice, but she thought that was a pretty good rendition of her Ode to Epef. The last few notes hung in the air over the odd artificial clearing. Ish was repeating “oh no” under his breath; it didn’t seem like he was even aware of it. Olavilal broke radio silence first.

“You’d better hope none of that were actual words in their language.”

Hoowaloosoo’s eyes were fixed on Vil. Vil saw the intelligence there but couldn’t gauge its reaction. Did it like her melody? Maybe Felfel music sounded like gibberish to aliens that sang all the time. Vil shifted from foot to foot, trying to relieve the strain of her extra weight.

“Fu wa looloomon.” Hoowaloosoo seemed to come to a decision. Slowly, it reached into one of its many pouches and drew forth a pair of metal tongs. They had broad, slightly concave ends with narrow handles connected by a short spring. The alien laid the broad end against her left knee. It raised one finger and made sure Vil was paying attention, then –

Snap! It brought its right hand down sharply on the tongs, causing the ends to ring, while also slapping the tongs against its knee with its left hand. It used each finger of its right hand in turn to maintain the ringing while adjusting the percussive beat in a complicated pattern. And then! It began to sing, hooting short sharp words in and around the beat, weaving their chords into the tongs’ high-pitched vibrations. The combined effect began to make Vil nauseated. She couldn’t grasp the logic behind the changes in time signatures or tempo. Something about the whole performance made her head spin, music itself whirling out of control as she flailed for something familiar to hold onto.

Then, ring! Hoowaloosoo gave one last flourish and let that note fall away to nothing. It calmly replaced the tongs in its pouch. Only then, finally, did Vil feel as though they had established common ground: one of the constructed aliens put its hands over it eyes and hooted softly. The other one gave a very familiar shake of its head.

“Could somebody please check my neck seal?” Kismin hadn’t moved from the ground where she had fallen. “I appear to be having high-oxygen hallucinations.”

Ish crouched on all fours by the roots of the tree. He was no longer hissing coherent words, just exhaling heavily into the radio. Vil judged he was one more shock away from swallowing his own tail and vanishing.

“Vil, we’ve got six minutes left before we have to check in with Pip.” Olavilal tapped his helmet. “Do you think you could sing something about airlocks?”

“Not sing, but...” Vil looked around at the clearing. Dirt, pebbles, a few pathetic clumps of unfamiliar land plants – to be honest, to a shipfel like her they were all unfamiliar – and there, finally, a broken stick. She was starting to worry she’d have to dig her claws into a morass of alien germs. She lifted the stick and took four dragging steps closer to the giants.

“Here.” Vil scratched a circle in the dirt, then nearby an ellipse. She tapped the ellipse twice. “Hoowaloosoo. Vil.” Then she tapped the circle. “Pip.” Then, another leap of logic, Vil flapped her thumb and fingers in what she hoped was interplanetary standard for [talk]. She scraped a line from Pip to the ellipse and bounced it away. Hoowaloosoo cocked its head and peered at the diagram. Vil repeated the [talk], line, and bounce. “Pip talk Vil?”

Hoowaloosoo half-turned to the armored alien on its right and sang. The response dispelled any doubt that these could be giant aliens wearing armor; its voice had the same indefinable artificial quality as Pip’s, and the chords came from its mouth rather than its sleek crest. Music flowed in both directions for a moment, ending with Hoowaloosoo raising its volume and tempo to overbear the other. The sleek alien shook out nonexistent feathers. Its cameras managed to look angry. Hoowaloosoo turned back to Vil and raised one hand. “Pip takka Hwil.”

“--ew of Atolls Break the Waves or Surveyor Vil. Please respond. This is Felfel gravity mapping node Pip, seeking a response from the crew of Atolls Break the Waves or Surveyor Vil. Please respond. This is...I can hear somebody breathing.”

Vil smiled and went to her knees in the dirt. “Pip. Pip, this is Vil. We’re all right. We’re all right. We met the aliens! They sing, Pip!”

Kismin regained her feet. “Vil sang them a lovely song, the alien sang one back, and we’re all friends now. I think they’re courting.”

Vil pinched at Kismin’s head. “Pip, you should see the inside of this ship. There are plants and dirt and insects and everything. It’s like they brought their home planet along with them.”

“Interesting. They are no longer scanning as a planet’s worth of mass, but that doesn’t seem to matter to them. Their mass shifted again just as my transmission got through. While you were inside I was attempting to speak with the ship over laser bursts, but responses were...confused.”

Hoowaloosoo had angled its head to catch Vil’s side of the conversation. Vil saw very fel-like eardrums on either side behind its crest. And who knew? Maybe the aliens could hear radio waves? They were certainly large enough. “Confused how?”

“The ship did not appear to know who, or where, you were. I sent an image of you using the same format they used to send the glyphs, and the ship gave a negative response.” Pip imitated a hiss to show what it thought of that. “First Miner Olavilal, Lieutenant Kismin, I am supposed to apprise you that Atolls Break the Waves is less than fivet minutes from arrival.”

“Still fivet minutes? Crews aren’t supposed to travel more than an hour out.”

Less than fivet. My last update was four minutes ago, and all estimates depended on the remaining shuttles keeping to their schedule. It appears that your crew did not train for emergency alien incursions.”

Kismin waggled her hand. “Less useful than you might think.”

Static. “Sure. But it would be best if you could keep the aliens from changing their mass during the jump.”

Olavilal nodded, then realized that Pip couldn't see him. “Yeah. We won't make any more special requests.”

“We're not much farther than names and counting to four. We haven't been briefed on their arid reactor core.” Kismin stowed her rods behind her and stared at the closer alien construct. It stared back, supernaturally still.

Vil looked Hoowaloosoo in the eye and pointed at the dirt drawing. “Pip talk Vil. Thank you.” She saluted slowly, touching her right hand to her left shoulder. Hoowaloosoo pressed its palms together again, spread them, and hooted three notes. The constructs pressed their palms together in unison.

Two small flying lizards dropped into the edge of the clearing and started squabbling over a fallen tree fruit. They hopped and squawked and beat their wings at each other, the lizard without the fruit attempting to sink its teeth into the other’s tail. Vil was fascinated all over again. Why risk bringing wild animals onto a spaceship? What if they flew into an air vent? What if they chewed open a bulkhead? Pip’s environmental scrubbers already went crazy with all the dust on the ship; imagine having literal dirt covering every surface! The victorious lizard flew off with the fruit clutched firmly in its teeth. The loser circled the field of battle, squawked angrily, and flew into the treeline behind Hoowaloosoo.

Olavilal had come down from the tall grass and stood next to Vil. He was admiring the alien’s bodyguards, perhaps looking for a joint or weak spot to place his spear. He whispered to Vil out of the corner of his mouth.

“Your new boyfriend? His teeth are all flat, like food animals.”

Vil’s raised her spines slightly. “Watch what you’re saying, First Miner Olavilal.”

He raised his left hand. “No no, it just got me thinking...well, maybe we should see if they have any food we can eat. Right? Trade. Commerce. Lunch.” He reached into a belt pouch and pulled out a small piece of something gray and flaky. “So we start with trade.”

Vil took the piece of jerky from him. “I don’t even want to know where you got this.”

Hoowaloosoo grunted and snuffled, the sound backed by a curious whistle of air through its crest. Could it smell the food from here? For all Vil knew, this piece of meat stank like a farm planet after a rainstorm. She tore the jerky in half and quickly cracked her neck seal to sneak a piece inside. The rush of oxygen was almost as good as the rush of sinking her teeth into honest dried protein.

“Ssssss.” She exaggerated chewing – only slightly, this meat was tough! – and raised the other piece for Hoowaloosoo. “Food. Hoowaloosoo food?”

It beckoned with one giant hand. She shuffled forward to just out of its reach, keeping the meat in front of her. From here any one of the aliens could catch her and stomp her flat. Vil tried to not to flinch as Hoowaloosoo reached out and plucked the jerky from her hand. Each of its fingers was bigger around than her arm. She heard her spines scrape her helmet.

Hoowaloosoo inspected the meat, sniffed at it, then crushed a corner in its mouth between two massive molars. It worked its jaw back and forth. Vil could see its eyes squint, huge and wet like a Felfel but set deep beneath a bony ridge. It swallowed and smacked its tongue. Then it reached into another of its pouches and brought out a rectangle of brown grit. It held this up to Vil.

“Otobosa. Hwil otobosa?” Hoowaloosoo tried to match the same intonation Vil had used.

Kismin hissed over the radio channel. “Amazing. Everybody who goes to space ends up eating bars.”

Vil broke off a tiny corner of the bar and tilted her helmet to pop it into her mouth. It tasted like the ship smelled: musty, wet, and like a recycler compartment gone too long without cleaning. The texture was grainy and the bar fell apart in her mouth into an unappealing mush. She choked it down and grimaced. Hoowaloosoo took large bite out of the other side of the bar and chewed it with relish. He offered the bar to Vil again.

“No, thank you.” She raised both hands and pushed away from her. Hoowaloosoo opened its mouth wide and blasted the same chord three times, then ruffled its head spine-fur.

“Otobosa hwalgale suss--” and then off into a melody unbroken by words. It pointed at a nearby tree, the grass, a small plant near their feet, naming them faster than Vil could parse. It then mimed squishing the food bar between its hands. She heard Olavilal gag somewhere behind her, then realized what the alien meant. It was an herbivore! That bar was made of plants. And dirt too, if she knew anything about planetary food farms. You needed dirt and water and plants to raise proper meat.

She’d have to look that up when she--

The two constructed aliens reared up to their full height and looked away into the distance. A tablet in one of Hoowaloosoo’s pouches started to sing. After the first few notes Hoowaloosoo looked at her sharply, the closest thing to aggression she had seen on its face.

“Uh...Vil?” For once, Kismin sounded unsure of herself.

The two artificial aliens stomped forward, one putting itself between Kismin and Hoowaloosoo while the other picked Vil up bodily and rushed her back several meters. She almost fell when it released her, but Olavilal got his shoulder under her arm and steadied her.

Hoowaloosoo finally rose from its stool. It was a head taller than even the constructs. The bulk of its spine-furs made it appear impossibly large, a plant-eating land leviathan out of Felfel myth. It took one mighty step into the center of the clearing.

Vil’s discarded stick was lying next to the diagram, the lines marred from where Vil had walked across it. Hoowaloosoo picked up the stick and made another circle next to the first. It tapped the new diagram.

“Pip.” It trilled a high note and then pointed at the old circle and the new. “Pip. Pa Pip.”

Chapter 14: The Prince With a Thousand Enemies

Everything after the airlock opened added to Ish’s personal nightmare. Flowers, dirt, trees; he thought he had left that all behind forever when he stepped inside his first ship’s hull. He’d planned out the sequence of nameless shuttles that would carry him to the frontier. He’d planned to never set foot on anything bigger than an asteroid ever again. He’d planned to never swat another insect.

Instead he had landed himself on a ship filled with planet. The aliens had turned his plans inside out. Bemused shock at the plant life had given way to actual shock at the insects, to horror at the alien giant. Ish was overwhelmed by the scale of the oddities all around him. The sudden appearance of the mechanical aliens barely registered. The gravity made it difficult to breathe, to move, to think.

So when the artificial aliens attacked, moving with the speed and grace of sharks from the darkest deeps, Ish just crouched on his belly and watched. He had punched out of conscious thought by this point, paralyzed in a spines-up defensive sprawl. He wanted nothing more than to sink into the ground between the gray tree’s roots. The hand drill lay forgotten by his side.

Kismin and Olavilal and Atirakash shouted over the radio, orders and alarm crashing against his eardrums and bouncing away. Vil and Pip were speaking calmly about music. The main alien towered over Vil, casting a shadow in the false sunlight that covered both her and Ish. Its spine-fur billowed in the wind. It wasn’t moving now, but Ish knew that was an act. In an instant it could be on him, smashing him flat beneath one foot or grinding him into paste between its savage flat teeth.

The chime of Atolls Break the Waves drifted from the speakers beneath his chin, a universe away. “Miner Ish, please acknowledge.”

“He’s alive. Swallowed the tip of his tail.” Olavilal’s boot appeared in the corner of Ish’s vision. “I would advise against sending any more crews, Captain Atirakash. We’re no good in this gravity. If we need to defend ourselves, set up some...” Olavilal paused. “Okay. Yes, that sounds perfect. We’re not going to win with drills and knives.”

Atolls Break the Waves chimed again. “Miner Ish. All members of the crew are required to report in.”

Ish tried to respond, but only managed to spit black bile into his helmet. Olavilal looked away while the suit scrubbers worked on the stench. Ish took a moment to get control of his tongue. “Atolls Break the Waves.” His bile glands convulsed again. “Atolls Break the Waves. Ish is here. We aren’t hurt. Not hurt.”

“I am mildly surprised to hear it, Miner Ish. I was sevocto-seven percent confident that you would finally die. Exploring an alien vessel must be replete with ways for you to meet with misadventure.”

Atolls Break the Waves’ undisguised disdain slapped Ish across the face. His eyes refocused. Two deep breaths. He flattened his spines. “Disappointed you again, ship?”

Ish fought gravity to rock back on his knees, straining muscles already starting to go soft from his weeks in space. Olavilal gave him a thumbs-up and drifted away to cover Vil. His thoughts started to fall into order again. The acid smell of his own sick sharpened his senses. Bright yellow light pounded against his helmet, sending out small rainbow refractions around the curved edges. He could see small black insects explore the divots his hands had left in the dirt. He could feel the pebbles digging into his legs through the spacesuit.

The mechanical aliens had become statues again. They didn’t even breathe. There was no give to their carapace, no twitch of their tail to betray them. Ish eyed their armor, looking for an opening or joint that might indicate a weakness. He saw the cameras of the left machine flick towards him, then away. It was still far more intent on Kismin – fair enough. And as long as he wasn’t the focus of the aliens’ attention, maybe he could put together a plan.

Two deep breaths. The smell of bile was fading, finally, as it dripped down the helmet and disappeared into the exhaust fans at his neck. Ish probed at his bile ducts with his tongue. They were no longer swollen and threatening to explode. The ancient Felfel danger reflex didn’t care about helmets or masks. Ish had never read about a spacefel spewing in their own helmet, but his suit had cleaned itself in under a minute without triggering any special alerts. Figures that in a job as dangerous as asteroid mining you’d plan to deal with occasional bile.

Ish struggled to his feet and plodded over to Kismin. She glanced at him and opened a private radio channel.

“Back with us, Ish?”

“Aye, Lieutenant Kismin. Sorry I got so spiny.”

Kismin let out a short hiss. “Today of all days, I’ll let it pass. Figure anything out?”

That was vague. Kismin was carefully keeping her hands at her side and in view of the alien, but Ish caught one of them twitch into the signal for [quiet]. Ish opened his mouth, closed it. Started again:

“They can block our radio signals.” They could intercept our signals. “But that seems like an accident of their ship design.” But they probably weren’t recording us earlier. “And it’s going to take a while before we can talk to them.” And we have some time before they can actually spy on us.

Kismin nodded. “Yeah, I thought so too. And if your head is settled, maybe you can help me sniff out what to do about these machine things.”

Up close the machine was not quite as imposing. It still loomed over the both of them but Ish could imagine a soft underbelly to the beast. There were faint seams where armor plates joined together. The flexible bits of its right shoulder didn’t look like it sealed properly against the not-quite-metal. Its yellow stripes were missing small flakes here and there, as if it had spent years scraping past trees without being repainted.

“It’s old,” he said. “Not first-sphere old, but this ship has been out here a long time. It’s not operating at an octed percent.”

Kismin gave him an approving look over her shoulder. “Lucky for us, hm? If they can’t repair themselves, then they have to be wary of any little damage we do. And Atolls Break the Waves gave them a nasty shock when it showed up. I don’t think they’ve ever seen a needle drive before. In that panic I’m betting we saw exactly what these machines are capable of.” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “If it weren’t for this desiccated gravity...”

A pair of gears fit together in Ish’s mind and his thoughts began to turn faster. “Two machines and one live alien. What does that sound like to you?”

“Three too many aliens?”

“We haven’t heard it talking on a radio or anything. It’s not reporting back to a command center. It’s got machines and AI to keep the ship running. I don’t think the aliens sent out one crew member to meet us. I think Hoowaloosoo’s like Vil; it’s the only one aboard.”

Kismin’s claws flexed. “Hope you’re right, eft. That’d be a best-case scenario. If it’s alone and if there’s only one ship coming, we might be able to handle this on our own.”

Ish met the machine’s eyes and frowned. “We’re not dead yet. Call me an optimist.”

Vil was getting nowhere fast with dirt diagrams. She had sussed out that Hoowaloosoo was concerned about the arrival of Atolls Break the Waves – physical assault crossed language barriers – but she couldn’t explain a needle drive with simple shapes. Having Olavilal at her back helped steady her nerves but didn’t magically increase her vocabulary. Having Pip at her ear was proving to be less helpful.

“I’ve prepared a list of sevenet octed words to begin with, Surveyor Vil. If we can identify commonalities among these words, I hope that I and Atolls Break the Waves can build a map into their language.”

“That's not how language works, Pip. Felfel used to speak all sorts of languages before the Second Sphere reforms. It took decades to get that sorted out properly. You can't just map your way in like it's gravity.”

Pip played a few sour chimes. “You want to start at A and do this the hard way?”

“I want to leave that for the experts. We need to know why they're here and what their intentions are. How many words will it take to get to 'peace' and 'war'?”

Olavilal reached up to his helmet and turned on his external speakers. “Now that's music I can understand.”

Hoowaloosoo snuffled and aimed an earpad at Olavilal. It hooted twice, softly.

“Yeah. We can all talk, you giant weirdo.” Olavilal puffed out his chest and set his spines rippling. “You're in Felfel territory. Felfel.” He pointed at Vil and himself. “Felfel.”

“Ollalilal. Hwil. Felfel.” Hoowaloosoo imitated Olavilal's deeper voice, then Vil's higher one, while spreading its hands to encompass them both. “Hoowaloosoo. Hadeh.” It brought its right hand up to its own chin and sang a few bars that reminded Vil of an old sitcom theme. The artificial alien looked at Hoowaloosoo sharply and hooted back, low and rumbling notes that spoke to Vil of danger. Hoowaloosoo shook out its mane of spine-fur and coughed.

“No sir. Slowly.” Vil glanced over at Olavilal. His eyes were unfocussed and his chin lifted slightly, the telltale signs of somebody speaking over comms. Vil realized that the whole mining ship was probably listening to everything she did.

“Tell Captain Atirakash that unless he has a better idea, I'm going to try to work out Hoowaloosoo's mission. Promise I won't sign any treaties.”

Vil's radio crackled and a new voice appeared. “This is Captain Atirakash of mining ship Atolls Break the Waves, ranking officer in system E-71-448-a. And I don't have a better idea. Ain't nobody here went to the Academy of Diplomacy.”

“Two years of lower academy for grav mapping. A course in classical music.” Vil nodded. “I'll make it work somehow. I've got five hours of air left and I'll burn it all to make sure we don't have another T tragedy.”

“Ooo, look at the fancy opera lady.” Vil could see Kismin's teeth from across the clearing. “Captain Atirakash, I've got five hours of air left and I'll make sure these aliens don't hole our ships out of boredom.”

Line noise and hissing from the radio. “I don't doubt it, Lieutenant Kismin. But as I heard it, your first plan didn't go so well. I say let Vil have her hours. Maybe her alien courtship will turn into a poltiical marriage.”

Vil's spines crept up at the hissing from every side. She looked into Hoowaloosoo's large, bright eyes and tried to imagine a future that had more than Felfel in it. Five hours.

Hoowaloosoo raised one hand and closed its fingers into a fist twice, quickly. “Panala Hwil Felfel. Panala de.” It turned and took three steps towards the treeline, then stopped and looked over its shoulder. “Panala.”

Chapter 15: Infestation

The herdmind was furious with her, but Hoowaloosoo stood resolute. Being herd alpha meant something, dammit. Anyone could claim to be captain during the long dull years of travel. She was not about to let the first real crisis trample her.

Her implants buzzed with debate and recriminations. Calculation-1, Communication-1, and a pair of newer Security processes were busy talking with the alien ships; otherwise, all the AIs were logged in to the main lobby and attempting to shout each other down. The avatars representing each process swirled and sparkled as they hurled data and insults. The neon outline of an ancient Hadeh meeting circle ringed the glowing herd.

“Only one alien has made an overtly hostile move.” Science-12 was visualized as a white ball of light. It was also a well-known alien sympathizer, a philosophical position that was moot until yesterday. It was just fine and dandy to laser math at one another when they were safely light-hours away. It was different when aliens were rushing you from the tall grass.

“There are already four of them on the ship, and three of them are armed.” Security-7 was represented by a green badge of office, the crest of her ship in a classic heraldic shield. Nevertheless, she could feel him crossing his metaphorical arms. “A second alien ship appeared out of literal nowhere, and is orders of magnitude larger than the first. This is going to escalate unless we take an immediate defensive stance.”

Several other AIs signaled assent, and not just among Securities. Medical-1 floated forward, the shape of a traditional Hadeh doctor's cloak fringed in yellow sparks. “We can't risk our cargo now, less than a light-hour from our destination. The aliens are small and fragile, but we could still be overrun. We need to quarantine them and scan for any dangerous pathogens they might be carrying.”

Hoowaloosoo’s feathers curled just thinking about it. Overrun by the “felfel”!Their bulbous eyes, their moist red skin, their sharp teeth. Their food tasted of death. Their language was a protracted death rattle. They were a caricature of egg-stealing vermin. Hoowaloosoo would gladly have thrown them all off the ship without their suits. But like it or not – and mostly not – the slimy twits had some way to hide their ships from her scanners. Until she knew how that was possible she wasn’t going to put the whole mission in peril.

Hoowaloosoo's avatar strode forward, a gold-feathered likeness of herself. She was twice as tall as any of the AIs here; the vanity of being ship's alpha. “No. It is distasteful, but we will not begin an interstellar war with the first sapient species we've ever met. We will be cautious and steadfast. But we will not treat them as vermin or plague carriers.” Not outwardly. Not explicitly. “I am taking them to the bridge first. It will be easier to explain the mission there instead of scratching in the dirt.”

She looked at Security-7. “But I'm not stupid, either. I want all critical systems locked out of the bridge as long as they are present. I will require basic navigation data, but all engineering and environmental systems are to be isolated until further notice.”

Then to Medical-1. “Get as many scans as you can while we travel. They're wearing space suits, so the risk of contamination is minimal.”

Security-7 paused, then glowed agreement. Hoowaloosoo thought she detected some sulking in that pause, but if the AI saw a flaw in the plan it was duty-bound to inform her. Medical-1 ruffled in annoyance but stayed silent..

Hoowaloosoo turned to a small cadre of Science processes. “What do we know about the aliens so far?”

Science-7 and Science-12 both started talking at once. 12 dimmed its icon and deferred to the older process. Science-7 began again: “From their slim bodies and obvious discomfort aboard ship, we believe these 'Felfel' come from a much smaller or less-dense world. They are unused to our gravity. Water-based, carbon-based, oxygen-dependent. They are able to breathe our air for at least a few seconds at a time. We caught a miniscule amount of their exhalations in the airlock and detected no toxins, but disease transmission is definitely a concern.” It bowed to Medical-1.

Science-12 followed on 7's tail. “Beyond the obvious names of things – Hwil, Felfel, pip – we have been analyzing their comms for language markers. Their grammar appears similar based on where names appear in a sentence, but each thought takes up to three times as many sounds due to their atonality.”

Communications-2 roused itself. “It's a real mess, captain. Wouldn't know it from background radiation, all that hissing and popping. Comm-1 is working on port, starboard, important stuff. Doubt we'll be trading poetry any time this month.”

Entertainment-1 snuffled laughter. “Hoowaloosoo already sang them a sex jam. What more could they ask for?”

The herd chuckled. Hoowaloosoo felt her crest grow warm out in the real world. “A moment of panic. I didn't hear any better suggestions from Entertainment. And I would appreciate it being purged from the mission logs.” But damn, it was funny.

Mission logs...mission logs! Hoowaloosoo cranked her avatar up to max brightness to restore order. “Also, with success this close, I believe it is finally time to crack open a message jar.” That shut them up. “I want proposals on the text within an hour. We'll have to cut some of the boilerplate, I want as many details about the ver...Felfel as we can fit. We're head of the herd on this one, it has to be historic. Right? Get to work.”

That should keep the rabble busy for a while. Give her space to deal with these little marsh-shrews without too much interference.

She pulled her attention out of her implants. The whole conference had lasted barely five seconds, enough time to take three paces. She looked over her shoulder and caught Hwil's eye.

“Follow me.”

It didn't take five minutes for Hoowaloosoo to regret all of her decisions. The Felfel were chattering incessantly to their pips, comms channel wide open. It sounded like slapping a bag of insects against an overloaded power junction. Communication-1 was starting to build a lexicon from its work with the pips. It was just as she feared: they appeared to be fascinated with trees. After seventy years of traveling across the spiral arm of a galaxy and discovering an alien race, she didn't want to talk about her damn trees.

And it was going to take them friggin' hours to reach the command center if they had to walk the whole way on those stubby little legs. She looked over at Security-1's bot and signaled a halt. The Felfel finally shut up for a moment as she turned around. The one who had made a play with the rods earlier was holding a flower, looking like she was trying to set it on fire with her mind.

For the vermins' sake, she spoke to the bots out loud. “Security-1, Security-2.” She gestured at them in turn. “Do you think you could carry the Felfel? It'll be dark before we get to the bridge.”

Security-1 cocked its head and let out an dischord of displeasure. “Do you think they'll let me take the spear? I don't fancy getting stabbed in the back.”

Security-2 stamped twice. Hoowaloosoo saw some Felfel spines startle and ease back down. The spines were the most interesting part, honestly. They seemed to be largely involuntary, octeds of little antennae broadcasting emotions that even Hadeh could pick up. Maybe their ancestors had had feathers at one point?

“I'm making it an order. They can go sightseeing later, but we need to reach the bridge before my feathers fray. I'll try to get them to disarm.”

Surely the aliens could grasp the concept of “going faster”. Hoowaloosoo squared off with Hwil. That one seemed to be the alpha of its odd little herd. Its reedy nonsense words had sounded like a feverish hatchling moaning int the night, but at least it was trying. It was the closest thing to communication they had at the moment.

Hoowaloosoo pointed at Hwil, at Security-1, then mimed picking something up and cradling it. Hwil blinked and looked between her and the bot. Hoowaloosoo sighed into her implants. She remembered similar looks from a particularly dim house-hwad that lived in the alley behind her childhood home. She repeated her motions, muttering a simple rhythm under her breath.

You little beasts get on the damn robot and we'll get there faster.” She threw in a finger-walking gesture at the end for good measure. Hwil's eyes narrowed, then shot open to an unnatural degree. It turned and started hiss-clicking to the other Felfel, waving its hands around liked a plucked ptero. Hoowaloosoo felt the attention of the Science and Communication processes like a thundercloud gathering behind her temples. She hoped they were getting some good data here, because the little ingrates appeared to be arguing about her plan.

The aggressive one – Kesmen? – made a gesture that crossed species boundaries. Hwil's spines bristled as far as its helmet would allow. It stomped over to Security-1 and raised its arms. The other Felfel stopped hissing for a moment and watched the bot fearfully. Security-1 gingerly wrapped both hands around Hwil's waist and hoisted it into the air. To the alpha's credit, it only let out a little squeak. Security-1's shoulders swiveled unnaturally to place Hwil upon its back.

Hoowaloosoo spread her arms wide. “See? Nothing to worry about.”

Security-1 pointed at the spear in Ollalilal's hand, then put its palm up. The Felfel got that message first try. Their comms lit up, the sound like cloth ripping in front of a high pressure valve. Kesmen threw its flower bloom at Ollalilal and thrashed its tail in the dirt. The little one – Ish, the only one with a sensible name – was pointing at Security-2 and gesturing with a closed fist. Ollalilal was answering them calmly, spines down, but it hadn’t given up the spear yet either.

“Enough!” Hoowaloosoo’s shout actually startled pteros out of the trees. The Felfel shut up immediately. The little one even took a step back. It would be a shame to start a war over travel arrangements, but the sun was going down and she could feel the beginnings of a crestache coming on. She lowered her voice and went back to simple gestures. “You give us the weapons now. We walk. Then we give the weapons back. Okay?”

Security-2 buzzed her implant. “I must object to allowing armed aliens into the command center of the ship.”

Hoowaloosoo shot it a look and answered out loud. “They’re not going to commandeer the ship with two sticks and a spear. If you can’t handle them, they deserve to win.”

Hwil chimed in from over her shoulder. “Ssskiss muss Ollalilal ahsss hwalkiss fullol girak ellid kwuliss.”

Hoowaloosoo closed her eyes and rubbed her crest with one hand. “Yes. Great.”

Ollalilal stepped forward and offered its spear to Security-1. The bot took the weapon with both hands, almost reverently, and stowed it on a hip magnet. Then it lifted Ollalilal gently into place behind Hwil. Hwil bared its teeth. Hoowaloosoo chose to take that as a good sign.

When the bot didn’t immediately reduce their herdmates into paste, the other Felfel grudgingly handed over their weapons. Security-2 was less gentle loading them up. Kesmen almost bounced off its back when it let go. Ish looked like it was going to make a break for it when the bot reached out. Runt wouldn’t get far on this ship but it might be entertaining.

Finally, finally, they were all settled. Hoowaloosoo rose up to her full height and sniffed the air. Peat, leaves, and the faint dewy edge of nighttime. Here in the forest she could almost forget she was on a ship. A lifetime ago and worlds away, she had spent her last night before launch in a forest just like this. She’d spent so long with simulated twilight that she couldn’t recall what the real one looked like. It’s the smells that stayed with you, lingering in every inch of your crest.

One of the Felfel hissed something softly and frankly she didn’t care which one. Things were finally going her way. She wasn’t about to let the little goblins ruin this moment. She widened her stance, dropping her center of gravity down between her hips, and levered her tail up to horizontal. Security-1 let out a small dischord but matched her stance. She winked.

“Race you home.”

Chapter 16: Interspecies Negotiation in D Minor

Hoowaloosoo was the best thing that had ever happened to Vil. This whole day was the best day of her life. Up until now she had been a content career shipfel, born and raised in orbiting habitats and vessels. She’d never expected to set foot on a planet. She’d never expected to see an animal besides Felfel. She’d never particularly wanted those things. Mud and oceans and wind were fine for rich fel who wanted to “reconnect with the past” or whatever. Vil was probably never going to have that many syllables.

But now, careening through an alien jungle that was inside an alien ship while riding an alien machine that looked like a singing alien, she felt like an entire galaxy was spinning in her heart. Each spiral arm brushed the inside of her chest and sent a thrum of energy through her whole body. She clutched at the rim of the machine’s segmented plates where they gave way to a flexible neck, her unnatural weight bouncing against its back in a steady rhythm. The forest whipped past faster than any Felfel had ever run, wind keening against her helmet. The ship’s artificial light had become pleasantly red and dim.

Vil could sense Olavilal just back of her tail. He was holding onto a pair of molded handles halfway down the creature’s back, probably there for strapping down cargo. Every third jolt sent him slipping to one side and he’d have to haul himself back to center. She heard his labored breathing cut in on the radio a second before he spoke.

“Could you ask your mate to slow down a bit? This trip is going to pound my cloaca right up into my gullet.”

“An old rockbreaker like you can handle a rough ride now and again.”

“Vil, this alien is gonna break me apart like no asteroid ever managed. I’ll be soaking out these bruises for a week.”

Vil scooted forward to give him more room. He grunted and flattened himself down between the handles. And who knows, maybe the aliens had already figured out their language? Because the machine seemed to be slowing down. The roar of the wind dipped low enough for Vil to hear herself giggling. They must have covered kiloctmeters at that rate; it was hard to tell when all you could see were trees.

They rounded one more bend in the path and the trees came to an abrupt end. The aliens slowed to a trot. Another clearing, this one unnaturally round and at least an octed meters across. Lush moss and creeping flower vines ran right up to the foot of a tall cylinder of metal placed in the exact center. Tiny flecks of red twilight peeked through the wall of trunks on the far side.

Hoowaloosoo gestured at the cylinder and sang a few bars that reminded Vil of Gerrenet Visre’s Second Etude. As they drew closer to the structure Vil saw that the plant life was attempting to smother its walls. She could see the green patches where bits of it had been hacked away, but new vines clung to the lower third of the dull grey metal. Nothing had managed to climb higher than a Fel, leaving five meters of unmarred surface up to the flat roof.

The machine carrying Kismin and Ish walked up to the featureless curved wall and raised a hand. The wall dissolved, forming a hole in the same unnerving way the airlock did. Hoowaloosoo stepped inside first, disappearing into the dim chamber. The machine lifted Vil from its back and waved her in; across from her, Kismin was rubbing an ache out of her tail and not-so-subtly waiting for Vil to go first. So, fine.

Vil stepped across the threshold into the cylinder. The light inside was a peculiar shade of yellow that looked like the ship was on constant high alert. Vil wrinkled her snout. Today, maybe it was on high alert. But all the yellows and greens in Hoowaloosoo’s feathers and straps probably meant that this was normal. It set Vil’s spines wiggling and reflected wanly from the furniture in the room.

Most of the circumference was taken up by polished metal boxes, shinier than the walls and uniformly blank. A few stools were bolted in front of the boxes. They were too high for a Felfel to comfortably rest on and saddle-shaped for a Hadeh besides. In the center – right where Vil would have had her workstation, in fact – was a round pedestal of the same metal, half again as tall as Vil. The layout was eerily similar to Pip’s bridge, but with each console replaced by a towering ingot of solid silver. Vil didn’t see a screen, a keyboard, not even a button in the whole room. Hoowaloosoo was loitering on the far side, drumming idly on the pedestal while the Felfel eased into the room.

“This is it.” Kismin whispered over a private channel. Ish nodded.

Vil checked her helmet display. Still four and a half hours of air before she’d have to risk the alien’s atmosphere. Plenty of time to learn a language, negotiate a treaty, and establish interspecies peace before hyperventilating to death. More importantly, the helmet confirmed that she was once again cut off from the ships. She saw the same realization on the other fels’ faces. Olavilal gave her a subtle signal for [quiet].

“Yeah, looks like we got where we’re going.” Vil shrugged, meaning everything and nothing. Let them try to translate that. Kismin gave her a shrewd look and a small flick of her spines. If the aliens had planned an attack, it would be now. Disarmed and herded into a small room, the Felfel woudn’t last long against three giants. Vil felt a little of her euphoria drain from her belly.

One of the machines stepped into the room while the other took up a guard position just outside. Ish and Olavilal edged around the pedestal. The room wasn’t cramped, exactly, but with a roof overhead the aliens’ size seemed magnified. Vil imagined their presence filling the room with a deep bass rumble, a roll of tympanis just below actual hearing.

The wall reappeared, cutting off the last rays of artificial sunlight. The machine leaned back against the wall and closed its eyes. It became even more motionless, which Vil hadn’t believed was possible. She watched it for a long moment, trying to reconcile this new strangeness. Sure, yes, machines turned on and off, but why would it switch off now and leave its crew unprotected?

Hoowaloosoo cleared its throat and Vil startled. It gestured at the pedestal and hooted three notes. Vil clambered up onto the nearest stool and looked at the pedestal. The top was a flat metal mirror, just like the rest of the room. Vil looked at Hoowaloosoo and cocked her head.

“Ask it when I can have my spear back.” Olavilal turned his back on the inert machine and put his hands on his hips. “That was my favorite spear.”

Hoowaloosoo flashed him an unmistakably sour look. It raised one hand over the pedestal and--

Vil was surprised that she was surprised, actually. In a ship where walls became doors and mass disappeared, she shouldn’t be shocked that the smooth surface of the pedestal broke into a grid of raised rectangles. Hoowaloosoo tapped one, two, three of them and the grid sunk back into the surface and reemerged in a slightly different configuration. The alien tapped a few more and a ball of light appeared a meter above the pedestal’s surface. The light resolved into a schematic view of the E-71-447-a system. Vil recognized Epef and its moons, the asteroid belt, the large rocky planets further in.

Hoowaloosoo was still tapping – no, typing – on what were now obviously keys. The keyboard changed as rapidly as the alien typed, new buttons springing up under its fingers at a dizzying speed. It looked as effortless as when Vil got into a good groove on her tablet. Above, the screen-less display rotated and highlighted the current position of Pip and Atolls Break the Waves and...she supposed “Leviathan”.

“Lessafolalnelaweee...hufela!” With a triumphant crescendo and a flourish, Hoowaloosoo hit four final keys. A flight path arced into the system from Leviathan to the second planet. Alien glyphs surrounded the diagram and pulsed.

“Aaem Hadeh hoowansela marra acra.” Hoowaloosoo's spine-fur billowed and rippled with a sound like dry nesting. It sang another melody too quickly for Vil to follow and cocked its head, holding its palms out.

“Nope. I was wrong. This is it.” Kismin leaned back against a silver slab and crossed her arms. “Tough luck, herbivore. We got here first.”

Vil didn’t bother to glare. This next part was delicate. Hoowaloosoo obviously wanted to land on planet two. It was too dry, too big, and too yellow for comfort, but the planet was technically habitable. Even Captain Atirakash didn’t have the rank to give away a whole planet to someone. But she couldn’t tell an alien in a slowship to just turn around and go home, either.

Vil’s eyes searched the diagram, looking for a third option.

This was something Ish understood. Negotiation, even on a planetary scale, was the art of realizing you had something they wanted and they could swim up a waterfall if they didn’t like your terms. The four of them couldn’t turn back an invasion, even an invasion with such modest goals, but he could damned well stall it until Fleet got here.

Vil looked about ready to shrivel up on her stool. It was past time to stage a rescue. Ish grabbed a nearby stool and dragged it closer to the display. The alien metal was heavier than it looked, just like everything else on this nightmare ship. Ish made as much noise as possible scraping it across the deck. By the time he lifted himself up onto the seat, the room was dead silent. He settled into the oddly-shaped cushion and rubbed his gloves together.

The alien’s spine-fur was sticking straight up. Ish could see violence in its eyes, a familiar intensity that transcended language. So far, so good. Let the beast grind him into paste if it would, stomp him flat into the deck; he had come out the far end of shock with a poisonous calm. He had also thoroughly diverted whatever it was trying to ask Vil. He raised one hand, palm out.

“So. You.” Ish pointed at the alien ship in the diagram. “Go to planet.” He traced the glowing flight path to the planet. “You.” The ship again. “Come from planet?” He arced his finger away to in the other direction, out past the edge of the display. He spread his arms wide and leaned back on his seat.

The alien went dangerously still for a few seconds, then shook itself. It combed its spine-fur flat with one hand and reached for the keyboard. Keys reached up to meet it. It started jabbering away again, its words tripping across a melodic line in time with its keystrokes. This performance – and Ish could smell a performance – was accompanied by a sudden zoom out from their star system. The planets and ships shrank and vanished while an armada of stars swept in from all sides. Doctzens, octeds, thousocts of tiny points of light crowded into the display, then froze. A line sailed out from one of the points and arrowed straight into another. Ish couldn’t be sure of the scale, but it looked like the distance between one Sphere and the next. Hexoct light years, give or take. A long time to be in a ship.

The alien burbled some more music. The display rushed in towards the origin point of the line. A yellow star filled the scene, circled by the usual scattering of rocks and gas giants. The line ended at the third planet. The surface image looked at lot like the local planet: marbled green and blue, bombarded with searing yellow light. Ish could see the resemblance.

“Okay. I’ll take your...word for it.” Ish nodded. “Not sure how you colonize a planet with only one of you.”

The alien huffed out a breath. It slapped the keyboard and crossed its arms over its chest. The display rushed back along the line, hurtling towards the present day. Milocteds of travel flew past in seconds. Then it slowed, slowed; three ships crept in from one side, the line sprouting from the flank of the largest. The scene centered on the alien’s ship. It was zoomed in close enough to impart a sense of scale between the trio, the alien leviathan dwarfing the Felfel ships.

“You’ve come a long way.” Vil finally rejoined the conversation. She had found a way to kneel on the stool that didn’t look too uncomfortable. “You came all that way on a slowship just to find a new home.”

“And we’re not unsympathetic.” That was one of his father’s favorite phrases. It tasted felicitous but didn’t actually commit to anything. Ish gave Vil a warning look, but she only had eyes for the alien. It would be just their luck that the alien understood everything they were saying. “But we can’t make that decision. We have to talk to our ships.”

The alien was staring at them blankly. Ish pointed at the display and reverted to the same gestures he had seen Vil make. “Ships. We. Go. Ships.”

The alien trilled softly and waved a hand. The floating diagram vanished, and a few lights Ish hadn’t noticed on the way in flickered on. Flickering lights were a good sign, too. This ship could break down like any other.

Kismin hissed. Ish heard Olavilal gasp and the squeak of a flexing spacesuit. He turned to find a hole in the wall again, four lamp-lit eyes peering in from around the edge. The machine that had entered the room with them was still inert against the wall, so this was a third. In a ship this size, if there were three there would certainly be octeds. Beyond them the forest was a pure black tangle of branch and thorn. A splash of fake stars against the ceiling surrounded the familiar shape of the White Rill.

“Hwil Ish takka pips. Aella pomadan.” How do you make a hand gesture for “later”? Ish supposed the alien came close. The shadowed bulks of the machines stepped away from the door and waited for their passengers.

As Ish dropped from his stool, he brushed his helmet against one hand. A slight tint in the glass cleared as it stopped recording. Olavilal squinted at him for a moment, then shook his head. The other two were too busy staring at aliens to pay him any notice.

The ride home was made in silence and darkness. Atolls Break the Waves was clearing out some shuttle bay space for their return and didn’t bother them for status updates. The random birds and animals had all holed up for the night. Or maybe nothing risked being caught in the glare of the machines’ eyes. Ish didn’t see even an insect the whole way back to the airlock.

In a tiny corner of his helmet, he played the recording of the alien’s flight backwards and forwards. The answer was in there, somewhere.