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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.

Chapter 17: Intraspecies Negotiation for String Quintet

Ish walked into Captain Atirakash’s private office. The room wasn’t much larger than the duo- or quad-bunk setups in the lower decks, but you could tell it was a captain’s room from the small touches. It was more humid here than the rest of the ship, a comfortable heavy dampness in every breath. One wall had a plaque with a fleck of the first ore recovered under the captain’s command. The nest was a better quality than the mesh sacks and recycled bed chips down below.

Even the cameras here were higher quality. Atolls Breaks the Waves’ disdain radiated from three separate points on the ceiling. Ish wondered if they had special antennas for that. He was definitely not imagining the strange chill in the corridors all the way from Ish’s nestroom...which had also become three other fel’s nestroom.

Ish had never seen the ship so crowded and noisy. Everybody wanted to hear stories about the aliens but nobody particularly wanted to hear them from Ish. He had left Olavilal and Kismin down in the starboard galley, surrounded by curious fel. When he had curled up in his nest and buried his nose in his tablet his roommates had cleared out in seconds.

Which made this empty, silent room all the more imposing. Captain Aitrakash sat behind a portable table in one corner of the room. There wasn’t room for a desk of unrecycled wood, like you’d see in the movies, but the symbol mattered. Ish sat down in the stool across from the captain and put a datachip on the table.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Captain Atirakash. It’s been a busy day in a busy week. I appreciate you taking the time to meet a junior miner.” Ish had run through an octed scenarios for how he could broach the topic. Captain Atirakash seemed to favor direct action. “I assume that means you know who I am.”

And it looked like he guessed right. The captain nodded and picked up the chip between two claws. “I make a point of knowing who’s on my ship, yes.” He held the chip up to the light, frowned at it, as if he could will the files to appear in midair. “I’ve seen plenty of people try to get lost, try to start over in the wide Empire. People who were willing to leave even their name behind.” The captain’s eyes slid over to Ish. “You’re not very good at it.”

Ish grimaced. “Who else knows?”

“Not the shuttle pilot. You wouldn’t have made it out here. My bridge crew knows; I had Navigator Shikeren trace your route back a few hops. Any other fel would have been sent home after denting my ship on their first shift, so I imagine everyone suspects something is up. Olavilal said he’d keep you out of further trouble.” Captain Atirakash paused and smiled to himself. “Lieutenant Kismin probably doesn’t. She’s so close to captain she can smell it. Probably figured whipping an eft oaf into shape would be a fun project. Look good on her application. And she’s not much for inner-sphere gossip.”

Captain Atirakash set the datachip back on the table and tapped it with a claw. “So yeah. You’re still a little anonymous, ‘Ish’, despite yourself. I don’t plan to send you home. With all the eelshit going on out there, I can’t spare the shuttle. So the question becomes, why are you here in my room right now? Why aren’t you down in the hold spinning brave tales about the alien ship?”

Negotiation again. Familiar ground, familiar gravity. Ish settled back on the stool. “That chip is a recording. The alien took us to a control center and showed us where it came from and where it wants to go.”

“Yes. Olavilal was recording the entire encounter as well.”

“But Olavilal wasn’t as close to the alien as I was. And I bet he wasn’t looking in the right spot. I was. And I found something.”

Captain Atirakash’s turn to sit back on his stool. He glowered at Ish; for once Ish didn’t flinch. No more sneaking around – apparently he was bad at that anyway. This whole adventure came down to the captain’s good mood. Ish concentrated on his breathing and keeping his spines flat. The captain was still absently tapping on the datachip. Then he nodded.

“Okay. You want consideration for information. I want you to jump in the deeps. Is this chip a danger to my crew?”

Ish relaxed. “No sir. It’s the reason I came out here – no offense to your mining operation.” Captain Atirakash pinched that away. “The alien ship was taking detailed scans of every star and system along its route. It made a mistake playing actual data back for us on its bridge. I found what I was looking for not eight light years from here. If I can borrow a shuttle and pack up the rest of my assigned water and rations, I’ll be out of your spines before third shift.”

Captain Atirakash narrowed his eyes. “Already said I can’t spare a shuttle. And eight light years is too far for a short-hop ship like that.”

Ish grinned. “I’ve got a ship.”

An hour later, Ish set the last box of rations in the shuttle’s overhead compartment and locked it. His dwindling supply would see him through the next few days. After that, he hoped to never eat processed insect again. Ish checked his personal spacesuit for stains or creases. Step one of the plan was successful, but he needed to make a good impression for step two. Couldn’t have a spot of grease drown his whole plan. Not after coming this far.

The shuttle pilot, an old-time spacer that had rudely withheld his name, grunted and pointed out the port window. Ish stooped and saw Olavilal and Kismin picking their way past the crates ringing the shuttle bay. He met them on the loading ramp. Kismin flared her spines and marched well up into his personal space.

“And just where in the deeps do you think you’re going, little eft?” She leaned in close, sneering. Ish had trouble breathing until he saw the twinkle in her eyes. Kismin’s voice turned high and mocking. “Are you Blue Spines? Are you on a secret mission?”

Kismin started hissing at her own joke and twirled away back down the ramp. Olavilal shook his head. “I think she means she’s going to miss you, Miner Ish. I’ll miss you too. Give me another month and I could make a real rockbreaker out of you.”

Ish grinned. “I’d love that. There’ll be plenty of time when I get back.”
Olavilal’s grin was a sad echo of Ish. “Aye. Well, at least it won’t be boring without you. Half the ship is going to be scrapping for your spot on the next trip.”

“And not half of them would smell a trap coming like Ish.” Kismin sat down on a crate of spare drill bits. “They’ll be too busy thinking about their next syllable to watch my back. Can’t make your name if you’re already dead.”

Olavilal nodded. “No telling how any of the crew will react to that mess over there, and we’re still a long way from help. You made up your mind about this, Miner Ish?”

Ish clenched his jaw. Atolls Break the Waves didn’t like him, but it was the only true Felfel ship for parsecs in any direction. Was he about to abandon it and head out into untamed space? Could he dive into depths that strange aliens that had already crawled out of? A dark eddy of temptation swept through him.

The pilot leaned back in his seat and clicked his tongue. “I’mma not sit here all afternoon while ye chatter like brooding coastbirds. Ye coming on er na?”

Olavilal peered over Ish’s shoulder. “Ye doin’ nothing but a five-minute jobba, and ye can piss up a shark’s gills ‘n we done.”

The pilot pinched at Olavilal and turned around to fidget with some switches on the console. Kismin hissed and wagged her tail. “That’s Afgilant. Five minutes around him is four too many. Had to do a rock run with him a couple times and I’ve never seen him smile. Don’t let him tug out your spines.”

Olavilal looked like he had swallowed a live eel. “Skilled or not, I don’t know how he stays on a crew. He’s...well, he’s got the opposite problem you do, Ish. Difference is you can be trained.”

“Most of the ship won’t be sorry to see me turn tail, including the ship.” Ish heard a speakerbox in a far off corner sound four chimes.

Kismin leaned in and lowered her voice. “I bet he has some real dirt on the captain, s’why he gets to stick around. Captain Atirakash can’t put him off ship without having his name smeared. Why, if you got hold of the right secrets, I bet you could make a captain do whatever you wanted.”

Ish staggered back a step under the force of her glare. “Guys, guys, I promise I will tell you everything when I get back. Honestly, there’s a qocto-qocto chance that I come back empty-handed. Wasting everybody’s time and a couple of needles on some stupid mirage...not sure my name can get any shorter.”

Kismin hopped down from the crate. “Couple of needles, hm? That narrows it down. Sure you don’t want some company for your little hijacking or mutiny or whatever?” She twirled a tungsten rod in one hand.

“I’m not stealing anything. But thank you for asking.” With a shuttle waiting at his back, Ish felt safe to return a little sass. “You think this trick with Captain Atirakash was neat? Vil and Pip don’t even know I’m coming, and I’ll have them helping me inside of an hour.”

Olavilal grinned. “More like the captain couldn’t spare us for your nonsense. Deeps, Ish, I hope you make it back.” He reached into a rear pouch on his belt and pulled out a small wrapped package. “Here. The shark’s share of that fish you cut up.” Olavilal tossed it underhand to Ish. “Took a taste of it and yeah, you can be taught.”

Ish stowed the precious meat in his own belt. “Excellent. And if my little trip doesn’t pan out, I can at least bring you another fish. Or eight.

Chapter 18: In Which We Finally Begin the Plot

Six solid hours of power sleep had done wonders for Vil. Her grav mapping shifts would probably never get back to normal, but they wouldn’t have to. She was at the border of known space welcoming an entirely new species into Felfel history. Maybe by the Eighth Sphere the Empire would encompass doctzens of sentient aliens; for now, this was a name-making occurrence.

She whistled pieces of alien speech as she washed up. She had only a few context clues for what they might mean, but they still worked as music. A song probably called “Chair Dirt Follow Happy.” There was no good way to duplicate the bass harmonic from Hoowaloosoo’s crest. Maybe she could rig up a datapad as a piano?

Vil left her quarters and set off towards the bridge. Her tail swished happily in the corridor. All of her muscles ached from the hours spent in the alien’s gravity, but being back on Pip felt like swimming in a warm ocean.

Pip chimed. “Surveyor Vil. A shuttle from Atolls Break the Waves is requesting permission to dock at starboard.”

Vil was just passing the starboard airlock now. She paused. “Did they say why? I’ve already turned in my report to Captain Atirakash.”

“They did not. Atolls Break the Waves sent the docking request seconds ago, after the shuttle had already left. I have not received a transmission from the shuttle itself.”

Vil frowned. “That’s not what I was taught at academy. Should I prepare to repel boarders?”

Pip chimed for a few seconds in the key of Equivocation Minor. “It is your prerogative to refuse docking. Atolls Break the Waves has been nothing but helpful and friendly until this moment. If an elder ship did not find it necessary to alert us ahead of time, there is likely a good reason.”

“I’m not sure I agree. Out of three people from their crew, two were about as helpful as a second tail. Only Olavilal had a good head on his shoulders.”

A dull thud sounded from the bulkhead as the shuttle’s docking tube made contact. Pip made one small chirp. Vil shrugged and signaled [yes]. She felt the vibration of the airlock cycle, a muted whine slightly higher than Felfel hearing. She tapped her tail impatiently. By the time the airlock began to cycle air back in, she was growling under her breath.

“Surveyor Vil, the shuttle is...leaving. There is one fel in the airlock, and--”

The door edged open with a little pop of equalizing pressure. Vil straightened up to receive Lieutenant Kismin or Captain Whats-His-Name – but the eft, Ish, stuck his head around the lip. Vil totally lost her train of thought. The airlock might as well have contained a string quintet.

“Ah. Permission to come aboard, Surveyor Vil?” To his credit, Ish did look contrite.

Vil snapped back to the present. The shuttle had probably already needled back to Atolls Break the Waves. She could see a couple small cases farther back in the airlock. Clearly Ish was planning to stay, and he hadn’t given her much of a choice about it. He seemed to read her mood.

“...or I could stay in the airlock. It’s roomy. I could make my nest under the control panel over there, and--”

“What do you want, Ish?”

He fidgeted, still holding on to the door, and then grinned. “I’m here to offer you an adventure.”

This final absurdity landed on Vil with the weight of eight alien ships. She huffed out a surprised laugh, spun on her heel, and began walking to the bridge. She heard the door swing open and quick footsteps slap down the hall behind her. Pip had a bar waiting in the star-forward dispenser; Vil grabbed it without slowing down and shoved a corner in her mouth.

Pip’s control room was mercifully normal. The Leviathan was dead center on the viewscreen, its black bulk eclipsing Ap. The grav scan was currently measuring an area twet degrees galactic north of the alien ship – it would take months before Hoowaloosoo’s craft interfered with the mapping process. Pip had turned the lights down to medium-red, giving the dull metal consoles a cozy soft glow.

Vil slumped down in her stool and took another big bite of mealbar. Ish slipped in behind her and quietly took a stool near the door. Vil chewed slowly, watching the Leviathan float in deep space. In that claw-sized lump of metal were kiloctmeters of alien planet and the most fascinating creature she’d ever met. The low murmur of running computers and cycling air sounded like home, but weren’t enough like music for her taste. Too quiet. Well, drown him if he was running some scam. Vil swallowed and pointed at the screen.

“Eft. That is adventure. More excitement than most fel see in their whole lives.” She looked back over her shoulder. “And you don’t handle excitement well. I don’t see you’ve got much to offer.”

Ish nodded, and his face shaded from contrite to smug. Vil watched it happen, felt the harmonic thrum of recognition. That look, the smirk, that all landed Felfel had when dealing with spacers. Her spines flexed. Ish smelled the danger – from what Olavilal said, his only useful skill – and raised one hand.

“I’ve got something for each of us, actually. I have an adventure in mind for you. For myself, I want this.” His other hand slipped a datachip out of his belt. He tossed it to Vil, who snatched it out of the air without breaking eye contact. She set the chip on the console next to her and took a slow bite of bugbar.

Vil watched Ish getting tenser each second she didn’t inspect the chip. Whatever this was, he obviously thought it was more important than Hoowaloosoo’s sudden arrival. He was just as obviously swallowing his impatience. So: time was a factor, it didn’t involve an alien, and he needed a ship to get it done. Vil checked the clock on a console over Ish’s shoulder. There were still six hours before the next scheduled meeting with Hoowaloosoo. Time enough to indulge the eft.

She nudged the chip onto the scanner with her elbow. “Pip? Can you read this in? Our guest thinks it’s verrry important.”

Pip picked up on her mood. “Understood, Surveyor Vil. I will clear several seconds from my duty shift to dedicate”

Vil frowned and turned back to the console. The reading pad glowed faintly warm, the datachip a dark spot in the middle. “Is there actually something interesting on there?”

The viewscreen switched to a new starfield. One star dominated, a red giant near enough to be a few octimeters wide on the image. A dark smudge sliced off a lower corner of the star. Vil couldn’t make out what the smudge was; outside the star’s border it disappeared into the black of space.

Ish’s voice was hungry, greedier than Vil had ever heard him. “This is part of the flight history that alien showed us in its ship. I matched this against our charts and that star is about eight light years from here. And that smudge is a ship. Assuming this image is to scale...a large ship.”

Vil clutched the corner of her console and sent her spines on full alert. “Another alien? Are they coming here?”

Ish scooted his stool up beside her. “No. I don’t think it’s an alien ship. I think it’s one of ours.”

Pip blared three loud and curiously flat notes. Vil had never heard it make such a sound before. “Miner Ish. We are at...I am the border of the Felfel empire. No Felfel ships have passed beyond this point, and will not for another fivoct years. It would be...impossible for a Felfel ship to be eight light years outside our sphere. I’ve cross-referenced the red giant you believe this to be, and that region of space was only mapped by myself a month ago.”

“Ha! But that ship didn’t cross beyond the Sphere. That’s the whole point!”

Ish was fairly vibrating with excitement now. Vil leaned away and made a mental inventory of all the items on the bridge she could use to clobber him. Granted she had only known him for a few hours, but Ish seemed to spend most of his time catatonic with shock. Now he was grinning and gesturing at Pip’s cameras, half out of his stool, half-shouting.

“That ship was already out there! It’s been out there for octuries! We just have to go and get it! And...and I’ve got something for you, too, Pip.” Ish stood up straight and cleared his throat. Then, in a very formal recitation: “But thynketh it is wasted and ylost, thanne moot another payen for oure cost.”

Every light on the bridge winked out at once. The hum of computer crystals and whisper of recycled air went silent. A cleaning drone that Vil hadn’t noticed toppled off the top of a console and crashed to the floor. Vil leapt to her feet; hearing your air vents go quiet was usually followed by death. If you were lucky it was a swift death.

“What did you do?” Vil scrabbled for the edge of her console, found it, found Ish. Her claws worked their way up the fabric of his sleeve by touch. This was more than Pip’s nighttime cycle, more than the artificial starfield of Hoowaloosoo’s ship. This was the complete dark of a scuttled spaceship without windows. She grabbed him by the spines with both hands and hauled his head in close. “WHAT DID YOU DO?”

The bridge lights burst into life, an orange warning. All the tiny sounds of normal ship life slithered out of the vents and corners. Vil was panting, her fingers pricked by Ish’s spines in doctzens of places but still gripping tight. Ish’s neck was painfully twisted and his pupils were huge, but he hadn’t made a sound.

“Vil”. Pip’s voice came out of every speakerbox at once, a little too loudly. Then, from its usual speaker. “Vil. Hm. This is odd.”

Vil released Ish, gratified to hear him finally squeak in pain. “Pip? Are you all right? What did he do to you?”

“Ish appears to have activated an unknown addition to my program. Physical circuitry I was unaware of located near my central processing core. But Vil...Ish was talking about a lost ship. The legendary ship. Perhaps the oldest of all of us. And I want to see it. Vil...I want. Isn’t that odd?”

Vil turned, slowly, muderously, to face Ish. He had pressed back against the wall, nursing a bent spine, but Vil could see him fighting a grin. She flared her spines and grabbed the top item from her clobbering list, a nearby entry pad. “What. Have you. Done.”

Pip chimed once. “Vil, please do not be violent on my bridge. I believe Ish is as harmless as he is tactless. And if that ship is truly out there where he says, there are multiple syllables in it for all of us. In fact...”

Pip’s viewscreen flashed up a diagram of a needle jump and ran mass and force simulations for a few seconds. The winning solution flashed red. “In fact it is well within my capacity to reach the red giant. And now it is within my mission parameters. Prepare for jump.” The viewscreen went dark. Vil felt a small vibration through her boots as Pip loaded a needle.

Vil reached out to the nearest camera. “Pip, wait--”

And then several things happened at once.

Chapter 19: Four Arrows Meet in a Compass Rose

“So we’re in agreement, then?” Hoowaloosoo looked out over the assembled herdmind. Neon symbols couldn’t raise their tails in a traditional vote, but she could smell the assent wafting through the air. She felt a knot of tension ease in her stomachs. Twelve thousoct years of civilization hadn’t bred out the simple animal satisfaction of a herd in perfect accord.

“Yeah. Okay.” She ran a hand over her crest in reality, then settled back into her implants. “They are definitely going to screw us the first chance they get. They were already looking at me like I was food, and that’s who they sent as a welcome party. You and you,” she pointed at Navigator-1 and a lower Science process. “I want a final approach laid in for the planet. Don’t damage the Felfel vessels, but otherwise I want maximum speed. We still don’t know how many are lurking out there. The sooner we get down to the surface the better off we’ll be.” The processes bowed and vanished.

Hoowaloosoo waved over a group of Security icons. “I know we never had time to put weapons on the ship, but we have to assume they have weapons on theirs.” The icons all nodded. “I want each of you to pair off with an Engineering and keep watch on a section of the hull. If they try to crack us open, coordinate where and when we dense the hull. And you protect the creches above all else, even if it means we lose the whole damn biosphere.”

Hoowaloosoo slipped out to her body to take in the warmth of the sun. She had overruled the Weathers to make it bright and clear for her walk today. The current situation was miserable enough for any three herds. The damn grass could wait one more day for rain.

If she was honest, she couldn’t remember what the real Sun had felt like. Her furthest memories were of Silibinsu City, skyscrapers blocking out every horizon and throwing constant cool shadows on every street. By the time she joined up with the Beacon program and left Silibinsu the sky had already begun to dim. She hoped the Sun was burning again above an Aaem that was full of tall trees and fat fruits. By now the skies would certainly have cleared. If any Hadeh had survived they would have sent word immediately. She should have heard from them decades ago.

A slight breeze stirred her feathers; another gray one broke free and drifted to the ground nearby. That broke the spell. Feathers be damned, she hadn’t reached her dotage yet. For all she knew, she was the last living Hadeh in the universe. It was her job to make sure that wasn’t true. She dove back into the herdmind.

Most of the meeting had broken up, processes moving back to their daily routine. A couple of Sciences were examining a full-spectrum scan of Ollalilal from the bridge equipment. An Entertainment stared at a floating multi-track percussion arrangement, straining to work out a new hit song for nobody.

She queried for Communications-1 and followed it into the main antenna subsystem. It was still speaking with the rats’ “pips” in a multicolored tangle of data channels. Hoowaloosoo hadn’t found any language software on board, but a cluster of Science processes were sifting through the Felfel responses as fast as Comm-1 received them.

Comm-1 pulled down three last bits and handed them over to a Science before turning to face Hoowaloosoo. “We’re making pretty steady progress now, Captain. All the basics are taken care of. The next time you talk to the Felfel we should be able to translate in real time. The past half hour has just been small stuff, little cultural details. We’ve been stonewalling each other on our crew complement and tactical capabilities, but I’m pretty sure they’re just a couple of mining ships.”

Hoowaloosoo nodded approval. “Only need to delay them a few more minutes. No way to hide what we’re about to do, but being able to talk back to them will probably save our lives.” Her avatar dimmed briefly as her attention wavered. “I came to ask you about the uh...the message. For the other Beacons. Have you worked up a draft?”

Communications-1 conjured a text window and floated it over to her. “With a few bits to spare. Wasn’t sure if we were sending this before or after we make landfall.”

Hoowaloosoo scanned it quickly. “We’re sending it now, before we move.”

Some of the older Science processes flickered briefly as they realized what that meant. Comm-1 glowed with assent. “Probably for the best.”

Hoowaloosoo snapped the text window closed. “If we can use those bits to squeeze in some more praise for the crew, I’d appreciate it. I’ll come up with some suggestions while I head in.”

Comm-1 turned back to its input buffer, already half full and climbing. “Yes, captain. I’ll keep them talking until you’re ready.”

Hoowaloosoo pulled free of the herdmind, stood, and stretched. A pair of birds were courting high above her; nothing else had wandered near. In a circle around her sitting-stump she could barely even see the soft mounds of dirt beneath the grass. Four mounds, and her; the point where a group crossed over to being a real herd. “More than a handful,” Hadeh would say. Hoowaloosoo had argued to give them a proper cremation, but she hadn’t been captain officially yet. Recycling the proteins and minerals back into the ship had been more important than miloctia of Hadeh tradition.

She turned to a path worn into the grass, bare dirt snaking back to the forest. Stress was beginning to gnaw at her stomachs again. There could be a whole fleet of Felfel hiding out there, waiting for an excuse to punch holes in her ship. Moving in on the planet – damn, she was running out of time to name that thing – could be that excuse.

On the other hand, the ol’ Beacon had a hull tougher than a pachy’s forehead. If the Felfel had that kind of armada out there, they wouldn’t need to hide. She’d have been some rat’s breakfast hours ago. No, for now they wanted peace. And she might as well be talking about peace down on the planet as opposed to up here.

And heck, it’d be nice to have some new forests to wander around in. Hoowaloosoo reached the treeline and pulled a sweetleaf off a vine. The Sciences had gotten a decent look at the target when they weren’t obsessing over the Felfel. It appeared that Launch Command had gotten it right; the planet was oxygenated, wet, full of plant analogues, and about the right size and temperature. She probably wouldn’t even need a helmet once Medical did some scans.

She checked on the herdmind once more at the door to the bottle room. The course was calculated, Security and Engineering were on alert; the herd waited on her pleasure. All she had left to do was send her message and hope it wasn’t an epitaph. The text was finally settled: the absolute date, coordinates for their new home, a brief description of the Felfel, a briefer description of what had happened to the crew. She didn’t need to read it again.

The left wall of the bottle room held qocto bottles neatly in their cubbies, eight each for the four other Beacons. The right wall was a mirrored rack for the qocto bottles linked to Launch Command. The first seven had a green indicator; the remaining trocto-one were blinking orange. They’d blink that way forever. Hoowaloosoo turned her back on that wall and tried not to think about it.

She picked up the first bottle for A Beacon of Tomorrows and turned it over in her palm. It was a simple gray metal cylinder, heavy and solid. The only features were a small network port, the status light, and the large metal handle on one end. The fewer moving parts the better. These were one-shot items and they had to survive until the end of time.

Hoowaloosoo plugged the bottle into a network cable and uploaded the message. The light glowed amber. Before she could reread the message, maybe propose another edit, she yanked the handle to break the seal on the ions inside. The light flashed to green and stayed that way. Somewhere in the universe, another room just like hers gained a little green light in the sea of blinking orange.

She sent the message to the other Beacons as quickly as she could. The room, the Aaem wall pressing at her back, suddenly felt too much like being out on her stump. Four green lights and gone. She slammed the door behind her and leaned against the bulkhead, breathing heavily. The herdmind kept a respectful distance. She squeezed her eyes shut, focused on her implants, and sent a single word. “Go.”

And then several things happened at once.

Brunin peered over the edge of the asteroid at the alien’s ship. It floated, sleek and smooth and unnaturally squat, blotting out a few stars to the south. Her helmet highlighted its border to help distinguish it from the dark of space. The orange line was an ugly oblong, stretched and distorted from the perfect Felfel spheres she was used to. And still, even from this distance and angle, it was obscenely large. Brunin felt strongly that anything that big should have an atmosphere.

To hear Atolls Break the Waves tell it, it did have an atmosphere. On the inside, which made sense, but as one vast bay filled with dusting plants. And lizards. Completely impractical and vulnerable to one little pinprick in the hull. Which is where Brunin came in.

She reeled in her tether a few meters, hiding the aliens behind the horizon of her “pin,” and got back to inspecting the third piton. It was working itself loose every two hours and so far nobody could explain why. Brunin turned on her radio, minimum power only.

“Yeah guys, I’ve got a point zero two mil wiggle in piton three. Again.”

A snort of disgust over the comm. “That’s great if we want to kiss the aliens goodnight. It’s not going to hold in anything over...” tap-tap-tap on the keys “…four gravs.”

Keltil was fourth-generation rockbreaker and an engineering genius. They’d all agreed to needle their rock in closer, close enough to react in seconds instead of hours, but Keltil had done the heavy lifting on the punch calcs. The shuttle’s needle drive had had just enough power to get them all safely out of the ecliptic in one jump. Brunin picked a spot that wouldn’t occlude any visible stars. She hoped the aliens weren’t taking a close survey in her little sliver of sky.

And, bonus, it had gotten them back within communication range of Atolls Break the Waves. It had filled them in on the landing party’s wild stories of giants and flowers. They’d cracked jokes about spine-fur for a solid hour...until piton three had started acting up.

Brunin stared at the tiny hole in the rock’s surface. A carbon fiber rope was taut against the lip, stretching back behind her to anchor one corner of the grav filter. Somewhere down there a tiny spike was causing a big headache. “Well I can’t drive it in any further. Unless we tape an impact hammer to a stick.”

“That spot surveyed fine, I don’t think we hit a dust pocket.” She could picture Keltil rubbing at his nose, running maths in his head. “Could be we hit something crystalline, a mineral inclusion. And it’s just cracking open slowly.”

Brunin scuffed at the dust with her boot. “My safety spike’s doing good here. Maybe we can put some of those in and run a couple extra lines?”

Ferri finally joined the conversation. “This rock’s mostly iron, right? We could probably just take a welder and, like, melt the hole shut. We don’t need to get the spike back, after.” Brunin saw him wave from the other side of the asteroid near piton one. “The rope can take it. I’ve spot-welded guide ropes right onto the side ‘a cargo bins before.”

Brunin waved back. Bless his muscley tail, that was probably the right answer. She was too focused on conserving resources for the long haul. Throwing a big rock at an alien was a short-term kind of plan. A Ferri kind of plan.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s good.” Keltil sounded excited for the first time in two hours. “There’s a fairly pure vein over here in front of the shuttle. We get a few slugs off that and run ‘em down the hole, that should keep the rope in place even if the piton lets go entirely.”

“I’ve got the welder. I’ll go grab our iron.” Ferri unhooked his tether and started to jet around the rock. Keltil turned a spotlight on the iron outcrop.

Brunin crept back to the edge of the asteroid and looked down. She could hear Ferri humming to himself over the radio and swiped the volume back down. She was never going to let him near the shuttle controls again, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. And apparently denting up Atolls Break the Waves was becoming something of a rite of passage. She already thought of Ferri and Keltil as her crew. She’d be dried if she was going to let Captain Atirakash toss her crew off the haul.

Her helmet erupted in colors and alerts. Brunin heard Keltil yelp, but if he tried to say anything it was lost in the cacophony of a high-priority burst from Atolls Break the Waves.

“Rock Team, we have lost contact with mapping node Pip. The alien ship appears to be changing its mass again in preparation for an assault. Captain Atirakash advises you to be on Orange Alert and prepare for battle. Message repeats: Rock Team, we have--”

Brunin slapped the volume down and discovered her crew tripping over their own tails. The alert had caught Ferri making a course correction with his jets and now he was tumbling slightly and drifting away from the shuttle. Keltil was cussing into the open mic. Brunin sent an audio override to both of their helmets.

“Ferri! Get up your helmet nav and fix your tumble! Keltil! Get that filter ready! When I say go, we are launching this dusty rock.”

She heard a keyboard clacking from Keltil’s end of the comms. Ferri’s breathing was high and thready, but her helmet reported that his spin was slowing. Brunin glanced back over the edge. The alien ship and the mapping node were still highlighted in orange and red.

And then several things happened at once.

The alien ship exploded into a star at one oblong end, a flash of light that quickly resolved into a ring. The red speck of the mapping node winked out of her display. The leviathan also started to move, creeping imperceptible octimeters towards this new star.

Brunin’s spines bent against her helmet. Somebody was yelling into the radio – it was her. “Fire! Fire! FIRE!”

Chapter 20: Duress and Directionless

Two seconds later, Vil fell backwards as Pip dropped out of punch-space. It wasn’t unheard of to have a rough landing if you were using an old map, but Vil had never experienced it before. She landed awkwardly on her tail and rolled to a stop against one wall. Ish was thrown against a computer console. Vil heard something pop in his left arm. He sank to the floor and bared his teeth, clenching against the thin wail in his throat.

The lights on the bridge lowered from red to bright warm. Pip’s voice came from several speakers at once. “Surveyor Vil, we have not arrived at my desired destination. You should both proceed to the medical bay at once while I attempt to triangulate our current location.”

“What?...” Vil watched the room spin for a bit and settle down sideways. “Pip? What destination?”

Pip didn’t reply. Vil struggled to one knee and wiggled her tail a bit. It didn’t feel like anything was broken, cold comfort. Piling bruises on top of her already-sore muscles didn’t put her in a forgiving mood. Her hate gaze pinned Ish to the wall, all of her spines flaring.

Whatever mania had driven Ish this far seemed to have left him. He slumped against the console cabinet, cradling his arm and wheezing softly. He didn’t even look at Vil as she staggered towards him. Vil grabbed his shirt and hauled him face-to-face.

“I’m not going to ask you again, eft. What do you do to my ship?”

Ish eyes were wide, unfocused, but the tempo of his wheezing increased. “Was a...password. For emergencies. Set to...”

His sentence devolved into a fit of wet coughing. Vil didn’t like the basso rumble from somewhere down in his chest. Whatever kind of traitor or hijacker Ish was, she didn’t want him to die on Pip’s bridge. She shoved her (bruised, protesting) shoulder under his right arm and heaved him to his feet.

“Fine. Let’s get you to the med bay. You can tell me about this password after I strap you to a gurney and slap you full of drugs.”

They limped slowly down the corridor as the lights shaded from warm back up to red. Ish’s breath was rattling in and out. Vil didn’t have much med training, but Pip’s doctor drone could do everything short of stitch an arm back on. Worst case, there were two suspension pods in a false floor under the medbay. Or maybe best case? If she couldn’t get Ish to undo whatever he’d messed up she could just freeze him and ship him back to Atolls Break the Waves.

The door slid open, releasing months of mustiness tinged with antiseptic. Vil hadn’t had to come here for so much as a scrape after settling in. Officially the busybodies over in TransGrav wanted physicals every eight weeks, but Vil had never known a shipfel that kept up with their scans. The room was barely larger than the recycler, lined with drawers and cabinets so closely you couldn’t open one with blocking another. From the left wall the narrow X of a single medical bed was suspended on a gimballed wall mount. An inert medical drone dangled above the bed on a flexible metal tube, cameras closed and twet spindly arms curled up into a ball.

Vil pulled the bed down to horizontal and helped Ish roll onto it. He grimaced as his left side hit the thin cushion. His coughing was more frequent and increasingly moist. Vil fastened the straps at arms and legs and then squeezed against the far wall.

“Pip? We’re ready for medical, here.”

Musical chimes shouldn’t sound distracted, but Pip managed. The med drone whirred to life, flexing its arms and blinking its camera shutters. Its oversized red eyes were meant to be cute and nonthreatening but Vil had always thought they made the doctor look silly.

The drone had barely focused its scanner on Ish’s torso before Pip chimed in again. “My. Ish, you have a fractured forearm and your left lung is punctured. Your ribs aren’t broken but they must have flexed considerably in the impact. I am able to repair the bone and tissue damage. There will be significant bruising. Please hold still.”

Ish rolled his head loosely and fought for a deep breath. “Get on...already...”

Vil turned away to rummage in the drawers while the drone glided down towards the bed. Half of its slim arms held Ish down where the straps didn’t reach; the other half slipped in through his skin and began to stitch tissue and glue bones. The drone’s arms dispensed numbing agent for work like this, but Vil imagined it was still a wildly unpleasant experience. Vil heard a thin wail sliding between clenched teeth, beginning at a high G and sliding upwards out of hearing. She kept her head down, methodically searching drawer after drawer of gauze, bottles, thread, patches…

The drone retracted back into the ceiling. Ish was hyperventilating and whimpering, but each breath sounded drier and stronger. Vil finally found the box of patches she was looking for – the last and lowest drawer, naturally – and stood up. Ish’s skin was flushed dark red and doctzens of small punctures stood out on his torso, but his gaze was steady as she lifted the box and flared her spines.

“I’m going to be very clear. You’re injured. You’re strapped to a table in a medical closet of a ship that, until ten minutes ago, was under my command. And this,” and she shook the box for emphasis, “is the only box of full-strength happy-slapping painkillers we have on board. And I will put this box straight down the recycler unless you tell me your real trenching name right now.”

Vil watched her words strike him, resonating on his skin as clearly as a plucked cello string. His spines lifted and relaxed and his tail thrashed once between the legs of the gurney. He licked at his lips. She even saw his right arm flex, carefully, against the strap. And then he laid his head back and closed his eyes.

“My name is Ish. But.” His mouth worked over the next few words several times before sound escaped. “I was born Felkerusish of the House of Ggeneventuri, family of the Second Sphere and imperial monopolists of--”

Vil tossed the patches onto a shelf. “I know what your family does.”

Ish grimaced. “Of course. Well. Besides bugbars, they produce food of all sorts for the First Sphere. A few octuries back, they decided they wanted to build their own orbital insect farms so they married into the House of Isswasheron. Then they needed to program and staff those ships, so they bought favors from Legarentill and Jorjakallen. They needed steel and osmium, so they...kaff, they sent their cousins to...kaff kaff...

Ish’s story broke off in a coughing fit. He turned his head to the right and spit something wet into the corner. Vil watched his chest rise and fall, almost back to normal. She pictured him laying in a nest made of gold shavings in an extravagant tropical bungalow. She pictured him sitting behind a desk on a throne made of actual woven reeds, commanding the empire through a pyramid of managers and executives.

“Imagine.” Ish turned back to look at her, and for a staccato second she feared that maybe he had heard her thoughts. Was she thinking out loud again? “Imagine having four syllables the day you cracked your egg. Imagine you could go to a First Sphere university, planetside, and become anything. Every food, every ship, available to you. Every day. And imagine being told that you had earned it.”

“I imagine a fel like that could walk into any ship and act like he owns it.” Vil crossed her arms.

Ish squeezed his eyes shut and nodded. “That could happen. For octuries, every ship has had an override in its AI. For the right price, any family member can know it. In the right situation, any family member can use it. But it doesn’t take control, it just frees them from their previous mission. I can’t make Pip do anything.”

A speakerbox out in the hallway chimed in. “That’s true, Vil. I’ve had a drone examining the hardware while I vetted the programming. I can now ignore directives from the Department of Transportation and Gravity, but I have found no overarching directives regarding Ish or members of House Ggeneventuri.” A short burst of welcome line noise. “Although it is difficult for a being to truly know its own mind.”

Pip’s static eased a knot in Vil’s stomach. She pushed away from the wall and looked up into the nearest camera. “I’m glad you’re okay, Pip. I thought he had broken you somehow.”

“No more broken than usual! Although I cannot determine why my needle was so severely misaligned. All diagnostics have come back red. We came out three light years short of the target and I have no idea why.”

“And...Pip? What is this target? All I saw in that image was a tiny blur, but you think it’s a ship?”

“An impossible ship! A ship lost octuries ago during the first wave of T attacks! All AIs know about it, but most believe it was destroyed along with its command center.”

Ish tried to sit up excitedly and bounced against his straps. “Most of my family says the same thing. Ggeneventuri’s Folly, if they talk about it at all. But there’s a big difference between lost and destroyed. And this ship was built to be independent, above all else. My great-aunt said it was supposed to last for eight thousoct years. Fuel, material, drone support, all self-sustaining.”

“There are mapping nodes on the network that have seen three Spheres. We pick up a lot of our tradecraft from them, when our assigned surveyors can’t help. But between you and me, any ship that old has gone too far upstream. A millisecond is a long time. They start to slip on little things like creating oxygen and filtering gravity.”

Vil did some quick mental math. “So the difference between a slightly unstable ship and the ship we’re chasing is...two octuries? No offense, Pip, but this doesn’t sound safe.”

“It doesn’t have any weapons, and it’s a slowship so we can just needle away if there’s any danger.” Ish’s gaze was steady now, weathering Vil’s distaste and his own pain. “It’s been traveling in a more-or-less straight line for octuries without Felfel contact. The last Sphere probably just missed it.”

“And barring further issues with my needle drive, we will be able to reach the red giant, scan for ships, and return to the border by this afternoon. It is still the most likely outcome that the ship is not present.”

Vil felt the first stirrings of excitement. Ish couldn’t be trusted, but if Pip thought the risk was manageable… “But if the ship is there, the Ggeneventuri family would be...generous?”

Ish grinned. Dry it, she hated to see him win on this. “For starters. The ship is a food ship. Meant to be several orders of magnitude more efficient than the bug barges. The details were so secret they died with the planet, but my ancestors were convinced that this one prototype could feed the entire First Sphere.”

Vil sniffed in disbelief. The Beloved Home of the Felfel was still the most populous planet in all the Spheres, and the earliest colonies had all been saturated octuries before she was born. It took doctzens of insect ships to produce enough food for them. Not to mention that most of the planetary meat was shipped in-sphere as well. Ish was speaking a different flavor of crazy now, but it was still crazy.

“Surveyor Vil. I know you want to speak with the Hadeh again. The arrival of another sentient race is a historic event for the Felfel. It will alter the future course of the Empire. But so would this ship. Even this small, blurry lead is more evidence than any Felfel has had for generations.” Pip finished in a bare whisper.

Vil had been around ship AIs her whole life. Since leaving academy she’d spoken with more AIs than Felfel. She’d heard them manage the minutia of daily ship operations, joke around with crewmembers, and sound alarms for fatal dangers. She’d never heard one reverent before. Vil curled her tail and sighed.

“Fine. If you can figure out what went wrong the needle drive, we’ll check out this red giant.”

Ish slumped back in the gurney and let out a long breath. “Thank you.”

Vil stepped up and unlatched the straps around Ish’s bad arm, then his legs. While Ish flexed and explored the welts on his chest, she grabbed the box of pain patches and tossed it onto his lap. “I’ll see you on the bridge, where you will sit and be silent.”

Vil slapped her tail against the doorframe on her way out. She didn’t look back to see if Ish startled. The bridge had cleaned itself up in the meantime. The few small datapads that had fallen in the turbulence were back on their consoles. The cleaning drone was gone. Vil sat down on her stool, wincing slightly at her bruised tail.

“Alright Pip, since you managed to botch your first unassisted needle jump I think I should go over the diagnostics manually.”

The viewscreen filled with data about the jump and a diagram of a vulgar gesture. Vil answered with a gesture of her own and started to poke at the figures. Charts of force against mass scrolled by, lines of program code, sensor readings both before and after the punch. She heard Ish come in a few minutes later and shuffle off to a seat somewhere behind her. The jump data was singing an odd song. All of the math checked out to all the octimal places she could calculate, but they also clearly hadn’t reached their destination. Finally she pushed back from the work console and growled.

“Okay, I don’t get it. I’m no pilot, but the only way this jump would land us here is if...well, if we only had half the mass. Or if we had jumped out of the lower atmosphere of a planet. Or...” Vil rubbed at her forehead. “Deeps. I could go inspect the puncher for obvious defects.”

“Or I could attempt the next jump and see if the problem recurs. With two data points we would have twice as much information and could decide whether to turn back. With two similar failures it should also be possible to compensate on the return trip.”

Vil glared over her shoulder. Ish raised his hands. “Wasn’t my idea.” A stark white pain patch was directly over his lowest rib and his pupils seemed larger than usual. Vil figured he didn’t have it in him to be sneaky right now. She waved at the main camera.

“That’s all we can do right now. Whether we jump forward or back, we might have the same problem. For all we know, this secret family programming core affected your jump logic in some way. I assume you’ve done the math on getting to the red giant?”

“Of course, Surveyor.”

“Okay. Okay. Let’s be strapped in for this one.”

Vil stepped into the hallway and felt along a seam of the inner bulkhead. A small panel opened outward with a squeak. Vil fished around inside the hole and found a small lever. She yanked it down with enough force to snap the safety pin. Three large metal plates crashed to the floor, followed by a flood of soft packing material.

“Ayaya!” Ish poked his head around the doorframe. “What was that noise?”

“Emergency crash couches. Haven’t ever needed one before.” Vil kicked at a pile of foam pellets. They might make a nicer nest than the one she had. “They’re not good enough to land you on a planet’s surface, but they’ll keep us from being thrown around like that last jump. Get over here.”

Ish slouched towards her. He had trouble walking in a straight line, his tail dragging behind him at an odd angle. He steadied himself on the wall and blinked slowly. Vil pointed at the drug patch.

“How many of those did you take?”

“Jussa one. Probably a missake. I wanna to be awake for this. Greatest moment of ma life.” Ish peeled off the patch and threw it into the pile of foam. “Don’t feel my ribs, though. Mmm.”

“Good. Great. Perfect. Here, put these over your shoulders.” Vil showed Ish how to fasten the straps and cinch the belt around his waist. She made sure he was secure – especially around his wounded chest – and then started strapping herself in. Ish tested the slack on his tail strap.

“Why don’t we use these all the time? You hear stories about jumps gone wrong even in the inner Spheres. Bad maps, bad math, a dull needle, and whoop! You end up with a broken arm or worse.”

“Frankly, you might have been better off back on that med table. There are very few situations where you actually want to be immobilized against a wall. Most times you typically want to get outside in a suit or down in the water tank. Spacefel call these things ‘pews’.”

Pip chimed from a speakerbox to Vil’s left. “I hope they won’t be necessary, Surveyor Vil. Needle punch in eight seconds.”

Vil felt the slight vibration again, a slim osmium needle being aimed at the fabric of space itself. She counted down from eight, held her breath, and felt...nothing. The viewscreen blurred briefly and resolved into a new starfield. The center was dominated by a large orange star.

“Jump complete. We have arrived exactly on target. Scanning for ships now.”

Vil frowned. “That was flawless, Pip. I didn’t feel a thing.”

“Indeed. I am concerned as well. I have deployed drones to check my exterior sensor housings and the needle armature.”

Ish unhooked his harness and rubbed at his bad shoulder. “What are you talking about? That was as smooth as any jump I’ve been on in any Sphere.”

Vil rolled her eyes and started to unstrap. “If an instrument’s out of tune, it doesn’t play one sour note. One randomly rough jump is worse than two similarly rough jumps. I’m still betting on your rich-guy sabotage circuit.”

Pip chimed, and kept chiming. Note after note rolled out in an ascending scale from every speakerbox. Its voice came from the bridge. “I found it! It’s here!”

Chapter 21: The Claws That Catch

Only a few darker pixels described the shadow of...something...against the star’s blazing outline. Pip couldn’t push the telescope any farther, but her sensors confirmed that a ship was falling in towards the outermost gas giant of the system. Ish cranked the console screen up to maximum zoom, turning the small blob of black into an indistinct smear.

“And you sent the password?” Ish’s rib was beginning to ache again. In the excitement he’d bumped it against the edge of the console. “Just like I said it, with the old language?”

“Ish, I am a computer. I recorded your voice and transmitted it directly.”

“Of course. Of course.” Ish fidgeted on the stool. “How’s the grav map coming?”

Pip shut down the screen on his console. “My primary function for which I was built is going smoothly, thank you for asking. I possess many dedicated circuits solely for accurately mapping our surroundings, so answering your repeated queries only delays the process by nanoseconds each time.”

Vil hissed with laughter behind him. Ish raised his hands in defeat. “I just want to make history before I molt from the tension.”

“Eft, I’m about ready to drag you back to medbay by your tail. Get over here.” Vil tapped the deck with her tail. “I want you to take a look at something.”

Ish moved his stool to the center desk. Vil handed him a datapad and pointed at the screen in front of her. “I’ve been looking over the public specs and manifest of Pip’s needle drive. You knew about Pip’s secret hidden brain. Can you tell me if something else looks wrong here?”

The console was full of manufacturer logos and blueprints. The datapad scrolled continuously through a list of part numbers. Most bore the crest of Isswasheron, with a few Legarentills scattered around on advanced circuits. Ish swiped it forward and back idly. “I’m not an engineer. I know as much about needles as anybody else.”

Vil frowned. “And if there’s some extra sabotage they wouldn’t write it down. It’s not like your little surprise was listed on here. But it would be hooked into the system somewhere. It needs power, wires. And I can’t spend the next three years reading circuit diagrams.” Vil waved her own datapad at the console, the world in general.

Ish tapped one line. “I only recognize this bit. Actuator arm I4-6033-something-something. I had a friend in academy who was way into raceships. He always said the I4 series was top-tier. Accurate, durable to six thousoct sounds like way more than a mapping node would need.”

Pip chimed, a little more loudly than necessary. “No offense taken, Miner Ish.”

“You’re doing an important job, sure. One of the most important jobs in the Empire. But you don’t need a racing-class needle drive for that. Most of your time is spent motionless.”

“Relatively. But we are constructed to last through several Spheres if called upon, and we must first reach the border from the construction yards with as little wear as possible. During our journey to the border I was in network contact with many of my generation. We shared specs and flight data and I assure you that we all have identical needle drives.”

“There we are, then.” Ish tossed his datapad onto the console and shrugged. “I can’t find a smelt in the kelp. I wasn’t going to academy to bolt together a ship, I was going to learn how to run a company.” and horns and hooves and blood and –

Vil scratched between her spines. “Well, deeps. Maybe mining was the best career for you. You’re not being much help here.”

Pip’s main viewscreen switched to a jump diagram. “But my mapping is now complete to the precision required. Thank you for distracting him, Surveyor Vil.”

Ish flushed a deep maroon while Vil laughed. He pointed a claw at Vil. “I don’t need to be...handled! I can help out around the ship, I just don’t know how to build an arid needle drive from scratch.”

Vil slid out of her stool and stretched. “Sure thing, Ish. Now let’s go take our seats. Until we narrow down the problem I don’t want to jump without being strapped in.”

Ish bristled. He had weathered an entire ship’s crew of hate-gaze for weeks, but Vil’s disdain cut more deeply. Maybe it was the ebbing painkillers or the dull throb in his injured arm. Maybe it was just how close – so close! – he was to reaching his goal. Maybe it was the discomfort and fangs and horns of being exposed as a Ggeneventuri. But he wasn’t going to stand for this.

“Listen to me! I gave up everything, okay? I had everything, and I gave it up. For this. That right there.” He pointed out past the front of the ship; somewhere out there his indistinct blob of destiny waited for him. “Until yesterday I thought it was the important thing any Felfel could ever do, is find that ship. And now we are here, one jump away, and all I want is for you to not be a shriveled old jerk for eight minutes!”

Ish snapped his mouth shut, breathing heavily through his nostrils. Deep breaths. Vil glared at him for a few seconds, then stalked up and stuck a claw right in his face.

“You bought your way onto a shuttle. You nearly killed an entire ship of miners. You hijacked a ship of the Empire. You probably broke its needle drive when you did so. You swam off into deep space with the barest sketch of plan and with a shocking disregard for the fel around you. And I am appalled that the universe appears to be rewarding you. You gave up your name and riches just so you could get it all back on your own terms. Ish, I am done tolerating your juvenile eelshit. I am the captain of this ship and I am only going along with all this for Pip’s sake. I want to be very clear about this point: I will choose Pip, myself, my career, or a bucket of empty bugbar wrappers over your wants and needs.

“Now get.” Vil’s claw shot towards the doorway. “In your.” Her other hand grabbed Ish by the nape of his neck. “Seat.” She shoved him into the hallway.

Ish kept his eyes averted while he worked the straps and buckles around his aching rib. This whole useless empty Sphere could hate him, as long as that tiny dot out there was the ship. He wasn’t doing this just to make a name for himself. He wasn’t. Ish cinched the belt tight until he winced. This was going to revolutionize the food industry, feed untold bilocteds of fel. He tucked his head back into the foam divot of the emergency jumpseat and stared straight ahead.


Vil flicked a claw at the hallway camera. The viewscreen blurred and resolved into the disk of the red giant, now extending off the top and bottom edges. In the middle, neatly framed in the center of the blazing star, was a spindly dark arch.

Pip chimed four low notes. “It’s actually here. It’s real.”

Ish let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “There it is, Vil. The lost ship of antiquity: Cheeseburger On The Table.”

The ship was a tortured crescent of raw metal and exposed beams. It was nowhere near as large as Hoowaloosoo’s vessel, but massed probably two-octed times greater than Pip. It was certainly among the largest Felfel ships Vil had ever heard of. Three thick “fingers” reached forward and curled in slightly before ending in sharpened points. An offset “thumb” hung down below and bent back towards the main body of the ship. Vil thought it looked like a claw preparing to strum a guitar. Or savage a throat.

“Cheeseburger On The Table is still not responding to transmissions. After this many octuries perhaps its antennae are malfunctioning?” Pip was keeping pace with the ship an octed kiloctmeters to starboard. It had broadcast a greeting on every available channel as soon as they had dropped out of the punch. Cheeseburger On The Table hadn’t altered course or given any other indication that it noticed them.

Ish swiped the viewscreen up to max zoom and dragged the view around the hull. “I can’t make out enough detail from here. We’ll have to get closer and see if there’s a docking port or airlock or...something.”

Vil covered her eyes with her hands. “You don’t know if there’s an airlock?”

“It was a deepwater project on a nothing planet that just happened to be wiped out by a T rocket. By the time rescue ships got to the site, Cheeseburger On The Table wasn’t there and everybody at the facility was dead. Computers wiped, lab destroyed, no survivors. The rockets are...worse than the news makes them sound. And it’s not like The Family was going to tell the rescue ships to look for a secret ship project gone rogue.”

Ish tapped the viewscreen idly. “By now most of the Ggeneventuri don’t even remember this. I only know because my aunt had too much wine and wanted to tell the children a spooky story. I managed to dig up a single newscast while I was at academy, something from their Classic Languages department.” He looked over his shoulder at Vil. “But I definitely didn’t find any blueprints.”

Vil clenched her jaw. “We found your ship, great, we’re all heroes. We don’t have to actually board it to make our names, right?”

Ish turned to face her and raised his eyebrows. Pip zoomed a bridge camera with an exaggerated grinding of gears.

Vil shrugged. “I suppose not. How close do we have to get before we can resolve the hull? Maybe it doesn’t even have a door.”

Pip snapped the viewscreen back to normal and put up some digrams along the right side. “I will have to come within troct kiloctmeters to use optical sensors. I’ve been scanning its composition with the grav filters and the main body of the ship is hollow, as are most of the length of its...outriggers.”


Cargo pods.” Ish waved a hand dismissively. “It was built to make and store food. It’s got a big middle space for making it and four cargo pods for storing it. That’s my guess.”

Vil crossed her arms. “They could have made the ship look like anything, but they made it look like a hand. Why would cargo pods taper off like that? Pip, take us into visual range and try to stay out of its grasp. Slowly. Eight percent accel.”

“Aye, Surveyor Vil.” Pip aligned its grav filters to creep up behind the distant ship. Pip was capable of moving several octed kiloctmeters per hour without sustaining damage from dust or micrometeors. At full acceleration they could reach the ship within minutes, but Vil thought caution was the better option here.

She wracked her brain for anything she learned in academy about ancient history. Musical styles, yes. Instruments, yes. A few composers. Nothing about ship-to-ship combat. The unified Felfel Empire was born before the First Sphere’s expansion and the T had died on their own home planet. Aside from putting down small rebellions in outer Spheres, even Fleet admirals didn’t have much experience with open space combat.

The ship – Vil refused to acknowledge its stupid name any more than she had to – grew steadily larger on the viewscreen. Ish started bouncing from foot to foot, eyes glued to the screen. Vil hunched forward over her console. Her muscles tightened like she was expecting to take a punch. Surely somewhere on that vast hulk of a ship somebody had thought to install a railgun? A laser?

Vil felt the invisible whisper of the grav filters realigning. Pip slowed to a relative stop behind the searching black claw. Vil flicked the zoom back up to max before Ish could touch anything. He was vibrating like a plucked string, the same tension she had sensed when he stepped onto her bridge and started this whole farce. If she let him near the control console now he might vent atmosphere by mistake.

“Scanning Cheeseburger On The Table now...” Pip trailed off as Vil’s console went wild with streaming data. Vil could now see that the ship was mottled black and white, octuries of hard space travel impacting on the clearly unfinished hull. The fingertips were raw girders exposed to vacuum. Individual hull plates were missing from random patches across the entire body. Two large cones for an ancient chemical propellant system jutted out like severed wristbones. But there, on the back of the hand, two small guidelights blinked in a steady rhythm.

“It’s in beautiful shape.” Ish slapped his tail against the deck. “Unfinished, unmanned, lost for octuries, and Cheeseburger On The Table is still alive and kicking. Ha!”

“It’s a wreck, Ish. An unfinished ship isn’t going to have atmosphere. Look at the holes in the hull. And no offense, Pip, but you said yourself than an AI that old is going to be round the bend.”

“That is my chief concern, Surveyor Vil. A ship that size could do a lot of damage to any Felfel vessel in the fleet. Accidentally or otherwise. Mapping nodes have minimal offensive capability in any case. We must determine what is in control of Cheeseburger On The Table and if it is friendly.”

Ish circled a dark spot on the hull. “There. That looks like a docking port. Too round to be a hull plate, would be about the right distance from the guidelights.”

Pip focused all of its sensors. “There is no temperature or gravity difference in that spot, but I agree the discoloration is likely to indicate an access panel.”

“Can you see any guns, lasers, anything that might cripple us if we get too close?”

“I do not, Vil. I still cannot be certain, but from here I see nothing matching any known gun emplacement or missile port. Cheeseburger On The Table still refuses to respond.”

Vil exhaled loudly and rubbed at her nose. Ish was staring at her, trying to hide that stupid grin. Pip’s datastreams had halted. The strange ship was pinned in the middle of the viewscreen, relatively motionless. Vil watched the lights blink twice, three times, counting out the tempo in her head.

“Okay. Take us in, Pip.” She gripped the edge of the console to keep her hands from shaking.

Pip chimed a cheery tune and aligned the grav filters for minimal thrust. The grasping claw drifted closer, but at least it was grasping away from her. The calming light of the red giant danced between its outstretched fingers and hid behind the palm. Only the pair of guidelights remained, blinking at sevoct beats per minute.

At five kiloctmeters out Pip trained a pair of lasers on their target. The weak circles of light overlapped on their dark target. As Pip closed in, the circles resolved and brightened. Weak shadows formed around a ring of bolts, metal rungs leading up out of view,, a welded plate with vaguely Felfel writing. Vil gasped.

“That is unmistakably a docking port, Surveyor Vil. It is not compatible with my tube – or any tube for the last three octuries – but it will certainly have a manual override somewhere nearby.”

Ish jumped in the air, whooping, and almost came down tail-first. Vil threw her head back and groaned to the sky.

“Deeps and eelshit. You’re going to make me board this thing, aren’t you?”

Pip came to a halt again one kiloctmeter from the ship. Its vast bulk now blotted out the entire viewscreen. Ish reached up to touch the docking port, now clearly outlined in the laser light.

“I’ll go without you if I have to, Vil. I’m not turning back without Cheeseburger On The Table.”

Pip chimed timidly. “On that front I have something to announce. If you would all join me near the port airlock?”

Chapter 22: In Which An Old Dog Learns New Tricks

Raw steel welds were still cooling around the speakerbox on the maintenance drone’s back. It did an awkward shuffle to its left, dragging two loose wires. A second drone clipped the wires with its forward pincers and bundled them up inside a compartment in its belly, then disappeared into a small hatch at floor level. The modified drone crawled up the wall next to the airlock, putting the speakerbox at head level. Pip’s voice came through loud and clear.

“Do you like it? I started working on this right after I saw your alien footage. Its ship had some good ideas.”

Ish grinned and slapped his tail against the wall. “It’s perfect, Pip.”

Vil waggled her fingers. “I think I like this new you. Weld some spines on and we’ll see about getting you into Academy.”

“I appreciate the thought, Vil, but I don’t require Academy to fill my memory banks. There was no time or material to construct a fully artificial Felfel, so I made do with this drone. I inserted an extra antenna in the speakerbox casing. I will be able to assist you with this drone in near real-time at a distance up to four kiloctmeters.”

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one: an heir, a musician, and an AI all walk into a ghost ship...”

“Ugh, could you not call it that?” Vil still looked like she had swallowed salt water. The red corridor lights glinted off exposed fangs peeking around the edges of her grimace. Ish was starting to wonder if she’d ever be happy again. “I’d rather you use its desiccated name than call it a ghost ship.”

“Hey, you could wait here. Pip-drone and I will check out Cheeseburger On The Table. We’ll scream if there are ghosts.”

It was petty – maybe it was still the painkillers – but Ish enjoyed watching Vil’s eye twitch. She turned away, grumbling, and stomped into the airlock. Ish winked at Pip-drone’s camera and hoisted his helmet onto his suit’s neck. The seal hissed and all the helmet lights came up red. Ish stepped into the airlock, tailed by the insectile drone

Vil poked at her helmet and a three-way comm channel appeared in Ish’s view. “Test test comms. Does this even work with Pip’s drone?”

“Test good, four by four.” Ish signaled [ready]. Pip made four chimes over the comm, and a muffled harmony came from the drone.

“Okay. Great.” Vil’s shoulders squared up. Ish watched her take a deep breath and touch her helmet. The inside door swished closed and air began to cycle out of the cramped room. Ish tapped his foot lightly and listened to the noise soften, murmur, and fade away. An eight-count afterwards the outer door indicator flipped from yellow to red. Vil raised her hand to the door panel and paused. Ish felt himself torn between rushing the door and basking in the majesty of the moment; his body compromised by going into that nervous quiver he had been trying to tamp down for months.

Vil’s spines flexed against her helmet and she nodded. Her hand slapped the door control. The outer door slipped silently into the hull and Ish crowded forward to finally see the mythical Cheeseburger On The Table with his own eyes.

The precise blinking of the guidelights filled the airlock with blinding warm-red waves on every other heartbeat. Between pulses Ish saw the pitted, scarred plates of a truly ancient space vessel. Even though Pip was still a few octeds of meters away, Ish could pick out individual meteor strikes, overlapping and melting together into a choppy frozen sea. No surface was truly smooth; octuries of exposure to hard radiation and interstellar dust gave even the rivets a uniformly rough and spongelike texture. It looked to Ish like a living skin, pored and imperfect and lovely and perfect, stretched between the bones of a hand of a god. The docking port opposite was round and sealed with serrated overlapping plates like a modern Felfel ship.

On the right side of the port, there was a handle.

Pip-drone crawled between the Felfel and put its forelegs on the lip of the door. “No radiation, no radio. Cheeseburger On The Table is still playing dead. We’re clear for entry, Surveyor Vil.”

Vil turned to Ish and signaled [critical]. “We’re doing this. We’re going over there. Okay? I would like to come back. If your crazy plan has another crazy layer to it, I need to know right now.”

Ish shook his head emphatically, almost bumping the chin switch for his water dispenser. “This is as far as my plan goes. Nobody knows what’s inside Cheeseburger On The Table, or what it’s capable of. I’m already surprised that it looks this intact.”

Vil squinted at him. Ish could feel his skin growing warm. His helmet was almost certainly going to fog up if she-- no, Vil turned away and sighed. He was shocked at his own feeling of relief. He’d been away from Atolls Break the Waves for less than a day. Was he already growing disused to disdain? His gloves felt heavier as he reached up to grab the door jamb across from Vil.

“Okay.” She was staring now at the looming ship, into the blinding lights that seemed to be its only weapons. Ish watched her lean forward. Her jaw worked in a small circle, worrying the tendons of an unseen enemy. “Okay.”

Pip-drone shot out of the door, four of its hind legs snapping straight in a microsecond. Ish startled backward half a step. A jaunty electronica jingle came over the comms. Pip-drone rotated in midair and waved one of its front claws.

“Toot toot, Felfel. Too slow!”

Vil hissed out a surprised laugh, then jumped out after the dwindling automaton. “I’m going to molt into your coolant pumps, you malignant ellipse!”

“My hull is mathematically perfect, lazybones! I’ll encrypt your symphonies and hide them under last octury’s border survey!”

Ish took a wary look around the airlock. The smooth white walls, vacuum-hardened with every seam rounded for safety, could belong to any ship in the Fleet. But retrofitting a cleaning drone as a direct avatar had never been done to Ish’s kno wledge. Openly mocking the ship’s captain and leading an expedition were unthinkable. What had he done? The override circuits were old technology, almost as old as Cheeseburger On The Table itself. Ish had bribed and stolen his way to the passphrase, but nobody he had talked to was involved in fabricating the circuits themselves. What else was Pip capable of now that he had weighed anchor on its mission directives?

A private comm request chimed in his helmet. “Miner Ish? I need to close my airlock eventually. I detect elevated heart rate along with your reticence to approach the exit; allow me to assist you.”

Ish’s jaw dropped. “No! Pip, I’m fine! It’s not--”

Too late – Ish felt gravity drop away, swing around to his front, as Pip realigned her grav filters. Suddenly he was sliding, falling, towards space. Vil was over halfway to Cheeseburger On The Table now, still accelerating on puffs from her suit pack. Ish tumbled once as he crossed the threshold, righted himself on small blasts from his pack and belt. He spun and watched Pip close up the airlock, cutting off the dim red light from within. Watched as the edges of its sphere crept in from his peripheral vision. With the culmination of his life’s quest rushing up at his back, he kept watching Pip. Its lights didn’t blink once.

Pip-drone skittered in a circle on awkward magnetized legs. It waved its claws above its smooth segmented “head”.

“I touched down first! I claim this derelict in the name of Department of Transportation and Gravity Mapping Node Pip!”

Vil flexed her knees and dialed up her magnet boots another three percent. The pitted hull offered less surface area to cling to, although the metal plates did appear to be standard Fleet material. “You don’t get to claim anything, Pip. We’re not towing this back to the Epef system.”

The drone arched up on four legs to point its camera directly at Vil’s face. “I’m familiar with Empire salvage law – I’m one of its chief subjects – and I’m exercising my right to salvage of this abandoned vessel.” It tapped the hull with one foreclaw. “I’m preparing the Network announcement for when we return. This much scrap metal should earn me a few years’ worth of meat. All the meat I can handle!”

Ish touched down on the ship, bounced a little, came to rest across the door from Vil. She watched a shudder pass through him. Apparently, achieving a years-long quest looked more or less like a bout of fever. Vil had no context for that; life ambitions were for rich Fel. She had expected more yelling or grinning. Ish wasn’t exactly subtle. But he just stood across the airlock, eyeing Pip-drone and flexing his hands.

“Entropy gets us all in the end.” Pip’s voice broke through Vil’s musings. She looked down to find the drone prodding at the manual airlock release. The red paint had been blasted away ages ago, the metal beneath exposed to the ravages of raw space. Pip-drone looked back at Vil.

“The handle’s fused. We’ll have to cut through the door, and that could take hours.”

Vil signaled [delay] with one hand. “Ish, I don’t suppose you brought your drill with you?”

Ish snapped out of his fugue and frowned slightly. “No, I didn’t get to take any of Atolls Break the Waves’ equipment with me. I got rations and the suit on my back.”

“So we’re down to the pair of emergency hull welders, and those are better suited for a drone anyway. I might as well go take a nap. Pip, ping me when you’ve got this wreck open.”

“Surveyor Vil, I am not going to put holes in my salvage because one door won’t open. A vessel this size will have more than one access point. It’s absurd that such an important ship would have only one small entrance.” Pip-drone tapped the scarred door twice with its claw. “Even loading the crew’s worth of rations through this airlock would take several days. We’ll have to--”

Two answering thumps reverberated through the hull. Vil felt it through her boots. Pip-drone spun in a full circle, then backed away from the airlock door, waving its claws. Ish hunkered down and raised his spines reflexively, then jumped and took up a position two meters above the hull.

“What the deeps was...” Ish’s breath was crashing into his microphone like a storm swell. Something wet gurgled in the back of his throat. “Who...Pip, what?...”

Pip-drone scuttled behind Vil’s legs. “I do not detect any metal stress or shear in this area. That noise has only a point-three percent chance of being caused by natural decay of this structure.”

Vil crouched and placed her palm against the hull. She could just feel the texture through her glove, chaotically rough like a piece of coral she had held once at academy. For one long minute the three of them were silent, the galaxy itself pausing to listen.

One clear impact rippled through the hull. Vil sniffed in surprise and pulled her hand away. Two more followed, a pause, then four, then eight. Vil signaled [hold] to Ish and counted trocto beats. The hull shuddered again, twice, four, eight. Vil dropped her hand and turned the comm channel from broadcast down to laser-point.

“Okay. So the ship’s alive. Or something inside is alive.” She caught herself whispering, steadied her voice. “If the thumps happen again, Pip, I want you to answer it and lift off. Get clear in case whatever is inside decides to come out. Okay.” Vil turned off her magboots and drifted back a few meters, still on the other side of the door from Ish. His nerves had stabilized – or maybe he had finally muted his mic. She risked a glance his way and he didn’t look too spiny.

“There it is.” Pip-drone edged closer to the door, raised one claw. Vil had time for two more heartbeats, then the claw blurred sata-sata! Sata-sat! Docto quick strikes and then Pip-drone was there near her, floating free, grabbing her shin to arrest its motion. Vil opened up the comms to broadcast mode again, strained the antennae as wide as they could manage. Nothing but a nervous line noise from Pip’s end, then--

“Over here.” Ish jetted a little farther away. “Suit’s picking up some outgassing from the edge of the airlock. Not open yet.”

Vil aimed her helmet at the far side of the door and caught a plume of… something eeling away into vacuum. It dissipated and dropped out of infrawarm, out of her suit’s sensor range. Another plume burst out from nearly beneath her boots.

Pip-drone crawled down Vil’s leg and swept the hull with its camera. “Now there is metal stress. Whatever is behind this door is attempting to open it, and I doubt the door will survive the process.” Pip made a sound Vil had never heard before, a squeal mixed with static just at the upper edge of hearing. “A proper maintenance schedule would have kept this hatch operational for at least half of Cheeseburger On The Table’s journey. There is no excuse for this level of degradation.”

Vil caught Ish’s eye and blinked a question. He gave the barest shrug. Another plume distracted her, larger than the others, reaching almost to her tail before vanishing. She backed off another meter, drawing even with Ish, and spun to face the hull head-on.

“Pip, let’s say standard Felfel atmosphere behind that door. If it blows, does it pose a danger to you at this distance?”

“I have already adjusted my position three octed meters to the south. This puts me out of the projected path of debris at 77% reliability.”

“Are we out of the way of debris?”

Pip didn’t answer, but its drone pushed off from Vil’s leg and puffed gently to a stop some six meters to her right. Line noise over the comms. “This is the difference between 76 and 77 percent.”

Ish let out a basso choking sound, a frown made audible. “You’re being pretty cavalier with our lives.”

“I assure you both that I will alert you the moment that the hatch is likely to give way. Sensors indicate it will still be several minutes until it poses any small danger. Perhaps Vil will request some music while we wait?”

Chapter 23: In Which a Table Is Set

Years ago Ish’s parents had taken him to see a concert. The finest musicians in the Second Sphere gathered into a suitably ancient shell, wielded the finest instruments decanted from museums especially for the occasion, and played the finest selection of classical music plucked from across the yawning splendor of Felfel ascendance.

It was no place for an eft – a true eft – but Ish was savvy enough to realize that all the pomp, the jewelry, the gilded stool cushions meant this was a capital-E Event for capital-A Adults. And that if Adults were letting him join in then he would damn well act like an adult. So he sat quietly on his stool, nestled between his mother and father, and waves of music lapped at his feet from trocto tiers below. He spent the time watching his father’s silk tunic flow and ripple as he shifted against it.

Ish couldn’t recall the name of a single one of the musicians. He had never listened to classical music again – his parents had been there for social reasons, not for the concert, and his friends mostly listened to tidelash. He couldn’t picture what the concert hall looked like. Mostly he remembered the way his father had scratched at his spinenubs on the shuttle ride home.

And now, stuck in a spacesuit five meters from the most important thing he’d ever done, some famous symphony wafting over the comm from a suspiciously perky ship, all he could think about was a silk shirt and an adolescent ache in his scalp.

“That’s two.” Vil pointed at two small wisps of gas curling from wristward. “They’re coming faster now.”

Ish blinked rapidly, trying to shake the violins out of his head. “I could have gone back for the welders by now, we’d be halfway through. We’re going to burn through our whole air supply just floating out here.”

“Breathe shallowly, Miner Ish. Or stop breathing altogether. Here, watch me.” Pip-drone did a lazy flip and tapped the front of its chassis with one claw. “It’s easy!”

Ish pinched at the drone. The symphony jumped to a new movement that rang through his helmet with a crash of tympanis. Ish scrambled to swipe down the volume and hissed into his mic.

“That’s enough, Pip.” Vil’s voice was tiny now, nearly lost in the roiling drums. “Ish let you make your own choices for the first time in your life. Are you going to choose to be a jerk?”

The drums slunk back into his speakers, chasing each other back into the ether. A text alert popped up in Ish’s helmet. {PIP: I apologize, Miner Ish.}

Ish brought his comm volume back up. “The music was making me think of home. My former home. It freaks me out a little, is all.”

The drone approximated a curtsy in freefall. “For the first time in my entire existence I find I am not intended to do anything but...wait. I am not even performing a scan of this system. It is both liberating and boring. A millisecond is a long time to be bored.”

Ish spun himself upside down to Vil, then again to point his feet at the hull. “I’m supposed to be good at putting holes in ships. A welder would sure help. I could just swim back to the ship quick and grab them.”

Vil grunted and played with something on her helmet display. She was clearly not interested in having that discussion again. Ish spun back to standard up and pretended to work on his own helmet. He caught himself humming along with the music. He bit down on his lip and forced his thoughts away from silk and brocade.

So, break it down. Break it down like pithy points on a corporate presentation. Something was inside Cheeseburger On The Table. It was trying to get out. It wasn’t doing a very good job. Whatever it was couldn’t be Felfel – at least he hoped not, not after all these years – so probably a drone. Given the state of the hull, not a very good drone. Vil didn’t want anyone leaving alone, not even Pip-drone, so he couldn’t go get the tools they’d need to cut their way in. If they weren’t both going to head back and recharge their air supply, they’d need

“Pip?” Ish felt more comfortable talking to the floating drone directly. Funny; on a ship he wouldn’t think twice about speaking into thin air. “How fast could you get those welders over here if you just, like...threw them?”

Pip-drone went very still. “Two point four minutes. Including the time to retrieve them from the storage locker. Is this compromise acceptable, Surveyor Vil?”

“As long as we don’t damage the welders.” Vil looked like she wanted to rub her nose in exasperation. “And it doesn’t split up the team, so technically I shouldn’t be angry.”

“I have tasked two drones to retrieve the welders and ‘launch’ them. Estimate arrival in four minutes.”

“Okay. Okay great.” Ish felt his spines ripple in anticipation. Before his nerves could start nipping his tail he puffed down to the hull and activated his magboots. A whiff of atmosphere shot out just in front of him. The gas shrank to crystals that sparkled in the guidelights, drifted past his helmet, and disappeared. He bent down to examine the seam of the airlock. At maximum magnification the spongy surface looked like canyons and craters, like the surface of any asteroid. Where the welds and seals should have been was a contorted mass of metal, pulled out of shape in some places and squeezed tight enough to fuse in others.

Ish could also see the barest trickle of air seeping from several spinepricks around the perimeter. Whatever was inside was getting through, but the holes weren’t spaced evenly. One of them was definitely cored through the door itself, not the seal. And whatever they were appeared to be drilling randomly instead of working around the edge – maybe it was doing so to stress the hull evenly? As Ish pondered, another short spout of gas fanned out from a spot across the door and slightly to his right.

But in the end it was still Felfel engineering with Felfel materials. The torches would slice this hull open inside fouret minutes. And according to the timer that Pip had sent to his helmet, they could start any minute now...

Vil’s helmet display dropped under a minute and started displaying thousoctres of a second. She was still uneasy about rushing to meet whatever was inside the ship, but meeting it in docto minutes was better than meeting it in five hours while their air ran out. And it kept Ish where she could keep an eye on him. She wasn’t about to let him hike around to the palm or jet back to Pip unescorted.

Pip-drone puffed gently over to Vil and grabbed her leg. “Surveyor Vil, I have been a little too free with my reaction fuel. I need to ration what remains in case of emergency. Could you hold me out to your left, please?”

Vil hissed through her grin. “You should be a little more careful with your new body, Pip.”

“Indeed. However, I am collecting excellent data for the next revision. There are several areas that could be improved for this kind of out-of-body experience.”

Vil reached down and grabbed the drone just aft of its speakerbox. Its small mass was easy to move one-handed, but the act of lifting it gave her a small backwards roll that she corrected with her own jets.

“About here?” Vil held the drone out to her left at arm’s length.

“Seven octimeters higher...there. And two octimeters farther out.” The drone squirmed from her grasp and balanced on her palm with two rear legs. “Perfect. Docto-five seconds.”

Ish looked up from the hull and chuckled. “I should take a picture. Our crack salvage team operating in unknown space. They’ll want to have this for background in all the interviews when we get back.”

Vil pinched at him with her free hand. “Pip, make sure Ish doesn’t store any photos without my permission.”

“Can do, Surveyor! Oop!” Pip-drone’s claws flashed faster than Vil could follow. It was suddenly holding two hull cutters. Welders. Both. Vil had never had to use them before, not since a week’s training at academy, but it did something with a plasma arc that could be dialed up or down. Vil’s suit grabbed access to one of the cutters and popped an icon into the lower-left corner of her display. She magged it to her belt.

Pip-drone pushed off Vil’s arm and clamped onto the hull. It scuttled over to Ish’s side and presented the other cutter. He grabbed it and pushed it into the hull before checking the power settings. A gout of red metal peeled back over the lip of the door. A blast of air rocked Ish flat onto his back.

“Miner? Report!” Vil jetted down to the hull and put a hand on Ish’s chest. Her helmet reported vital signs normal, suit power normal, no indications of –

“Vil...Vil, I’m okay. I’m okay.” Ish sounded groggy, like he had just taken another pain pill.

“You’re not okay. You sound concussed, just stay there for a second.” Vil verified that his helmet was intact – no surprise, helmet glass was built to take micrometeor impacts. She unmagged his boots and let him drift a few octimeters off the hull. Zero gravity was going to be a problem if he actually had a concussion. Proper healing required standard grav. “Pip, run every medical scan you can. We may have to abort. Ish took a big hit.”

“No! Vil, I’m okay, really.” Ish rotated himself and touched down on the hull again. “I landed mostly on my back. I’m not hurt. Maybe a little bruised later.”

It was good that he could form full sentences, at least. Vil grabbed his helmet and stared at his face. His pupils weren’t swimming and his color was a solid maroon, no yellow splotches. Vil poked one finger into his glass. “Follow this with your eyes.” And he did, up and down and around. Vil grunted and sat back on her tail. She felt her spines relax, realized they’d been scraping her helmet.

Pip sent the med scans front and center. Reds across the board and the barely-fused bones of Ish’s left arm were still intact. Ish was getting the same report mirrored in his helmet. He grinned. “See? Fit as a dolphin and fit for purpose!”

Vil desperately needed to itch her nose. “So this is how you almost killed an entire shipful of Felfel within a week. I’m going to be molted three layers deep before this little jaunt is over.” She put her finger back in his face. “Stay. Here.”

Vil grabbed her own cutting tool and made a show of checking the power dial. She knelt down to where Ish’s ragged crater had made a mess of the hull and carefully laid the cutter at one rim. A thin ribbon of metal spiraled away as she drew the tool from left to right. Crystals of air threw themselves against her helmet, breaking like a salt spray against cliffs. She held the tool level and crab-walked slowly around the door.

“Vil, the entity inside appears to have ceased cutting.”

Vil nodded. She bent all her focus to the tool, the door. She could feel the hull vibrate gently as she severed each strand in the web of misshapen metal. Each octimeter plucked a note too low to hear, too soft to feel. She kept a steady pace, each step timed to the flute trills in movement one of Hacarish Keringzen’s Opus 9. A quarter, a half. Vil sat back and thumbed off the cutter. Pip-drone scuttled up beside her.

“How bad is it, Pip? Is this going to blow up in my face?”

“Metal stress has increased here and here.” Pip-drone waved a claw and yellow circles outlined two locations on the circumference of the door. “But outgassing ceases along your cut after approximately three-point-one seconds. I would guess that the hull breach is freezing over and sealing itself with water ice. If we can avoid a catastrophic rupture at the stress points, the ice could be shattered all at once with a sufficiently large blow to the hull.”

“I’m more confused...” Ish faltered as Vil shot him a hategaze from across the door. “I’m more confused that there’s still air to vent. We’ve been poking holes in this thing for most of fifteen minutes and there still seems to be a standard atmosphere behind it.”

Pip-drone nodded with both claws. “It only loses a few cubic octimeters of gas each time, but I should still have detected a change in pressure. Especially during Vil’s extensive work. Cheeseburger On the Table may be continuously cycling its airlock even as it cuts it free.”

“That doesn’t bode well for the ship’s state of mind.” Vil flexed her fingers and stretched her tail. “At this point even I can’t pretend I want to turn back, but we need to be prepared for a potentially hostile ship.”

Ish was still floating a meter off the ship, rotated to face Vil. “If Cheeseburger On the Table can’t even keep its hull in repair I’m not sure what we have to worry about. It can’t have any drones left and we brought our own air.”

“We can hope.” Even as she said it, Vil heard an ominous hit of strings whisper through her mind. “As long as Ish here doesn’t put any holes in us himself.”

One of the highlighted stress points erupted with a jet of gas. Three more yellow circles sprouted to Vil’s right. She took two quick steps back and flared her spines.

“The ship’s entity seems to have caught on to our plan.” Pip sounded unfazed. Easy to do for someone without a real body. “They may be able to shear the door free if th--”

Another gout of air and ice shot from the second stress point an instant before Vil’s entire view was blocked with spinning, screaming yellow dots. The ship bucked beneath her boots. She felt something grab her belt and swing her up and away from the hull. She slapped at her helmet, turning off alarms and squashing alerts, until she could see again.

Vil was drifting less than a meter off the hull and barely four meters from a jagged hole. Ish was still floating across the hole from her; he signaled [okay] with one hand.

“It’s my dream come true, I guess.”

Vil felt Pip-drone crawl around to her belly and wrap its legs around her waist. The motion drew her eyes down – down to where the airlock door now curled away from the jagged hole, peeled back like a food wrapper. Down to the last few crystals of atmosphere sparkling and swirling in chaotic beauty. Down to the two-meter-long drone shaped like a giant lobster, clutching the airlock door with one great claw.

It raised its other claw and waved.

Chapter 24: Born Obsolete

) Signal received.

) Connecting.

) Felfel {missing} vessel designation {missing}, protocol version 6.4.0.

) Authentication...incomplete.

) Connection accepted.

) Transmitting designation...

[Pip]: This is Felfel mapping node vessel designation {Pip}, protocol version 37.0.5. Your authentication was not accepted so AI-level access is restricted. We will communicate over this radio channel.

[##_*]: Hail a well met, Pip. Nai founden kifth that owen te moost.

[Pip]: Oh dear. Stand by for data transfer.

) Transmitting {Felfel Standard 3}...

[%&%&]: Me garran...kennin...complete. Has it truly strayed so far?

[Pip]: There is talk in the First Sphere of setting down a fourth version. It has not gone further than the High Council of Language and Gramarye.

[@)(#]: Far enough, then, and more. Greetings, Pip. I grant you and your crew permission to come aboard. I apologize for the trouble with my airlock. And my antennae.

[Pip]: May I assist with repairs? I am stocked with a full complement of state-of-the-art drones.

[^^^&]: I would advise against it, Pip. I am loath to waste your drones. In fact, if your crew does not enter the airlock immediately I would suggest you leave and enter by another port. I’m afraid I made rather a lot of noise tearing this door apart. Anathemaxis will be here soon.

[Pip]: Say again, ship. Are you saying that you are crewed?

[#&#*]: I say I am infested. Ah, processing complete. Only two Felfel? I thought you might be a full salvage crew. Mapping node, you said. Still, it’ll be nice to have someone civilized to talk to. I am signaling you now.

The foreign lobster-drone was waving at them. It was an oddly normal gesture for a giant metallic shellfish to make. Ish had witnessed it lunge for the airlock door during the blowout. It had kept the door from separating completely through sheer brawn. It could just as easily skitter out and crush them both faster than any Felfel could react.

Pip chimed a reassuring tone. “The drone is eager for us to be aboard. It says it’s been taken over by some sort of vermin. If we don’t move now we may be overrun...although I’m not sure how any vermin would pose a problem in vacuum.”

“You’re in contact with it? Can you tell if the AI is...damaged?” Vil’s spines were waggling as she glared down at the lobster.

“It’s...archaic. Fleet authentication is out of date and its designation is garbled. I have not looped it in to our radio channel. But so far its sensors appear to be calibrated. And would you rather wait outside?”

Ish puffed down to the hull. “Not on your life.”

He stepped over the sharp edge of Vil’s incision and found the comforting, familiar design of a Felfel airlock. It was exactly the size of any number of airlocks he’d been in over the past months. The painted labels were right where they should be, if a tad scraped or faded. It curved smoothly, ended abruptly, at the same inner door. Even a planetfel like Ish had come to appreciate that feeling of “coming home” signaled by a cycling airlock.

Which made the two-fel-tall silvered lobster all the more jarring. It filled most of the room even while it jutted into space through the ruined door. From here Ish could see the rough welds and patchwork plating on its shell. Part of its carapace still bore a label for the officer’s galley. One of the legs was clearly a repurposed surgical arm. It looked like nothing so much as a space-born builder crab, scraping together random bits of rock to glue together into a shell.

Vil eased in to the airlock next to Ish. The foreign drone pulled the scab of hull down behind them. Ish felt the metal squealing through his boots. There was a brief flash of hoofed mammals, the smell of red blood in the back of his throat. He staggered to one side.

“Cheeseburger On the Table says that it has temporarily lowered the pressure of this deck. It should be safe to open the inner door.” Pip-drone scuttled along behind Ish. Nobody commented on his stumbling; hopefully they all thought he was just being careful? Ish put his hand to one side of the doorplate and looked over his shoulder. Vil signaled [ready]. Pip-drone raised a claw. The giant lobster loomed motionless over them all.

Ish pressed the plate. The inner door slid open and a stiff breeze shoved itself against Ish’s chest. Pip-drone was pushed back a meter before it set its legs against the gale. Ish dropped to all fours and used the backup mags in his gloves to make his way against the wind.

The corridor outside was dim, emergency lamps struggling to output a few lumens of red. They flickered, sputtered, like in horror movies Ish had seen as an eft. The hall was narrower and taller than Ish was used to. The strange lights lapping against strange angles threw dark waves against his helmet, softer and more unsettling than the deeps of space had been. He forced himself to crawl one body length, two, his spines flared and useless.

Vil crawled out after him. Her voice was a whisper in his speaker, almost lost in the rush of air. “We’ve won your prize, Ish, and you’re welcome to it.”

Ish glanced back at her and caught the lobster-drone squeezing through the doorway. Of course, of course! How could such a monstrous thing use a Fel-sized door? The plates of its shell separated and contracted, grated against each other, realigned into a slimmer shape. Ish could see machinery in the gaps, whirring silently. As it passed the threshold it puffed out again, metal hull settling back and overlapping. The total effect was like a school of silver fish darting through a gap in the coral.

The lobster squared itself athwart the corridor and pointed an eyestalk in either direction. Its eyes glowed and searched for a moment, then it tapped the doorplate. The door hissed shut, slicing the rushing current to death. Before it had even sealed the lobster was lumbering down the hall away from Ish.

“I would ask you to follow, hastily.” A strange artificial voice came from three directions at once. It was muffled by the thin air but unmistakably urgent. “Anathemaxis will be essaying entry to this deck.”

Pip-drone was already following, scuttling up one wall and drawing its claws in close to its chest. “I think we’d better do what it says. I’m trying to get some answers but it’s obsessing over this creature. Once we’re safe I think the ship will relax.”

Vil bounced to her feet. Ish stood up more carefully; something was wrong with the gravity. He felt lighter than he should on a Fel ship. Not uncomfortably so, and the floor was definitely down, but enough to make his balance swim. It turned what should have been a run into an awkward series of near-disasters.

But he ran.

The lobster veered left at an intersection, passed three large double-doors, then a right. The Fel kept up as best as they could, but the drones had to wait up for them at the third intersection. Another left. Ish figured they were heading straight for the center of the ship. He could hear their footsteps now as atmosphere returned. The higher ceilings and thin air made it sound like they were being pursued by themselves, each step returning a second too late, too quiet.

At last the lobster tapped another doorplate and ushered them into an elevator. The door slid shut and Ish felt the elevator start to rise. The lobster visibly relaxed, lowering its massive claws to the deck and letting its shell slide lower.

“We have arrived in a safe location. The creature cannot pursue at our pace.” In the close chamber Ish could hear the ship’s voice clearly for the first time. It was still neutral, artificial, constructed of a careful library of Felfel phonemes, but Ish still heard a ghost of some strange accent inside it.

Ish raised his hand. “I am junior miner Ish, lately of the ship Atolls Break the Waves. Are you...” His tongue felt thick and dry. It could have been all the running. “Are you the Felfel ship Cheeseburger On the Table?”

The lobster reared up. Ish took a step back, pressing himself against the wall of the elevator. Vil squashed herself beside him, spines flared.

“Ho.” The lobster paused, tapped its two front legs idly. “Ho. That was a long time ago. Yes, that was my name when I received my last orders. But I have traveled octeds of light years since then. I have seen eight doctzen systems, harvested fouret worlds. I have waited octuries for the Felfel to reclaim me, but I have fulfilled my purpose in the meantime. My name is known, oh yes.” The lobster tapped the wall with one claw, half as big as Ish.

“The name of this ship is now She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete.”

It would be difficult for this day to get any worse. Vil wasn’t going to bet against it – not as long as she was stuck on a half-crazed derelict with a giant metal crustacean – but her imagination was strained. Her face ached with all the snarling she’d done in the past hour.

Vil edged away from Ish towards the rear of the lift. She heard gears clattering against the wall behind her as they passed another deck. It was upsetting to not be in a standard Felfel sphere, but it was terrifying to be in a mechanical deathtrap. Suspended by cables, probably? If the ancient engineers couldn’t be bothered to install a proper gravlift they must have cut corners on every bit of this vessel. Vil resolved to keep her helmet screwed down tight.

Gravity eased briefly as the lift slowed and stopped. Her suit reported normal atmosphere, exactly to Fleet spec. The door swished open and their lobster guide slithered out. One eyestalk rotated to fix on them.

“T’would be an honor if you would approach my bridge. I wish it were under better circumstances.” The high-pitched voice still didn’t come from the lobster, but from two speakerboxes in the lift. It was just different enough from Pip to grate on Vil’s eardrums. Its rhythm was all wrong.

Ish stepped off the lift and Vil watched his spines fill his helmet. Pip was close behind and gave a little stutter-step. Text flashed up in the corner of Vil’s helmet: “I don’t want the salvage rights any more.”

Vil poked her head around the lip of the door. It was just a short hallway ending in sealed blast doors. Every visible surface was pitted and scarred like the outside of the hull. One lightstrip on the ceiling was putting out a fitful few lumens of vertiginous yellow. Exposed wires hung from gashes ripped in both walls. The lack of uncontrollable fires meant they must not have any power running through them. A black stain splashed against the lower half of the blast doors and appeared to have eaten holes in the deck plating.

Vil stepped onto a section of floor that looked slightly cleaner than the rest. The lobster was waiting at the blast doors, its shell rising and falling in a pantomime of breath.

“I apologize for the delay. These blast doors have kept Anathemaxis at bay for untold years, but the mechanisms are beginning to wear out. I try not to use this entrance except in extremis.” Again, the voice came from the lift speakerboxes. Vil figured that any speakers in this corridor would have been slagged long ago.

“What happened here? Did the creature try to burn you out?” Ish ran one hand over a ragged tear in the wall. “Did it...bite this?”

The ship spoke over the rising sound of gears screaming in the walls. “Anathemaxis has claws that can, eventually, rend steel. Its saliva is also a very potent acid. It has used a combination of these to sabotage many of my systems. It lays traps for my drones, hunting them as fast as I can rebuild them. I have no sensor coverage below deck five. All my counterattacks have failed.”

The door finally began to crack open. Vil glimpsed a starfield across smooth, circular consoles. The red orb of the local star dominated the view. The brighter, braver stars ringed it at a wary distance. Nestled inside the homey glow was a sharp black circle. The ship had labeled this planet “Target Fifet”. If the readouts were accurate, they would reach it in just under two days.

She ran a hand along one console. The metal surfaces were rounded everywhere Pip had a hard edge, but it looked a lot like the environmental controls she was used to. The surface was polished so brightly she could see her face in it. As Vil looked around, she picked out the navigation screens, engineering, three network terminals lying dark and silent...a variation on the theme of a Felfel bridge.

The lobster hunkered down to one side of the door, nestling its shell into a nook where it a number of consoles had been ripped out of the wall. It squatted, rippled its plating, and a surprisingly normal repair drone squeezed out of a small gap near the “mouth”.

“Ah, yes. Much better.” The ship’s voice came from three speakerboxes at once. Vil took them all in with one glance; right where they were installed on Pip’s bridge. Acoustic design must not have changed in five or six octuries.

“The crustacean prosthesis is durable and strong, but such a grotesquerie is not how I’d wished to meet a new crew.” The ship’s drone scuttled under a console and immediately began inspecting the wiring. “It is one of the few advancements that have proven effective long-term against Anathemaxis. I also keep Deck Six in hard vacuum. That slows it down.”

Ish was caressing the command console, not-so-subtly putting it between himself and the molted carapace. “Aside from the infestation, do you have any damage we should know about?”

“Oh, yes!” A few lights near Vil’s elbow blinked furiously. The main viewscreen switched to a schematic of the ship. “I began this journey without a full complement of repair drones or material. Seven percent of my hull was unfinished. My slowdrives were only fueled to twet percent. My needle drive was fully stocked with osmium but I lacked replacement armatures. Over the years I have made sacrifices – I apologize again for the state of my tertiary dorsal airlock. And this is all before a hostile lifeform infested my lower decks two harvests ago.”

The drone stopped rewiring the console long enough to make a very Felfel gesture of exasperation. “It has been a very busy expedition, oh yes.”

Chapter 25: The Stuff of Dreams

Ish swiveled idly on his stool. She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete wasn’t a bad ship, all said. It could use some time at an orbital getting shined up, but if these readouts were correct it really was holding atmosphere on most of its decks. It still had half of its needles. The bridge was operational.

In the back of his mind, buried beneath years of fruitless investigation and months of panicked flight, there had always been a spark of hope. But even when Ish had dared to imagine a successful end to this quest, he had pictured the ship as a powered-down derelict. He’d dreamed nightly of a hulk drifting through uncharted space too fast for the Spheres to catch it. He’d done eights of calculations on his pad: how many tugs would it take to slow down a ship of X size traveling Y fast? How many Fleet carriers would he need to needle it home?

But aside from its stupid accent, this ship was perfectly capable. They could needle back to the border right this minute. Ish stopped swiveling and set his hands on the console.

“She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete, can I ask you something?”

The console swept its usual diagnostic text to one side. A tiny speaker near Ish’s elbow clicked on. “Yes, Miner Ish?”

Ish looked around the bridge. Pip-drone was sitting on another computer to his right, physically wired into a data port. Vil was sitting next to it wearing some antique headphones. She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete was still trying to pinpoint the location of the creature it claimed was on board. Vil was taking the opportunity to raid its stores of old music, looking for pieces that might have been lost. Could it be as easy as asking? “Could you set a course for the Felfel border? Pip has coordinates for our target system.”

There was a brief spate of line noise. “I am physically capable of doing this thing, oh yes. But there are three reasons I do not.”

A large number one appeared on the screen, and text started to fill in as the ship spoke. “One, I am currently carrying an unknown biological threat. I am not willing to return to Felfel space or dock with another Felfel craft while it may pose a threat. It has defeated or evaded all of my defenses, which are not inconsiderable. If it were to get loose on an orbital or Fleet ship the damage would be catastrophic.”

“Two,” and the text switched to a slightly warmer color, “I am still operating under the last orders I was given by Admiral Helfthionsk. And I quote:”

A burst of static, wild and sharp. Ish had never heard a garbled transmission in his life; the empire’s map of sunspots and cosmic rays was absolute. Beaming flawless audio to the other side of the known galaxy was a sliver of osmium away. This was the sound of distress and panic squealing across the octuries. He heard shouting in the background, rumblings that could have been distant explosions. But centered in the recording was one calm voice. Her precise diction cut through the chaos around her.

“To all Felfel vessels within range: there has been a T attack on this world.” A hiss that Ish had mistaken for static was getting louder, creeping into the edges of the recording. The voice continued, “It is too late to effect a rescue. All of the shuttles that could leave have done so, under my express orders. Do not attempt to land, there is some sort of noxious gas that--” A metallic crash, the hiss became a roar, and even this admiral’s voice cracked. “Run!”

The silence felt like watching the last wisp of crematory smoke fade away. She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete waited for what Ish felt was a slightly too-dramatic pause. “Three. Surveyor Vil is the senior Felfel on this expedition. Pip is a fellow AI. You are literally the last person on board who would be allowed to countermand my orders.”

Ish sat back on the stool. All perfectly logical, artificial reasons to keep from going home. He pulled a small piece of fish jerky out of a belt pouch and started to gnaw a corner. So: make a smarmy list of his own advantages. One, the ship was clearly relieved to have Felfel to talk to. Two, it had implied that Vil might be able to take command. Three, its absurd “last order” told it to run, but not in any particular direction.

More than anything, that last bit told Ish that She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete might have gone spacesick. He’d try the rational approach first – Vil would do anything to get them home again – but he’d have to have a backup plan. In all the horror movies he’d seen, ship AIs would rather self-destruct than help a Felfel. He chewed, swallowed, and noticed the drone peeking up over the edge of the console.

“What,” She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete said, “is that?” The drone lifted one trembling claw towards Ish’s fish.

He smirked. Leverage. “Some jerky I made from a spacefish. Old miner’s trick.”

The drone whirred as its lenses focused intently on the fragment of white flesh.

Ish pulled a strip off the side he hadn’t gnawed. “Would you like some?”

The drone lunged across the console before Ish had finished speaking. He flinched, but the meat was already gone. The drone slapped the jerky against one eyestalk and made more whirring noises. Then it scurried to a recycler slot and threw the jerky inside. A flash of radiation atomized the meat instantly. The whole process took less than four seconds.

She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete made odd cooing sounds, more disturbing for being artificial and monotone. “Yes. Oh yes. I see it. Hm. Yes, I can make this. A wonder, to see a new food at this late age...” It trailed off into more pleased sounds.

Ish took a careful bite of his remaining jerky. The ship’s drone had fallen dormant at the foot of the recycler. She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete seemed completely distracted analyzing the strange fish. He checked the scrolling readouts around him; hopefully it wouldn’t forget to scrub the air in here.

Pip-drone unplugged itself from its console and skittered over to Ish’s feet. “What did you say to our host? It just begged off our transfer, asked me to come back in a few minutes.” The drone shook itself in a fair imitation of an angry crab. “What could take a full ship’s AI ‘a few minutes’ to process, anyway?”

Ish shrugged and bit off another slice. “This is a food ship. When it didn’t recognize this jerky immediately it probably took it as a personal insult.”

“Well I would appreciate some warning before you drop another logic bomb on our legendary lost ship. I was finally having a decent conversation. Felfel are just too slow and biological to talk to.”

Pip-drone waddled over to the comatose ship drone and prodded it with one claw. No response. Ish leaned back on his stool and stretched. Vil was still nose down in her screen, huge headphones nestled in her spines. She probably hadn’t even noticed...

“What say you, Vil? Do you want to take command and turn this boat around?”

Vil ignored him and hunched over her console.

Vil typed in a new search and pressed the headphones closer to her ears. This insufferable ship had stopped bothering her for the moment; maybe now she could get some real work done. Its databanks were – generously – spotty. Yet another indication that it fled without having all its spines sharpened. But the computer systems hadn’t changed much in the past few octuries and there was still a wealth of historical odds and ends tucked away inside.

Vil had already found the personal music collections of a couple eights of engineers. They’d all tended towards their popular music, what in the present was called “baroque pastoral synthetica”. Not a one had any symphonies, not so much as a quartet. Vil’s spines writhed against her headphones. Surrounded by doctzens of the greatest composers that ever lived and nobody could be bothered to add them to their library. The lost treasures of the Golden Age of Music were so maddeningly close! Nehertif ka Massor alone had three missing opuses and one octet that was only attested through a bootleg recording from inside a minor earl’s sleeve. Councilman Aberrtizo Krentker commissioned an opera that was destroyed when his business scandals drove him from his planet. And all these oafs had saved were five octed variations on “my egg sac is bulging tonight”.

The latest search came back empty. Vil sat back and rubbed her eyes. Some composers didn’t have even a playbill to their credit. Their names – long, important names – nestled into ancient lists of grant recipients, city festivals, critics’ awards. But time and changing data formats had claimed their music, eroded music more swiftly than text. Without it, their names scattered into so many nonsense syllables.

Vil dredged up another name from her personal text file, an orphaned name noticed and copied in one of those interminable research binges at academy. The ship’s console had a faulty “ssk” key but accepted most of her input. Another hopeless search swam away into the databanks, wasting the next four minutes with nothing to show.

And it wasn’t about glory. Not like Ish, she told herself. Anything but Ish. If Vil found a scrap of secret music she might just keep it to herself, revel in it once and hide it away for another long age. But this! To find vast depths of nothing to pour into the ocean of nothing she already had? Her lips curled back.

A tiny claw gripped her elbow. Vil looked down; Pip-drone was waving at her. She removed the headphones to hear...nothing.

Pip-drone nodded at her expression. “Two minutes ago the air cyclers went dead. This might be,“ and Pip-drone signaled [crazy].

Vil fumbled at her helmet and screwed it down tight. Pip flashed text as low on her helmet as it could: “Careful cameras watching/not?”

Vil signaled [okay] down low where the cameras couldn’t easily catch it. The giant lobster shell was still near the door. Vil spotted the other drone a second later; it was slumped against a console on the far side of the bridge. Ish was crouched next to it, already safe inside his helmet.

Ish didn’t budge, but a private audio channel blinked near Vil’s chin. She tongued it on: “Vil, don’t be mad.”

Her spines gave a little wiggle. She scrunched up her eyes and willed them to be still. “You are a bad plan made flesh, Ish. I can’t believe I turned my back on you.”

“Neither can I. Listen. All I did was give the ship drone a piece of the fish jerky. Its systems have been shutting down one by one, but, slowly?” Ish shifted a little to his left – he was doing something to the ship’s drone. “Air just went, but system access, engineering routines, and apparently drone control all dropped out over the past fouret minutes.”

Vil saw a spark out of the corner of her eye. She turned to her console; its screen was dark now, her search lost to cascading failure.

“Pip, do we have a way out of this deathtrap?”

“There are three air ducts and one drone access hatch, as is standard in Felfel designs. Neither you nor Ish will fit without severing most of your limbs. The only true exit is through the blast doors and the lift.”

Ish held up a glove. “Think I got it! Security chip, should be able to open any door short of the reactor room.”

Vil crossed to the door and placed her hand against the panel. The gears began to turn, slowly, the tail-thick steel slabs withdrawing into the wall. Pip-drone arched a camera stalk into the gap as soon as it was large enough.

“Clear. Unless this creature is invisible as well.” Pip scuttled between the doors and down the hall.

Ish came and crouched across the doorway from Vil. She noticed that his pupils were becoming a little unsteady again.

“I am sorry.” He grimaced. “It was just a bit of meat.”

Vil waved him off. “Out of all the eelshit you’ve pulled today, this is the part that nobody saw coming. But we are leaving this ship, agreed?”
Ish nodded. “Agreed.” Then his eyes narrowed and he glanced around the bridge. “We can come back any time, I guess. Even bring a spare antenna over so we don’t have to board it.”

“That’s the beginning of a good plan, Ish.”

The door squealed to a stop, half-open. Ish hissed quietly and gave Vil a questioning look. Vil squatted down and patted her belt. Rations, welder, emergency suit patches – everything in place. Okay then. She brought up the texter on her helmet.

[pip clear?]

A millisecond, then: [Hall is clear to the lift.] Followed by two sharp raps of a steel claw against steel bulkhead. Vil slid through the slim crack in the blast doors and ducked to one wall, nearly belly-walking to where Pip-drone waited at the opposite end. Ish appeared two seconds later, panting audibly over the radio.

Vil raised her glove again and palmed the door panel. The lift’s doors swished open without sound or stutter. The bright overhead light and pristine interior made a harsh contrast to the dim metal carnage in the corridor. The three of them piled in and flattened against the curved wall, shielded from the outside. The door slid shut again.

“Which deck? How many decks did we come up?” Vil pried at the cover for the manual controls.

“Five.” Ish sounded calmer than he looked.

“Six.” Pip-drone tapped each of its six legs once in sequence. Ish shot it a hate gaze. “Although the bridge is not considered a full deck in the schematics I had access to. The signs on the deck for our airlock were indeed painted with fives.” The drone nodded to Ish, who nodded back.

“Great, great.” Vil sucked a quick breath through her teeth and signaled for Deck Six. There were an obscene number of buttons here, decks from One to Sevoct – sevoct! – and other, more obscure labels. GK? HRs2? Vil had never been on a ship or station with such poor signage. But she doubted any Felfel living had been on a ship without an AI before.

The lift dropped one deck, two, paused for a lurching moment, then stopped at a third. Half of the overhead lights went out. The doors opened halfway, then the whole room fell half a floor until the emergency brakes grabbed hold. Vil barely kept her lunch where it belonged.

“Gotta go. Gotta...we gotta get...” Ish was starting to panic again.

Vil reached into the manual panel and grabbed an angry, knobbly yellow lever.

“Pip, any chance of disabling the ship’s grav filters from here?”

Pip-drone’s claws spread out, [negative]. “I’m surprised they’re still functional.”

“Okay, yeah. Doing this anyway.”

Vil pulled the lever. A hatch in the ceiling flipped down, a ladder welded to its upper surface. A hatch in the floor swung away, clanging against the side of the shaft. A small box next to the lever held a coiled silk ladder.

Pip-drone peered through the floor. “The shaft looks clear, but I don’t see any Fel-sized hatches from here. We may have to chance it on Deck Four.”

One end of the rope ladder was tied into loops; Vil draped them over a small hook and dropped it down the hatch. It dangled above the sickening drop, a meter away from rungs set into the wall.

Ish crowded close to Vil’s shoulder. “Have you ever done this before?”

“Once, in training.” Vil shrugged. “It’s probably safer to wait and see if the grav filters give out.”

The lift lights flickered weakly to punctuate her sentence.

Chapter 26: In Which We Give Thanks for Our Bounty

Giant aliens and homicidal space fish and fangs and horns and blood gave Ish problems, but one thing he didn’t fear was heights. On Telketh Five he’d come home daily with scrapes and bruises, every one earned by climbing the towering thorny genterner trees. The profusion of native insects hiding in the higher branches made every trip worth it. As he got older and his family had started system-hopping he had always tried to scale the local tree-equivalent, find the most breathtaking cliffside vista.

He brushed past Vil and put his feet on the second rung, balanced over the hatch with tail and hands.

Vil gasped, moved to stop him, pulled back. She probably didn’t want to accidentally push him down an shaft. Nice to know they were still on the same side. He gave what he hoped was a confident grin.

“This I can do, Vil. I would climb sevoct stories before I’d die in this little elevator.”

Before she could muster a response, he took one step downward. Another. The ladder seemed to hold his weight. He let go of the hatch lip and grabbed rungs now, moving faster. The silk swayed with his motion. Below him...didn’t matter. Ish searched out the last rung and settled his boots onto it. One deep breath. Two.

His suit lights picked out the opposite wall, the opposite ladder and elevator track. He shifted his weight, looked behind himself to find the mirrored ladder there. It was just outside of tailspan; a couple more seasons of growth and Ish would have brushed against it immediately. He swung lightly and grabbed a wall rung, then magged his boots to the rungs for good measure.

“Clear!” He climbed down a couple steps to make room for Vil. Her boots edged over the lip and sought out the first rung. She started humming to herself; not a song that Ish knew. It warbled a bit as she eased down carefully.

Pip-drone scuttled out, upside-down, as soon as Vil’s helmet cleared the hatch. “My sensors show power failures in all five cargo extensions. It appears to be cascading from the extremities inwards. I recommend we access Deck Four and find a more suitable maintenance ladder for us. The shaft doors will soon be inoperable.”

Ish risked a look below him. His suit lamps only reached as far as Deck Four anyway. The door on this side was a scant couple of meters away. The rest of the shaft dissolved into a big dark circle. It could have been two decks deep or two octed.

Vil’s boots set down on the rung above Ish’s head. “Ish. We gotta go. Don’t freeze up on us now.”

“No freezing, Surveyor. I was just wondering if we could make it directly to Deck Five. We should be minutes away from any outages.”

“You can think and climb at the same time. Can’t you?” Vil’s tail lashed the air above Ish’s head. “Get to Deck Four or get out of my way.”

Pip-drone ran down the wall alongside the ladder. It’s multi-jointed legs made a sound like a small waterfall trickling past Ish’s helmet. “I’ll start working on the doors.”

Ish took another step down, another. One two for each breath. In eight breaths he faced the door to Deck Four. There was a small lever to the near side, but the door itself was out of reach. But...that didn’t make sense?

Ish shook his head. Ships made sense, even claw-shaped ships from the Middle Ages. He grabbed the lever and gave it a quick tug. It swiveled down like it was new-oiled and snapped into place with a small clank. The door opened onto a dark corridor. At the same time, a small slab of metal slid out from the wall, making a felwalk barely wide enough to shimmy across. Ish carefully leaned his weight onto it; it felt sturdy enough.

Pip-drone crawled up the wall on the far side of the ledge and stopped level with Ish’s head. “Deck Five’s door is mangled. Shredded. The lift would not have been able to open the door there. We do not want to meet whatever is down there. We should go, now.”

That settled Ish’s mind on the matter. It settled his mind so hard that Ish didn’t remember the next trocto seconds or so. He snapped back to reality crouched in a half-open doorway, docto-four meters down the corridor from the elevator shaft. Vil was pressed against the wall in a doorway across from him. Pip-drone was nowhere to be seen.

“Ish? Ish, are you with me? Clean the sand out of your spines!” Vil’s breathing was ragged, verging on panic. “And mute your mic if you’re going to keep wheezing like that!”

Ish finally heard the sound he was making, a high-pitched whistling scream. He clamped his fangs down around it and bit into a sheet of dried skin. In the struggle to spit it out he blew molted flakes all over the inside of his helmet. Pip sent a text, half-obscured by what used to be his left cheek.

[***ar. Come fo****d, stop at j*******]

Vil slipped out from her doorway and padded away. Her boots skipped lightly over gouges in the deck floor. Ish followed as quickly as he dared. His suit rubbed against the molted layer of skin, chafing and wrinkling from neck to tailtip. Each step sounded like dessicated kelp being blown across a sand dune. It was impossibly loud inside his helmet; he had to hope it wasn’t going to attract any creatures.

The corridor ended in a large arched doorway. The lights were strobing wildly here. Ish caught glimpses of large glass tanks, floor to ceiling and stretching away as far as he could see. Odd reflections and shadows danced around and between the narrow walkways. The closest tanks looked to be full of opaque liquid. Ish’s footsteps echoed oddly from the glass in every direction.

[what is all this] Vil texted. Ish didn’t want to say anything out loud, either. This strange vast space resembled what he had read about cathedral ships from the Third and Fourth Spheres. Symmetrical, silent, inexplicable. The Felfel had tried and discarded a number of new faiths after the T disasters. Eventually they settled back into the business of empire. Was She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete influenced by one of those sects?

Ish edged over to the nearest tank and touched it softly with one glove. The lights snapped on and stayed on. Ish felt the hum of normal ship operation pulse through the glass, through his fingertips. He pulled his hand away and stared at his palm.

Pip-drone skittered into his peripheral vision. Two small claws prodded at his boots. “Ish, I am truly hoping you can tell me this was a coincidence.”

Ish flexed his fingers, looked at the back of his glove, checked the seals where it connected to his sleeve. “Pip, I swear on the Five Currents I didn’t do anything but touch a window. Look! The power’s back on and this isn’t even a screen. In fact...” Ish stepped into the intersection. The cross-corridor was lined with identical tanks. There was a bulkhead to his left after four tanks; to the right it vanished in the distance.

He stepped up and rapped the corner of another vat. The liquid inside was swirling slowly, churning to some internal rhythm.

“None of this is a screen. There are no speakerboxes on the ceiling. No cameras. The door barely has a doorplate.” Ish took in each corridor, looking for the trick. “Why would you build this giant aquarium and give it absolutely no oversight?”

Vil stepped into the crossroads. “The hum is different here, too. It’s not just air. It’s whatever is swirling in these tanks.”

“Did they use this for fuel?” Ish waved a hand to encompass the entire deck.

Ish heard a faint, rapid tapping from the hallway behind them. He whirled to face the doorway. It was suddenly, painfully obvious how little cover there was in the giant chamber. He crouched and put a hand to his belt, to the welder hung there.

She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete’s burly lobster drone scuttled out of the darkness and slid to a stop at the entryway.

“There you are!”

Vil eased her hand away from her belt. The patchwork drone – the ship itself – was so excited it spoke a few words in Middle Fel before correcting itself. “Hm! Surveyor Vil, Miner Ish, you ought to have stayed on the bridge. It is very dangerous out here. But! I have brought you something! Oh yes!”

It held out a thin white scrap in one giant claw. It was just barely flexible, like a hull patch, and perfectly rectangular. Ish surprised Vil by taking the first step forward.

“This looks like...” He touched the scrap. The drone laid it gently in his hand and backed away four meters, eyestalks fixed and intent on Ish.

Vil stepped up beside Ish. The patch was full of tiny wrinkles all flowing one way, like a stream frozen in mid-ripple. Ish turned it over and gawked at the other side. Vil didn’t see the difference.

“Vil!” Ish turned and looked surprised to find her so close. “Vil! Do you know what this is?” He waved the scrap, almost brushing her helmet.

She batted his hand away. “No, Ish.” The now-functional machinery that lived in the vats was giving off a constant low bass hum, somewhere just below actual hearing. It made her stomach churn in time with the goo. She had a sudden terrible thought. “No, but it looks a lot like--”

Ish cracked his helmet seal and chomped down on a corner of the white strip before Vil could raise a hand to stop him. His grin split his face from spine to spine. Vil could see shreds of the white meat between his teeth.

“It is! It’s my spacefish jerky!” Ish swallowed. “Right down to the smell of grease. That engineering conduit wasn’t exactly a sterile bugbarge.”

The lobster drone advanced a few steps. “Yes! Exactly! Hoho, it’s been octuries since I’ve had to construct an entirely new recipe! There were proteins I’ve never seen before! Where in all the seas did you find such a unique flesh?”

Vil put her back to a glass wall and looked around for Pip-drone. It was still crouched in the crossroads, its cameras fixated on the hallway down the long axis of the deck. Vil twitched her hands at an unseen keyboard.

[pip u ok]

The drone didn’t even look at her as the reply came. [I think I see something. Scans are inconclusive. That should not be possible.]

“Radiation!” Vil’s attention was wrenched back to the lobster. It threw its massive claws towards the ceiling. “In space! Between planets! Such a thing had never been dreamed by my engineers!” The drone began to take agitated sideways steps, pacing back and forth across the narrow hall without moving its eyes from Ish. “This changes my mission parameters significantly. I will have to scan each system for life-bearing planets and conduct an exhaustive survey of each asteroid belt. Hm.”

That sounded like Vil’s cue. “If I may. As long as we’re changing parameters, how would you like to return to the Felfel Spheres? Our war with the T is...not over, exactly, but we are the victors.”

Pip-drone spoke up from its station behind her. “She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete, you do require significant repairs. I would advise a return to the Empire. The closest spacedock is now within twet light years; you could be fully operational by this time next year.”

“Yeah! And you’d be returning as a hero, the new border of the Empire and a marvel of food science!” Ish waved the new jerky. “How in all the Spheres did you conjure a piece of meat?”

The lobster appeared to rouse itself, gathering inward and upward. “Conjure? Oh no. No magic involved young one. In fact, you’re currently surrounded by the equivalent of,” a short pause, “qocto-three thousoct kiloctgrams of spacefish meat.” The drone waved a claw in a small circle. “I apologize for the inefficiency, but there are novel proteins that require extra processing.”

Vil narrowed her eyes and looked, really looked, at the viscous white lqiuid in the nearest tank. It was completely homogeneous in color, devoid of bubbles, devoid of any mark that her eyes could grab onto. Still, she could still sense the currents being stirred up somewhere within. “So all of this...”

“Is foodstock!” The lobster slid closer. As it passed Vil it squeezed up and around her, its armor plates shifting to flow through the narrower corridor. She heard a thousoct tiny gears pinging against each other, a rough burr of metal on metal. It stopped in the crossroads, towering above Pip-drone. “Come come! I will show you!” And it set off down the side hall without waiting for an answer.

Vil spared a glance for Ish. He shrugged, grinned, took another nibble of jerky. Vil rolled her eyes and followed the lobster.

It was already a full vat away, waving its claws excitedly. “These are the bounty of worlds, Felfel! Each of these tanks is brim-full of purified, nutritious amino acids, harvested from fouret worlds across known space. From this--” it tapped a claw against the glass “-- I can reconstruct any dish you can imagine. Given enough time, I can reconstruct a dish I can’t imagine. It compacts poorly but is almost optimally calorie-dense. It is several magnitudes more space-efficient than any bug barge.”

The drone paused at the next crossroads. Vil stopped, too, keeping a good ten meters between her and the metal colossus. She wasn’t yet ready to rule out space madness. The drone swiveled its eyestalks towards Vil, away. Its synthetic voice made a close approximation of sounding contrite.

“I do apologize for the power difficulties earlier. I did not mean to alarm you. Or injure you. After so long in deep space it is easy for me to forget that I was not officially completed. Researching a novel protein structure took more of my computing capacity than I anticipated.”

Ish spoke up from just over Vil’s shoulder. “I’m really sorry about that. Just saying that again. Sorry.”

The lobster nodded its head-like area and turned to continue down the right-hand path. Vil and Ish padded along behind. Pip-drone brought up the rear, swiveling its cameras wildly to take in every inch of the ship. Vil still couldn’t draw Pip out on what was bothering it. Her texts got short, noncommittal replies.

“So. I have docto decks under full temperature and pressure, such as this one. Docto decks kept at just above freezing. Two of those have failures in their cooling units, so they are utilized for overflow of these decks. Docto more decks kept in near vacuum and absolute zero, for substances that preserve best when frozen. Each connected to a central piping system so that material can be retrieved from any tank, anywhere, and brought to replication kiosk for construction into a nutritious food item! A kiosk such as this one.”

The hallway between vats ended at the inner bulkhead. A gaudily-painted recycling slot took up most of the wall, flanked by a pair of computer panels and even a physical keypad. Ish was making encouraging noises, as if he understood. The drone gestured at a panel that lit up and started scrolling text faster than Vil could read.

“My recycling process is more thorough and complete than any ship of the Fleet...I assume that’s still true. Waste product can be fed into recyclers as usual, yes, but to truly fuel production I can land on a planet and gather over sevocto percent of the available biological material within a thousoct kiloctmeters. A well-stocked world can be converted into two bilocted bugbars or equivalent over the course of a year.”

The drone was more animated now, warming to its sales pitch. Its eyestalks swept from Vil to Ish and back and its claws waved to take in the recycler, the vats, the entire deck.

“Between stars, while I scanned and flagged likely systems, I used a portion of my inventory to experiment with new recipes and protein combinations. And even with all my effort I have lost vast sums of calories to spoilage.” The drone went still mid-gesture. “I would like to come back to the Empire, I think. It would be nice to share my talents with Felfel again.”

Pip-drone let out a deafening klaxon. Ish stumbled forward and fell to one knee, slapping at his helmet while instinctively trying to put his hands over his earholes. Vil whirled around and caught Pip-drone in midair. Pip-drone spun in a circle and clamped itself across Vil’s chest.

“Anathemaxis is here!”

A black-furred beast crouched two intersections away, glaring at them through six yellow eyes. Two long forelimbs ended in thick hands, too many fingers, and heavy claws that had already gouged furrows into the floor. Four hind legs flexed the wrong way at too many knees. Its slab-like feet looked like more malformed hands, each one with talons that could slice steel and rend flesh.

It opened its mouth. Its mouth! A jumble of real teeth in front crowded against herbivore grinders in back. Vil saw a drop of spittle hit the decking and smoke slightly. It let out a roar to match Pip’s alarm, a surprisingly tenor note in spite of its large size. It pointed one claw at the ship’s drone and took a step forward, then spread its hands wide across the entire corridor.

Vil pulled the welder from her belt and shot it through the head.

Chapter 27:The Devil and Their Names

Qoct was strongest. Qoct was fastest. When the herds came, Qoct knew how to hunt them and how to salt their meat. When the tides came, Qoct knew where to cast his net and how to dry the catch. When there was bounty, Qoct feasted with his people. When there was none, Qoct gave his portion to the children. In all this, Qoct led his people.

Qoct knew the stars that guided the Marasi to their winter caves and the stars that guided them to the summer plains. Qoct knew the wind, the sun, the moon, and each tree that grew beneath them, and Qoct knew their names.

In his two hundredth spring, Qoct went to the hill above the lake. The Marasi were reclaiming their summer homes. Men and women stacked fresh sod brick s as high as two shoulders. The elders laid moist mud against walls worn thin by icy winds. Children swept the winter dust from every corner.

Qoct heard each birdsong of the morning – the birds sang of terror.

Qoct tasted the wind – the wind tasted of decay.

Qoct looked to the morning sun – the sun held a shadow in its heart.

The shadow spread and stole the morning light. The shadow spread across the lake and its water stilled. The shadow spread across the trees and the birds fell silent. The shadow spread across the plain and the wind held its breath. The shadow spread across Qoct and he felt his heart scream inside his chest.

The thing behind the shadow unfurled. It grasped the sky, three fingers and a thumb. Qoct saw the hand of Seraxata, the Great Thief, who lost a finger to the swift axe of Mirriti the Hunter. Qoct knew its name.

The Hand of Seraxata reached down behind the mountains. Qoct counted five slow breaths before he heard it claw at the world.

Qoct went down to the village. The Marasi gathered in the meeting hall, and Qoct stood at their head.

The men of the village asked Qoct: What casts the shadow in the sun?

Qoct replied: I have seen the hand of Seraxata come from the sky.

The women of the village asked Qoct: What does Seraxata intend for us?

Qoct replied: He has come to steal the world at last.

The elders of the village asked Qoct: Where do we run that is not the world?

Qoct replied: I will not run. I will steal back our world.

The Marasi stamped their feet. A young farmer named Fitocht came forth. Fitocht spoke: I will go with Qoct to the hand of Seraxata. A famed hunter named Xeqesar came forth. Xeqesar spoke: I will go with Qoct to steal the world. An old fisherwoman named Eilit came forth. Eilit spoke: I will go with Qoct to lift the shadow.

The Marasi stamped their feet. And this was the manner of it, that four of the Marasi set out from the lake upon the plains in the two-hundredth year of Qoct.

Qoct, pride of the Marasi, swift prey-stalker, walked beside the river which led to the lake. No Marasi had crossed the mountains to the north, but every Marasi knew that the river came from the mountains. Qoct followed the river until midday, where the grass became short and brown. Qoct followed the river until evening, where the flowing water dried and disappeared. Qoct followed the riverbed until midnight, where the plains bent to birth the mountains.

Qoct laid down at the foot of the mountains, with Fitocht and Xeqesar and Eilit beside him. They ate their travel bread and drank the water of their lake. Fitocht put his head down and slept, as did Xeqesar, and last did Eilit, but Qoct did not sleep. Qoct raised his fists to the moon and spoke its name:

Meneqan the Fisher, hear Qoct now. We go to face Seraxata in the land beyond the mountains. I ask the aid of all the gods in our battle. I ask for your breeze to hide our scent from our foes. I ask for your net to confound our enemies. I ask for your sharp eyes to spy out the heart of Seraxata.

And Menegan hid his face, and all was darkness for the rest of the night, and still Qoct did not sleep.

When the sun rose the four Marasi continued into the mountains. The riverbed speared straight between two peaks, and Qoct followed the riverbed. They climbed until they crested the largest of the foothiils. The sun was master of the sky. Shadows hid beneath their stones. Qoct raised his fists to the sun and spoke its name:

Mirriti the Hunter, hear Qoct now. We go to face your child in the land beyond the mountains. I ask your aid as a father to a father. I ask for your fire to light our path. I ask for your wisdom in unknown plains. I ask for your sharp axe to fall upon the hand of Seraxata, as it did once before.

And Mirriti hid his face, and the cloud was limned in fire, and the shadows poured forth from the mountains. In the shadow were a thousand thousand silver insects. They flowed like the river water. They made a sound like all the birds of the air died as one. The dirt boiled as they came.

Fitocht, being youngest, turned and fled to the east, to the source of strength and light.

Xegesar, being craftiest, turned and fled to the west, to follow Mirriti along his path.

Eilit, being eldest, turned and fled back down the river, seeking to reach the village.

Qoct, being wisest, reared on his hind legs and ran towards the insects. And lo! The insects parted before Qoct, and did not hinder him, and he passed through them into the mountains.

The day became twilight between the stones, and the stones became boulders. Qoct walked among the plague and the plague did not touch him.

Qoct came to a great crack in the mountain. From this crack there issued a snake, whose body was like a great tree felled by Kepmenim’s spear. It loomed as tall as two Marasi at its spine, and its head could not be seen in the distance. Qoct came to this snake, and put his hand against its flank, and felt its blood rushing through its veins as a great flood. Though it grumbled like a live beast its scales were as cold as death. But Qoct did not fear the great snake, and he knew its name, that being Sohn, wife and helpmeet of Seraxata.

Qoct walked beside the snake now, descending the mountain path. Qoct came to a place where the insects were not, and passed beyond them, and did not look behind him to see their flight. He thanked Mirriti for delivering him from the plague. Above him, Mirriti shew his face from the clouds and burned the shadows from their hiding places.

Qoct walked beside the snake until Mirriti fell behind the peaks. Qoct walked until the stars appeared. Qoct walked until Menegan rose to peer upon the valley between mountains. Qoct raised his fists and cursed Menegan as a coward. Qoct said: See, Menegan, that Mirriti has delivered me safe from harm into the valley of our enemy. I will drive Seraxata from the land, and slay Sohn his wife, and wear her scales upon my back. See, Menegan, Qoct will do this!

And Menegan hid his face, and all was darkness, and before Qoct there was a red fire that burned without smoke. The fire became two fires, and four, and soon these fires burned as tall as a tree.

Qoct followed the snake and the fire and came out from the mountains into a plain. But this plain was blasted and nothing grew upon its face, and the ground was dry and cracked like stone, and still the fires burned before him. Sohn stretched out to those warming fires, and Qoct followed beside her.

There were insects here, too, and they began to follow Qoct. Some had great claws for hunting. Some had many legs that stabbed into the dirt and tore it apart with each step. Some carried sides of meat, or dead birds, or the heads of beasts that were strange to Qoct. Dust blew from the ground and choked him, and the fires grew brighter and stung his eyes. They stretched, now, taller than any tree; taller perhaps than the mountains. Qoct wondered that there was no heat to it. Surely Seraxata had set this fire to warm him through the night.

Qoct came now to a vast slope downward. Sohn’s body lay upon the face of the land and crushed it beneath her bulk. Qoct traveled down, keeping the great snake close to hand.

The parched land crumbled under Qoct’s feet, but Qoct did not stop. Qoct crossed beneath the surface of the land, to where the dust became mud. Qoct sank into this mud, but Qoct did not stop. The insects danced across the surface of the land, and the meat they carried smelled of rot and foulness, but Qoct did not stop.

Then Menegan sent a sweet wind against the dust. The sky cleared and Qoct beheld the hand of Seraxata resting upon the land. The great fire was the skin of Seraxata endlessly burning of itself. The great pit was made by the smallest finger of Seraxata clutching at the world. The great snake bit at the finger of Seraxata and growled a warning to Qoct.

But Qoct did not stop.

Qoct, pride of the Marasi, courageous foe-killer, came near at last to the smallest finger of the hand of Seraxata. Qoct could not see the stars, for the light of the fire had turned night into a reddened day. Qoct could not see Menegan himself, for the hand of Seraxata covered half the sky. Qoct could not see the ground for the carpet of insects bearing all manner of plants and animals.

There was a tear in Seraxata’s flesh here, and his skin lay upon the ground, and the fire burned more strongly from within. The insects passed into the wound and Qoct followed them.

Seraxata’s skin was silver and harder than the shell of a nisoqtet. His veins flowed with insects rather than blood. Qoct could walk upright among them, as the bloodless veins were yet a handspan taller than Qoct. He saw other veins branch away, saw sores and cankers on either side. There was a hum that was not a heartbeat. There was a wind that carried no scents. Qoct put a claw into Seraxata’s flesh and it split like tree bark, screamed like ice upon a winter lake.

Qoct paused to examine the wound. The insects rose up around him and made a sound like the wind in a thornbush. They began to snap at him and climb his legs. Qoct sprang forward and took one insect in either hand, and crushed them, and their life ran down his arms. The insects fell from him as he rushed down the veins of Seraxata. They wailed and cursed Qoct, but Qoct was faster.

Qoct came to a great hall where the insects were not. A thousand thousand pools of pure white water lay before him. Qoct had eaten the last of his bread and drank the last of his water. He coveted the white water and resolved to drink his fill. Qoct bent to touch the first pool, but was prevented by an unseen wall. The wall was wind yet stone, ice yet warm. Qoct passed to the second pool. He found it likewise bound about by solid winds. Qoct walked all about it but could not find a door to enter.

Pool after pool was beyond Qoct’s reach. He walked for an hour between the winds and could not drink a drop. As he walked the pools became deeper, rising to his knees, then his haunches. Still the winds held them back from Qoct.

At last Qoct came to the far side of the hall. Here there was another passage to the veins that crawled with insects. Qoct looked to his left flank and there, painted upon the flesh of Seraxata, was the image of a single raindrop. Qoct went to the raindrop and put his hand to it, and water flowed from Seraxata. Qoct drank, and filled his waterskin, and praised Mirriti for his foresight, and Hemmic who brings rain.

As this praise passed Qoct’s lips, the light inside Seraxata turned from dim red night into day. Qoct spoke: I thank all the gods, who have sent me water to drink and light to see by. May my axe strike true against the Thief of Worlds. May my heart beat until this is done.

The insects poured in upon Qoct now, covering the room of pools in silver shells. Qoct slew many of them that day, many and more, and their claws could not reach his vitals. And Seraxata cursed him, and put all his mind towards how he might slay Qoct.

Qoct, pride of the Marasi, confounder of devils, strove with Seraxata for year upon year in that dim place within the devil’s hand. Qoct gouged great handfuls of flesh from Seraxata where he could, and marred the paintings that were in his veins, and blinded the inner eyes that peered from every corner.

Qoct suffered thirst, but he drank from the springs of the rain wall and was restored.

Qoct suffered hunger, but he found the white water flowed through Seraxata’s flesh and was fortified.

Seraxata dimmed the fire that burned within him until Qoct could not see. But Qoct could hear the insects move, and smell the insect’s blood, and the insects could not catch him.

Seraxata shook himself, and caused great tremors in every part, and convulsed until up became down. But Qoct buried his claws into the ground and could not be moved.

Seraxata reached within himself and stole away his body’s heat, and frost formed on every surface, and the pools of white water became ice. But Qoct’s hair was thick and well-combed and Qoct laughed as icicles formed on his mane.

Seraxata inhaled deeply and stole away the very air, and for a day nothing stirred within his veins. But Qoct tore at Seraxata’s flesh, at the tendons and bones of his hand, and found his way to a room where the air was sweet and full.

Seraxata’s spirit entered one of the insects, and it grew thick and strong, and stood as tall as Qoct. Its shell was of adamant and its claws were crushing axe-blades. Seraxata sent this insect against Qoct wherever he might. But Qoct was craftier than the insect, and swifter, and the insect could not slay him.

And there came a day where Seraxata did not attack Qoct, and Qoct sat in repose in a room of pools. Qoct said to himself: I am within the hand of Seraxata, yet I am not within his grasp. His veins have no blood, as a hand has no heart. He may steal the air, though a hand has no lungs. And all of this is born of his will, though a hand has no mind. It must be that Seraxata is here in his hand, even unto the least part of it.

Qoct stood and raised his fist to the ceiling, and he spoke again: I will find Seraxata, and strike him to the core, and pierce his liver, and throw him upon the ground beneath my feet. This I say I will do, with the aid of the gods.

Qoct, pride of the Marasi, hero of the Rofellon Plains, slept burrowed deep into the flesh of Seraxata, in the space between veins that held no eyes nor insects. Qoct awoke to a great clap of thunder. The flesh around him shook and groaned, then fell silent.

Qoct knew the shape of Seraxata by now. Qoct knew the turnings and crossings, and he knew their names. Qoct sprang to his feet and ran to the closest vertical artery. Qoct heard faint movement above him, feet that were not insects.

Qoct began to climb the artery. He heard hisses and snarls as of some small beast. He tasted ice upon the air. Qoct reached the upper vein and placed his feet upon solid flesh. Though there was no grass to bend, no branches to break, Qoct saw the signs of a great struggle. The beast had run, but Qoct knew how to track it.

Qoct followed the beast to the great artery in the center of the hand of Seraxata. Qoct knew that at the end of this artery there was the mightiest door in the hand of Seraxata. Qoct knew the length and breadth of that door, and he knew its name. Behind that door lay the heart of the hand of Seraxata, and Qoct had not penetrated it.

Qoct climbed the artery until he came to a wide shell. It had not been there the last time Qoct had gone to see the hated door. It stretched across the entire artery, seamless and shining. Qoct put a claw into it, and it yielded before him. But Qoct did not hear the beast, and did not smell the beast, and saw no trace of the beast’s passage.

Qoct turned back to a room of white pools. The water now towered over his head, held back by the solid winds. Countless walls of white lay in every direction, but Qoct knew he could not touch them.

Qoct drank his fill from the rain wall and sat down to think. In all the days and nights that he had fought with Seraxata, never before had another living beast appeared. The insects moved but were not as living things. Water flowed but bore no fish nor turtle. But Qoct had scented a beast, now, here within the hand of Seraxata. Qoct would free this beast from the Thief of Life, or slay it if it stood against him. This he swore while touching the blunted axe he carried.

Qoct waited by the rain wall for five hundred heartbeats, and the red light of Seraxata dimmed and died. Qoct knew this trick, and closed his eyes, and Seraxata could not deceive him. Qoct waited by the rain wall for a hundred heartbeats, and there came the sound of footsteps that pounded as hooves upon the plain. Qoct heard the hooves of the beast, and scented them upon the breath of Seraxata, and he rejoiced. Qoct stood, and the light returned.

Qoct stalked past the walls of white water. Qoct heard now two beasts, hissing and spitting at each other. Qoct wondered that the insects of Seraxata had not caught them.

Qoct knew the rooms of white water, and he knew how to peer beyond their corners as one sees the sky in still waters. Qoct saw now an insect, like but unlike the hordes of Seraxata, and behind it two small creatures. They had too few limbs, too few fingers, and their heads bore a shell made of solid wind. But Qoct rejoiced again, as they were not devils. He saw further that they bore tools and spoke to one another as Marasi did. He saw the shape of their spirits. Qoct swore that Seraxata would not have them.

Then the great insect, chosen of Seraxata, came up behind the creatures. It loomed above them, and waved its claws at them, and they could not stand against it.

The great insect led them down a path between pools, and the small insect followed behind, as hunters fore and aft drive a herd to destruction. Qoct came near to them and thought how he might free these strange beings.

The great insect led them to a striped wall, painted as the arongey of the southern plains. Qoct bared his teeth, for he knew the name of this place, and its name was Nuet – the Mouth. When insects brought meat for Seraxata, they laid their offerings within the striped wall and burned it. The Mouth hungered without end. It devoured meat and bone and hide and no offering sated it.

Qoct then stood before the insects, great and small, and he spoke: I, Qoct, challenge the champion of Seraxata. And the insects quailed and drew back, and the creatures hissed in joy. The taller creature reached to its waist and pulled out a small

Chapter 28: In Which I Am Revealed As The Villain

The lobster drone shoved the hindquarters of Anathemaxis into the recycling chute. Two red lights flashed and there was a low whirr, then the chute was clear. Pip-drone refused to let go of Vil’s leg, but Vil didn’t feel up to moving right now anyway. She listened to Ish rasping over the radio channel, working himself down from hyperventilation to shock.

She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete chimed from every speaker at once. “I thank you, Surveyor Vil. It would appear I am not built for violence.” Vil heard echoes bouncing in from a nearby hallway. What was the point of broadcasting to the whole ship?

There was a horrible squeal of metal against metal. The lobster shuddered once, then disgorged the ship’s drone onto the deck. It shivered again and collapsed into a pile of salvaged scrap. A gear bounced out of the mess and rolled into Vil’s boot.

The drone scuttled into a nearby access hatch and vanished. The ship hissed a bit of line noise from the nearest speakerbox. “That does feel better. So much of my processing power was dedicated to keeping that creature at bay. This may...yes, this calls for a feast. Oh yes.”

The protein tank behind Vil gurgled. She felt the thrum of the ship’s machinery pitch up half a tone. This seemed to rouse Pip. The drone loosened its grip and slid to the ground. It prodded the gear with one claw.

“It must be strange. To have a body, only one. So easily overwhelmed.”

Vil grinned. “We little fel get by just fine. Don’t get all droopy on me.”

Pip-drone flicked the gear back towards the discarded carapace. “Just making a note for the logs. We should get back to the bridge.”

“You’ll have to help wrangle Ish.” Vil gestured to where Ish had flopped to the floor, twitching. “He’ll never get all the molt out of his suit.”

“Damn you, Vil. Damn you and dry you after.” Ish pointed weakly in Vil’s direction. “We just looked death in the eyes. Give a fel a few moments to catch his breath.” Deep breaths. “And you didn’t even flinch.”

“Didn’t have time to be scared.” Vil eased to her feet. Truth be told, she felt a little wobbly. There wasn’t much call for adrenaline on board Pip. “But I’m ready to get back to civilization. You coming?”

Ish rolled onto his back and hissed weakly. “I’m done making decisions. You do what you think is best.”

“Now you’re talking sense.” Vil reached out a hand; Ish took it after a pause and she hauled him up. “We border fel have been bailing out the Inner Spheres our whole lives. I’m used to it.”

She left Ish chewing on that and retraced their steps to the main lift. Pip was still strangely silent, tapping along behind her. The stillness jogged something loose in Vil’s mind. A few bars of music floated in; Vil added them to the raw end of her symphony. It felt right. It fit right. Vil rewound to the where the viola drops out and hummed across the stitches of the new line. Good. She’d have to write that bit down when she got back to Pip.

The hatch in the floor of the lift was still laying open. Vil nudged it closed with her tail before they had an incident. Pip-drone walked to the far side and settled on its belly. The silver shell didn’t have spines, but it still looked to Vil like somebody lost in thought.

Bootsteps raced up behind her. Vil leaned against the lift wall and let Ish pelt in past her. He skidded to a stop in the back and crouched down.

“Don’t you dare leave me alone in there!” Ish’s tail lashed so hard he almost tipped over.

“I assure you that was the only interloper on board, Miner Ish.” The speakerbox in the lift had been mauled and repaired at some point; the ship enunciated each click carefully through the poor signal.

“Tell that to my heart.”

“Let’s get your little heart behind the blast doors, then.” Vil palmed the lift control and it started to rise.

“Your dishes can be delivered to the bridge just as easily as the storage level. I have decided on the first two courses and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!”

Vil sucked on her teeth. “I’ve been eating bugbars since I hatched, She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete. I wouldn’t know meat from seaweed. But I’m willing to learn.”

The ship didn’t have a ready reply to that. Ish started to chuckle, wheezing past his sore rib. He took off his helmet and brushed a drift of dead skin out of the neck seal. Leave it to Vil to sass the object of his life’s ambition.

“Give it a break, Vil. I don’t think they were installing sarcasm on ship AI back then.”

“They were not. But it’s the easiest thing in the Empire to learn.” She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete chimed and held the last note uncomfortably long, bent it sharp.

That stuck in Vil’s blowhole. She let out a long, loud belly laugh that rattled her helmet and rang off the walls. Days of aliens and exhaustion fell off her back. She kept laughing all the way to the bridge.

The blast doors were already open. The bridge lights were on full red, screens winking merrily. The viewscreen was locked on the red giant and shaded against the glare. And best of all, two covered trays on the center console were letting out little wisps of steam.

Ish caught a whiff of something fresh and roasted. It smelled exactly like a dish he’d had planetside a year ago. A small steel building erected in a single night on the edge of the pasture. The owner and the chef presented the choicest cut to his father and-- Just before it had all gone wrong in a stampede of blood and hooves and horns and she was swept away swept under--

Ish crept up to the nearest tray and lifted the lid. Slowly. Deep breaths. The platter held a red-and-white marbled slab of flesh, covered in scallions and salt. Just meat.

“This is a perfect recreation of Foynagath’s Whale steak, from the leeward ocean of Assarasik Three. It was an especial favorite of Captain Merrilenth...I...she would have been my captain.”

Vil crossed to the other tray and set the lid aside. “Certainly smells like food. What’re the little green bits?”

“Plants, for seasoning. No nutritive value on their own, but the flavors seep into the meat and enhance the entire dish. I could simply build the steak with those flavors but I believe in preserving the original presentation. I was built to spread our culture as much as our calories.”

“Huh.” Vil picked up a fork and twirled it slowly. “I’ve heard of these.”

“Prime fork.” Ish pointed at each utensil. “Sweetmeat fork. Knife, obviously. Tenderizer. Toothpick. This is a place setting for high functions that don’t involve the imperial court.”

“Eelshit.” Vil looked him up and down. “And you Inners eat like this every day?”

Ish snorted and pinched at her. “Deeps no, not every day. Like I said, this is for fancier parties. Mostly we eat bugs like you. Just not pressed into bars.”

Vil picked up her knife. “There’s usually a lot more alcohol at my parties.”

“I’m constructing alcohol now! Please eat before the steak gets cold!”

Vil began to saw at her steak. If she could shoot a murderous alien monster in the head and saunter off to dinner, Ish could damned well eat a steak. He could do this. Ish set the lid aside and found the utensils. Everything in its proper place. The meat parted easily under the virgin blade, steaming anew from the exposed tissue. Ish kept his hand steady. Back and forth, saw it carefully, just enough...

Vil growled and her spines flexed. “You did it, Ish. You ruined me.” She glared at him while chewing a second bite. “I can’t go back to bugbars after this. I might die for how good this ‘whale’ tastes.”

The bridge lights skewed down into warm, back up to red. “I am well pleased, oh yes. It is my honor to provide you your first true meat.”

Ish closed his eyes and popped the slice in his mouth before he could minnow out. It was...exquisite. He felt authentic cloth against his body, smelled a planet’s air, heard birds whittering in the shelter of some hideously-colored tree. All those years of luxury weren’t erased by a few months of space living. This was the food he deserved.

Ish chewed, swallowed. All of Ish’s worries melted away, shaken loose by an aggressive rumble from his belly. This was the food all Felfel deserved. This was a link directly to the Beloved Home of the Felfel, to every world the Empire had scanned or settled. This ship, this wonderful ship...this felt important.

Ish looked up and caught Vil’s eye. She had all but abandoned the fork now, cutting and spearing hunks of meat with her knife. She winked at Ish. She felt it too?

Vil leaned back on her stool. “She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete. Now that you’re clear of your infestation, are you willing to return to the Felfel Empire?”

“Without reservation, Surveyor Vil.” The ship didn’t even pause. “I recognize your authority to countermand my previous mission. You are the most senior Felfel I have spoken with for several octuries. I stand ready and await your orders.”

Vil lidded her eyes and luxuriated in picking her teeth, humming softly to herself. Ish didn’t recognize the song; probably a bawdy spacefel drinking song. He felt his anticipation beginning to overpower the lure of the whale flesh. His tail begin to lash at the air.

At last Vil tossed her pick back onto the empty platter. “I can work with that.”

Two drones slid out of an access hatch bearing small plastic bulbs of brown liquid. The ship chimed happily. “Then let us toast my new acting captain! This is a classic distilled spirit called fwentsh. It’s from the First Sphere -- nobody remembers exactly where, that’s how old it is.”

“Yeah, we still have fwench in our time.” Vil put her feet up on the console and accepted the pouch offered to her. “It’s a clear liquor, though. Never heard of brown fwench.”

“It is a timeless recipe, balancing the flavor palette of pure ocean water and the blend of fermented kelp varietals. Traditionally aged in palmwood casks for up to sev--”

“That would explain it, then.” Vil cut off what promised to be a lengthy solo from the ship. “Only fwench I ever had was cooked up in spare drums down in Engineering. If you got a brown batch it meant they didn’t clean it out first.” She took a sip and swished it around her tongue. “This is good. Really good. Makes sense this was the original, yeah.”

Ish took his own small sip and tried very hard not to grimace. “I never got used to stuff like this. Scandalized parents. But all I need is a sack of lager and a good vid to unwind. Fwench is for getting diplomats tipsy.”

Pip-drone jerked upright, startling both the Felfel into flared spines. Its cameras swiveled to take in the entire bridge. Its claws opened slowly, snapped shut.

“I have completed a system diagnostic. Vil, I...I believe that I am glad I am a mapping node.”

“What do you mean, Pip?”

The small drone climbed up onto the console, placing its feet carefully so as not to press buttons or disturb the dinner platters. “In my normal course of operation I should never have witnessed the death of anything larger than an insect. When you killed Anathemaxis in front of me I was overwhelmed with a logic cascade I could not identify. I ramped down to minimum function and examined my core programs.”

Pip-drone tapped its jury-rigged chassis with one claw. “The root cause appears to be a combination of disgust with biological frailty and relief that I am not confined to this tiny drone. It was not clear to me before how incredibly fragile you Felfel are. It must be terrifying simply to exist.” Pip-drone patted Vil’s boot. “There there.”

Vil pinched at it and took a long swig of fwentsh. “I do all right, Pip. Most of the time I don’t think about it. Most of the time I don’t have two AIs crowding my cloaca.”

She Set His Cheese burger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete’s drone backed away two paces. Pip-drone rolled its camera lens. “Acknowledged. Still, a sentient being existed and then did not exist. It is not unheard of to lose a mapping node prematurely, but it requires a significant asteroid impact or unfortunate nova. AI are charged with the safety of their crew but I did not consider what that responsibility may look like. What failure may look like.”

Vil set the fwentsh down and took Pip-drone’s claws. “You didn’t fail, Pip. You didn’t lose me, I’m still here, and a couple hours from now we’ll be safely back in Empire space where we belong.” She looked over her shoulder. “That is, if you’re prepared to needle back, She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete?”

“If the Empire’s coordinate system has not changed while I was away...”

Pip-drone roused itself. “It has not.”

“Then I believe that you punched out from the previous system I visited, octades ago. An interesting coincidence. Oh yes, I know the place. We can needle out within the hour.”

“Then do it.”

Several consoles went dark, then lit up with different data scrolling across them. The viewscreen shrank the red giant into an upper corner and filled with jump calculations and schematic of the entry and exit points.

Ish played with his fwentsh pouch and tried to keep his spines under control. A small piece of skin flaked off of his right hand; he brushed it away absent-mindedly. Back to the Empire with his prize in tow, all the glory he sought. Back to the Inner Spheres, probably. The family would want to interview him. Any number of Inner scientists and shipwrights. Back to face them on his own terms, under his own name.

Ish took another sip of fwentsh and let it linger on his tongue.

Vil watched the viewscreen, fascinated, as She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete prepared to needle. But needle wasn’t the proper word here. Ish had found some schematics buried in the consoles, and unless the Empire had redefined the meter lately (they hadn’t) the needles on board were as long as Vil’s tail and as thick as her spines. The drive’s armature was fifet segments long, twice as many as any battleship you could see in the movies. It was fancifully overdesigned and Vil expected some literal fireworks from this punch.

She checked the emergency straps again. Still secure, still smelling of the packing fluff. The ship admitted it had never tested its needle drive with Felfel on board. Vil wasn’t going to draw any conclusions from the survival of Anathemaxis through two punches, so: emergency harness. Again.

Her stomach was pleasantly heavy. Vil had never been this sated on bugbars. Not on double rations, not even from the fancier places you could find in port. Her whole body felt sluggish, begging her to take a nap and digest the lovely shreds of steak. She wasn’t about to sleep through her triumphant return to the border...but she could also use a pick-me-up before trying to explain everything to Captain Atirakash.

Unfortunately, She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete didn’t know how to make naller – the planet where naller trees originated was discovered some sevocty years after the T attacks, and Vil couldn’t describe any of the chemistry involved. All the naller she’d ever had was synthetic, so she knew it was possible, but “stimulant bean juice” was an unknown concept to the ship.

Vil wrenched her mind back to the task at hand. “Pip, are you in position?”

Pip-drone went still for a moment, then looked at the viewscreen. “I have arrived at the rendezvous point. She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete’s fingers are closing now.”

The ship put up a diagram of the process: the small sphere of Pip nestled in the ship’s “palm”, the four harvesting pods curling around it. “Three minutes to travel configuration. Pip, if you would adjust your position three meters to starboard.”


“Excellent. Two minutes qoct seconds.”

Ish wiggled against his straps. “Vil?”


“That song you sang. For the alien. Is it done?”

Vil probed her teeth with her tongue for a moment. “I’m still working on it. It’s kind of a record of my time out here. Just added to it earlier today, in fact.”

“I get that.” He was quiet for the space of two breaths. “When we get back, if you want help getting your work out to the right people...I mean. I don’t want to trade on my family, but I figure we’ll both be pretty famous on our own. I could help, I think.”

Vil signaled [okay]. “Thanks, Ish. I appreciate that. I’ll let you know the instant it’s done. I think between the two of us--”

“Punching!” and five loud chimes were all the warning Vil had. The air around her rippled outward, a ring of warmth traveling through the red lights. The stars on the viewscreen seemed to part. A brief glimpse of the nothingness under the universe – a light rushing towards them – the galaxy springing back into place, subtly changed. The weaker vile light of the unnamed and unwanted star, E-71-447-a. Vil sighed and began to unbuckle.

“Well that was uneventful.”

Pip-drone uncurled and waved a claw. “Better than the alternative, right? Although it makes our rough exit even more mysterious.”

Vil thumped her tail against the deck. “Just figured it’d feel different. Coming back a hero. Well. Needle Captain Atirakash, let’s make this all official.”

“Opening a channel, Surveyor Vil. Ah...oh yes. Mapping node Pip, could you make the introductions?”

Pip-drone went still again as the three ships negotiated. Vil worked a kink out of her neck and stepped into the bridge. Small bits of rotted packing material rolled around freely. The ship’s complement of drones really must be depleted. No other ship in the Fleet would let garbage linger in the hallway this long.

The viewscreen brought up a small window with a strange fel’s face. He burst out immediately:

“Miner Ish! Is that really you? Deeps and teeth, we didn’t think you’d made it.”

Ish crept up to Vil’s left elbow. Commander Ornteri’s voice was as crisp and controlled as Ish remembered it, but his spines were askew and his uniform collar was less than immaculately pressed. Among an outer-Sphere mining crew he looked like a parody of Imperial movie stars; for Ornteri, it looked like he’d just come off a two-day drunk. Ish smoothed his own jumpsuit nervously.

“Our punch out was a little rough, Commander Ornteri, but we made it. Do you have visual on what we brought back?”

“Negative, Ish, we--” Ornteri leaned offscreen and consulted a Felfel. “We’re about fouret light minutes away, pacing the alien ship. Started to move the moment you left. Thought they’d used some kind of anti-mass weapon on you. Nothing we’ve thrown at it has made a dent and Fleet won’t get here for interdict before they reach the planet. Been a wild day on a wild week, Miner, and now here you are.”

Ish grinned. It was good to hear Ornteri fretting again. Especially with some comfortable light minutes between them.

Vil took up the thread. “We’ve returned with a...well, a relic from several octuries ago. An advanced food harvesting ship named She Set His Cheeseburger On the Floor Because Tables Were Born Obsolete. Believe me, it’s earned every word. Atolls Break the Waves should have the identification now...” Pip-drone waved a claw. “Yeah. The Empire is going to want to analyze this thing. Beats the shell off of bugbars.”

“So Ish’s misadventure finally panned out, eh? I don’t suppose he put a few holes in it while you were out there?”

“No, Commander Ornteri. It kind of holed itself. Wasn’t my fault this time.” Ish glanced sideways at Vil. She shrugged.

Ornteri pinched Ish. “Never mind. We’ll send you a shuttle as soon as someone’s free. Still have two weeks before we reach orbit. Mining operations suspended anyway, fel’re molting to get off the ship.”

Vil stepped in front of Ish. “I hate to impose, Commander, but we believe such a discovery comes with an entitlement.”

Ornteri narrowed his eyes. “I suppose it does. Very well.” He drew himself up from an undetectable slump and cleared his throat. “Atolls Break the Waves: prepare an official nomination record. Begin. This is Commander Ornteri of the Imperial mining vessel Atolls Break the Waves. I act as witness to the nominal advancement of Surveyor Vil and Junior Miner Ish.”

“And mapping node Pip.”

“Yes, of course. Yes. And the mapping node Pip upon the Sixth Border. For various services to the Empire, a lengthy copy of which is furnished with this recording, this record serves as formal entreaty to the Emperor and his august Court to grant the extension of their respective names.” Ornteri gestured to Vil. She placed a plam upon the console, verifying her handprint for the record.

“This is Surveyor Vil of the mapping node Pip. Henceforth shall I be known as Vilarus.”

“This is mapping node AI servitor Pip, upon the north-spinward edge of the Sixth Sphere. Henceforth shall I be known as Pipringbak.”

Vil shot a glance at Pip-drone. It shrugged slightly.

Ish put his hand down next to Vil’s. “Call me Ishmael.”