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Summary

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.

“Pip!”

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 trip...so 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. “How...is 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. “
Again?

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.

Kismin:

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.

[response?]

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.”

[t!]

“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.”