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Neepbles 1

Neepbles Rust Where they Roost

“You found a WHAT???” My voice raised a dozen decibels and an octave. I hate it when I do that – but right then, I couldn’t care. The hobgob of space was on my ship. My ship. My first and only, fragile and ancient ship.

Now, Jem had a generally houndog regardless of mood, pouchy eyes peering over pouchy cheeks. Right then, the eyes were hooded and more miserable than his face. “Neepbles, sir. Two nests, so far. One was in the outer pipes, sir.”

I could feel the heat rising up my neck and throttled it back, resolving to remain in control. As long as I could.

“Scans?”

“Broken, remember?”

Heartfelt: “Shek.” “Been outside?”

“Yup. Mik’s turn.

I walked down the passage to the com, keyed it and spoke. “All hands, report to galley. All hands, to galley for briefing.” I was proud of my voice. Changed the freq, for the hard one. “An, flash burst all jets, get ‘em hot, then come down.” There went the profit margin for this run. Do what you have to, get through then get back up. Gram always said that, and he’d run enough tramps to know. Sometimes the trick is getting through in the first place. I prayed it wasn’t that bad. I’d sure heard stories, ships floating derelict with only neepbles alive – still munching. Ghod. Neepbles! If I ever got back to that last station, why, I’d take every mother’s son of them and … right. Let’s focus on getting anywhere we can. Neepbles. Ghod. Shek.

We gathered, ducking under bulkheads, in the only room big enough to hold all five of us. Despite the engine burn, An wasn’t the last in. That was Fer, with the cyclers. He’d come up from the bowels of the ship, as it were. Jem was our maint/eng, An our pilot, Mik our systems gal, and me – well, I’d seldom seen the luck in my name. Bel what, I ask you. It was my ship, mine and the combine’s. I was the captain of the Grey Lady, a ship of the proud Spacestream docks. An old ship of the proud Spacestream docks. Gently referred to as a classic. There were worse names for a vessel so old that she needed every part fabricated or salvaged from less fortunate sisters. I’d inherited Jem when I bought the Lady, and mostly suspected his mopey face came from this fact. He really seemed to love the old Lady, but the relationship was, well, difficult.

Fer came in quiet – he walked light through the beds that grew our needs, moved slow and sure, a peaceful man. “Hey. Heard the jets. What did, Cap?”

“Well, all, we got a challenge here.” I looked around the room. Humor was the best thing for morale, maybe. Wry was probably the best I could come up with. “We all get the pleasure of sealbagging all our stuff, suiting up, and going over the entire hull for an entire tank of air while we spray the ship and vent it. Jem found some signs of neepble, and we’ll follow protocol.” Right. That, and not panic until we know how bad it is. No panicking here, nope. Except behind my eyes. All our eyes, now.

“We know speed can matter. Drill stations, suit, flamer, get out, stay on comms, do it storm check. – and An – first eye on bridge remotes.”

“Done, Cap.” An was a little white. An was new to soft-side operations. This didn’t happen on the hard commerce side. Different ships, different stations – different choices can be made on the hard side. One mistake, and she was shabby soft with the rest of us.

“Tak. Kill ‘em and shoot deep. Better fry little than lose big. Don’t come in till chron 14 past venting. Go now, go well.” Good speech, cap. Little rough, but good. Gran’d be proud.

Climbing all over the hull – we had all the push we needed to look sharp and careful – no percentage in hurry if we miss one damn neepble. Check screen and flame anyway any hole we want, feel for soft, listen for sound, check so careful the nerves scream. It gets to be a rhythm, and stories start through your head. The gasses would be penetrating through all, air and vacuum, Spacestream had designed it. One thing I’d been sure to check before we left the first trip. Gran’s voice: “Farin’s no different, Bel. Sea, sub, atmo, space – it’s all Farin’. Same problems come back, cycling like the great currents. Keep the old traditions, remember the old foes. Do like my gran said. You’ll know what to do, if you remember.” Shipworms. Shipworms sank those old wood ships. Bugs sank the puters. Nothing new. Just that it’s me. “Bel,” he’d say “Bel – check it all. Check all systems, check it all. You check. It’s your ship. You don’t dock if your neck crawls, you don’t deal if your neck crawls, you don’t walk you run when your neck crawls. You touch with your own hand, assess with your own scan. You gotta know.”

I got fasty. I wanted to be gone. I ran when I shoulda checked. That station – we had the load, we had all but the last pay. We needed it, needed a solid rep. Soft side, you can get solid even if you can’t get all the way to hard. If you’re all soft, you’re done. Garbage barge if you’re lucky. Why’d I get fasty to take the deal? Did it really feel right? Who knew. Another port to flame. Keep your cognition here, Bel.

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