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Neepbles 18 (was 16)

In which Bel’s brain is blown. Repeatedly. It’s probably a good thing…

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 her 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.


“Broke, remember?”

Heartfelt: “Shek.” “Been outside?”

“Yup. Two tubes. Mik’s turn.”

More than just Mik’s. He might be our designated guy for hard physical tasks but this was all of us, and life or death. I walked down the passage to the com, keyed it to shipfreq, calling all coms and speakers aboard, and spoke. “ALCON, ALCON. 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 the trouble, and only then get back up to thinking long term. Gra 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 surviving, activating the Protocols, getting anywhere we can.

Neepbles. Ghod. Shek.

We gathered, ducking under bulkheads, in the one room big enough to hold all five of us. It served as mess and meeting hall. Sometimes, like now, it served as briefing room and Emergency Operations Center. 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 guy, and me – well, I’d seldom seen the luck in my name. “Bel” what, I ask you. It was my ship, though, 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 her mopey face came from this fact. She 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 fastly sealbagging all our stuff – personal and ship, don’t miss it and don’t half-do it or you’ll less than half keep it! Then we suit up, and go 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 the 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 need speed. Sealbag and call clear your stations – and right fastly! Drill stations, suit, flamer, get out, stay on comms, do it storm check. – and An – first eye on bridge remotes.” All but the evac was per meteor storm drill, and then the evac was per leak drill. The folks who wrote the Protocols weren’t fools, knew that easier and familiar is safer.

“Done, Cap.” An was a little white. An was new to soft-side operations. Neepbles, stuff like this didn’t happen on the hard commerce side. Different ships, different stations – or at least different docks. Different choices can be made on the hard side. One mistake, and now she was shabby soft with the rest of us. She’d been with us three cruises now; picked her up at Pellon where she was still drinking off being beached. I’m no fool. I take quality where and when I can. Better than me still running nav with the comp pilot, better by a long long miss. Woolgathering, Bel (what was wool?) Not now, back to it. They’re waiting.

“Tak. Kill ‘em all – and shoot deep. Better fry little than lose big. Don’t come in till one chron past venting. Go now, go well.” Good speech, Cap. Little rough, but good. Gra’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. Gra’s voice: “Farin’s no different, Bel. Sea, sub, atmo, space – it’s all Farin’. Farers are all the same, through time. Same problems come back, cycling like the great currents. Keep the old traditions, remember the old foes. Do like my own Gra said. “You’ll know what to do, if you just 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 fastly. 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 fastly to take the deal? Did it really feel right? Who knew. Another port to flame. Keep your cognition here, Bel. Save the ship. Later is later.

I started thinking to how the others were doing, and checked in. An was doing double duty with the comm, but Jem had the hardest watch on the hull. She had all the linkages, everything that even touched that shekin station, everything outside that connected to it. Two days out from there, how far could those neepbles get? I called Jem, glad the crew was small enough for individual freqs. “What’s word, Jem?” I asked, no preamble.

“Roasted the openings in my area. Looking for soft spots, now.” Jem didn’t sound too untethered. That was probably a good sign.

“Me too, Jem. Ok. I make ten chrons to venting. See your neighbors?”

“Just Mik, on the tubes. Glad he’s young and agile.”

“Yup. Ok, calling next.”

“Fer, status?”

“Sofarsogood, Cap.”

“Anything to report?”


I chuckled, let him hear. He likes his style. “K, Fer. Calling next.”

I switched to call An: “An, Bel here. Howsit?”

“Comm quiet, bridge behaving – burn Protocol is 25 centis so – turning off to float in six, Sir, or shall I resume course?”

I thought fastly. Going back to that shekin station – no hunger. What else was close? “An, how’s the chart in your head? Where’s close?”

“Thinking bout that. Farpoint is one solid burn, 7 cenchrons. Gil there is old, but so’s Lady here. Might be a good choice. Else, there’s TwoMacs 5 cenchrons, one course correction. Don’t know them personally. Ask Jem?”

“K. Thank you, An. Not easy, I know. How’s the flaming?”

“Got one that buzzed. Dumped half my load down it, I swear. Shoved the nozzle in and let go. So much spike in me, Cap! Want ‘em dead!” An was still spiked, I heard clear.

“Steady, pilot. Check your levels. Rather hose a hole than short it and cover more hull. Just tell us where you don’t get, crew’s crew.”

“K, Cap. ….Hate ‘em, Sir.”

“All us do. Steady, get ‘em.”

“Yessir, Cap.”

“Goodun. Clear.” You had to remember An was Book. Hardside plus – An lived by the Book. Steadied her down.

“Clear, sir.”

I cut the com, and thought fiercely. Correction risks engines neepbles might have damaged, ending our voyage right there. So does every chron, let alone cenchron, we transit if one neepble is still chewing somewhere. Not going to remind An. Call Mik while I weigh options.

“Mik, how’s tubes?”

“Shek, Bel, don’t shock a man! …um, sorry, Cap. Reporting. Not much to see. I shot all the ports here, but no signs. …Sir? Can neepbles eat through suits?”

“Mik – your suit turned metal? Come, man. You are safe. Stand up under it!”

Sheepish: “K, k, Cap. Just had to ask.”

“Spikes all us, Mik. Stand up.”

“Stand up and flame down, right Bel?”

“Yup. Stand up and flame down. K, calling on.”

“Thanks, Cap.”

Well. Checks done, back to where next. Jem’s memory is fierce, no need to hash details. Just pose the question.


“Ya, Cap.”

“An says choices are Farpoint, TwoMacs – advice?”

“Um.” I waited. Her data was crunching. “Tak. Go Farpoint. One burn, no turn… and Gil’s been teachin’ young Den. Might bank points for later.”

“Oh! Yes, GOOD call, Jem! Thanks, Tubes! Clear.”  Tubes is the honorific for the engineer, like Chips and Nav and Greens … and Cap.


“Go, Cap.”

“Farpoint. Tell Gil we’re comin’, with what, done what, and that we got time for Den to learn.” We do. Not liftin’ til we’re sure no neepbles – nor nests – remain. Might have to work the station for credit, a twitchy thought, but we have to know it’s done. Know. Got to know. Got to test it all myself before we’re done, my hands, my eyes, my ears, my brain. Got to do it right, best to hear Gra in my head and not His, when suddenly I’m gone cause I missed one shekin’ neepble.

“CCC, Cap.” Book, that one. Solid. An just told me “Copy, Comply, Clear” like hardside spacefarers, crisp to their Captains. I could get used to this.

The chron-o in my helmet beeped. Now was the next moment of truth. Since the bad chem attacks in the last, oh, twenty miniwars or so, everything that flies (and some things that don’t) can vent their entire atmo directly from every compartment, vacuum the inside and then re-air. The hard play with that is everything else that gets vented when you do a crash vent. We took a little more time than that, anyway – the sealbags keep things secure when the compartment vents, so you don’t lose all the random stuff that makes shipboard life possible. Still – we done it fastly, and there’s never enough time for drills. Now was time to see if we done it rightly.

That, and course it’s a sure peeteesdee checker for a ship’s crew – most every farer with a rating has served in some military or another, there’s no green way to get the mission hours on the civilian side. Thing is, venting a ship like that looks just like ventilating a ship the hard way. Shift to outship freq, hope I get this right in case anyone hears, but no-one vents like this without making an announcement… back to our military backgrounds. “ALCON, ALCON, Outship freq: Grey Lady venting to space by Standard Neepble Protocols.” Ship freq next: “ALCON, ALCON, ship freq: Attention All: Hang on, all – guts and grab-ons. Vent coming, deliberate vent all compartments for pest control” (pest! Such a small word for such a big threat!) “Vent for 10 centis, re-air for 2, re-enter no sooner than 12 centis PLUS the all clear. Copy?” Pause for five voices. “All acknowledged. Vent coming up in 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – now.”

The ship shook, but not steady. Each vent was just a bit off from the others, so she shivered a bit each direction as the jets of semi-visible atmo cleared. (Don’t think the cost, Bel. Fer’s solid. He always scrubbed and saved what he could – bet he did another before he came up. See? Not so bad. Cost? Plenty of time to reclaim it. Not too bad, Captain. Trip’s a loss, but rep’s solider. We got time, we got good crew, we got space. Not so bad. Slow your breathing, Bel. Settle yourself. You did what you had to. Think it through. Remember Fer’s first idea aboard? The scrubbers by our bunks, grabbing the CO2? He sure talked fast to get that one okd, but now? He’s sold that idea over poker the last two years, and socked it into more cycler tech. Well, when we didn’t need other parts worse. He’s a smart man, our Fer. We’ll come out good.

I settled, partly as I saw no debris shooting out – maybe for a wonder, nothing essential was left loose? Here’s hoping…

Now, time to shake ourselves and spend our flame before going back in. “ALCON, ALCON, ship freq: all secure? Anyone got flame left, any need it?”

The resulting chatter showed that a) everyone was nervous, b) everyone was safe and c) only Fer still had flame. He headed up to An’s post to make sure of a thing or two – mostly An. That buzzing she heard really got to her.

Tanks empty; nearly true for both sets, air and flame! We’d been out for a long time, checking, testing, flaming, praying. Well, maybe someone was praying. Anyway, it was past time to get back in. My chron-o should beep soon. I got on again, reviewed entry order and procedure, reminded them that only Fer gave the order for hats off. Part of Fer’s job as Cycler was to re-air and test before clearing us. The Cycler is responsible for all the ship’s enviro systems. “And no-one bumps his elbow but me. You got any question or need for him, it’s me you call!”

We took our turns at the lock, easy enough when we came from different hull areas. Sure, Spacestream builds more than one hatch – they all do. But don’t you know the Protocol?? It’s unarguable, you just don’t ever use them til you need them. Use brings wearantear, and it’s too easy to put off costly repairs. That’s deadly dangerous. You don’t use them, don’t touch them, don’t mess with them, don’t risk it. Ever. Protocol says open them on inspection day, condition every surface and connection with the best stuff you can, and secure them again as gentle as a temple door. Safe.

Subdued, still, and suited, still, we checked our doss and duty stations, putting them to rights again after the vent. Cept An. She float-bounced straight to the helm and went over all the screens, backtracking all their readings for the time we were out ‘til she was sure we were ok. I learned later that Jem, wise like she is, did only a quick check in her station (too thorough to leave stuff to float and need cleaning) and went up, too – giving An a chance to settle in with the data, hard at work and looking solid before an older hand showed up, and probably used some encouraging, some advice, some praise to get An truly settled back down after the neepble thing blew her wide. Jem just said all was well. Dunno how Jem manages mopy and steadying together – or maybe just having An around brightened her? Been the only woman aboard too long, maybe. Not mine to ask. I think… Shek, and who would I even ask??

I was relieved to be interrupted on that, in pure fact. Fer’s voice came on the shipfreq, naming the first sections cleared for us to unseal our helmets and gloves. No point unsuiting, with the rest of the ship still progressing. Cyclers (for the plants) and bridge (for the datasheets) were first, as norm. Doss, our quarters, could wait til last. As soon as we could, we’d rotate off duty and eat. Food would be right welcome about now, but none would sleep anytime soon.

Mik cleared his station and went to help Fer unseal the ponics and do the heavy lifting of the compressed gases containment units as they kept re-airing and prepped for reclaiming and rebuilding our reserves.

Me, well, I went down to engines and lifted Jem’s scope; that’s how I knew to ask later where she’d got to. I prowled the ship til chow, listening, looking and poking it into anything I knew to check – and anything I could slide its sensors into or over, just to be sure.

Chow on the lady was a true spacefarers’ mess – we all took turns and I didn’t stand on ceremony as Captain. If you go faring, you go with the hands you put your life in. Best be putting food in each other’s hands, cement the bonds of crew. Today, before all that broke loose, An would’ve been up for dinner. I thought I’d take it instead, but Mik insisted. I let him, and kept prowling. Mik needed something to do as bad as An and I – as bad as Fer and Jem, checking and babying their stressed systems.

I don’t remember what chow was, now I think back. It was hot and hearty, what you want after serious time outside, and aside from that I remember only Jem reclaiming her scope with a scowl and sending me to bed.

Meantime, we’d set-rig the Lady for sail to stretch our fuel.  We were in some sun from a few sources, and a straight cruise; it was worth a try to trail out her gossamers and catch some ghosting power. No course corrections to burn our delicate wings, few bits of space junk on the screens to hole them. Sails are mostly for powering dying systems after a crash, really. They don’t gather as much power as a modern engine generates and they are tricky to handle. Jem would have to help An align them and watch over them. That said, each bit of fuel we could save on a profit-negative trip would be a help, and the extra practice – and work – would do us all good.

While I slept they were strung and flung, popping out of their little hatches on the hull like beetle wings to glisten between the stars. Sailships have their own aurorae, a beauty that almost takes you out of time and shrouds you in mystery. I woke to their glistening, their soft flexing around us. In a fey mood, I sent old classic music through the ship. Williams was music fit for a solar sail and for we, all the farers that ever flew it.

The Grey Lady settled into a routine unease. It was almost like a normal run, the things that always need doing either because they’re daily annoyances or routinely repeating application of elbow grease. That’s a ship’s life. Underneath it, though, were the frayed, fragile edges of calm and routine. We wandered the ship, listening and looking, in off hours. We froze at a change in noise, whether engine or not, imagined or not. We checked, rechecked, lubricated, polished, loosened, tightened – a thousand fussy jobs we never took time for were done, just to have something constructive to do. At first, Jem just shook her head, lips tight. She got tired of people asking to borrow the scope and hung it on the latch of the engineering space. Eventually, she got tired of us “fretting” about it, and locked it away. I remember the “discussion” we had about that.

“Bel, you can’t just let them go inspect the ship apart. It’s wearantear on every bolt, seam, tube, pipe, shaft, switch…you name it. I particularly and especially am done with my scope disappearing for hours, and getting dropped. It’s the only one we have, Cap. If it breaks, we have zero. This. Must. Stop. It isn’t good. It hurts us, and it’s hurting the Lady.”

That was the longest speech Jem had ever given me. I felt like a kid, caught disassembling something important like a lock system. I looked down at the deck, noting paint chipped off rivets and tiedowns. I weighed my options. On the left, emotionally the crew seemed to need this work and be reassured by it. On the right, every time a bolt is twisted, it causes wearantear on the threads. Jem was right. Better to be more restless than cause more problems and be downright frightened and in danger. I retreated to my little pocket cabin to figure, spending hours trying to get the wording right.

There’s a mass of data storage in every possible spot of my work cabin. I always stowed it all, like I required of the rest of the crew, as soon as I wasn’t actively using it, but on each wall and in each closed cubby there was a carefully-labeled storm of information waiting to attack me. It’s why no data is stored in my sleeping cabin, except for in my head. I only wish I could clear all that chatter, and rest. Gra always called his the worry cabin, or the worry hole. I was truly trying to avoid that, but working goes to worrying so very fast.

Spacestreams are made with modifiable cabins. Not that they change size without some serious work, but configuration is another matter. Grey Lady is built to have six base cabins. We left it set up for four standards (two bunks fill the slots on one side, two half-width desks with two half-width cabinets above them on the other) and the captain’s cabin that connects to my work cabin. We have the luxury of running with one person to a cabin and leaving two for me, but I never paid to convert it. I was always thinking there’s just the chance of needing more bunks. My pair of cabins had the same sockets on the outer bulkhead of each, and a tiny private head for my own hygiene in the space that would have been sockets if we didn’t have the connecting door. That left me a double-length desk and two cubby sets in the work cabin’s far bulkhead, and stickywall on the two hull bulkheads and odd spaces like the inside of hatches. The file chips stuck to the gridded-off NOW section were the Neepble Protocols and other resources for our current crisis. Our shipping run was now along the upper edge, waiting to see what could be salvaged of the plan and our contracts once we got back to smooth sailing. This wasn’t the first time that the ship’s manuals and handbooks were stuck to the NOW section, and I reached down the relevant parts. When putting out a directive, it’s best to quote the manual. Sounds more professional – both hard facts and impersonal. I paid good credit to upgrade my readers with the best search routine I could, that being my major use of a reader, and liked several of them loaded and displayed when I was cross-referencing. I could tuck these into the desk sockets when I closed the desks, so it all worked out orderly. I pulled out maint and off duty time, blending text as seemed appropriate to justify, emphasize and explain my order. With a crew of four, a captain is more father or big brother than boss. If we do it well, we’re the smarter, wiser, tougher father or big brother. The jury was still out on me. I was too new, and this my first serious crisis. I was sure Gra had lots of advice about this, if only I had time to sit and call it up – and equally sure that I needed to get that memo out quickly before Jem blew a seal. I got it written and sent, and no-one corrected my English or facts so I figure it worked ok. That, and people stopped roaming the ship looking for things to inspect. Serious gain.

From then, things settled back to more normal. We would be in outship hailing freq range of Gil soon, and could give more detail than in the databurst we sent when we climbed back aboard and headed to Farpoint Station. We’d even get our mail dump – ships could sign permissions with stations to allow them to collect mail sent along a given transmission stream, and cache it for the ship’s next arrival. Shipcomp would take the download and determine what mail was already received, deleting that, leaving only the messages that were “new” for the crew’s inboxes. For a ship on a regular run, this meant mail was mostly fast to get, maybe a cenchron or two. For us? Well, that depended on where the profits were, and where our nearandear thought we’d be going. We ran around a fairly small sector most of the time, so it worked out ok.

The ship’s log settled back down for a few dechrons. I have always had the habit of spending most of my time on the bridge. Now, twitchy and already a pessimist, I found myself checking our progress and adherence to course. If any of several bad things happened, which way would we drift? Too far off, and our beacon would be the only warning others would have to come find us. I quietly updated the beacon’s course every chron. I resisted writing a program for it, partly because I didn’t want to admit I was doing it and would do it every watch, and partly because it would look to Mik every bit as pessimistic as I felt. The engines, compartment or outer hull integrity, a nav sensor… one neepble could do us just a critical piece of hurt, and we’d be airless or a ball of flame. I knew without asking that Jem was ready on the shunts and shutoffs, and Fer with the patches and hatch seal commands. I didn’t know what Mik would do with his programming systems; probably was designing remotes and sensor workarounds. Maybe copying all our data, in case there was metal in his storage or connections? I decided not to ask.

It turned out, that’s not at all what I needed to ask. 8chron.7deci, square in the middle of second watch, the Lady shuddered. I was out of my bunk and halfway up the bridge ladder before the com in my uniform shouted: “Bel!” That was Jem. Shouting. Guaranteed not good. “Bel here, Jem. What did?”

“Bridge! Crash shutdown engines, all stop, do not override, do not override! Engineer ends.”

Well, not answering me, but that nicety was lost to the “SHEK!!!” ringing through my thoughts as I slid into a bridge suddenly too crowded and too lonely with two. An pointed wordlessly to the data spilling down the propulsion systems screen. Too much, too quickly for my midsleep brain, but I knew the Captain’s trick for that.

“Summary and analysis?” Oh, how I wished that had sounded more crisp. At least it didn’t sound anything worse than tired.

“Sir, I was checking course when the propsys blinked. I turned to see cascading data scaling high, then sudden shutdown. I commed engines and got no response but shouting. I commed you and got jammed. You burst in the door as the props screen started rolling again, in what I think is a review of the data leading up to the shutdown. I don’t know what’s going on, sir!” she ended, her voice somewhere between grieved and aggrieved.

“Me neither, Pilot. Me, neither. Let Jem cope, she’ll com us when she knows or needs. An: other hazards? What’s need?”

An gulped a bit, firmly set herself down, and plotted her thoughts. “Sir, course and speed were nominal before the shutdown. Drone was recalibrated last chron.” So much for subtle, Bel, I thought. An continued her report, giving status from her last log entry and observations since. I looked at course and speed – inertia is a good thing. An had kept us true, and we were still moving. The ship would slow as she bumped into small bits of space dust, if nothing else, but it would take something pushing us off course to seriously affect us. The engine shutoff just meant that we cut off our acceleration curve and would take longer to get to Farpoint. Stopping once we arrived, now…

The other problem would be mine and Fer’s. Time without engines was time without weight, and humans don’t do well for long without it. Protocols dictated max dosages of weightlessness per kilochron.

I was crunching away at the numbers for that, with hull time already spent and inspections in dock, when the cold realization returned with a shock. This wasn’t just engine problems; that would be too easy. Our cause for both the delay and the hurry in our cruise, those shekking neepbles, had probably nested in the propulsion system. Somewhere. And where they nest, they rust – corroding the metals they affix the nest to, as well as stripping thinner or outright tearing through the metals they mine for their nests. And that’s just the part they don’t outright EAT. Unless we got supremely lucky, and Jem had something buggery in the engines themselves, what we really had was either an old nest, or a neepble (more??) that had escaped.

Somewhere behind my eyes, a headache began to pound. No bumping Jem’s elbow, I must wait to know. Not my best trick. “An, we can’t know what did. Monitor, record, of course – but run analysis on propulsion systems to see any reading that started to go off. Let’s see if we can help Jem and not be in her way. I’ll be in my worry – working cabin.” I turned and left the bridge. No salvaging that. I hate it being called a worry hole, but it sure is! Must be something in a manual.

Mental muttering swirled around my head as I trudged back to the work cabin, to try to squeeze information out of documentation.

8 decis later, I was still staring at multiple displayed screens with schematics and case notes and such, plugged into both half-desks, and I’d moved some of the stickywall pouches to hang from the left one for easier grabbing. Meanwhile, rolls hung over the cubby mods above my head. I’d basically ransacked the files for anything that gave us an edge on fixing the issue, building up what you just can’t keep in your head all the time. Gra was wrong about that one. It just won’t all fit in three pounds of jellied neurons. So now, I felt like my brain was primed to shoot all this data but had nothing to shoot at. No further com from Jem, and An’s last com was that she had built an analysis routine with Mik’s help (I suspected it was the other way around) and they were combing it for predictive function. I was keeping myself in the worry work cabin by force of will, determined not to bump elbows anywhere else. All considered, I probably couldn’t bump Fer’s either. He was almost certainly dragging his data for health and welfare markers. A Captain’s a fifth wheel, sometimes. It was why I made myself the datajunkie.

They’d com if they needed any of what I’d collected. I knew that. I did.

I slept. Inexplicably, inexcusably, I slept. Somehow, with all that was spiked and nerves so taut, the incomplete sleep of the ship’s night, now past, caught back up to me. Looking back, it’s a wonder I didn’t drool in something essential, or thump something and drop a roll of datasleeves on my head. Sleeping isn’t my most together or impressive looking time, like most folks – I don’t talk in my sleep (or at least not that any crewmember has told me) or sleepwalk and wake up in Systems with Mik staring at me, so I’m saved that much. I still end up with a mouth that furry spidres clearly died in, and hair that snuck off to a Vandegraff without me, and bedclothes wrung into contortions I may or may not have participated in. It’s not dignified, it’s not captainly, and I don’t like it. It takes me time to propulse my brain into motion, like my sleep’s a gravity well as great as J-3, so deep no ship could make a profit porting there without they were solar sailors with more time than anything else. Others, their sleep is a mere moon’s well, a sweet gentle dip to help with braking the day’s work and thoughts, then so slight a rise to space again that it’s a stretch and a smile to full alertness. Ghod, I envy them. The Captain I wish I was, wish I could become, would wake and rest so, able to rise to a challenge from full sleep, save the ship or station, and then catch unconsciousness’s next ebbing tide.

In that sleep, Gra came. He tends to. It’s his time to sit down with me, go over the day, the cruise, the plan – sometimes I wonder if it’s really him, and not wish-made memories. A Captain’s job is lonely, and most all I learned comes from Gra. In my head, or at least my dreams, we talk. This dream, it was mostly me reporting what had gone wrong, what we’d done, where we’d looked. He didn’t indulge my want to speculate on what Jem was wrestling, and pointed out that by the time I woke Jem would have it fixed. Jem’s like that. Gra mostly wanted to talk about getting to Farpoint, who he knew, and all the stories he knew about folks surviving neepbles – what they’d tried, the tales they told. You could get a lot of free drinks off a survival tale, from the suspense and more, from the suspicion that some gem gleaned from your story might just help the listener. Gra would know.

He’d been the man who’d slingshot off Jupiter on the first true generation ship, woke to dock in a destination that no longer called to him, and scoutshipped till he could sign aboard another explorer, three generations younger, that could take him deeper and further into the stars. He was the man who surfed the great rapids on the Ja-Sin String science station service run, when he was young and invincible – whose youth was over a century old. He forced into his mind and body the new knowledge to catch up, forced them to admit it, and forced new ships and orbits and crews to respect him. Then he went independent, happily cruising around the not-yets, has-beens and bywaters. Gra told me all the stories he knew about seafaring, airfaring, and starfaring, even old songs reworked for the black waters above the skies. He taught me all he knew about people, deals, ships, trade, and anything else that crossed his mind as his memories became long in the tooth. He’d always ask me how I’d handle something, then critique my response until I understood (or claimed I had). Usually, he knew the difference.

In my dream, Gra and I talked, sitting with systems manuals schematics all over the decking. (Gra believed in data storage that doesn’t require power, even a little, to function and had printed copies of each of his ships, in turn. This was the Lady’s deck, though, her diagrams and in my work cabin. Hey, it’s a dream) We were going over essential system backups and workarounds, talking options for getting close enough to Farpoint for a tow,  when Mik commed, waking me up.

When Mik woke for his bridge watch, per his norm, he called up the log. As he read the crisis response plan and taskings I logged, he found there was no word from Jem in the situation updates. Concerned, he tried to comm Jem and got no response. Mik briefed me as I shook my thoughts from the dream, shook my uniform into slightly better shape, and went to meet Mik at the engineering compartment.

The hatch opened and we stepped in, calling Jem. After just enough delay to make us wonder, she answered from the Fieri tube. Her voice sounded weak and unfocused. We exchanged a look, checked the readings in the compartment. All good, but… We moved into the tube space carefully and found her holding a fatally weakened and leaking linkage together with both hands. Her voice sounded sharper as she reported. Seems she’d broken through as she tapped to assess soundness – sure found that out! – and it tore like a flimsy when she tried to seal the gap. She used its slack to hold it together with both hands, knowing we had no time with a leak like that, and then when she couldn’t get to her comm with her hands that way, she used a trance to minimize muscle damage (from not moving while under tension) and increase endurance (while she waited for someone to notice). Awesome. That was three chrons ago. Three chrons of alone with locked muscles and high stress, trance or no trance. Only Jem.

We moved fastly as we could. I backed to the workshop and came up again with a decimeter softpatch. Jem, Mik and I all three were needed to ease the patch on so Jem could finally let go. Breathless, we waited to see if it held – for now, yes. We wouldn’t give it time to shear! I stayed to monitor the tube and its mixture so Mik could go with Jem. He’d be her skilled hands fabricating what she needed to give us a more secure patch for the entire weakened section. Jem’s hands couldn’t, after all that, and Jem’s brain was near as tired. I was trying to remember hazards to her from the leak, but all that came to mind was the air mix being too low. That could fix with Fer changing her cabin mix for her sleep cycle. She needed that for several reasons, I wasn’t taking no. Once we got this stable. That came first. The full – but still temporary – repair required Mik and I, and more tricky positioning and dodging in the tight tubes space. There’s a truism about spaceships. All the tricky repairs requiring multiple hands are in spaces you can’t hardly get those hands and their owners into. When the patch held and monitoring looked good, I sent Jem to bed and ordered all further testing to wait for a four-hour crew rest. My portcomp accessed Fer’s systems and I sent him a note, then raised O2 to 30% in her cabin. I’d seen that for sick call, so felt safe. More, I wouldn’t do without Fer’s sayso. Can’t risk throwing off the cyclers.

I left Mik monitoring the Engineering space where he could watch his systems too, mostly his normal shift despite the extra tension, and went to check on the bridge. Nearing the end of her shift, An had set up autopilot alerts linked to her cabin since Lady’s comps showed me asleep and Jem’s trance looked asleep and Mik was furiously dataworking the logs. I told her Mik was on Systems/Maint watch and I’d take the bridge, but I’d leave the autopilot so I could check on Fer. This was one of those situations where for systems load it was good to have so few of us but for salvaging the situation it was bad to have so few of us. For a few more hours, we’d just use the backups to increase our efficiency. One of those necessary things is crew rest. Tired means mistakes. Mistakes mean mishaps. In space, mishap is a Bad Word. It usually means someone’s dead. I sent An to bed, too.

During his checks, Mik found the nest that caused Jem’s leak. It spiked him, and me when he reported. It sure looked like it was dead and silent. We stared at it, at sensors, at each other. The damage might could have occurred pre burn and just gave out days later. Maybe. Neither of us was happy with that, not sure and not reassured. We agreed he’d scope everything in there, and further refine listening programs. We’d each do the same with our areas, since the engines were completely silent anyway. Take benefit from it. Mik of course scoped and scanned the nest and its tube first, reported back that there was no sign of active neepbles, but the scope showed a dead one. That was nervous making – all the neepbles should have vented. No others were found. Still felt spiky.

It was a tense few days. None of us really slept, really ate, really took downtime. Just watchful, worried.

That said, the patch performed – it proved out. On the bridge, An and I found we could cautiously build up the power to do some easy, soft braking. We kept up our comm with Farpoint, got ourselves safely to tug range, but that little bit of power meant we were able to save our pride, not come in as a hulk. An circled the station a few times braking down until we could be caught gently – who knew what else was damaged on the old girl!

As things went, six extra circuits of the station got us slow enough, even with our low engine burn. We eased into our repair slip under our own power and with nothing worse than torn nerves and tight tempers. The grapples reached, touched, took and we were down.

I learned, then, that there’s a breath you take when a crisis is over. You reach inside yourself and from your gut comes an exhale like no other, when you can stand down and stand easy. That breath came when the station hookups went green and we shut down, knowing that this was the decontam dock, and that neepble protections were in place beyond even the protocols. Gil’s people were on post and on guard, and we could finally rest easy.

Well, the crew could. Once they’d hauled their kit off the Lady and into transient quarters. Me, I had to do the final negotiation and handoff. I scanned my suit (no neepbles), suited, and went to talk with Gil.

The protocols and safeties Farpoint set up for us (with the extra time we gave them, even) meant they not only put us at their decontam dock but planned to actually close their dock to space, open The Grey Lady to atmo with the latest neepble-killing mix, and go suited for all work and even transits through to an interior second airlock. The gas wouldn’t be good for us, either. I imagined I could see it swirling in the bay. Once the crew was off, Gil’s team would go through, making sure before they secured and opened her up. This would be costy. Very costy. I was running numbers as I checked my seals, thinking what to say. You don’t let your mind off when you’re transiting a small, close area in a suit with space or nasty chemicals. Brain in the game. To the lock, secure and check, through the lock, and to the temp second one. I checked readouts before I popped my top. Nerves, habit, whatever. All green.

Gil was waiting, past the second airlock. After coming through, I saw more with my helmet off. I noticed hooks recently installed for extra suits on the inside, and a recirc unit. Good. The toxin would be clinging to the gear we brought through. The more, the better. I wanted my ship safe.

Gil triggered his hatch when I rapped on it, which was new. Normally, he was an open-hatch guy, wanting to keep tabs on the corridor. He stood to greet me, which wasn’t new. Den was in the corner, with Spacestream’s datafile up on the comp. About two decimeters taller than I expected. I said, “Hey, Gil. Thanks. Hey, short!” Had to say that while I could – wouldn’t be long! Den shrunk, shrugging off the kid name. Gil grinned, took my hand.
“Hey, Bel. Rough deal. Glad to see you sound! Messages sent on, client’s’ll know. We got you, Bel. Knew your Gra, remember. Straight deal, all the way like my own ship. Station. Whatever. You get my point. Full decontam dock, new-old buy. Good to get practice, actually.” This while shaking, pumping my hand and looking at me with an odd mix in his eyes. I felt part fussed at, was embarrassed. Want to make it as me, not as Gra’s. Not making it right now, though, am I just? Grump. Didn’t like the reminder of my clients, but so far all our cargo might be late, but it was safe. It’d have to do. My holds weren’t regulated and they knew that, so cargo should be sealed safe against all of this, neeples and vacuum and the decontam dock’s gases.

Repair-set stations, and even many shipping stations had at least one Decontam dock for chem, rads, disease… the horsemen of space. The docks were independent, redundant seals from the rest of the base or station, low protrusion, high containment and imperviousness. Able to handle the darkest deeds and needs of a hundred habitats. The voice in back of my head answered ‘but this one spacebug laughs it all to shame!’ I told it to shut up. I was getting good at that.

Gil and I went over plans we’d built en route, and Den drank in all we said. Then it came to prices. Gil had a surprise for me on that one.

Gil wanted Den to ship with us. Specifically, to ship with me. From back in ancient days, our spacefaring society resurrected an old idea. The role of Cabin Boy / Girl is back  – we call ‘em Captain’s Cadet. Space Cadet when we’re informal, or they blew it. That’s all in the tone. The kid sleeps in the Captain’s work cabin, or midshipman berthing if there is one. She/he does shifts w all compartments and is tutored by captain, at the captain’s elbow. They’re expected to get mate rating along the way, and a leg up on Captaincy. Esteem varies by captain / vessel. I set my brain to record, while I tried to keep Shocked and What?? and Who, me? You mean me?? behind my eyes. As I unpacked Gil’s thinking, sounded like he wanted me for the simple fact that he can leverage it with the size of the work I needed on the Lady. To hear him tell it, I’m known for conscientiousness – over think but won’t risk turning a deal or dishonest rep. Well, true enough, I spose, but with Gra, some folks say I’m sort of classically trained, like I was Gra’s cabin boy. That’s a lineage that is respected. Gra’s rep is daredevil player of the odds, and I know that. Me, I got the view of Gra’s careful hedging and research of every choice he could. Both views are one-sided, and I know that, too. I just hadn’t found my feet yet, really. Before this whole thing, I was feeling pretty good. Now? Jumpy and off. But there’s a pride to having a Cadet. That, and Gil sounded like that might pay for all but parts. Maybe some of that, even, if he had it surplus. Gil must want this bad.

I asked more on Den. The picture I got was youngish, but sharp. Real sharp. Touch with mechanicals, but touch with strategic thinking, too. Gil thought maybe more. Maybe a natural like Gra. The light came on. Those don’t come often, and Gil’s chance to put a Cadet with one from all the way out at Farpoint was nil. I was a decent second best, he must think, with Gra’s training. I snorted, inside of course. He didn’t know how, in my mind, that training was fresh. It made sense, and made sense that Gil would value it so much. Still, my mind lost its gyros with the mix of relief on cost and intimidation on having a Cadet. Might be an expensive repair, after all, more I thought of it.

Now, all this ran around in the back of my head, stirring up dust in corners while Gil and I played it cool out front on my face and our discussion. Realizing some of this made me look hard at Gil’s eyes. That was a surprise. Gil was spiked. Gil wanted this – really really wanted it. Why? He hadn’t seen me in several kilochrons, nearly a megachron. Didn’t seem in proportion. Something else to this. WHAT??

I made up something about a crew meeting, shook hands and scanned consent for the repair and protocol side of things, and went off to think. Wished I could get back on the Lady. It’s hard to think on an unfamiliar station, where you don’t know the sounds and feels of the systems, who’s where and liable to come where when. Can’t find a quiet spot, really. That, and I was too tired to find a quiet spot in me, either. I found my way to transient quarters, which hadn’t moved much, and thumped my head against the hatch. I’d forgot my kit back on Lady. “SHEKshekshekshek.” I told the hatch, wearily. Palmed it, opened – and near tripped over the kit. Gil’s people. Wearily grateful, now, I navigated past it and passed out on the bed. Had I taken the time, I’d have no doubt all five of us were asleep just as deep, being just as deeply tired. I didn’t.

Gra was waiting. Which surprised me. Normally, I only dreamed him a few dechrons into a cruise, like I needed to be out with enough space to think in before I thought him. This time, he sat in his favorite grav couch, one he’d brought with him on all the commands I knew of and supposedly from an early scoutship of his. I was sitting at my desk in my work cabin, and there was a packing crate on the floor. There was also a sleepsack under the desk, neatly rolled. I looked, when I saw the crate. Well, that told me what my subconscious thought of the cadet plan…

In the dream, I was still tired. I propped my feet on the crate, fixed Gra’s eye with a look and said “So what am I missing here? What’s got Gil spiked, and why does he want this and why am I doing it? Cause I’m obviously doing it,” I ended, gesturing at the sleepsack.

Gra took a draw off his pipe, blowing flavored air out the bowl’s four points. Supposedly the flavor was smoke, from something people used to do on ships. I just knew Gra used it to make a point, especially the dream Gra that lived in my head. That was his Gra-knows-best prop. I waited.

“Well…” Another pause. “See, Gil and I go back.” Pause. “There’s some history, between he and I. Did some stuff that, well…” The pauses were getting annoying. That, and Gra wasn’t normally so dodgy. “Gil sees me in Den, I think. Sees the old magic. Thinks touching you will touch me. Fact, you know what he says about you, Bel? He says you’ve got some of it, but haven’t planted your feet yet. Haven’t reached out to claim the space of it for yourself. He says you can, you’re close. You got to hold on, kid. Neeples happen to anyone. That kinda shek is just out there, in space. Always somethin’. Always. Here’s where you build and bank your rep, Bel. You brought her in, crew and ship and cargo. That’s you. I never fought neepbles. I never did. That’s you. Gil sees the survivor, like me, the one who beats the odds. Why I named you Bel, for space’s sake! Call the luck. Each time they call your name, they call the luck. And lookit you. Captain. Old old ship, but a Spacestream. And your crew, Bel. Solid. Few solider, for small, and honestly few solider for big crews too. Yeah, it’s informal, but there’s a quality your crew has. And you built it. Right place, right time, right choice. Gil likes you, likes your luck.”

“Thing is, Bel, I do, too.”

Then my brain exploded. Gra said WHAT?? I started up out of REM, breached consciousness like a whale, and went right back down with dreams I didn’t remember after that. But this dream? Doubt I’d forget it. Gra said what?! Ghod.


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