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Neepbles 6 (was 5)

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.

“Scans?”

“Broke, remember?”

Heartfelt: “Shek.” “Been outside?”

“Yup. Two tubes. 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. 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 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, 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 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. 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 – or at least different docks. 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 12 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?”

“Naw.”

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

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

“Comm quiet, bridge behaving – burn protocol is 25 chrons 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, 17 cenchrons. Gil there is old, but so’s Lady here. Might be a good choice. Else, there’s TwoMacs 15 cenchrons, one course correction. Don’t know them personally. Ask Jem?”

“K. Thank you, An. Not easy. 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.”

“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?”

“Ya, Cap.”

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

“Um.” I waited. “Tak. Go Farpoint, one burn and Gil’s been teachin’ young Den – might bank points for later.”

“Oh, yes! GOOD call, Jem! Clear.”

“An?”

“Go, Cap.”

“Farpoint. Tell Gil we’re comin’, with what, done what, and 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, 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. Got to do it right, best to hear Gra in my head, not His, when I’m gone cause I missed one shekin’ neepble.

“CCC, Cap.” Book, that one. Solid. An 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 re-air. The hard play with that is everything else that gets vented when you do a crash vent. We did one slower 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, 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… “ALCON, ALCON, Grey Lady venting to space by standard neepble protocols.” Ship freq next: “ALCON, ALCON, 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 chron, re-air for 2, re-enter no sooner than 12 chron 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. Your ship, you called the vent, did what you had to. Talk it through. Remember Fer’s first idea? 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 just 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, secure? Anyone got flame left, any need it?” ALCON accessed every suit and speaker in ship range, so we could all talk and hear. Handy. For outship, ALCON notified any listener that you meant for them to hear you. (Great, Bel, explaining the obvious – to yourself.)

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! 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 – 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. Fer’s job was to re-air and test before clearing us. Meantime, we’d set things to rights inside after the vent and rig the Lady for sail to stretch our fuel.  We were in some sun, it was worth a try.

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