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Neepbles 8 (was 7)

Just a little added, but I integrated my first addendum and edited what I’ve written in the last few days. Friends over… Oh, and a full day tomorrow though I’m bringing the laptop. Either lots of writing or very little will happen, as I find a corner at Pride…

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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 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 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, ALCON, ship freq: all 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. 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. Fer’s job was to re-air and test before clearing us. “And no-one bumps his elbow but me. You got a question or need for him, you call me!”

 

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 rule?? 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. 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 shipwide comm, 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 rotate off duty and eat, and 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 gases 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 sensor into.

 

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 theirs, 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 the scope and sending me to bed.

 

Meantime, we’d set-rig the Lady for sail to stretch our fuel.  We were in some sun, and a straight cruise; it was worth a try to trail out her gossamers and catch some ghosting power. No course corrections to burn them, 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 aurora, 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, music fit for a solar sail and we, the farers that flew it.

 

***

 

Station notes for later…

Decontam dock for chem, rads, disease… the horsemen of space. Redundant seals from the rest of the base or station, low protrusion, high containment and imperviousness. Able to handle the darkest deeds of a hundred habitats – but this one spacebug laughs it all to shame!

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