Something needed to be fixed.
As the chief engineer of the freighter Tong Dizhou, Evie Gaines, climbed up the ladder into conduit that linked sections, she could feel her head getting lighter and lighter. That's how it was there, in zero-gee, and standard operating procedure said one should use the ladder the entire way. She always ignored this and pushed off three rungs from the top, kicking into her own freedom.
The Shipping Authority rules also said that one was supposed to wear shoes, but she always slipped them off at the top of the hatch, leaving them to float by the entrance for her return. Her rabbit-like feet were free at last. Long toes cured and flexed, prepping for the handles they would soon grip. She gave a slight tug to the jumpsuit that fit her so poorly and glided down the conduit to the half-light of the main engine control room.
She knew this space, more so that her own uncomfortable body. How easily a bend of the knee could change the vector or the velocity. This silent ballet, performed without audience, was hers alone. Here, in this isolated place free from the tyranny of gravity, she could move easily, even on a full stomach. Forget the long feet that never went where she wanted. Ignore the asymmetric hips that had never healed correctly after her childhood accident. Who cared about the fat that circled her belly like a broken asteroid?
This was her place: a womb-like enclosure of switches, control-panels, and monitoring screens. Evie laid her hands on either hip and knew, as well as any pilot, that it would take an almost insignificant action to adjust the trajectory. A flick of the wrist sent her spinning to the port thrust console. After that, a languid turn, and her feet were in position to slip into the stationary straps cleverly placed in the tiny room.
Oh, to be here at all times! This forgiving zone. This place where it did not matter how much mass a person contained as long as you understood inertia and momentum. Evieís knees curled as she did a back-flip to her next point of business. This, she understood. No matter how clumsily she waddled on the other decks of the ship, here, she could glide, swan-like, from one point to the other, making the subtle adjustments that would ensure the ship made it to its destination.
She took a moment now to scratch the itch of the strap holding her glasses in place; clunky things needed since that stupid childhood accident. There, the worried spot in the back of drab hair, next to one of the tiny scars from when they tried to fix her broken skull.
Here in space, she could really fly. This ship wasn't made of old boxes and chairs. The Tong Dizhou wasn't going to come crashing down from the roof and mangle its occupants.
A crooked grin later, the monitors had chimed in agreement: yes, the tiny alteration would be made to the fuel mixture. There was a rumble of consent from the previously laggy engines. The graphs glittered into awareness―dancing a merry tune of increased power. After that, maybe a spin, powered by no more than a tiny kick, to the next panel and its promise of more push to the port engines. Her apish toes grasped the stabilizing bar; a simpler instrument intended for human hands, not for long-mocked toes.
Evie fished her slippers from where they floated over the main hatch. The three minutes of invaulability and delight closed in. Twisting back into the standard issue foot-wear, she placed her feet on the rungs of the ladder. Crawling down, rung by rung, she felt the world of the ugly-duckling closing in. Soon, she'd walk the corridors as the others did, weighted down and confined by her own uneven and limping bulk.
She limped down the ship's corridor, occasionally stopping to pull down the front of her yellow jumpsuit. The ten-centimeter difference between the lengths of her legs meant she could never take a smooth stride, so she galumphed from place to place, trying to not swing her arms too much.
Evie stubbed her toe on a door-jam, hearing the impact before she felt the pain. That was common enough that she didnít even stop to examine the injury. If it was bad, she was already on her way to sick-bay and it could be handled there. Evie checked her watch. She was behind schedule as it was. Her right eye was itching again, as it always did when she was embarrassed in front of her friend Becca. She pushed her thick glasses up and rammed a knuckle gracelessly against the offending orb.
"You're late," Dr. Rebecca Tabib chided.
The engineer straightened out and tugged at her ill-fitting jumpsuit. The front kept riding up over her belly. "Sorry, Becca." Evie flopped into a chair.
"No, no, not there," Dr. Tabib gestured to a set of scales. "Over there. Let's get today's BMI."
Evie stepped onto the scales, shifting from one foot to the other.
"Eighty-six kilos," Rebecca read the scales. "You haven't lost any weight at all. You still have a BMI of twenty-six. What have you been eating?"
"Slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails."
"Not on this ship you haven't."
Evie took off her shoes and glasses. "What about now?"
Becca obliged. "Twenty-five point nine."
"You didn't even look."
"I don't have to. Are you at least trying to get more exercise? And..." she paused. "What happened to your big toe?"
"Doorjam," Evie shrugged. "I can hardly walk five paces without falling flat on my face. How am I supposed to run eight kilometers?"
Becca noted the day's numbers in Evie's file, glossing over the new bruised toe. "Try swimming. We have a wave-tank on board."
"No one wants to see me in a suit."
"So go there off-shift when no one will see you," Becca suggested. "We have the time."
Evie shuffled her feet. "People in zero-gee usually eat less."
Becca tossed a stylus that Evie ably caught left-handed.
"Right, I got ya," Evie laughed.
Becca checked the file. "Are you left-handed?"
"No, I'm ambidextrous," Evie grinned. "I thought you knew that. You never know which hand you're going to need, so they should both be useful."
Becca made a note in the file. "I might have known but didn't have a record of it."
"Oh, okay. See you at breakfast, huh?" She leaned on her shorter leg and kicked her friend with her longer leg, but lost her balance and had to jump to catch herself.
"Try to keep yourself in one piece," Becca instructed. She watched the engineer limp away. I should tell her to not wear yellow. She looks like a duck in that suit.
As one of the smaller freighters available, the Tong Dizhou usually did mixed runs. Once they had dropped off the heavy machinery, textiles, and new seeds, they would download their store of fresh data from home: audio, video, texts, some missives from families to their loved ones, images of loved ones. Small freighters only ran three rotating sections and carried a minimal crew, but they were the connection with home, both technological and sentimental.
Breakfast was the usual grim affair. The food on board was designed for portability and nutrition, not taste and appeal. They were hitting the last month of the trip and the stores would need to be replenished at Peg-51.
Becca poked at the green paste in front of her. What miserable gunk! This isn't food at all; it's just taking on fuel. Food has a texture. Food has a taste that you can easily identify. Becca imagined cooking a real meal--browning diced onions in olive-oil and chopping up parsley. When I get home, we're going to get the whole family together for a feast! I hope this is the last trip I have to do. Surely the pay will be enough that I never have to get on a ship again. Praise be! The simple life is waiting, just as soon as I'm done with...what is she doing?
Evie was spooning hers into a little mound. She achieved some desired shape and stopped to admire it. "This is important. This means something."
Becca sighed at the mound. "It means you should have no problem loosing that extra weight like I told you to."
The engineer rolled her eyes. "You don't watch any of the old fictions, do you? We have an actual boatload of information on this ship." She squashed the "important" mound and shoved a spoonful into her mouth. "I think this is supposed to be some kind of artichoke dip. Or spinach." She sang to the tune of a popular jingle:
The galaxy's full of our spawn!
Once we get going, we don't stop...
The height of human tech flies on
Inside, however, we eat slop.
Max Ruths, the junior engineer, sat down. Evie turned to him, "How are the air scrubbers holding out?"
Max rubbed the back of his head. "It's breathable, Chief. Depends on what kind of diet we get the rest of the trip."
"Human digestion," Evie explained to her doctor friend, "can only handle so much. We get much more of this," gesturing to the green lump on the plate in front of her, "and the whole ship will smell like a three-month old fart."
Judith, the second mate and youngest daughter of Captain Wainwright, gave Max a kiss on the head and sat down. "Hey, Max honey. What's this morning's fare? Brown mash, gray mash or..."
"Hi, Judi sweetie," Max gave his fiancťe a little peck on the cheek. "Itís Franz's special green mash."
"It's super nummy," Evie grinned.
"I hate breakfast," Judith moped. "Itís always like this at the end of a trip."
"Weíll be picking up stores once we hit Peg-51," Max offered. "Wonít fresh fruit be nice? Maybe some berries the first month, then plums and pears."
"Or apples..."Evie seemed lost in thought.
"Apples not as much," Max frowned. "They last a long time, so thatís more of an Ďend of the tripí kind of thing."
"An apple would be wonderful," Evie said dreamily. "Like that one that Franz is eating."
They turned to look at Franz, the chief steward. The stout, gray man was munching away at a Granny Smith that he held delicately with the tips of his fingers, never closing his hand to obscure the crisp fruit. Franz was a Pegger, a native of Peg-51, so this was a trip home for him. He'd mostly overcome his accent after years traveling the route with non-Peggers, but he bore the squat figure and overabundance of hair particular to the people of that large, cold planet.
"Look at that clever bastard," Max hissed. "Advertising his wares when weíre at our weakest."
Becca nodded. "Itís working."
"Thatís fresh," Judith whined. "Oh, itís not frozen or freeze-dried or vacuum packed."
"Franz," Evie smiled. "You know Iím good for it. You give me a number and Iíll leave it for you under my pillow."
"How many?" Franz asked between bites.
Evie held up two fingers.
Franz handed Evie two Granny Smith apples. "I want a system for braising and searing installed."
She took his hand and kissed his broad, rough knuckles. "Youíll have it by this time tomorrow."
"Promises, promises," he grunted.
"Franz and I have a colony/colonizer relationship," Evie polished one of her apples on her sleeve. "He gives me raw materials and I give him technology."
"No, Chief," Max held his head in his hands. "Youíre just rubbing it in now."
"Save me the seeds, at least," said Judith. "If we can turn a section into a garden, it might be better business. I want to know if we can grow apples. Granny Smiths are so much better than those red things we usually get."
"Captainís daughter has never seen an apple tree," Franz laughed. "They take up too much space; take a long time. Plus, they donít breed true. You donít know what you would have by the time they bear anything."
"Well, here," Evie handed one of the apples to Judith. "You can save your seeds. You could even give Max half your apple if you wanted." She quickly pulled out a multi-tool, selected a knife, deftly sliced the remaining fruit, and handed half to Becca.
Judith held the apple with both hands. "Oh, Evie, oh, thank-you." She handed the fruit to her fiancťe. "You have a knife, Max. You can have half."
Max chuckled and greedily pulled out his multi-tool. "The trade for technology continues..."
Evie leaned over to Becca. "Stay in the good graces of the Wainwrights and you'll always have passage somewhere."
"How long have you been riding with them?" Becca asked between apple bites.
"She did a couple runs with my uncle," Judith watched Max select a knife and cut the apple. "Dad needed a good engineer for this run and she came recommended."
"You'll be an official Wainwright any day now," joked Max.
"The other uncle," Evie pointed out. "Stella's brother, Lucian."
"If you're not flying with a Wainwright," Franz said, "you're flying with a Trechantiris. I did a few runs with a Homer Trechantiris." Franz puffed out his cheeks and stuck out his belly. "I has been running sheeps for many generation," he said, in a bad Greek accent. "We map de world, and we map de skies while you was hiding in tents!"
"You imitate my cousin so well! Don't stop on my behalf." The room turned to see Stella Wainwright (nť Trechantiris), wife of the captain and chief mate of the Tong Dizhou, laughing and clapping. Even joking, Stella was willowy and graceful. She had piercing eyes and neat smile, this mother of four children: Judith, Paul (the senior pilot on the ship), Brian (who had recently left to captain his own ship: the larger freighter Tong Qingren), and Jason (captain of the passenger ship Qiu Fa Zu).
There was nervous shuffle as the others stood to attention. Franz tugged at his bangs and backed silently into the galley.
Stella turned to her daughter. "Judith, there are some final numbers to run. Evie has made the necessary adjustments and I'd need to know that no more will be needed before we hit the final stretch."
"Yes, ma'am." Judith scurried out of the room.
Now Stella turned her attention to Becca . "You're on watch in five minutes."
"Everyone just relax," Stella smiled. "We're on the last leg of this trip and we can't get complacent. This is the point when mistakes are made and we've made it this far. I'm sure all of you are getting a little impatient and maybe even stir-crazy, but trust me; the present boredom is preferable to the excitement a little mistake could bring now. I am sure that you won't let a little boredom get in the way of fulfilling your duties to your best ability."
As Becca turned to go, she looked back at Evie. The engineer seemed to be staring at Stella with admiration.
Paul was at the helm. Paul was the youngest son, maybe seventeen, with dark eyes that never missed anything, shining black hair, and an aquiline nose. Becca knew that some day, he would be the object of every woman's desire and she felt a certain pride in dealing with the overly-mature boy. "End of my shift," he said smoothly. "And I'm off to bed. See you at dinner." He signed out of the station when Becca and Judith entered the deck.
Gordon, the junior pilot, came in after them and signed into the station. Whereas Paulís good looks were quiet and refined, Gordonís were broad and brash. He brushed blonde hair away from his face, blue eyes glittering; he flashed Becca a sheer, white smile and turned to Paul. "Is that engine still acting up?"
Paul shook his head.
Becca sighed. Why must the handsome boys all be pilots? She turned to Captain Wainwright. "Anything I should be watching for?"
"Nothing abnormal," he rubbed his chin and referred to Evie by her last name. "Gaines cleared up that issue with the under-powered engine, so we don't have to make anymore compensations." He signed out of the station and stood. "I'll be in my berth if anything comes up."
Becca sat and logged into the com and called up a text on fire suppression systems.
"Looks pretty boring," Gordon was looking over her shoulder.
"I figured I'd get some reading done."
"On a lovely day like this?" He leaned in closer. "You could be having a nice conversation instead."
Becca forwarded the text and tried to ignore his advances.
Judith looked up from her display. "There is more than one unattached woman on this ship."
Gordon wrinkled his nose. "But only one of them is good-looking."
"And uninterested," Becca answered curtly.
Gordon paced the deck and eventually flopped back into his chair. "Bored bored bored bored...."
Judith laughed. "Long haul trips usually are."
He leaned back in his chair. "But the pay's good. What are you gonna do with yours?"
Judith shrugged. "Save up for my own ship."
"What are you gonna call it?" he asked.
Judith frowned. "That's up to the Shipping Authority."
"I might go to the mountains," Becca interjected. "I've been meaning to go for a long time."
"Too cold up there," Gordon frowned. "You should go someplace warm, someplace with a beach."
"So you can ogle her in a swim-suit?" Judith asked mockingly.
He shut his eyes and smiled. "I might. See how she matches up."
"How odd that you should mention that," Becca grinned. "I was just suggesting to Evie that she use the wave tank we have on board."
Gordon frowned and opened his eyes. "You're all out to ruin all my fantasies."
Judith chuckled. "Serves you right."
Gordon sulked for a while. Becca continued to read.
Finally, "What do you see in her anyway?"
Becca looked up from her text at Gordon. "What do I see in who?"
"That Evie chick," he sulked. "You spend a lot of time together."
"They're friends," Judith offered.
"Oh?" he chuckled. "Friends. That's what they call it."
Becca shook her head. "You have completely misunderstood the nature of our relationship."
"So it is a relationship?" He laughed. "I see how it is."
"Some-body's jea-lous..." Judith sang.
"Well," he countered. "You have to wonder. A long trip like this...and you spend so much time together."
"Knock it off, Gorsky," Becca glowered at Gordon. "Just because a girl isn't interested in you―"
"You sound like my ex."
"I'm sure you have a lot of those." She frowned.
Gordon frowned and turned back to his screen. "Not as many as I'd like."
By the time Becca went back to the galley for dinner, Franz had a new piece of equipment in his kitchen. It was a super-heated coil that sat over a high-powered fan. There was no open flame, so Becca felt a little foolish for spending all that time reading about fire-suppression and she noticed that Evie had even included a reflecting shield that fitted over the apparatus for even temperature cooking.
"I should have bribed her months ago," Franz chuckled and seared a piece of thawed soy-beef. "Now I know why the food on the Shui Mang was so good. The steward there never told me the secret, but I figured it had to be something."
A week later, Becca was on deck with a safety report when a tinny alarm went off. A distress signal had been picked up.
Stella spotted it first: a tiny ship, some type of lifeboat or escape pod. Capitan Wainwright leaned over his wife to study the display.
"It's Vencume design," he finally stated.
"What's a Vencume?" Gordon asked.
"One of the civilized races," Stella answered. "This is your first deep flight, so you probably haven't run into one before. They maintain a pretty broad territory, but this is a little out of their range. They must have originated near Peg-51, but they usually come from the other direction."
It had been several generations since humans first interacted with Vencume. Large and lumbering creatures, the Vencume had always been helpful and curious, unlike the insect-like Toshdohai or aloof and piscine Mavdares. Trade with them had been minimal, but enough to swap technology (like the borrowed time field that made interstellar travel possible) for raw materials like grains or beans. Peg-51 used to be a Vencume outpost, just on the edge of their vast Empire, so it was near the edges of that territory where humans encountered them.
"They aren't responding to hail," noted Becca. "But it's the source of the signal."
"We'll pick them up," Wainwright was chewing his bottom lip. "Stella, get a bay ready. Tell Evie to suit up. She's worked with them before."
Stella checked a screen. "We can bring them in on seventeen in the center section. It's not holding anything and we can reduce the spin there for them."
"I'll suit up as well," Becca offered.
"No," Wainwright stopped her. "Be ready if we need you to go in, but I only want one crew member in there at a time. There's still an infection risk and I don't want my doctor involved."
"Infection risk?" Gordon asked.
"Our exposure to Vencume germs," Becca shrugged. "And their exposure to ours. Sure, we've dealt with them before, but it's not worth the risk of going in without a suit."
"Also," added Wainwright, "we don't know why they're in distress."
As soon as the center section stopped spinning, two lines were sent out to retrieve the Vencume ship. Once safely inside, the hatch was shut and the spin started again, but only half-speed.
Evie was already in her bright red biosuit and adjusting the translator around her neck before the bay had been brought to pressure. The entire starboard side of the pod was dented and the engine on that side was sputtering still. Most of the sensor array had been knocked off, so any surviving Vencume inside were flying blind. Evie crossed in front to port and yelled a "Hello!" then knocked on the side, 2Ö3Ö5Ö7Ö, the accepted greeting of "civil-kind". The sense of gravity alone would have signaled safety on a ship, the shout indicated atmosphere, and the prime knock let the survivors know they were in safe hands.
There were four deep purple Vencume in this pod; they huddled together, running long tentacles over each other. A fifth was dead from what looked like severe burns. Evie also noticed a raw space in the center the gray, vine-like mass where something had been removed. There was water on the floor of the pod.
The remaining four Vencume chittered. Evie's translator spoke in a smooth, unhurried, female voice:
Time constraint. Ship coming. Gratitude for safety. Indebtedness to humans.
"Youíre very welcome," Evie answered. "You're on board the freighter Tong Dizhou, headed to Peg-51. What happened to your ship? Why were you forced to evacuate?"
The Vencume shuffled out of the pod on trunk-like legs and clustered around her; they had a poor sense of personal space and did this to everyone, running long, multiple fingers over everything they encountered. Their five arms waved, each arm ending in a knot of many twisting digits.
Ship damaged. Signal sent. Ship coming. Time constraint.
"So you have another ship coming? Youíve sent your signal and someone is coming to pick you up?"
Time constraint. Ship coming. Understanding.
She walked to the main engine on the pod. "Did you run into some kind of debris? Was there an explosion?" The damage was too great to fix without replacement parts. "We can take you to the next way-point, but we canít stop and wait here. You know we canít dock with Vencume ships."
The Vencume shuffled again, their large feet scraping against the floor.
Time constraint. Concern for safety. Understanding. Ship coming.
"Youíre safe with us. We have quarters where we can put you," Evie started to back towards the hallway door. The Vencume followed and she noticed one of them was holding a pressurized container closely. "We have a refrigeration unit for the―"
Misunderstanding. Ship coming. *Tzikzik* coming included. Time constraint.
She tapped her translator. "Sorry, what else is coming?"
*Tzikzik*. Time constraint. Concern for safety.
Evie turned to the Vencume. "What is Tzikzik? Is that an event or a storm or―?"
Not civil-kind. Concern for safety. Human time constraint. Understanding. Make damage. *Tzikzik* not safe.
She gestured to the Vencume to stay by the hallway door and switched to her radio. "Hey guys, I think we have a new word."
Capitan Wainwright came on. "Gaines, what do you mean, a Ďnew wordí?"
Evie flinched at her last name. "I mean a word the translator hasnít heard before. They seem pretty agitated and keep asking me to hurry, but theyíre worried about something called Tzikzik coming as well. I think itís another species, but they say it isnít civil-kind."
"The squiddies hardly consider us civil-kind. Listen, if theyíre in such a hurry, just see if you can get that thing operational and letís show them the door. Inter-species goodwill can only go so far."
Evie approached the pod and ran a gloved finger across the twisted metal. "Itís too badly damaged. It might be able to hold pressure, but the life-support on it is minimal and thereís no thrust or sensors. It looks like the array was knocked off and the main engine unit took a direct hit from something either massive or fast. The control panel inside is toast and thereís a dead Vencume in there."
She could hear Wainwright chewing his bottom lip. "They already cored the dead one, right? Thatís why theyíre in a hurry. Iím going to assume you already told them we have a refrigeration unit."
"I did, but they seem to want us to get out of here as well. They have a ship coming, but―"
The sentence was finished by an explosion and Evie hitting the wall.
"Gaines!" Wainwright shouted in her ear. "What just happened down there? We just watched an explosion. Are you all right?"
"Fuel cell just went up," Evie made sure to not get up too quickly and go flying across the bay. A sharp pain stopped her. "I have shrapnel in my hand." She ripped off the glove and the bloody mess came apart.
"Right, get out of there," Wainwright ordered.
"What about the Vencume?"
"We'll put them on one of ours if they're in such a hurry. We have a schedule to keep and they can get it back to us some other time. I won't have a school of flighty squiddies on the ship for the rest of the trip."
Evie examined the twisted metal. There wasn't much time left before the shock hit. The Vencume came up on her fast, chittering away.
Ship broken. Human fix ship. Human broken. We fix human.
And one of the Vencume reached for the bloody shrapnel.
"No!" Evie slapped the squid-like mass of fingers away. It was one of those things a person does without thinking.
Once, as a child, Evie had knocked a glass off a counter. The thought process was that she didn't want the glass to fall and break, and she didn't want broken glass on the floor, because her baby sister Gwen might find the broken glass and get hurt. So she caught the glass and it broke in her hand, nearly skinning three of her fingers and leaving an ugly gash across her palm, right across the lifeline. And so, in trying to prevent infection and slapping away what could be called a hand on a Vencume, Evie managed to break what could be called a hand on a Vencume. Just like the broken glass all those years ago, she knew that the instinct had been wrong the moment she heard the sharp snap.
"Oh, my god, I'm so sorry, I only..."
No malice. We fix. Understanding. Infection. We fix. Understanding.
One Vencume produced a small vial and sprayed the broken "hand" of its companion. The flesh sizzled a moment, then the digits wiggled freely. The Vencume clustered and touched each other again, the mass of tentacles that stuck out from between their arms interlacing.
Understanding. We have helix. We fix. Human fix ship. Understanding. We fix.
Evie was backing to the door. "No, we cannot fix the ship. The ship is too broken. We will give you one of our lifeboats. Little ship? Your ship can pick up little ship?"
The Vencume were keeping their distance now.
Not dock. Absorb. Understanding. Similar now. Acceptable.
"OK," Evie was getting light-headed and blood was dripping around the protruding shrapnel. "Someone else will get suited up and take you to one of our little ships."
One of the Vencume shuffled up suddenly and pressed the vial of spray into her uninjured hand.
Barter. You fix. Understanding. Human ability. Understanding. Human fix ship helix useful. Understanding.
"Thank you," Evie felt uneasy. "I have to go now. Other human fix this human, okay?"
The Vencume shuffled back. The others received it, all of them running tentacled masses over each other.
Vencume understanding. Human fix ship helix. Usefulness. Understanding.
"Yes, yes. Much gratitude. I understand. Thank you, of course. I have to go." She felt ill, and it would do no good to be ill in a hood.
She had to pass through the zero-gee conduit to get back to the others, the entire time thinking about how drops of blood would vaporize over time. The antibiotic spray misted over her and the suit, stinging her wound and making the rungs slippery.
"Other human fix human?" Becca was waiting at the bottom with a syringe and some bags. "How about a little extra adrenaline before we go to bay and you crash out?"
Evie ripped off the hood of the blood-red biosuit and vomited into one of the bags. "Thank the universe for centrifugal force."
She wriggled out of the suit and the two stumbled to the sick bay.
The piece of shrapnel was the length of Evie's palm and the width of her index finger. It had entered the palm halfway down and two centimeters in from the pinky, right at the end of the headline. She had to take her watch off so they could strap the wrist and prevent further bleeding. Becca had anesthetized the area before extraction because Evie had refused general anesthesia. She wanted to watch the process and studied Becca's work the entire time.
"Why don't we just use the Vencume spray?" Evie asked, looking at the vial Becca had placed in a plastic bag.
"Because it's made for Vencume," Becca explained. "I've seen it before. Some sort of stem-tech they have. We don't know what it would do in your case. You want a squid for a hand?"
"You might want to get another barf-bag ready if you're going to talk like that."
Becca chuckled again. "She says, looking at the insides of her own hand."
Evie shrugged. "I've seen it before."
"So I've guessed," Becca said. "There's a lot of heavy scarring here. You make a living with your hands; you should take better care of them. Granted, it was an unavoidable accident."
"No," Evie was staring at the knuckles of her right hand intensely. "I put myself there. I could have stayed grass-side and never met a Vencume. I decided on this life."
"A little late to have doubts now."
"It's not something I doubt. I just know that it isn't blind chance. I decided to live this way." Evie turned her hand over to look at the tiny star-shaped scar on her right palm where the Shipping Authority had inserted her identity chip.
"Hey," Becca tried to lighten the mood. "You're going to miss the best part. I have to do another saline wash."
"Oh, lemme do it. I've seen this lots of times." Evie grabbed the bottle from her doctor's hands and cleaned away the raw wound.
"You should get out of engineering and be my assistant."
"I could never. Can't stand the sight of blood unless it's my own."
The two stitched and stared in silence. There was a minor stopping point when Becca had to give Evie another injection to keep the hand numb. "How do you go through this stuff so quickly?"
"I can't help it," Evie explained. "I just process it quickly or something."
"Just missed the manual tendon here." Becca stated. "Good thing we didn't have to go digging. Wiggle your fingers before I close it up."
Evie wiggled her fingers. "That's always weird. Moving them and not feeling them. I see them move, but it's only my will that makes them move."
"It's only your will that makes them move any other time."
"That doesn't make it any less weird."
"How do you mean?" Becca asked.
"Well," Evie looked at the ceiling. "I know it's my will that makes them move. I mean, my desire or whatever stimulus sent by my cerebellum and such, but there's no feedback. I don't feel it move, so I'm detached from it. But that's just it, isn't it? I make a decision and see myself doing a thing, then I do it. So when I imagine it, I can feel myself doing it, then I do it and feel myself doing it again, like deja vķ, but it's more than that."
Becca nodded. "When you regain feeling in this hand, it's going to hurt. I'll give you some pills for it."
"I don't want pills."
"At least talk to Franz about putting ice on it to help prevent swelling."
"Isn't pain how we know we're healing?" Evie asked. "What about those people who can't feel pain? Don't they get hurt all the time? They burn themselves and chew up their lips and scald their esophagus. Isn't pain how humans learn what's safe?"
"Are you talking about neuropathy?" Becca asked. "Yes, okay, pain is important. Children with the disorder are in constant risk of self injury."
"What about emotional neuropathy?"
Becca looked at her friend. "That's called being a sociopath. It isn't healthy either...And we're done. Be mindful of those stitches."
Evie rubbed at her eye. "Do you think emotional pain is important for human development?"
The ship's doctor slipped into her role. "You want to talk about that fight you had the other day?" Becca thought back to the minor altercation that had occurred a week prior.
The patient stared at her hands a moment. "No."
Dr. Rebecca Tabib examined her friend. "Evie, you're too hard on yourself. You might not be some kind of fashion model, but you're smart and you're my friend. What was it you and Gordon were fighting over anyway? You had said 'Not today'. What did that mean?"
Evie raised a maimed paw. "I have to go put ice on this. We'll talk later."
And with that, she stood and limped in her usual way out of sick bay.
Becca sat in the empty room for a few minutes. What the hell were they fighting about? Why won't she talk to me? She started to clear away the needles and gauze. Jeeze, she forgot her watch as well. It had a short arrow pointing to an IX and a longer arrow pointing at a VI. Typical engineer stuff; it always has to be complicated. She started to put it in her pocket, No, then I'll forget, and put the timepiece on her own wrist next to her digital watch. I'll just give it to her when I see her next, which should be as soon as she realizes she's forgotten it.
Evie had already crashed out by the time Becca finished cleaning up and filing the incident report. She ran into Franz in the corridor.
"Do you have the remains of that glove from Evieís suit?" he asked.
"No," she answered. "She already had the glove off when I met her outside the bay."
He rubbed the back of his head. "I just wanted to see how bad the damage was and see if I could fix it, but I canít find it anywhere."
"It probably got purged," Becca yawned. "At the same time when we opened the bay door to send out that Vencume body. They didnít seem interested in taking it with them."
"Yeah, I guess." Franz nodded. "Those squid were in a big hurry to get going. Probably had to do with those two cores they had with them."
Becca is dreaming about New Year's Eve. She is riding on her father's shoulders and swaying with each step he takes. Above her, fireworks explode: deep booms that she feels in her chest. The colors glitter across the night sky.
"How's my little princess enjoying the show?" her dream father asks.
She tries to answer, but no sound comes out. A brass band plays one note over and over.
Her father repeats the question, thinking she hasn't heard him. Again, she opens her mouth but is unable to speak. Her father gives her arm a little squeeze. "Rebecca, honey? You okay up there? Were we out too late for you? Have you fallen asleep? Rebecca? Becca? Becca?"
"Becca wake up!" It was Judith, shaking her awake. Behind her, there were flashing lights. An alarm was going off.
"What? Where?" Becca stumbled out of bed. "What's going on?"
"We're under attack! They're attacking us!" Judith looked near panic and ran out of the room.
Becca quickly got dressed, hurriedly putting on pants, shoes, and jacket. No time to comb her hair. Who is attacking? She grabbed her quick-bag filled with the things that mattered most.
Stella's unnaturally calm voice came over the intercom. "Attention crew. Attention crew. Please make your way to center section, bay fifteen. We are evacuating. We are evacuating. Please make your way to center section, bay fifteen. We are evacuating."
Becca ran into Franz in the corridor. "Why are we evacuating? What's going on?"
Franz took Becca by the arm and continued his brisk pace. "About twenty minutes ago, Stella picked up some kind of large ship on the display. It didn't respond to hail at first; then it started lobbing stuff at us. Mostly junk from the looks of things. Paul tried to evade them but they're fast and now our ship's starting to suffer. We're close to losing one of the holds. Judith went to get you because you weren't responding to the intercom. We were actually worried your berth had gone out."
They caught up with Max and Evie.
Max was giving a basic rundown to Evie. "Weíre short one lifeboat, due to our magnanimous nature, so that cramps the nine of us in one. Engines are still keeping a good push. Sensor section is breached but the shutters are in; no idea on the cargo. Spin is slowing down so weíll be swimming the last lap."
"This must be what the Vencume were running from!" Evie was shifting her quick-bag from shoulder to shoulder.
Already, Becca felt her steps gaining a little more spring. Soon, they would have to push off from walls. She leaned forward and kicked.
"We should have listened to them!" Evie shouted over alarms. "They tried to warn us!"
"Shoulda woulda coulda!" Franz yelled back.
By the time they made it to bay fifteen, the section had completely stopped spinning. The crew had to grapple with doorways and kick off from walls. Becca glanced sideways at Evie who seemed to be moving effortlessly in zero-gee while the others bounced off each other and struggled to keep moving.
The lifeboat sat in the center of the room, gripping the hold-stays. Captain Wainwright floated just outside the door, making sure his crew was safely aboard. Franz gave Max a good push to where the captain caught him. Franz pushed himself off with a huff.
Evie kicked off and pulled Becca with her.
"Relax," Evie said as she turned in the air and looked Becca in the eye. "Glide with it." She turned again in a lazy arc, pointing Becca at the lifeboat door.
The inside was cramped. Gordon was already sitting at helm, prepping for the launch. Stella and Judith were in the two seats behind. Paul pulled Becca into the seat next to him. Franz, Max, the captain, and Evie crowded in behind.
Captain Wainwright shut the hatch and gave the order to go. The hold-stays released and the boat started to float up from the floor. The only problem was that the bay door wasnít opening.
"Iím giving it the command," Gordon mashed buttons, "but itís not working."
Paul leaned forward and peered out the glass. "Itís not even trying to move. We have to open it manually."
Evie was already opening the hatch. "You donít have time to suit and crank. Itís the receiver on the side wall. I can send the command from the loadmaster and ride the magnet down."
"I can do it," Max said.
"Youíre getting married," Evie stopped him. "And I work better in zero-gee." She pushed off from the hatch.
The loadmaster was a crane control pod at the top of the bay used for loading and unloading of cargo. Evie launched herself up to the pod and pushed past the dark-gray, emergency pressure suit that had floated out from behind the seat.
The control display flickered when she turned it on. Weíre losing juice. Weíre losing connection. She entered the master password and brought up the command menu. Load, unload, connection, main hatch open, pressure override, pressure override passwordÖ
ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO OVERRRIDE THE PRESSURE SENSOR CONTROL SYSTEM?
"Yes!" She punched the OK button
OVERRRIDING THE PRESSURE SENSOR CONTROL SYSTEM MAY RESULT IN DEPRESSURIZATION OF LOAD BAY
"Yes! Yes! Ok! Yes, I'm sure I want to escape! Why don't you have an emergency override?"
OVERRRIDING PRESSURE SENSOR CONTROL SYSTEM. OPENING MAIN HATCH
"Donít give me a blow-by-blow, just freaking do it! If I survive long enough to meet the guy who designed this system, I'll kill him!"
Evieís ears popped.
The main hatch groaned open and air rushed out. The wind was deafening. Evie shut her eyes and clamped her hands over her ears. When she opened her eyes, she tried to get a fix on the lifeboat beneath her, to calculate the magnet drop.
The lifeboat had left.
There was no escape now. And the bay was quickly depressurizing.
Evie quickly wriggled into the pressure-suit. I canít believe this. Not easy. Nothing is easy. We can do this.
She set the loadmaster electromagnet to "on" and loosened the pull-line. It clanged to the bay floor and she pushed out from the control pod, using the line to control her decent. Getting the door to the hallway open involved a hand-crank, but she managed to get enough room to wiggle into the main corridor.
Evie swam through sections of the ship, pulling the emergency rip-cords for the shutters in each section. These must be Tzikzik. No worries. If I can just keep the core going, I can turn the ship so they donít go after the lifeboat.
At one stop, Evie found two extra tanks. So, that's enough air for sixteen hours. I can hold out that long. I'm not hypoglycemic. I can hide. If all else fails, maybe I can just do a walk and cling to the exterior. If I can tether outside, I have all the time I need. The reality of her situation was closing in. I can't do that. This is deep space. I can't leave the field. I have to hide here. Sixteen hours is a long time.
A grinding noise told her a section of ship had lost pressure. There was a low groan. The rumble ached at Evie's bones. It's not made of cardboard. It's not going to come crashing down. My hips...Her breathing in the suit was getting faster, shallower.
There was a cracking sound. Something electric was burning out. So there's still atmosphere. Tzikzik need that, don't they? She pushed through another section of ship. What do they want? This place is huge. I can hide somewhere. I can do this. It's not that bad. We've seen worse. Just get to the core and keep it going. We're still too close to the lifeboat. Get the ship turned. We have to keep the lifeboat safe. We can pick them up once all this is done. This doesn't make any sense.
A popping sound now. As long as the others get away. Maybe they can get back to the ship once all this is over. I just have to make sure we can hold pressure afterwards. I'm fine in zero-gee. I can do this. It's okay.
You've lived a good life.
There. That was the sound of a person dying.
Evie banished the idea. Once the Tzikzik are gone, I can pick up the others. That's no problem. It's just like the Vencume. I'll just send out a couple lines and bring them back in. I can do this. It's eight people. They can stay on the lifeboat while I fix the bay. I can do it. We have the parts. I can do this. It will be just like it was before.
I've lived a good life.
That dying mantra snuck in again. Evie was pushing the last lap into the engine control room. She didn't even bother with the ladder, but shot up the tunnel. This is easy. We've been here lots of times before. I can do this. There's too much bulk. Which suit am I wearing? Is it my yellow one? I love the yellow one. No, this one is black. That's fine. Black hides my weight. Black is slimming. I'm sorry, Becca. I never lost that weight. It's bad for you. Heart disease.
Evie quickly made the adjustments to halt all remaining fuel to port engine. They want to destroy us. They hate the Vencume and they're angry. We stole their prey from them. She's all yours now, Gordon. Take good care of her. I hope you two are far enough away.
The graphs glittered. The monitors agreed, yes, this will be accepted. The shipís angle adjusted by thousands of kilometers a second, now pointing away from Peg-51, moving away from a tiny lifeboat. Maybe I can distract them with one of the tanks. I can hear them. They need atmosphere. You hear that? They're mortal. They have to breathe. I'm sorry. I'm going to die fat. I lived a good life. Remember me?
The sounds were closer now. Something had found the main hatch to the engine control room.
Take care of Becca, Gordon. Don't be like that guy was with Gwennie...
While the Tzikzik battered down the door, Evie slowly started to recite pi to as many places as she could remember, her calming exercise. She had to start over a few times, but by the time she got to the 180th place, she and the Tzikzik had come to an understanding: Evie understood why the Vencume had been afraid, and the Tzikzik understood how much effort had to be expended to take a human being apart.
"You left her! I can't believe you left her!" Judith was crying and took frantic swings at Gordon.
Paul struggled to hold back his older sister. "Judi, Judi, Judi...no no, calm, please, calm."
"What was I supposed to do?" Gordon shouted. "The moment I turned the engines on, we shot out of the bay. The door shut on its own."
"Lifeboats on deep flight ships do a quick burn to get us away from the wreckage as quickly as possible," Max said coldly. "You could have waited."
"Unless you didnít know that..." Paul added.
Captain Wainwright pointed sternly. "You're off my crew. That's it. You'll never fly with a Wainwright again."
"Or a Trechantiris," Stella added.
"Your career is over," Franz said under his breath.
"There may be criminal charges," Wainwright continued. "Once we get to Peg-51..."
"If we get to Peg-51!" Gordon snapped. "We're still eighteen days out and that's on a freighter, not some dinky lifeboat. Who knows if our field will hold out or if the snapback will even work right? We're in the middle of nowhere and those...things might still be after us."
"Shut up, you ass," Stella hissed.
Paul handed his sister to her fiancťe and pulled Gordon out of the pilot's seat. "Evie managed to get the ship turned after we left," he let the last word linger. "So we might not have to worry about any pursuit. We're headed the right direction to get to our destination. We might get...eight days? There should be enough ships coming in and out that someone will pick us up."
Max gave Judith a hug and patted her on the back. "We'll make it."
Stella was already going over the comm. "We can do a general distress for now. The scoop will get us there as long as the field holds. Once we get close enough, we'll switch to a narrow beam."
Franz was checking the storage hatches. "We're stocked enough for half-rations, so we might get a little hungry at the end. There's enough water for...six days...for the eight of us."
Wainwright pointed at Gordon. "There's enough water for seven of us."
"You can't," Gordon pleaded.
"I'm the captain. I could throw you out an air-lock right now, if I wanted."
Gordon looked around the tiny ship at the captain, the captain's wife, the captain's son, the captain's daughter, the captain's daughter's fiancťe, then Franz and Becca. "It was an honest mistake. I didn't know..."
"Ignorance is no excuse," Franz said. He swam in behind Gordon and twisted his arms behind him.
Max found some zip-ties.
"You can't be serious!" Gordon squawked. "You need every able hand you have on board! Becca!"
"Able hands," Becca glowered.
Franz punched Gordon in the stomach. "You'll be quiet or I'll gag you."
The crew took shifts sleeping. Paul and his father traded turns at the helm. Judith and her mother swapped as navigator. Max and Franz guarded Gordon. Becca slept and tried to stay out of the way. She checked Gordon over a couple of times to make sure he wasn't too badly dehydrated.
Or beaten. Franz had taken out some aggression on Gordon and used him as a stress-releaser. Max had watched with clenched fists but not joined in. Judith had looked away, as had her parents and brother. Becca wanted to get in a few hits, but was afraid that once she started, she wouldn't be able to stop.
It had been maybe a couple weeks prior, Becca was in the bay getting an inventory order ready. The trip thus far had required the usual list of complaints common on a ship. There had been a round of the sniffles the first week as the crew got adjusted to the recirculated air; that had been handled with antihistamines and saline sprays. There had been three cases of dry eyes: Stella, Paul, and Judith. Simple drops and swabs handled that. Gordon got food poisoning once. Franz had cut his thumb. Max had sustained a first-degree burn.
And Evie...Evie had twisted an ankle, bumped her head, bruised her thigh, broken a toe, and dislocated a finger. She may as well be berthing here. She looked over the chief engineer's file again. There was a ten-centimeter difference between one leg and the other and the longer leg usually suffered the most injury. Those stupid hips. Why couldnít anyone set those properly?
Becca had become friends with Evie quickly; one was a good patient and the other was willing to answer questions. She grinned. The engineer always wanted to know what was going on. "What's this called?" "What does this do?" "How does this work?" Maybe they were kindred spirits: one maintaining the crew and the other maintaining the ship.
Her intercom beeped; it was Paul. "Becca, I need you in bay six. Bring something for a broken nose and some busted knuckles."
Bay six was in the third section of the ship and it didn't hold a spin because crew rarely went there.
Becca floated into the hold to a regular welcoming committee. Paul and Franz were holding Gordon back and Max was holding back Evie.
"I don't care what you think," Evie was yelling, "I've had as much as I can take!"
"You think you're all that!" Gordon was shouting back, somewhat nasally. "You arenít anything. Youíre just here because you failed there!"
"Whatís going on here?" Becca asked.
"Evie came back here to work on one of the connection linkages," Max said, "I guess Gordon followed her back and they got into some stupid fight."
Paul explained in surprisingly measured tones, "Captain asked me to handle this for him." It struck Becca as odd that the captain would send his son down in his stead. Maybe heís getting him prepped for his own ship. He's so young! She also found it unnerving whenever Paul would refer to his parents by their titles.
Gordon wiggled a bit in Franz's arms. "Okay, okay, you don't have to pin me."
Franz and Paul let go of Gordon. Max let go of Evie. Gordon pushed off of Franz and came at Evie swinging. She twisted in the air and kicked him in the small of the back. Becca noticed that she wasnít wearing any shoes.
Franz had spun off and caught himself against a container. "Fool's a crazy bastard," he hissed.
"Enough!" Paul shouted.
Evie righted herself quickly. "He started it."
Gordon bounced off a container. "I'll end it, too!" He pushed off and tried a grapple that Evie folded away from effortlessly. How easily she moves down here, Becca thought. He might have the advantage up front, but back here, sheís in control.
Evie had perched on another container. "I'm not dealing with this. Not today. You got that? Not today!"
"No one's dealing with anything," Franz held out his hands in a defensive posture. "We're taking him out of here. Right, Gordon? Right?"
Gordon rubbed his bloodied nose. "Right."
Becca turned to Paul. "Can you two get him out of here? Get him in the bay and Iíll meet you there."
"I have to take him up anyway for a dressing down. Captainís irritated there was a fight." He grinned and turned to Gordon. "Gorsky!" It was perfectly authoritative. "You, me, them, out, now!"
As Max followed them out, he caught Becca's sleeve. He flicked his head back towards Evie. "She's been kinda distracted all day."
Becca nodded and watched the others leave. She looked up at Evie, still clinging to the container side. "Did you get that connection linkage fixed?"
"Yes," Evie snapped. "No thanks to that JACKASS who snuck up on me."
"Are you going to come down or do I have to go up there?" Becca pushed off from one wall to where Evie was perched, like a blotch, in her red jumpsuit. "I've done field medicine before. I'll patch you up right here if I have to."
Becca kicked up and caught herself on one of the support beams. Evie was pulling her shoes on and muttering under her breath, some string of numbers. "Eight three two seven nine five zero two..."
"You're not measuring anything."
Evie stopped and removed her glasses to rub her eye. "Just a thing I do to calm myself down."
Becca held out a hand. "So, let me see those knuckles."
Evie presented her right hand to Becca. This didn't even warrant a local anesthetic; it was a simple matter of two butterfly sutures.
"Are you two really that bored? There's got to be a better way of dealing with things than this."
"I can't stand him, Becca." Evie turned her head away.
Becca chuckled. "I think he's jealous of you."
"How could he possibly be jealous of me?" Evie rubbed at her right eye. "He's good looking and..."
"I think he envies your skill," Becca explained. "How many runs have you done?"
"Fifteen," Evie said gravely. "Fifteen flights. Seven were long haul."
Becca tucked away the suture backings in a pocket. "That's a lot. This is my fourth. I didn't think you were that old."
"I'm not. I just don't take extended breaks like everyone else does."
"So, you just go from one ship to the next," Becca nodded. "You don't spend any time at home?"
Evie shook her head and patted the connection linkage. "I've flown with a guy like Gordon before."
Becca kicked towards the passage. "How'd that turn out?"
"He came in too fast and wrecked a port in Cancri-55. It took two weeks to fix the damage."
"You think he's like that?"
"I think he's the kind to make a dumb mistake. He's going to forget some little detail and it's going to cost someone their life."
They floated through the passageway and grappled the ladder into a spinning section of ship.
"Max said you've been distracted all day," Becca noted.
Evie brushed off her jumpsuit. "A little. It's no big deal."
"No big deal?" Becca asked. "I understand that's why I had to patch up your hand. Again."
"I'm just thinking about stuff," Evie explained.
"You want talk about it?"
"It doesn't matter," Evie sniffled and rubbed her nose with the sleeve of her jumpsuit. "It doesn't matter anymore. That was a long time ago."
"Evie, if something is bothering you, please let me know. I'm not just asking as your doctor. I'm asking as your friend."
"I don't want to talk about it," she checked her watch. "I have to go. You have to report to the deck soon. Maybe later, okay?"
Now, in the lifeboat, Becca wondered if she would ever find out what the fight had been about.
The second day on the lifeboat, Becca realized Evie's quick-bag was on board. It was filled data-storage stiks, some tools, what looked like a paper-journal of mechanical drawings, and―at the bottom of the bag―a tiny automation.
"Franz," Becca handed over the mechanical mantis. "This is for you."
Franz held it gingerly. "What is it?"
"Evie was making it for you, to help you pick up. It's a model."
He nodded. "A tiny helper for a tiny ship."
It had been maybe a month before the Vencume came on board; Becca had stopped by Evie's workshop after dinner one day to return a data-storage stik she had borrowed two days prior. It had been a rather drab read and Becca was going to see if she could find something a little more entertaining.
Evie was sitting on the floor in a loose-fitting blue smock, tinkering with a tiny automaton. It only stood twenty centimeters high and moved in fits and spurts.
"Here's that thing back," Becca held out the stik. "What are you messing with?"
Evie picked up the mantis-shaped device and pulled a screwdriver out of one of her many pockets. "I was thinking about how Franz has to do so much cleaning up after us, so I decided to work out a model of something that could pick up trash."
Becca lowered herself to the floor. It was easy for her, this auburn-headed doctor. She wasnít as graceful as Stella (who was?), but it was a ballet compared to Evieís method of hurling herself at the ground. Becca brushed aside a curl of hair. "This is what you do with your spare time?"
"This was easy," Evie set the electronic mantis back down on its feet and watched it move. "What I really want to do is work on ship design. Everyone tells me that no human could ever fly in one, because of how quickly I make them move." She grinned and scratched the strap that held her glasses in place, then poked at the mechanical model. "I've decided to go with a Brooksian model on the programming for this guy, so it's only going to need about six commands. What did you think of Francis Bacon?"
Becca's head snapped a bit at the change in topic. "I wasn't sure. The language was pretty stodgy."
"You read medical texts drier than that."
"Maybe, but a pharmaceutical white-paper holds my attention more because it's something I can use."
The mechanical mantis wobbled over to Becca's foot and took a few exploratory stabs at her toe. Evie picked it up again and made some adjustment to its underside.
"Are you only interested in things you can use?" Evie asked.
"You make it sound so cold."
"I was just curious." She set the mantis down again. Its movements were a little smoother.
"It's not that I'm only interested in things I can use," Becca explained, "but I suppose I am a little more forgiving of the prose when the material is something that effects my life."
Evie put the screwdriver back into a pocket of her blue smock and pulled out a pinch of hex nuts. "I confess that I have vast contemplative ends, for I have taken all knowledge to be my province." She scattered the nuts on the floor and the tiny automaton picked them up. "This, whether it be curiosity or nature, is so fixed in my mind as it cannot be removed."
Becca frowned. "How do you remember things like that?"
The engineer returned a crooked grin. "Things like white papers are a mental paste; everything is pre-digested. Sure, I have to read those and commit parts to memory, but there's no joy to it. Writers like Bacon, on the other hand, are like fiber for your brain. It takes a bit more effort to cut it up, chew it, and digest it, but it's more rewarding in the end."
"You're wasted on this ship."
"It's work I enjoy. I have enough time to think about things." Evie shrugged. "People don't bother me all the time."
"You seem to get along with people okay."
Evie sighed. "I'm judged here on what I know and what I can do, not...how I look."
Becca knitted her eyebrows. "I think you look fine. Why would you worry about that?"
"It still matters to some." Evie rubbed at her right eye.
"Evie, it's not like you're some horribly disfigured monster."
Evie knocked over her mechanical mantis and watched it struggle to get up. "I'm fat and I'm clumsy and I have crooked teeth and a lopsided skull that puts weird pressure on my eyes."
"You're also clever and knowledgeable and generous..."
The engineer flopped onto her back and imitated the mantis' struggle for a moment. "She has a lovely personality," she squealed mockingly. Evie suddenly sat bolt upright. "The arms are too short; it can't right itself," she scooped up the mantis and started to fiddle with it more.
"You're distracting yourself."
One arm came off the mantis and Evie studied it. "It amuses me."
Becca pointed to the automaton. "I could never do that. You just think up a thing and make it. I donít think anyone of the ship can do that except you."
Evie twirled the tiny arm in her fingers. "If it was only that easy, to take a thing apart and fix what was wrong with it. Maybe that's why I like to work with machines. I can do for them what...what no one can do for me. I wish I could do it for myself."
"So you hide yourself in an engine room on a ship and hope no one will look at you?"
Evie laughed. "Well, that, and I get to fly here. You have no idea how liberating that is."
Becca hoped that Evie was flying on the Tong Dizhou, or what was left of it.
The third day on the lifeboat, the captain and his wife were speaking in low tones.
"Oh, David. What are we going to do now?"
"We'll be okay." The captain held his wife's hand. "It's not the end of the world. Brian is still out there. James is doing okay. His wife is going to have a baby soon."
Stella nodded. "Yes, I read that. Maybe Paul and Judith can book passage with one of them."
"We'll be all right," the captain grinned. "You'll see. We still have family out there."
Two days before the Vencume had come on board, Evie was swimming in the wave-tank, her uneven legs thrashing behind her gracelessly.
Becca checked the timer on the side and took a note on the force of the water. "According to this, that's been ten kilometers," she said. "That's more than enough."
Evie didn't hear her, so Becca turned off the wave. The engineer bumped up against the front of the tank and raised her head.
"I didn't know you were here," Evie pushed up her goggles and rubbed her right eye. "You told me to get in this, so..." She sank in the water, letting it lap against her lower lip.
"If you're shy, I'll turn around," Becca laughed and turned around.
There was a splashing sound behind her. "Okay," Evie said.
Becca turned back around to see Evie in a slightly wet black jumpsuit and toweling her dark hair. The goggles had pushed the bangs back and Becca could see a couple of fine scars at the hair-line.
"Where are my glasses?" Evie asked. She was trying to scan the room but obviously could not focus much further than two feet.
Becca handed her the glasses and her watch. "I'm glad to see you're taking my advice."
"If I have to do it, I have to do it," Evie muttered, putting on her watch. "It's almost time for lunch; let's go see what that's going to be."
They walked through the corridor, Evie trailing a bit. Something from the galley smelled good.
"That's new," Becca noted.
Franz was grinning madly, grilling a piece of previously frozen soy-chicken. "I love this thing!"
"Glad it could be of some use," Evie smiled. "A happy cook is a happy ship."
"You should patent it!" Franz continued, brushing on a thick helping of some Pegger sauce.
Evie shook her head. "Not for money or for fame, but out of life's deepest convictions, out of the belief that we all of us have the right to live to dream as we choose."
"Spare me the philosophizing and pull up a chair," the squat man pointed.
"How much do you read," Becca asked, "that you can pull quotes like that?"
"Deep flights give you a lot of time to think." Evie flopped in a chair. "We're like floating monasteries."
Becca nodded. "I've been using time to write a letter to my cousin. Do you have anyone back home?"
Evie's face darkened. "No. Not anymore."
The fourth day on the lifeboat, Gordon was begging Franz. "Please, please, just a little. It hurts. You've got to give me something."
"I gave you something," Franz was answering.
"It hurts to swallow," Gorden whined. "You've got to give me some water."
"I'll give you water when we get picked up."
"I'll die before then. Are you guys going to eat me when you run out of stocks?"
"What a noble sacrifice," a hollow chuckle from Franz. "I hadn't considered it, but we might get desperate enough."
Becca rolled over sleepily. "Save me his right hand," she said.
The fifth day, Judith was staring at her display and chattering excitedly. "This is the lifeboat from the freighter Tong Dizhou and we are in field. Lifeboat from freighter Tong Dizhou and we are in field. Eight souls on board. We are five days out. Do you copy?"
Becca rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. The crew was clustered around the comm system, which was chittering back.
Franz rummaged through the hatches. "Where's that blasted translator?"
"There should be one built in," Max leaned forward and made some adjustment. The chittering turned into a calm woman's voice.
Human ship. Vencume recognize. Matching field. No snapback failure. Understanding. Vencume gratitude. Human help.
Stella pointed at a large object on the radar. "There she is."
"It's huge," noted Paul.
Judith was still trying to give the Vencume information. "We are five days out and supplies are low. On route to Peg-51. Eight souls on board and in need of pick-up."
Understanding. Vencume recognize. Human help. Vencume help.
"Found it!" Franz waved a translator. "I knew we had one on board."
"Does this mean we're saved?" Gordon asked meekly. "Does this mean we're going to make it?"
"You're not off the hook yet," Wainwright said tersely.
The Vencume ship came closer, filling the glass and shimmering as its "borrowed-time" field matched that of the lifeboat. It was a huge ship, at least eleven, star-shaped rotating sections. One section was slowing down.
"Thatís where theyíll bring us in," Max pointed. "Once the spin has stopped."
Eventually, the section stopped spinning and a hatch door opened. Three small ships of flew out.
"Are those recovery craft?" Becca asked.
Stella tapped the display. "No, they just flew past us. Maybe they're making room."
"They certainly are fast," Paul noted.
"Looks like they're sending out a couple of lines," Wainwright said, pointing at the two harpoon-style guns that had emerged from the hatch. "Hold on."
Two rocket-assisted electro-magnets shot towards the lifeboat. There was a clang and everything shifted. One wall of the lifeboat became down.
"They're pulling us in kinda fast," Max observed.
Everything turned upside-down again.
"We're on board," said the Captain. "They're starting the spin."
Gravity was slowly returned. The crew held their breaths.
There was a noise outside of the ship. That meant atmosphere.
Finally, a clanging sound. 2...3...5...7....The prime knock.
Captain Wainwright opened the hatch.
Three Vencume greeted them. One wore a translator around one of its arms that spoke in a deep male voice.
Much gratitude. Human ship broken. Welcome human.
"We don't have suits," Wainwright stated.
Understanding. No infection. Lab ship. New Vencume. Understanding.
"What's a 'new Vencume'?" Judith asked.
The crew slowly exited the ship, legs wobbly from days in zero-gee.
"Thank you," Stella was saying. "You have no idea how much this means to us."
These Vencume were taller than any Becca had met before. The Vencume that had been brought on board all those days ago were a scaly purple. These were a smooth blue. They clustered around the crew and ran their fingers over everything. Standing so close to them, she could hear their bark-covered feet grip and release the floor.
One Vencume peered into the lifeboat. Its entire mass wriggled and its color shifted to a blue-violet.
Human fix ship missing. No core. Missing human fix ship.
Captain Wainwright nodded gravely. "Our chief engineer, yes."
Human fix ship fix human ship.
"Maybe, I...we don't know."
The Vencume wearing the translator turned it off. The others chittered excitedly amongst themselves and the tentacles above their arms interlaced. Some consensus was reached and the Vencume turned the translator back on.
Understanding. Human follow. Vencume transport. Peg-51. Have both human ship now. Feed human.
One Vencume was running fingers over Gordon. He was disgusted but too hurt and weak to push them away.
Human broken. Human fix human.
Becca held out a hand. "I'm the ship's doctor. He's okay."
A Vencume approached and ran fingers over her. It wasn't an unpleasant sensation. She had never felt actual Vencume skin before; it had always been through a suit. Its skin was soft, smooth, cool, and thin. There was also a smell that she couldn't place. It reminded Becca of miso soup.
Human fix human.
Becca stammered. "He's fixed enough. He..." She saw Wainwright shoot her a glance. Don't say anything about that. "He'll be okay."
Human fix human. Fix arms. Human arms broken.
Max pulled out a multi-tool. "They aren't broken, we just had to...to keep him from hurting himself." He moved in to cut the zip-ties and Becca heard him whisper, "You keep your trap shut. The Vencume might space you if they find out what you did."
Gordon nodded and rubbed his wrists.
The Vencume led them down a long tunnel, shuffling and chittering the entire time. Becca thought they spun as they walked, rotating from one foot to the other. This was a much quicker way of moving than the usual five-footed shuffle.
The leader stopped and turned on its translator.
Human outside ring. Understanding. Stay human outside ring. Understanding. Vencume inner ring.
It turned the translator off and the others resumed their clatter.
"They want to keep us separated?" Becca asked.
"The centrifugal force is greater on the exterior of the spin." Max explained. "Upper levels, closer to the center, will have a lighter pull. It's just like on the stations."
Franz handed Becca the translator he'd rescued from the lifeboat. "How do I work this?"
Becca took the translator and set the controls, then turned it on. The calm woman's voice started:
Much damage. Uprising. *Tzikzik* control. Extension.
The Vencume stopped and turned to Becca. They clustered around her. One stepped on her toes with a gnarled foot.
Human fix human. Translator. Human translator. Human fix human. Human device.
"Sorry," Becca stammered. "I was just showing...Franz...how it worked...."
Captain Wainwright took the translator and turned the device off. "We are guests. Let our hosts speak in private."
The lead Vencume turned its translator back on.
No malice. Understanding. Human translator. Human fix human no malice.
Another Vencume ran its fingers over the captain.
Understanding. Human fix human curiosity. No malice. Understanding.
A third Vencume stopped and opened a door. It was a lift with a complicated lever and they all went down what looked like two levels, based on the lights. Then left, then right, then another door.
Human place. Understanding. Human stay with human. Understanding. Outside ring human place.
It was a large room with five doors. There was a table in the center with seven chairs. To one side was counter with three displays, like coms.
Max entered first and opened one of the doors: a smaller room with two palates. "Looks like beds," he said.
"Were they expecting us?" Judith asked.
Franz gave Gordon a shove. "You're with me."
Becca turned to the lead Vencume. "We have human waste. Humans make waste. We need to clean."
Understanding. Human fix human follow Vencume.
It led her across the hallway to another room of smooth plastic. There were nozzles on the walls. The Vencume pressed a button on the floor with one of its feet and the room was filled with spray. It turned the spray off and pointed to a hose attachment. It pressed another button and waved a set of fingers over the opening so Becca could hear the suction.
Human fix human. Understanding. Human waste. Human clean. Understanding.
Becca nodded and chuckled in spite of herself. "I understand. It will work."
Acceptable. Human fix human. Understanding.
"Yes." She found the situation so absurd she had to laugh. "It's acceptable."
Human fix human. Understanding. Human acceptable. Vencume similar. Understanding.
"How bad is it?" Stella asked when they returned.
"It's primitive," Becca explained. "But it will work."
Another Vencume entered with what looked like zero-gee rations.
Human feed. Vencume return. Human stay human.
The crew took a seat at the table except Franz, who loomed over Gordon. The Vencume ran its hands over the captain.
Human lead human follow Vencume. Broadcast Peg-51. Other broadcast. Understanding.
Wainwright nodded to the crew. "I'll be back soon."
Stella handed out the rations, saving one for her husband. Franz grabbed the ration from Gordon, but Stella made him hand it back. "We've tortured him enough."
After a while, the captain returned with the Vencume. "I let Peg-51 know that we're not coming in with that shipment. The Shipping Authority's making arrangements. I also sent a burst so Jason or Brian will know what's going on."
Judith leaned over to Paul. "Maybe we'll get to see Jason and his wife."
"The squiddies are checking to see what's left of our ship," the captain added. "This ship picked up our first lifeboat, the one we gave those four the other day. Once everything was sorted out, they had adjusted course to return it. They knew we were headed to Peg-51, so it was a little surprising that there was no freighter there. After they picked us up in the second lifeboat and found out what had happened...Well, they'll let us know if they find anything. The news may not be good, so try to come to grips with it now."
Stella nodded. "I know we're all thinking about Evie. She may be maintaining the wreckage of the Tong Dizhou but we can't be sure. We all know how resourceful she was."
"Is," Max corrected. "We all know how resourceful she is."
"Is, yes. Of course."
"The point is," Wainwright changed the subject, "the last leg of this trip is going to be a little unusual. Humans haven't berthed on a sqiddie ship before, so this is a rare honor for all of us. We've been given free rein, so we're welcome to wander a bit as long as we stay on the outer three rings of this section. Do not abuse this."
Stella nodded. "It may be best if we just clean up and get some rest for now."
Rooms were assigned. The captain and Stella in one room. Max and Judith in another. Both Paul and Becca had their own rooms and Franz shared the last one with Gordon. The crew cleaned up and prepared for some sleep.
As Becca undressed for bed, neatly folding her five-day stinking clothes, she noticed she was still wearing Evie's watch. She knelt on the floor and watched the ancient-style second-hand sweep across the dial.
I'll never see her again. I don't even know how to take care of this thing. She held it to her ear and listed to it tick. This is nothing but time. She put her hand on her chest, feeling her own heartbeat. The battery will run out. It will stop. Why couldn't she get a quiet watch? The long hand pointed to an II and the short hand to a V. Why couldnít she get a watch that just tells you the time?
Becca hurriedly re-dressed and stumbled across the hall, stamping the button that would activate the shower. She stood in the steamy spray, knowing the noise and the tears would be washed away.
Becca found it hard to sleep. Her clothes itched. It was abnormally quiet on the Vencume ship. The watch kept ticking. When she finally did drift off, strange dreams woke her. The room was disorienting. She finally got up and went into the main room.
Max was fiddling with one of the displays.
"You can't sleep either," Becca sighed.
He grinned in the half-light. "I have a puzzle to keep me occupied."
She sat next to him.
"It's a primitive keyboard." He poked at the display buttons. "But there's no markings on it, just these raised bumps." The display screen itself was a matrix of tiny metal balls and the texture changed as Max pressed buttons.
"Like Braille," Becca ran her hand over the display screen. "Do you think the Vencume can see?"
"They must. There are lights on the ship."
She nodded. "Maybe they can't see that well."
Max continued to poke buttons. "This is just a system, like any other. There has to be a pattern to it. I just have to figure it out."
"Find out how long the rest of the trip will take."
"Oh, we'll be there two days after schedule."
Becca stared. "How can you be so sure?"
The junior engineer smiled. "Follow me."
Just down the corridor from their quarters was an observation deck of sorts. As the section they were in did its lazy spin, other sections turned.
Max pointed to a green nebula and a faint red spiral. "Those two will get closer as we approach Peg-51. Back home, they're on opposite sides of the sky."
Becca watched the two bodies dip under the horizon of the ship. "Did Evie teach you that?"
"No," he looked at his feet. "Judith."
They watched the spinning sections for a while. They looked like the rolling clouds of an impending thunder-storm.
"I miss rain," Becca said.
Max laughed. "So do I. Sometimes, I tune in radio static. It sounds the same."
They laughed half-heartedly at the mutual confession.
Becca sighed. "How did we get here?"
Max leaned against the glass, breathed, and doodled the start of some schematic in the condensation. "Because we had to. Evie used to talk about it. ĎWeíre looking for a back-door to the garden of Eden.í I think she might have been religious."
"She had me reading Francis Bacon," Becca laughed.
"God forbid that we should give out a dream of our imagination for a pattern of the world," Max quoted.
"Do all engineers do that?" she asked. "Memorize obscure and ancient quotes?"
"No," he breathed against the glass again, erasing away whatever he had just drawn, "just the good ones."
Becca woke up to the sound of a muffled struggle from the next room.
Paul was already next door, helping Franz subdue Gordon. Gordon had a bloody mouth and Franz's ear was bleeding. He'd been bitten.
"We have to get out of here!" Gordon was shrieking. "They're going to eat us!"
"No one's going to eat you, you squirrelly bastard," Franz growled.
Paul rushed to Becca's side and took her arm. "Please tell me you have sedatives in your quick-bag."
"Enough to put us all to sleep forever."
He wrinkled his forehead. "Morbid." Then he grinned. "Pragmatic. But a bit more than we need."
"It's regulation," she started, but realized all the quick-bags were still on the lifeboat. She ran from the room and bumped into the captain.
"Where are you going in such a rush?"
"Our quick-bags are still on the lifeboat," Becca snatched the translator off the table. "I'm running down to the bay to get some sedatives."
She turned right, no, left, down the hall and sprinted down the featureless corridor. He would freak out. Never should have been brought on board. Cracked under pressure. Can't deal with guilt.
Then the lift and its complicated lever, up two levels, or was it three? Each level looked the same.
Down a hallway. Right?
She was lost. How embarrassing. It was best to just go back to the others at this point.
Back to the lift. Down three levels. Was this right? Down a hallway and left.
No, not this floor. How far was the room from the lift? Up one level. Then right?
This floor looked right. There was a room with an open door down the hall, so that must have been it. The Vencume must have come and helped.
No. Not this room. Curiosity got the better of her. This room had what looked like an operating table, but wide and short. The lips curled up and there were slots along the sides. The floors curved up to form a smooth surface with the walls. Easier to clean up.
Another room. There were empty core containers here. Becca looked in one and thought about the thick, insulated walls. There were cylindrical tanks here filled with a dark liquid.
Another room. Mostly empty except for thick columns throughout.
In the next room, there was another tank of some sort, roughly two meters long and a meter tall. Tubes and wires fed into it, surrounded by pumps and other devices. Before Becca could get any closer, a door opened and two Vencume came spinning into the room with a third shuffling slowly behind. Becca hid behind a column and quickly turned off the translator so it would not give her away.
She did not see anything that happened, but had to deduce it from the sounds she heard.
A lot of Vencume chittering. A splash, maybe something being taken out of the tank or put into it. Some metal device clattering. A monitor beeping at an increasing rate. More chittering. A splash, and then what sounded like thrashing.
And a cry, near-human. Becca jumped. It was a tongueless sound, just a hollow moan. There was additional clicking, but it sounded like it was machine-made, like a translator. The thrashing stopped and more metal clatter.
The moan started again. It sounded like a baby, an incomprehensible wail of pain and fear. Some kind of squishing sound, no, Becca had heard that sound before once during a surgery she had assisted on. The thing in pain would moan and mechanical chittering would start new.
It went on like this for an eternity. Metal on metal, near-human groan, mechanical chitter, Vencume chitter, splashing, monitor beeping.
Finally, the Vencume left. The room was silent save for the monitor's beep.
Becca peered around the column. There was only the tank, the surface still settling. She approached it carefully. The tank was full of some dark liquid, so she couldn't see the contents.
"Heh-hello?" she asked.
A device at the head of the tank flickered to life. There was a mechanical clicking from it. Becca turned on her translator, which had a little trouble with the inorganic sounds.
Tzzzzackack who chichichichi not allowed who no one *tzzzz* not here ckckckckck.
"My name is Doctor Rebecca Tabib of the freighter Tong Dizhou. Our ship was destroyed and the Vencume picked up our lifeboat. What were they doing to you?"
Buh buh buh bekkkkkkakakaka kakakaka eyezzzztz not allowed guh guh ggggggogogogo.
"Are you in any pain? There are eight of us. If you need our help, we might be able to do something for you. We're going to Peg-51. There are others like us there. We might be able to―"
Chichchichi peg peg peg zzzzzzzekkretetetetet not allowed bekakakaka gogogogogo.
Becca stared at the inky surface of the tank. If she put her hands in it, what would she feel? There was something in there, but something in pain. She rolled up a sleeve and started to dip her hand into the liquid. It was thick...slimy.
Nonononono *tzzzk* gogogogo bekkkkkakakakaka not here gogogogo.
Becca pulled her hand out quickly. The liquid was viscous enough to roll off in salty-sweet smelling drops. Her hand was going numb.
Human fix human.
Becca swung around to see a Vencume behind her. It set down a covered tray and approached her quickly, long digits wiggling.
No human here. Understanding. Stay with other human. Understanding. Not safe. Understanding.
"What's in there?" Becca asked. "What are you doing to it?"
Other human. Human fix ship. Recovered pod. We fix human.
"That's Evie? You found Evie?"
Human fix ship. Understanding. We fix. Not safe. Understanding. Stay with other human.
"No no no," Becca protested. "If that's Evie I have to stay here. I'm a doctor. I fix humans, okay? I have to stay here and fix her, I have to see how you're trying to fix her, okay?"
Great damage. Not safe. Understanding. Stay with other human. No human here.
A second Vencume had spun into the room and the two tried to push Becca to the door. She shoved past them and ran to the tank. "You want me to stay, don't you, Evie? You need me to stay."
Bekkakakakaka puhpuhpuhlezzzzahahah gogogogo.
The door opened and a third Vencume entered, accompanied by Captain Wainwright.
"Doctor Tabib!" he shouted. "Get away from that. Come here right now!"
"I know what you're thinking and it doesn't matter. There's nothing you can do for her right now, so come here and leave her alone. She has to rest. Now, come on."
Becca stared wildly around the room. The Vencume. The captain. The tank. The Vencume. The door.
Captain Wainwright held out a hand. "Becca," he said softly. "Come with me. I'll explain it all to you."
"Those three recovery craft the squiddies...Vencume...sent to find what was left of the Tong Dizhou..." Captain Wainwright calmly explained, "they only found a trail of debris, but it looks like the Tzikzik had left behind the Vencume pod we had picked up. At least the squiddies could at least retrieve their own property. They towed it back and found Evie inside. She was in pretty bad shape; how bad, they won't say. But, because we had helped out those other four, they agreed to help as best they could. All in the spirit of inter-species good-will, right? I guess the squiddies felt responsible for her predicament, seeing as how we had given up a lifeboat for them, so they decided to alter some of their stem-tech and see if they could 'fix a human'. I don't know what's left in that tank and I don't know what we'll be facing when it comes out, so I'm asking you to be quiet about this. There isn't anything you can do for her at this point; the squiddies decided this for us. If it fails, well...I don't want the others to get their hopes up."
"So this is an experiment for them?" Becca gasped.
"This ship that we're on now is a floating laboratory." Wainwright gestured around him. "Turns out the squiddies have hundreds of them throughout their empire. It's part of why they're able to accommodate us. You may have noticed that the squiddies on this ship haven't insisted on biosuits for us. They're probably exposing themselves to infection so they can work out what anti-bodies or whatever is needed. I imagine once all of this is over, we'll never have to use suits with squiddie again."
Becca nodded gravely. "They're preparing to use us as allies in their war against the Tzikzik."
"That may be true," Wainwright agreed. "And it may be justified. They've already shown some pretty strong aggression against us."
"I can't just leave her in there alone!" Becca changed the subject and dabbed at her eyes. "It's obvious she's in pain. If I could just explain to them how humans work. They have to know how to stop the pain."
Human fix human.
Becca's translator intoned calmly. A lone Vencume was waiting. It ran its fingers over Becca.
Human fix human. Understanding. Human fix human follow Vencume.
Wainwright nodded. "Go with them. It should be okay."
The Vencume led Rebecca down the corridor to a darkened room. There was a model of a human skeleton in the center that multiple Vencume clustered around, running their fingers over it. A clattering sound and the model changed into a circulatory system. Another clatter and the form shifted to a nervous system
Human fix human understanding human.
Becca stared in wonder at the model. It looked like a basic anatomy; nothing distinguished its gender. As she got closer to it, she could see it was made up of many, tiny, metal balls, like the display screen.
Human fix human answer Vencume questions. Human fix human fix human fix ship.
"Yes," Becca watched the layers peel and restore. "I'll tell you how to fix her right."
The model shifted again.
Human fix human understanding structure. Human fix human understanding broken structure.
The pelvis on the skeleton changed from normal to twisted, to normal again.
Helix for one shape. Vencume find broken shape. Human fix human understand shape.
"Her pelvis," Becca understood. "There was an accident. It was broken and didnít heal correctly."
Vencume fix shape. Match helix.
Now the skull on the model flickered.
Broken shape. Helix shape. Human fix human understand broken shape.
"The same accident," Becca watched the skull making its adjustments.
The skull peeled away to show the brain and eyes. The two orbs elongated and contracted.
Broken shape break sensor. Helix shape fix sensor. Vencume device fix.
The skull returned and the jaw flickered. Teeth misaligned and straightened.
Helix create extra shape. No evidence shape.
"Wisdom teeth. They were probably removed."
Common remove shape. Vencume misunderstanding. Extra shape from helix human remove.
Becca nodded. "Itís quite common to remove wisdom teeth."
Now the model showed the digestive system. The Vencume ran a hand over the appendix.
Misunderstanding helix shape. Vencume find missing shape. Helix creates shape.
"The appendix," Becca explained. "Itís like the wisdom teeth: a leftover from our evolution. She probably had it removed as well."
Human fix human fix helix.
"Yes, a doctor would have removed it with surgery. It was probably infected and had to be removed."
Helix create shape for infection. Misunderstanding. Human fix human explain missing shape.
"It has no purpose now. It might have once, but it doesnít anymore."
Human fix human not fix helix. Misunderstanding. Helix broken.
"Itís not broken, we just still have them."
Vencume fix helix.
And it went on like that for several hours. Becca was reminded of all the questions Evie had asked her in the bay. Why did the knees work that way? What were toenails for? Why is the lower back submitted to so much pressure? Why did bellybuttons scar the way they did? Why do humans have so many filtration and excretion systems? How do humans eat and breathe through the same tube?
When Becca finally crawled onto her palette to sleep, she couldnít help but think it was a wonder the human body worked at all.
Becca was rubbing the sleep out of her eyes when a Vencume entered the room with a plastic box. It handed out clothes to the crew.
Vencume make new skin for human. Understanding. Human clean. Human put on new skin.
"What's it talking about?" asked Max.
"He's saying we stink," stated Franz, "and need to put on clean clothes." Franz held out one of the new articles: loose fitting shirts, practically smocks. The pants were long with drawstring waists. There were no shoes.
Vencume take old skin. Vencume clean old skin. Understanding. Return.
"So we get our old digs back." Max pulled off a shirt.
A Vencume waited to collect each personís stinking pants and shirts and became agitated when the crew insisted on washing one at a time. They made allowances and went two at a time instead: the captain and his wife, Max and Judith, Franz and Gordon, then Paul, then Becca. Becca let the others go first and got a little extra sleep. There was no soap, but the water was under pressure and served as a massage and shower.
Clean and invigorated, the crew ate the rations the Vencume gave them.
Becca showed Judith and Stella the observation deck. They hugged and laughed because they were alive. Max and Paul even compared new beards.
Max tried to explain the display to the captain.
A Vencume came and the captain left with it. When he came back, he was all smiles.
"Judith, Paul, you have a four kilo nephew."
Judith's eyes lit up. "She had the baby!"
The family hugged.
Captain Wainwright patted his children on the back. "Jason said his name is Isaac. There's another Wainwright in the universe."
Paul smiled. "I can't wait to show him how to bring in a 200-tonne freighter."
"Or how to calculate the distance between systems," Judith added.
Stella kissed her husband. "Congratulations, grandfather."
Capitan Wainwright hugged his wife. "You too, grandmother." He turned to the crew. "The Qiu Fa Zu will be making a return trip fourteen days after we hit Peg-51. Becca, Franz, you're more than welcome to berth with us."
"I'd never take advantage of a new grandfather," Franz laughed.
"Do they need a doctor?" Becca asked.
"They just had a baby!" Stella beamed.
A Vencume had brought back the crew's clothes, but now they were clean.
"They brought our quick-bags, too." Max was cheerily going through his. "Now I have pen and paper."
"Good." Wainwright checked his bag. "Keep at that display. Let me know if you've made any progress."
Judith rummaged through her bag. "Everyone brought stiks, but no one brought a com."
"Thereís one on the lifeboat," Stella stated. "We can just use that."
"Who wants an apple?" Franz grinned.
Judith frowned. "You hid those from us the whole time..."
"They were a last meal." Franz handed them out, even to Gordon. "I knew they'd keep. Now theyíre a celebratory meal." He handed Becca an extra apple and winked. "Just in case."
Three days passed. The crew had spent the time going over their data-storage stiks on the com in the lifeboat. They were taking turns and the crew started to sleep in shifts again.
It was early morning according to Evie's watch (or late evening). Becca had gotten up first and crossed the hallway for a morning purge and cleanse. Standing in the hot spray, she heard chittering across the way.
There was a Vencume in the room and the others were sitting at the table. Becca tied back her wet hair and took a seat.
The Vencume ran long fingers over Becca, tentacles vibrating excitedly. It used its own translator, which spoke in measured baritone.
Human fix human invaluable. Vencume understanding. Fix human fix ship. Understanding. Vencume has helix. Vencume fix human fix ship. Human fix ship fixed. Understanding. Human fix human answer Vencume questions. Understanding. Human fix ship still fix human fix ship. Human see human fix ship.
The door opened and a figure came in, its head obscured by a mask...? Goggles, but with multiple small lenses, moving independently. Her hair was short and white; she was dressed in some sort of white, clinical pajama; and she sat cross-legged on top of a...a walker? It looked like a chair with a high-back, but a section of it dropped below, like a rest. Like a jack with no arms, Becca thought. But there were arms―four jointed legs that started in the seat of the device with knees that stopped at the figure's shoulder-level. Her legs wrapped around some sort of control that rose from the seat of the device. The walker moved without any noise but a slight hiss. The bulk of the device filled the room. It looked almost like...
"Evie!" Becca shouted. That's what it looked like: the tiny mechanical mantis Evie had been working on all that time ago.
Lenses on the goggles swiveled rapidly to focus on Becca, the head slowly turned.
"We thought you were dead," Gordon said with relief.
"No," Evie said stiffly. "Not dead."
Max approached her. "What's with the get-up, Chief? This a squiddie wheelchair?"
"Something like that, yes."
"Why are you wearing that...?" Becca didn't know what to call the set of lenses that wrapped around the upper half of Evie's face.
Evie brushed her fingers across the array. "The pressure this puts on my head will re-shape the skull. I might not need glasses once this is over."
"But that's fantastic!" Judith exclaimed. "Why couldn't anyone do that for you before?"
"Because I'm still half-blind wearing it," Evie explained. "My eyes are actually shut underneath this mess. I have to rely on..." she twisted and pointed to the back of her head, lightly touching a bulky mass at the back of the mask that wrapped behind the skull, "...these inputs, back here. A direct brain to machine interface. I can see, but, it's...imperfect. I'm not sure how they figured it out."
Franz examined the walker. "They have you sitting cross-legged? Isn't that uncomfortable?"
"It's actually better for my hips," Evie picked at the fabric on her knee. "They, it...it has to set again. It should set right this time."
"You won't limp anymore," Becca stated.
"I might still limp. I've been limping my whole life. I have to learn how to walk again."
"I am so happy to see you again," Stella walked up to Evie and gave her a complicated hug. "This is so wonderful."
Paul pointed at Evie's head. "Why is your hair white?"
"Trauma," Becca interrupted.
"Yes," Evie answered with a slow, single nod. Her movements were jerky. "It might grow in normal later. The Vencume shaved the back for these." She tapped the goggles.
"You have to tell us everything," Judith said.
"You have to tell us about that wheelchair! It's incredible," Max added.
"What happened to the ship? Was it in one piece when you left it?"
"What did the Tzikzik look like? Did you see any?"
"Did they take the ship or just blow it up? I heard there was some debris..."
Evie looked from speaker to speaker, the lenses on the goggles constantly adjusting. "I'm not used to this attention." She shook her head. "It's very...it's too much." She covered the lenses with her hands. "I can't stop seeing."
The Vencume ran its fingers over Evie.
Understanding. Vencume device weaken human fix ship. Understanding.
There was moment of silence that Gordon broke. "I have to apologize to you." He glanced at the others and looked for approval from Captain Wainwright. "It was my fault you were left on the ship, I panicked and―"
The entire mass of the walker had shifted forward and Evie was barreling towards Gordon. She caught him midsection with the lip of the walker and trapped him against a wall, the front legs of the device pinning his arms to his sides.
"I've had a lot of time to think," she hissed. The walker's front legs raised centimeters at a time, slowly lifting him off the ground. "I can't tell you how much thinking I've been doing."
"I'm sorry! God, I'm sorry!" Gordon cried. "I panicked! Anyone would have done it in that situation!"
"Not anyone," Evie growled. "Just you. You did that."
The Vencume was agitated. It wiggled long fingers.
Human fix ship not break human.
The back legs on the walker were slowly straightening. She was putting more pressure on him.
Gordon bleated. "Puh-puh-please!"
She leaned forward in the walker, her face getting closer to his. "Have I told you about the almost complete understanding I have now of how a human fits together?"
And she let one of the front legs on the walker bend, only a little, and snapped just one of Gordon's ribs.
The Vencume chittered and twitched.
Human fix ship break human. Human fix ship not stay with human.
"Gaines..." Capitan Wainwright said calmly. "Killing him won't change anything. He wasn't going to be on any return flight; we've already decided that. Just put him down."
Evie looked back at her captain, then faced Gordon again. "I donít limp in this thing, pretty boy."
The walker pulled back, dropping its prey in a pained heap. The Vencume spun over to Gordon and ran long fingers over him.
Human fix human fix broken human.
Becca ran over to Gordon. He held his side and moaned.
"Chief?" Max held out a hand to Evie. "Are you...?"
The Vencume was changing color to a deep purple. The skin was changing texture to a scaly mottle. It held its five arms close to its body and the twisted masses of fingers tightened into balls.
Human fix ship break human.
Evie stiffened in the walker. The legs lowered again, putting her back at eye level with the others.
"Please forgive that little outburst," she finally said, covering the lenses. "I'm jumpy," Evie said. "Iím sorry. My head hurts. I didnít mean to do that."
"It seemed pretty deliberate," Captain Wainwright stated.
"You've had a rough time," Stella said. "You just need some rest."
"Iím sorry," Evie was backing out of the room. "It wonít happen again."
"Do you want to lie down?" Becca asked. "We have room. Paul and I can double up."
"No, noÖ" Evie was shaking her head. "I haveÖa room, upstairs. Iím not staying down here."
"One of the upper levels," Max said. "Where you wonít weigh as much."
Evie shuffled the walker out into the corridor. The Vencume turned to follow but Becca stopped it.
"Iím her doctor," she implored. "Let me know if you need anything."
The Vencume ran fingers over her.
Understanding. Human fix human.
It was later that day that a Vencume came for Becca. It led her to a lift at the end of the corridor and they went up three levels.
Evie was out of the walker, wobbling between a set of parallel bars. "Just like old times," she said. "Except these bars are too short to really get much work done."
"You're doing wonderfully," encouraged Becca. She held up a Granny Smith. "Franz had packed some apples in his quick-bag as a last meal. He sends one up and wishes you good luck."
"Tell him thanks," Evie smiled. "Put it on the chair. I need a goal."
Becca noticed that Evie was taking light steps. "Youíre not working the muscles. Try to put more weight on your feet and not your hands."
"Itís not the muscles as much as it is me learning how to use them."
"Youíve lost weight," Becca observed. "How long were you on the―"
"Becca," Evie asked between pained steps. "Is that translator on?"
"You havenít heard it chittering?"
"Turn it off," Evie said.
Becca turned the device off. The Vencume chittered and spun out of the room.
Evie watched it leave. "How much do you think it costs to put me back into one piece?"
Becca looked at the door. "Why do you ask?"
"I ask," Evie was going for another round on the parallel bars, "because I know it can't be cheap. I know how much it cost my folks the first time around." She turned herself around at the end of the bars. "You must know it costs a lot. I'm just hoping you're okay with what I paid for it."
Becca watched Evie wobble and falter. "What do you mean by that?"
Evie caught herself on the bars and changed the subject. "How badly did you guys beat Gordon?"
Becca frowned at the change in subject. "It wasn't all of us. I guess it was that obvious?"
"He moves differently," Evie said between pained-looking steps. "I figured he was the one who launched the lifeboat prematurely and in the heat of an evacuation, everyone would have looked for a release."
"We were out five days."
"Five days?" Evie's breathing was a little labored. "That long. Wow. Tell me you at least fed him."
"Franz has taken charge of him," Becca explained.
"You're going to break him," stated Evie. "That guy is messed up. He's like glass. You apply enough pressure and he'll shatter. I feel bad enough about that rib I cracked, but you guys really worked him over." Evie huffed to the end of the bars and did another turn. "Where's that Vencume?"
Becca opened the door and looked down the corridor. "It left. Should I turn the translator back on?"
"Might as well," Evie walked unsteadily back into her walker and collapsed against it. She sighed again and quoted something. "Oh, I'm wearied wií walking, and fain wad lie down."
"Are you sleeping okay?"
"Itís these things," Evie tapped the goggles. "All this pressure on my head. Plus, I canít turn them off. Makes it hard to sleep. If thereís any movement in the room, I see it. It wakes me up so I canít get more than a few minutes at a time."
Becca looked at the device. "There must be a switch or something. Maybe you canít feel it."
Evie leaned forward. "Maybe. I just want it to be dark for thirty minutes, you know? I want to give my brain a rest. This is making me crazy."
Becca ran her hands over the goggles. Evie's head was covered in tiny scars. "I canít find anything."
"Thereís a pin here," Evie pinched the head. "I think that takes them off, but it might not kill the connection."
Becca shook her head. "No, that might be too much. Youíd be getting stimuli from two sources."
Evie straightened out and brought the walker to life. It raised to near the ceiling before settling at eye-level.
"What time is it?" she asked.
"Oh!" Becca fumbled with the watch on her wrist. "I almost forgot. I still have your watch."
"So I saw," Evie smiled, "when you were looking at my head cast. It picks up motion in a weird way, so that second hand really stood out."
"Well, itís setting bone." She took the watch from Becca and tried to put it on. Her head wobbled. "I canít get a fix on it."
"Let me," Becca took the watch and fastened it to her friendís wrist.
"You put it on upside down," Evie said flatly. "Iím not that blind."
"Just too blind to work a buckle."
"I canít see the holes."
Becca undid the watch from Evieís left wrist and started to refasten it. "I donít even remember why I had it."
"I left it in your bay whenÖ"
Evie snapped her hand back. She crossed her arms across her torso, tucking her hands into her armpits. "I have to go."
"Are you okay?" It was sudden and Becca furrowed a brow. "Do you need help?"
Evie shook her head and the walker turned to the door. "No, Iíll be fine. I just have to do something. Sorry."
The door opened and Evie almost knocked over a Vencume that was coming in.
Human fix human fix human fix ship.
"No, I didnít fix her. Thereís a broken part there."
Misunderstanding. Vencume fix human fix ship.
"No," Becca shook her head. "Thereís a part in there you canít fix. I have to."
Max looked up from the display. "Howís the chief?"
"Tight-lipped," Becca said. "Sheís having trouble with that goggle get-up."
Franz handed her a ration. "But is she doing okay? I know you guys are friends and all."
Becca nodded. "She's going to be okay. The Vencume goggles are putting a lot of pressure on her head. They also said they'd see about turning them off. Turns out, they don't sleep. They thought eyelids were for cleaning the eye."
"You spent a good amount of time with them the other night," Wainwright stated.
"They have some sort of machine, like the display screens," Becca gestured. "They kept talking about the 'helix', so I think they have some way of looking at DNA. They didn't understand why Evie's hips looked one way when the DNA said it should look another."
"The accident," Stella muttered under her breath.
"What was the accident?" Max asked. "Chief never told me."
Becca laughed. "She fell off a roof. She'd built a crude spaceship out of cardboard and kitchen chairs."
A Vencume came to Becca the next day, visibly upset. Its skin was a mottled purple and it had twisted each of its five hands into tight balls.
Human broken. Human fix human not explain. Human broken. Human fix ship not honest.
"Whatís wrong with Evie?" She was suddenly gripped by fear. "What happened?"
Human bleed. Human bleed not normal. Human fix ship say normal. Human fix ship not honest.
Becca tried to figure out what the Vencume was talking about. Evie is bleeding but she says itís normal. What kind of bleeding is normal? "Itís her period," Becca explained. It was never an issue before, but her entire pelvis has changed. That's why she left in such a hurry. "Yes, thatís normal. It will end soon. It happens roughly every twenty-eight days."
Human helix broken. Bad design. Human fix human explain.
Becca calmly explained how the human reproduction system worked and what was happening. She also stated it could be suppressed using hormones, as she did.
Human fix human fix human bleed.
The Vencume calmed down once it understood how to stop the process, its skin shifting from the mottled purple back to a smooth blue. It uncurled its hands and ran long digits over Becca.
Human fix human honest. Human fix ship honest. Human not broken. Helix broken.
When Becca saw Evie again, she found her on the observation deck, staring out at the rolling sections of ship. "It looks like the ocean."
Becca leaned against the glass. "I thought it looked like thunderclouds."
"If you listen closely, you can hear it." Evie craned her neck. "Or it's the scrubbers. It even smells like the sea-side here. You know? That seaweed smell."
"Yeah," Becca agreed. "Are you doing better? Are you still havingÖ"
Evie nodded. "It was aÖstomach thing. I wonít bore you with the unnecessary details. The food here is weird."
"Weíre adjusting," the doctor nodded. "Youíre still working on your bars?"
"I hope to be out of this thing soon," Evie rubbed her head. "My right eye itches."
"Try not to think about it."
Evie made a fist. Becca noticed her sleeves were a little longer; only the tips of her fingers peeked out.
"It's like wearing a pressure suit," the engineer said finally. "You have something you want to scratch or press only...you can't. For whatever reason."
"Whatís the longest you've spent in one?"
"A long time," Evie sighed. "This last trip was...it's rough."
"But you made it to the Vencume pod okay. Did it hold pressure?"
"I'm not sure. I guess it did."
"How long were you in there?" Becca asked.
They were interrupted as Stella and Judith came onto the deck. Judith smiled broadly at Evie. "It's good to see you again."
Evie tapped the goggles. "Good to kinda see you."
"Just having a moment?" Stella asked.
"We were talking about the ocean," Becca explained.
"Oh," Judith shrugged. "I've never seen it."
"There's more than one ocean." Stella looked out over the roll. She placed a hand on the glass and leaded against it. "We'll have to send you back home for a while. Just so you can see why we do what we do."
The four women looked at the stars.
"Just when we think we have pretty good grasp of what's going on," Becca finally said, "someone like the Vencume come along and point out how ignorant we are."
Stella quoted. "Humanity is now ready for the truth. Slowly, but surely, he approaches his end, which is perfect knowledge and absolute dominion of the universe."
"Not you too," moaned Becca.
Evie smiled. "Verne! Ah, 'The Eternal Adam'. And, as Bradbury noted in his commentaries, 'if we reach the stars, one day we shall be immortal'."
Stella gave Judith a light hug. "Deep space flights give a person time to think. But we'll grow up, in time. We're just children in heaven right now."
Becca pointed. "Look."
Stella had left a hand-print on the glass. It arched across the stars.
Judith sighed. "How poignant."
"No," Becca said pointing again. "Look!"
There were five glittering points moving towards the ship. They darted and weaved between each other.
"Oh my god!" Judith exclaimed. "The guys have to see this!"
She ran off the deck and soon brought the others in tow.
Franz squinted. "What are we looking at, ladies?"
"There!" Paul pointed at a glittering cluster of quick moving objects, keeping close formation.
"They're coming closer," Franz observed.
"What is that?" Gordon asked.
It was like five points of an invisible star. They contracted to a single point, fanned out in a spiral, then formed the star once more.
Max cupped his hands against the glass. "Is it just one thing that changes shape?"
Paul rubbed his eyes and squinted. "I think it's five things, not just one."
"I still say it, or they, is getting closer," added Franz.
It was a they, and they were five ships. They were larger than lifeboats, but not by much. The design could not hold a large crew, as most of it was a thrust array.
"That's not a Vencume design." Wainwright was rubbing his chin furiously. "It looks like our design, but not. It's almost Vencume, but it's almost us."
Becca backed away from the glass. "It's not...Tzikzik, is it?"
"Not what you're thinking," Evie said sternly.
Captain Wainwright was still leaning against his hands against the glass. "Tzikzik looked a lot like...."
Two Vencume spun onto the observation deck. Becca's translator droned, female calm:
New design. Blue design. Good fast. Much turn strong.
Becca turned her attention to the ships outside. They were much closer now and one would break off from the formation, circle its compatriots, and then return to formation. They took turns doing this.
The Vencume were chittering to Evie. She leaned towards one, smiling.
Much fast. Much turn strong. Good fast. Good blue design. Good yellow pilot.
Outside, the ships were going through other patterns now. Their formation turned, expanded, and contracted again.
Evie started to laugh. "They're playing!"
Becca's translator chittered.
Now that they were close enough, the crew could make out the golden color of the ships. The five fanned out and started to skim the surface of the massive Vencume ship. One would break and roll over the others; they adjusted their order in this way.
"Can you hear them singing?" Evie's laughed again. "This is absolute child's play for them!"
The Vencume seemed excited by the entire affair. They clustered around Evie and ran long fingers over her.
Blue design much good. Much turn strong. Blue design useful. Much fast.
"They're going to hit us!" Judith threw her arms in front of her face just as the five ships skimmed past the glass, meters from impact.
Evie was laughing uncontrollably. Part of Becca was happy to hear her laugh again. A greater part was terrified. "So!" Evie finally said, triumphantly. She leaned into a Vencume, whispering...
She was chittering. Evie was chittering.
Becca tried to get closer, hoping her translator might pick it up, but the group decided to leave. A grinning, white Evie and her shuffling, chittering retinue.
Gordon whimpered, "I think you just lost control of one of your crew members."
The captain glared back at him with disgust.
"They were fast," Franz stated and slumped to the floor. "Can you imagine the gees involved in maneuvers like that?"
"And so precise," Paul added.
Wainwright was chewing his bottom lip. "Those aren't Tzikzik; I'll just say that now."
"You said Tzikzik were like...?" Max let the question hang.
"Tzikzik look a lot like Vencume. The ship that attacked us looked like a Vencume ship."
"You think it's a faction?" Stella asked. "Are we looking at a Vencume civil war?"
Wainwright pointed at Becca. "You two are friends. What's she playing at?"
Becca started at her feet. What was it that had made her leave so suddenly the other day? Why had she been so upset when I mentioned the stitches....?
The thought grabbed at her chest. It was too horrific. No, the evidence was there.
"I..." Becca started. Then stopped. There must be a better explanation. But then, why the longer sleeves? But the scars on her head...That can't be what happened, but...they had her quick-bag. Those ships...Who knows what was on those data stiks. And those drawings!
"What?" Wainwright barked.
"I'm not even sure that is Evie, to be honest," Becca stuttered. "I think the Vencume may have...cored what was left."
Judith was wringing her hands. "How do you mean?"
Becca explained. "We know that the Vencume core their dead. We've all seen the units. I think they core out what equates to a brain and grow a new body for it."
"Aw, no," Max objected. "So her hair is white. Just because we canít see the chiefís face doesnít meanÖ"
"None of us have," Stella noted. "We donít know whatís under those goggles."
"AndÖ" Becca stopped and stared at her hands. She traced a finger across the tiny star-shaped scar on her right palm, where her identity chip had been implanted by the Shipping Authority. My entire history is encoded on that tiny piece of silicon. Everyone on a ship has one. "AndÖ" she tried to start the thought again.
"And?" Wainwright demanded.
"And I've seen her hands."
Wainwright took a conspiratorial air. "What about her hands?"
"She has no scars," said Becca. "The Evie we're dealing with now has no scars on her hands."
Becca ran down the corridor, hoping to find Evie again. She must have gone back to physical therapy. Into the lift, up two levels, right, then left, thenÖ
I did it again. Iím lost again.
Right, then left, then back to the lift. Was it two levels or three? She must have made a mistake going up, so if she just went back down again, it should be okay. Itís these controls. This is too confusing.
Off the lift again and Becca looked down the hallway. They all look the same. Thereís no markings. Well, no markings humans can see. Iíll bet the Vencume can see giant red and yellow arrows. THIS WAY TO MESS HALL or THIS WAY TO OBSERVATION DECK. Becca laughed nervously, despite herself. THIS WAY TO CLONE OF DEAD FRIEND.
She turned the corner and nearly ran into three girls. They were human, yes, maybe twelve years old, but already going into gangly adolescence. They couldn't have been over fourteen, but had soft gray hair, like a Russian Blue cat, thought Becca. Their heads were large and their skin was pale, translucent―near gray. They stood and stared with small blue eyes, blinking like birds.
The quartet stood in silence sizing each other up.
One of the girls spoke first. "You're Rebecca Tabib." She smiled.
"You're Doctor Doctor. That's what Tabib means. You fix hands." The second girl held out her hands. "Our hands are good, Doctor-Doctor. We don't need fixing."
The third girl frowned. "You're not supposed to be here. This area is off limits."
The first nodded. "Idana is right. You're lucky we found you. It would have been worse for you if it had been the Reds..."
"...Or worse," the now-named Idana finished.
Becca stared at the three girls and asked the first, "What are you children doing here?"
The second child said, "Imala, donít answer her."
The first child, Imala, frowned. "You are not safe here and need to leave."
The lone adult still gawked. What did the Vencume say? Blue design? They're wearing blue smocks. "You're wearing blue smocks!"
"We're wearing blue smocks....?"
"Did you make those golden ships we saw?"
Imala the first answered gleefully. "Oh? You saw the them? Aren't they wonderful? That was a fun project."
The second child nodded. "We made them. It's a variant on preexistent Vencume design, but we changed the thrust array for greater maneuverability. And of course, we had to alter the interior a great deal. No Vencume pilot, but they can't handle that kind of acceleration anyway because of their bone structure. Well, their lack of bone structure, actually. The Vencume have a cartilage framework as a direct result of―"
"Ilyssa!" Idana the third interrupted. "This isn't a biology lesson. We still have to get her out of here and fix the lift."
"Did you design the A.I.?"
"No, the Yellows fly them," Ilyssa said. "They call themselves the Golden Swans."
Idana shook her head. "Pretentious and showy...."
The three circled Becca and started to move towards the lift. They were herding her now. Becca pushed back. "No! Stop! I demand to know what human children are doing on a Vencume ship!"
"And we," Ilyssa said sternly, "demand to know what a human adult is doing in our area of the ship!"
"You're clones! You're clones of Evie. Are the others clones as well? Was that why she laughed when she saw the..."
The girls resumed the slow shove to the lift. "It's not safe here. You have to go." Becca may have been bigger than any of them, but not all three.
Becca felt tears in her eyes. "Is Evie really Evie?"
The shoving stopped. They had reached the door.
"Why would you ask us that?" Imala asked.
"Because," Becca tried to explain, choking back tears. "She was my best friend and I don't know if she died or what happened to her and she won't tell me and I miss my friend and I just have to know and I worry and I'm the ship's doctor and it's my job to take care of the well-being of the crew and she's crew and I have to look after her and take care of her and I miss my friend and I'm confused and scared and Iím lost and I don't know what's going on and I don't know how to talk to her and please, oh, please, if she's just a copy then I have to help her be what she's supposed to be and teach her what it means to be Evie, but if she's really still my friend then I have to work to heal and help her through the hurt and help her get over what the Tzikzik did to her and..."
"We hate them," Ilyssa was frowning coldly. "They're a faulty design and need to be destroyed." All three girls had stern, cold faces.
Becca shivered. "You had said, 'the Reds, or worse...' What was that worse you were talking about?"
The lift door opened behind her and she jumped.
"This is where we leave you," Ilyssa explained. "You won't be able to come back this way."
Becca rubbed her face. "What about Evie?"
Idana stood directly in front of Becca and gestured that she bend down, face-to-face. Becca leaned into the child.
"If you have a question, you should ask her."
And with that, they shoved her backwards into the lift.
Becca finally found the right level and stormed down the hallway. If Evie isn't Evie than that's that. Golden swans! Russian blues! A thought shuddered through her. What if the Vencume aren't taking us to Peg-51 at all? They're going to turn us all into ghouls!
She found what might have been Evie in the physical therapy room, staring at her hands. The chair was resting on its base, the legs tucked underneath.
"I've seen the children," Becca stated. "Who are you really?"
The ghostly engineer didn't even turn, but replied with a whisper. "How could you ask me that?"
"Iíve seen your hands," Becca swallowed. "Youíre not Evie. Evie had scars on her hands."
The maybe Evie's mouth seemed to frown and looked at its hands a moment. "Did it ever occur to you that they donít have any scars because theyíre new?"
"Theyíre new," Evie said. "So are the arms. The legs, too. And the eyes and teeth. A lot of it is...new. They didnít have much left to work with."
Becca gasped and covered her mouth. She wanted to vomit. She wanted to scream. She wanted to run away.
"What's that look?" Evie asked. "It's not like I'm some kind of horrible, disfigured monster."
"Just some Frankenstein..."
"Frankenstein was the doctor," Evie said coldly. "It's why I need the walker. I don't have the coordination or strength yet. I have no calluses on my feet." As a demonstration, Evie peeled off one of her white slippers. The skin was smooth and soft, like a baby's.
Becca reached out to touch it. "That's incredible."
Evie put the slipper back on. "I never thought I'd have to prove who I am by showing someone my freakish feet. It's okay. I wouldn't believe it myself." Evie let out a raking sigh. "You asked me once―a lifetime ago―what I had been fighting with Gordon about."
"Are you telling me this to prove that youíre you?"
"No," Evie shook her head. "Iím telling you this because you asked me." She flashed a self-depreciating grin. "We were fighting about you."
Becca was taken aback. "Over me?"
"He loves you, Becca," Evie explained. "Heís madly in love with you. He hates me because he sees me as a threat. I hate him because he reminds me ofÖ" She stopped to compose herself. "He reminds me of someone who cost me rather dearly. My familyÖIÖ"
"I'm so sorry," Becca started.
"Don't be," Evie snapped. "It's not your fault. You had nothing to do with it."
Becca stared at her own feet, unsure of what to say.
"You asked me about the children," Evie stated flatly. "They're my repayment to the Vencume. They needed an army and they were impressed with what human DNA can produce. Your input on how a human body works was also pretty helpful, so you can say youíve paid your way."
"I thought I was helping you," Becca sniffed.
Evie continued: "There are four variants: designers, pilots, infantry, and...I...I'm going to guess you saw the designers."
Becca nodded. "Three gray-haired girls in blue smocks."
"You're lucky," Evie hissed.
"They recognized me."
Evie seemed surprised by that. "I haven't mentioned you." She was lost in thought for a moment. "I guess there was a chance of..."
"What do I tell the others?" Becca pleaded.
"You tell them nothing about the girls," Evie grabbed her arm. "I can't stress that enough. I shouldn't even be telling you about this. We're going to get to Peg-51 and pretend that none of this happened. It was just a dark little moment in everyone's life and things are going to go on like they were before. My head-cast will be off by then and I'm working on callusing up my feet, so we'll say nothing more of it. You stick with the Wainwrights and they'll take good care of you. Maybe we'll hook up again later on down the line but there will be too many questions right now and I can't answer them."
Becca nodded. "What are you going to do now?"
The legs on the walker sprang to life and Evie rose off the ground. "I need to talk to some children and find out what's going on."
Evie tromped down the passageway to another section of the ship, checking her watch. Standard stop in two minutes. I have enough time for a little exercise on the way. Not like I could make the passage during that anyhow.
Doors opened automatically for her, receiving signals broadcast by her walker. She entered the main shaft-way and started across the bridge over the chasm. One minute. It's not going to delay me long. I can spare a couple minutes for this.
In the middle of the bridge, she commanded the walker to grasp the railings. Once that was secured, she uncrossed her legs and moved into a crouch. Thirty seconds.
A rumble and the lights flickered. Evie leapt into zero-gee.
Every twenty-three minutes, this section of the ship stopped its rotation. It was something she had noticed the first trip across; although, the first time it had happened, she thought the ship was under attack and scrambled for a hold on the railing. Later, she timed it and found it to be a regular occurrence. What a pleasant surprise!
Wasn't this exercise? Maybe not as much as staggering along the parallel bars, but it was still worthwhile. She had two full minutes to float around and bounce off the walls before she had to be back to the bridge. That was a mistake she'd made once, and the memory of falling to the ground―and laying there for twenty-three minutes―was not one that would fade easily.
These flights were different in her new body. She didn't have to work one side harder than the other anymore and it frightening to realize how much she had compensated for it in the past. She turned off the goggles and did a lazy half-twist to turn herself upside down. Her feet would hit the ceiling soon and she could kick off from there.
She touched surface and turned the goggles back on.
Gordon was down there, flailing helplessly. He had followed her, the lousy sneak! And what was that in his hands? Some kind of...a cord? A rope? A bit of wire? He was completely helpless, completely at her mercy. She had ninety seconds to do whatever she wanted...
The kick-off from the ceiling was a little more directed. She shot at him, falcon-like, arms by her sides; she felt like screaming in her attack. She howled.
Gordon whipped his head up and the sudden motion turned him upside down. He couldn't control his own mass.
Evie curled up her legs, stuck out her arms, and re-oriented herself for a full-body, double-footed kick.
And Gordon spun uncontrollably over the railing.
She had transferred all her momentum into him, so she was still over the bridge when the spin and the lights came back on. Gordon started his long decent to the bottom of the shaft-way and Evie crumpled a meter from her walker. Her head throbbed. She staggered to her walker, holding onto the railing. Yeah, a few minutes of exercise. Ha! More than I had bargained for.
Once back in the walker, she returned the way she had come. I'll deal with the children later.
It was easy for Evie to make it back to where the crew was staying. Sections of the walls shifted in a predictable pattern that the motion-sensitive goggles sent directly to the visual cortex of her brain.
Stella was closest to the door. She turned and blocked Evie's entrance. "Show me your hands."
The engineer sat for a moment, trying to interpret the looks on the others. Maybe she glowered at Becca: it was hard to tell.
Becca mouthed I told them nothing.
Evie held out her hands.
Stella took her hands and pushed back Evie's sleeves. Her eyes welled. "I would not have believed it."
"I told them," Captain Wainwright approached Evie carefully. "It hurt, didn't it?"
Max was sitting by the display. "It's okay, Chief. They kept the important parts."
"This is a miracle," Stella intoned, still holding Evie's hands. "You survived. You've been reborn."
Evie pulled her hands back.
"This will change everything," said Judith. "Just think what this means for us. People who have―"
"No." Evie turned to her. "They don't want it. The price is too great."
"You'll be able to see correctly!" Judith exclaimed. "You'll walk normally!"
"Immortality," Franz glowered. "There are a lot of people who would pay dearly for that."
"It's not immortality," Evie hissed. She held up her hands in angry fists and pointed at her head. "What about what's up here? They can't remake that. They can't erase what's up here. I still have to deal with that. I still have to remember what happened, how it happened, how that..." She paused. "I kicked Gordon over a railing."
"You what?" Becca stood. "Did you kill him?"
"No," Evie stared at her hands. "There's a section that stops spin every...he'll be able to make it back up. I think he was trying to kill me. I don't know."
Captain Wainwright rested a hand on her shoulder. "Can you show us where this happened?"
"Right then," Franz stood and dusted off his pants. "Let's go collect him."
Becca, Franz, Evie and the captain walked down the corridors, Evie leading.
"We'll get there just in time." Evie checked her watch. "I'll go down and find him."
They passed through one door, another, another. They came to the long bridge.
"I would have thought he'd made it out by now," Evie stated, and Becca noted a tinge of fear in her voice. The engineer continued, "Maybe he hit his head or something."
"I won't blame you if something happened to him," Wainwright stated. "I don't know what the Vencume will say, besides that they picked up eight people."
"They may not want anyone to know what they can do yet," Evie agreed. She told the walker to grip the railing. "One more minute."
The spin stopped and Evie and Becca pushed to the bottom. There was nothing there.
"Gaines!" Wainwright shouted.
They pushed to the top again. "You've quite good at this," Becca noted.
"I've always been good at this," Evie answered.
They got to the bridge just as the spin was restarting. Evie crumpled and Franz helped her back to the walker.
There were two children on the bridge with them. They hid in the shadow of a doorway.
Evie gestured for the others to keep back.
Two children with black hair. Large, dark eyes. Two little girls. Two little shadows.
"Gaines?" Captain Wainwright asked. "Do you understand this?"
"They listen to me,Ē Evie was already releasing from the railing. "Ulan...Uma...did you find something?"
"Toy," one girl said.
Becca hid behind Evie's walker. "What are they?"
"Did you break the toy?" Evie was asking. "Where is it now?"
"Ours," the other girl said.
"No," Evie was taking on a stern tone. "It's not yours. You have to give it back."
The first grinned wide. "Shoulders pop pop."
"Knees pop pop." The twins held each other tight. They giggled.
"Did you share your toy?" Evie asked. "Did you give it to the others?"
One of the dark twins grinned wide. "They left."
"Bored," the second girl pouted.
"Gaines..." Captain Wainwright had a slight edge to his voice. "How many of...them...are there?"
"Of these," Evie sighed wearily, "just the two."
Franz started to run.
The twins sprung, twisting and turning in cartwheels. They leapt past Wainwright and Becca, vaulting over Evie and her walker.
One caught Franz's arm and neatly dislocated a shoulder. The other kicked his knee out. He howled.
"Pop pop." The twins landed and examined their handiwork.
Evie rushed to Franz, the twins spinning away. Becca did her best to stay close to the walker.
"Stop!" Evie yelled. "No no! Bad! These are MY TOYS. You don't break my toys!"
"Bored," one twin smirked.
"Others left," the other frowned. "All alone."
Evie whispered to Becca. "Roll his shoulder back, quick." She turned back to the twins. "You broke your toy. No more toys. You got that? You can't break them, see? You break a toy and I'll take it from you, understand?"
Franz was panting. "What have you done?"
"You go to your room!" Evie was shouting. "I'll talk to you later!"
"No fair," one twin hissed. They back-flipped and cartwheeled away.
Becca got Franz's shoulder rolled back into place. She helped him up and he leaned against Evie's walker.
"You got regular little hellions," he spat. "You know that?"
"The Vencume have an empire," Evie was explaining on the way back. "They control a wide area made up of a number of systems. There's been an uprising of sorts and they needed a method to control it."
"So you gave them the model for an army," Becca panted beside her. "You're going to help them keep those factions in line."
"Let those without sin throw the first stone," Evie snapped. "Or do I have to remind you that your stunning anatomy lesson told them everything they needed to know about improving the design?"
"She thought she was helping you," Wainwright offered.
"Don't remind me," Becca noted.
"Those are mean little buggers," Franz was riding across Evie's lap on the walker.
"Thankfully, thereís only two of them." Evie's mouth frowned. "I don't think they turned out the way the Vencume expected. Those are raw copies from the glove they stole off our ship."
"That's why I couldn't find it," Franz winced and held his knee.
"We can assume that Gorsky is dead." Wainwright said.
"Or worse," Evie added. "Trust me on that."
Franz held his knee. "No thanks to your little brood."
"You broke Gordon first," Evie snapped. "He never would have followed me if you hadn't...well, whatever you did to him. Heís just trying to make it right or something."
They made it to the lift, exited and walked down the corridor.
By the time they made it back to the others, Judith and Stella were all smiles.
"They found the Tong Dizhou!" Judith was practically dancing.
"David," Stella said, "we have our ship back. None of the cargo was lost."
Becca helped Franz off of Evie's walker. "The ship's been returned?"
"The Vencume just told us," Stella beamed. "Oh, Franz. What happened to your knee?"
"A Vencume was just here," Max explained. "He told us that they found our ship and hauled it back."
"Vencume can haul a freighter?" Evie asked.
"You don't believe them?" Max asked. "The Vencume can do anything."
Evie stiffened. "I know where they'll be."
Captain Wainwright was chewing his bottom lip. "Dr. Tabib," he said, pointing at Becca, "go with her. We'll keep looking for Gordon."
Becca and Evie went down the lift. Evie was rocking back and forth in the walker and muttering a string of numbers to herself.
They went to a large room that looked like a mess-hall. There were four chittering Vencume here. Besides them, there were several human-looking children there: two blond girls in golden flight-suits and three red-heads in blood-red armor. Becca turned on her translator.
Red test very good. Yellow test very good. Other *Tzikzik* destroyed. Ships returned. Test good.
"I'm glad you're pleased," Evie stated calmly. "This should pay back any debts we may have incurred."
Very good design. Red design much strong. Yellow design much fast.
"Arlene, Oriana," Evie asked two of the girls. "I heard you got the ship back. Did you have any trouble?"
One red-head grinned broadly. "Altsoba was injured, but it's being attended to." Her orange eyes flashed.
A Vencume was running long fingers over another red-headed girl. Her left hand was covered in blood, but the Vencume was applying a spray to it. She made a fist and held out her hand to show the others it was fixed.
Red design much strong. Vencume fix broken red human.
"Evie," Becca stepped forward. "Who are these?"
The engineer gestured to the children. "Allow me to introduce a debt repaid. Their two teams have just recovered the Tong Dizhou."
One red-head grinned with sharpened teeth at Becca. "That is the Doctor."
"Yes," Evie smiled, albeit a little strained. "You should respect her."
"All humans hold place of high esteem," sang a blonde.
One Vencume continued to chitter. It was turning a light pink color.
Red design good. Much strong. More red design. Yellow design much fast. More yellow design.
"I'm glad you're glad," Evie said stiffly.
"How many of them are there?" Becca asked.
"Total?" Evie asked. "Several red, a few yellow, three blue, and the twins."
Becca gasped. "Donít you think thatís overcompensating a bit?"
The Vencume chittered on.
Human now take human ship. Vencume tow to Peg-51. Human leave Vencume ship.
"Becca," Evie whispered. "My girls and I will need a doctor. You know I'm good for it."
"What?" Becca whispered back, "You're not staying, are you?"
Evie nodded. "I have to. I lost my identity chip on the Tong Dizhou, so it's not like I can travel anymore. The Shipping Authority would never hear of it."
The engineer smiled and whispered, "So you know where they get it."
Becca glared back at the her. "The Wainwrights still need me."
"They have one grandson," Evie said, "and they have a whole family to help them. I have a whole army and I'm on my own. I need you, Becca. We need you.Ē
"My army, Becca," Evie said breathlessly. "My army."