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Rated: E · Book · Sci-fi · #2267123
A thousand+ words a day of the pulpiest science fiction in the universe!
These daily bits are just shorts, starts, and sketches in text; they almost certainly will have no particular connection to each other, although certain themes may run through some of them in common. The idea is to get some practice on the one hand and provide bits for future fleshing out--by me or by someone else, perhaps--in the future.
February 19, 2022 at 10:30pm
February 19, 2022 at 10:30pm
#1027067
“What if we had an easy way to absorb gamma rays?” Claire Haskell said. She wasn't the real Claire Haskell, of course--the novelist wouldn't be born for another sixty years or so, and her novels wouldn't be written for several decades after that.

The real Claire Haskell would be—was—the kind of novelist that many otherwise educated people have not read, although they would know some of her titles: Streamer, The Woman in the Window, perhaps Flashing for Gold. I myself was not a big fan, although I remember Mrs. Miller trying to get us to swallow Haskell’s poems The Seed and Where the Robins Go in the Winter in high school.

Some of the educated public would know a few of Haskell’s characters; some would even know plot details here and there, but that would be about it. The name had been in her mind for some reason, and when she had been asked her name, it fell off her tongue smoothly and so she had adopted it—for the moment.

A beat, and then: “What did you say?” the older man asked. He said it too strongly; the room was suddenly quiet, and a few people looked around. Some may have imagined that a father was discussing something with a daughter, but that was not the case. The man was loud, but he was not excited or angry. Despite his skeptical nature, he was interested, and his naturally penetrating voice reflected that interest.

“I said—” the younger woman looked around nervously as the patrons in the coffee shop started going back to their own concerns. “Not so loud!” she continued, restraining her voice to a soft but insistent whisper. “I can't afford to attract a bunch of attention on this.”

The two of them sat and looked at each other for a few seconds, then Frank leaned back and picked up his coffee. He sipped it, discovered that it was no longer hot, and gulped half of it, setting the cup back down. “Claire, you're trying to tell me about radioactivity, then?”

“Damn right I am,” she answered back, still in the sotto voce whisper.

“And you're trying to tell me about the Higgs?” he smirked.

“You're not as smart as you think. You could get a little smarter if you'd listen to me on this.”

Frank picked up the cup again and was about to drain it when he stopped. “You going to drink that?” he asked, nodding toward Claire's untouched cup. “That coffee cost me four dollars, you know.” Claire smiled and picked it up. Hers too was only mildly warm now. She tasted it and her nose wrinkled at its bitterness. A lifetime ago, Frank Marcetti might have thought this was cute, might have been attracted to her, but now all he cared about was his work on radiation. He had been born year Pripyat was ruined by that idiot at Chernobyl. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan had taken place 25 years later—on Frank's birthday, as a matter of fact. He was in grad school by then, the nuclear engineering program at the University of Michigan, and followed the story closely. By the time the Akkuyu Incident occurred—December 2028—Frank already had 12 years with the Newsome Corporation and was moving through the management grades pretty quickly. Now, at 61, Frank spent all his time directing research, or rather, directing post-docs in their research. That was what had led him to the young woman who now sat across from him sipping at lukewarm coffee.

“The Higgs carries mass, right?” she said, a bit of a smile playing around her lips as she sat the cup back down.

Frank considered her for a moment. “It's been a long time since I had to answer questions about elementary particles.”

Claire snorted. “Yeah, that Higgs, it's pretty elementary,” she said. Then she looked around. “We really shouldn't talk here, it's too close to the school.” She leaned it and continued. “The Higgs. Give me the short story on it.”

Frank looked into the young woman's eyes, which were locked on his. They were blue, darker than what is normally seen, with flecks of white in them. After a while, he decided to humor her, just to see where it would lead, and he recited the following levelly in his schoolteacher's voice, maintaining the locked gaze: “Well, Miss Haskell, the Higgs particle is a boson with no spin or charge. It violates weak isospin symmetry and functions as the longitudinal component of massive W and Z bosons to modulate the Weak Force. You are familiar with the Weak Force, yes?” he finished, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

Claire's smile widened as he reached the end of his soliloquy. “Indeed, I am, Professor,” she answered back, matching his sarcasm with her own. “And the Higgs, what might its decay time be?”

“Ten to the negative 22 seconds,” Frank said.

“Good,” Claire said, breaking away from his gaze. “At least you’ve got that part right. I'll give you a B-minus overall, despite the fact that you have a few errors in your, ah, your—” For the first time since they sat down, she seemed to be at a loss for words. “Your report,” she finished, leaning back in her chair. She sighed, looked around, then cleared her throat and leaned in again. “Listen carefully, I'm only going to say this once, and I'm only going to sketch the large parts out for you. You can take it from there, I think you'll know what to do. No details, and no questions.”

Frank leaned in. Having come this far—having refrained from deleting the email she had sent, having opened it and read it, having gone to the coffee shop at the designated time, having gone over to the booth at which the young woman fitting the description that the email sender had included was waving, having sat down, having ordered and paid for coffee, and having participated in discussion, he was willing to go a little bit farther.
February 18, 2022 at 12:37pm
February 18, 2022 at 12:37pm
#1026980
[Video starts.]

[Camera view of an empty chair. Behind the chair is a wall with a large window in it that looks into another room, and along the wall under the window, a low rack runs the length of the window. Guitars of every variety—acoustics, electrics, and some that aren’t immediately identifiable—are positioned on the rack.]

[Off camera, a voice]: “This is your studio?”

[Off camera, a second voice]: “Yeah, we set all this up after the European tour. That one tour paid for all of this, can you believe it?” [Laughter.]

[A figure enters the camera frame from stage left and sits down in the chair.] “Okay, so you want me to just start talking?”

[Voice off camera]: “Yes, we’ll clean it all up in edit later.”

“Okay.” [Looks at camera.] “When I was a kid, I used to—ah—there was a time when I—um….” [Looks off camera to stage left.] “Let me start over.”

[Voice off camera]: “Sure. We can clean it up after, just go ahead.”

“Heh! Okay.” [Looks at camera.] “Okay, so when I was a kid, I was about four years old, and I had an aunt, my mom’s sister, and she lived with us, my Aunt Dorothy. She was a lot younger than my mom was, the two of them were about 16 years apart, so Dorothy and I, Dodo, I always called her Dodo, she and I were always close, you know? Dodo was nine years older than I was, so she always babysat me, and then also my brother when he came along, and she was kind of more like a big sister than an aunt, you know?” [Pauses, looks off camera to stage left.] “Is that sort of thing going to be okay?”

[Voice off camera]: “It’s perfect. Go right ahead.”

[Looks at camera.] “Okay, so, for some reason, I had a fascination with the Presidents of the United States, and when I was very young, like maybe about four years old, Dodo gave me a book about the presidents. I remember it perfectly clearly, like it was yesterday. It had a blue cover and the presidential seal on the cover, and it had a picture of each president inside and a little biography for each president, from George Washington up to Dwight Eisenhower. Now, this would have been in, ah, let’s see, I was born in 1958, so by the time I was four, it would have been 1962, and Kennedy was president, but this book didn’t have Kennedy in it, it only went as far as Eisenhower. But that was okay, because I knew Kennedy from seeing him on TV. And I knew George Washington, too. But I didn’t know any of the others until I got this book. And for some reason, I just loved looking at those pictures of the presidents and reading about them. Well, I couldn’t really read the biographies because I was only four years old, but Dodo read them to me, and I begged her all the time to read them to me over and over, and I used that book and I learned the names of each president in order. And I got to where I could rattle them off, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, on and on like that, all the way through to Eisenhower, and then I would add John Kennedy at the end. I could do it, like in thirty seconds, and people were amazed that I could do this at the age of four or five or whatever. People couldn’t believe that I could learn something that long and complicated and get it all in order and recite it so fast, but I could. And people in the neighborhood, the other kids and sometimes their parents, would pay me a penny or sometimes a nickel, to run through the list, and I would do that until I had enough money to buy an ice cream from the ice cream truck that came through our neighborhood in the afternoons. Thinking about it today, I can’t imagine that people would tolerate a little kid running around reciting this list of presidents over and over, but for some reason, people did seem to like it and so I did it for like a whole summer. Okay, so, then, when I got to school, immediately, things started going downhill. I guess they started teaching me how to read in kindergarten or maybe like, first or second grade, but I had a horrible time reading. I just couldn’t do it, it was so hard. I’m sure I must have had and probably still have some sort of reading disorder or whatever, but for whatever reason, I just could not figure out how those letter worked to form words and sentences and all that. I’m still a terrible, terrible reader, and I never read book or newspapers like other people do. I can do it, sure, but it’s so difficult and so much trouble that I don’t get any pleasure out of it. So when I started getting report cards, I don’t know, like maybe third grade, they were terrible, like I’d get a 38 in reading, and they’d put comments on there like ‘Bobby doesn’t get along with the other children’ or ‘Bobby doesn’t apply himself,’ you know, things like that, and I would bring these report cards home. My mom used to hide them from my father because they were so bad. And Mom would say ‘I don’t understand why you’re doing so poorly, you’re smart. I know you are.” And she went down there to the school a couple of times, but I could never, I did a little better as I got older, but it was always such a hassle to read anything that I just got to where I was totally turned off by the whole thing. So somehow, I got to high school, and we had two English teachers in our high school, it was just a little school, small town. One of them, Mr. Phillips, I didn’t like him, he was loud and dressed weird, and I just didn’t like him from the moment I saw him, but the other one, Mrs. O’Sullivan, she seemed nice, she was a young person, I think she was only about 30 at the time, much younger than most all of the other teaachers, and she had long flowing blonde hair, I remember she used to swirl around sometime and her hair would swirl around her head, I really like that, and she had a pretty, very pretty smile, and I liked her. And as luck would have it, I got assigned to Mrs. O’Sullivan’s classroom for ninth grade English.

[Voice off camera]: “Bob, hold it there a moment, will you? I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”

[Looks off camera to stage left]: “Oh, sure. How am I doing?”

[Voice off camera]: “Great, just fine.”

[Figure stands up and turns to stage left and walks out of the camera frame]: “The bathroom’s down the hall there, second door—”

[Video ends.]

###
February 17, 2022 at 11:17pm
February 17, 2022 at 11:17pm
#1026938
Two spacesuited figures walked through bluish-gray dust towards low hills on the horizon. Behind them, their landing vehicle stood ready to depart when they returned. To either side, odd curly tendrils rose from the ground, dark orange in color, tapering as they went up. At the top of each tendril was a ball-like structure, covered with sickly green squares. As the two walked along, the squares fell from the balls, like leaves from trees, only in the absence of air, the squares fell directly to the ground, landing on the squares that had fallen previously and forming piles.

One of the figures activated his microphone. “Dave, can you hear me?”

“Yeah, I hear you.”

“What are those square things again?”

“They’re seed pods,” Dave responded. “They collect tidal energy from the gravity gradient as the moon moves around the planet. Each pile will grow a new tree. Whichever square collects enough energy to germinate first will use all the other squares as food.”

“Hmm,” Bob responded. “Are they mobile at all?”

“No, not really. They can fold and unfold themselves a little, but not enough to achieve actual locomotion. That folding is used to best collect the tidal energy. It’s like sunflowers turning their faces to the sun.”

As the two of them proceeded, the tendril trees were getting thicker and soon they found themselves in a sort of thin forest of tendrils. Above them, the stars visibly wheeled about in the dark sky. Bob stopped for a moment, raising his head and watching the endless chase; it was a moment or two before Dave, his crewmate, noticed that Bob was no longer walking with him. “What are you doing?” Dave asked.

“How fast is this thing turning, anyway?”

“One rotation every fourteen seconds,” Dave answered.

“Sheesh.” Bob lowered his head and shook it. “It’s enough to make you dizzy.”

“Just look at the horizon,” Dave said. “Focus on the horizon and take deep, regular breaths. You don’t want to get seasick in that suit, believe me. And watch where you’re walking.”

The two of them continued through and around the tendril trees, which were becoming more numerous as they proceeded. Soon they were having to go between the tendril trees single file. Closer now, Bob could see that the orange trunk of the trees was smooth and appeared waxy, with a dull sheen. Bob stopped again and reached out to touch one of the trees.

Dave turned. “Ah, don’t do that,” he said, and Bob pulled his hand back. “The coating on the trees is corrosive. Not good for your gloves.”

“Ah,” Bob said.

“Didn’t you see that on the mission briefing video?” Dave asked.

Bob shrugged. “I don’t think I really watched it.”

“Didn’t watch it,” Dave repeated. “Okay, well, just stick close to me and don’t touch anything. We’ll be through this patch in a minute and then it’s only a short walk to the lake. You go in front, just stay on the path.”

“Path?” Bob asked. He looked down but really could not distinguish any pathway in the moon’s soil.

“Oh, forget it. I’ll lead, but you stick close and don’t touch anything. And for God’s sake, don’t fall down. Okay?” Dave tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice, because it would serve no purpose until the two of them got back to the ship safely—but then, he intended to make a report on his partner, who appeared to not be taking the mission seriously. It had happened to Dave before, and it always seemed to be contractors who couldn’t be bothered to watch the mission briefs or take precautions on excursions on alien moons.

The two of them continued threading their way through the trees, and then they were suddenly in a clearing. In front of them, a shimmering body of—not water, surely, but what looked like molten aluminum. “It’s farther away than it looks. Everything is on something as small as this. How are you doing?”

“Good,” Bob answered.

“What’s your O2 tank looking like?”

Bob consulted the display on his suit’s left arm. “Hmm, that can’t be right.”

Famous last words, Dave thought as he turned to look himself. “What can’t be right?”

“This says that tank is down to 31 percent.”

Dave turned Bob’s arm so he could see. “Oh, jeez,” he said. “And your pressure is low too. You must be leaking somewhere.”

“I’m not leaking,” Bob said.

Instead of argue, Dave stepped around to inspect the back of Bob’s suit. Sure enough, there was a small patch of icy crystals on one corner of his O2 tank and a tiny filament of icy gas was spurting out of it. “Yes, you are. I see it.” Dave said. He reached down into the thigh pocket of his own suit, pulled the strap, and reached it, retrieving a small tube. “Did you bump something when you put it on?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Bob replied.

“Well, these packs are fragile. Your suit is fragile. So take it easy,” Dave said. He opened the tube and squirted on some of the goo onto the ice around the leak and then he spread it around with his fingers. The goo hardened quickly, sealing the leak, and then Dave inspected the repair carefully. “I think that will do you until we get back to the ship.” He stepped back around Bob and lifted his arm, taking another look at the display there. “Damn it,” he said.

“What?” Bob asked.

“You don’t have enough to continue the mission,” Dave said, his annoyance showing now. “We’ll have to abort.”

“Abort?” Bob said. “We can’t abort. Company will have a hissy fit if I don’t transmit those methane numbers tonight,” he said. There was a moment of silence, and then Bob continued. “Look, the lake is right there, and I’ve got my tester right here.” He patted his thigh pocket. “You stay here, I’ll just zip up there, take a reading, and I’ll be back here in no time and we’ll head back.”

“That lake is farther away than it looks,” Dave said. He was calculating consumption numbers in his head. It was true that Company needed the methane numbers tonight so they could prepare the right torpedoes to launch. It was true that the lake was just a little farther, although it was farther than Bob thought it was. And it was true that Bob had enough O2 to complete the mission. But he would not have any reserve, and that was a procedural violation.

“Yeah, you stay here, and I’ll go get my readings and be right back.” Bob stepped off.

“Wait a minute,” Dave said. “It won’t do you any good for me to stay here. Let’s go, but go slowly so that you conserve your oxygen, you understand?”

“Ah, now you’re talking. We’ll get those—”

“And stop talking,” Dave cut him off. “Those words just use up oxygen.”

Bob shrugged and stepped off toward the lake, with Dave behind him. They trudged in silence, one behind the other, and after a few minutes, the two of them were standing beside the shimmering methane.

Bob had already pulled the tester kit out of his thigh pocket and had adjusted it while he was walking; if Dave had noticed this, he would have put a stop to it. Concentrating on one thing at a time was another procedural requirement. But he had been behind Bob and hadn’t noticed that he had been fooling around with the tester as he had been walking. No matter now; they were at the lake, they would take their readings, and they would proceed back to the ship in silence.

Bob knelt down by the edge of the methane and dipped the end of the tester into the liquid. The tester blinked to life, lights flickering, its mechanisms ingesting a sample of the methane and its computers examining it, testing it for containment content, measuring its specific gravity, and so forth. The process took a full two minutes, and then the green completion lights illuminated. “There,” Bob said. He stood up and returned the tester to his thigh pocket. “Let’s go.”

“Let me see your levels,” Dave said. Bob extended his arm and Dave looked. “Crap.” Bob’s O2 was down to 21 percent, although the pressure had returned and was holding steady. “Turn around and let me see the repair.”

Bob turned and Dave inspected the repair. It appeared to be holding.

“Yeah, okay. Let’s get going. Nice and slow. Breath slow and shallow and don’t say anything, you understand?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Bob hummed. The two of them headed back toward the tendril tree forest and the ship that stood waiting for them beyond.

###
February 16, 2022 at 11:35pm
February 16, 2022 at 11:35pm
#1026851
The speaker took his place behind the podium; there had been no introduction, as there might have been if the speaker had been a well known figure; there was no applause, as there might have been if the speaker had been a celebrity. The audience stared as the speaker placed the yellow translation box on the top of the podium with one fragile-looking insectoid arm and used another to point the microphone towards the box. He grasped the sides of the podium with two other arms, and shuffled through a roll of shiny embossed material with two more. Then the speaker’s mouthparts began moving, making the very soft grinding sounds that constituted the audio part of its language; there was also a vibratory part that operated outside of human hearing but would be detected by the implants in the speaker’s body and translated to English by the box.

The box activated, squealed, and then the squelch function kicked in and it was silent for a moment. Then a computerized voice emerged from it and was picked up by the microphone. “I bring greetings from Her Most Serene Majesty, the Princess Hatchling Kadara Solpii and speak to you now as representative of the Kadara Collective.”

The speaker paused, allowing the translator box to catch up, and then his mouth began moving again; to those in the front rows, it was the sound of a cow chewing its cud; to those beyond, it was not audible. “My purpose today is to communicate to you the nature of the Kadara Collective’s societal organization.”

About halfway back in the auditorium, two men sat next to each other, listening to the Kadara. The one, Marcus, turned to the other, Ivan, and whispered, “How is he managing to stand up against gravity?”

“Shh!” Ivan said, waving his hand in Marcus’ direction. “I think he’s got a liftbelt on.”

“Our society is one in which the most junior daughter of our royal family rules the Collective,” the speaker began. “When the junior daughter is bred, her junior daughter, if there is one, takes precedence over her and is coronated.”
“So, if they don’t like the present queen, they just get the queen pregnant until she has a daughter, and then you have a new queen,” Marcus said sotto voce.

“Shh!” Ivan replied.

“Our Collective consists of three different castes, High, Middle, and Low.” Then there was some sort of commotion to stage left; the speaker turned toward it, antennae flailing in that direction, and then scampered the other way, surprisingly quickly. He disappeared into the wings at stage right and then on the other side of the stage, another insectoid being appeared and darted all the way across the stage, faster than any of the audience members would have imagined possible.

After a moment of confusion, a suitcoated man appeared, took a position at the podium, turned the microphone around and spoke. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m told that the presentation will be continued in a moment by, um—” He turned away from the microphone, looking at something in the wings at stage left, then brought his mouth back to the microphone. “We will continue the presentation now, ladies and gentlemen.”

He stepped away and another insectoid, indistinguishable from the first, floated toward the podium, the lift belt holding most of its weight, its back pair of legs dragging the floor. It floated into position and turned the microphone back toward the translator box, as the previous speaker had done.

Mouthparts started moving, and then the box activated. “We apologize for that brief moment of confusion, ladies and gentlemen. I am the representative of the Kadara Collective.”

His antennae flickered, stiffened, and then drooped and separated, coming to a position alongside his mouthparts. “As my brother was saying, our society has three castes, the High, the Middle, and the Low. We are organized in our society for the purpose of production in the service of our royals.”

Again, there was a disturbance, this time at stage right, and the speaker floated away from the podium and the first speaker reappeared from there and moved into position behind the now abandoned podium. This insectoid moved his bottom pair of legs as the liftbelt held his weight so as to give the impression that he was walking on them, which would have been impossible without the support of the liftbelt. He reassumed his position behind the podium and started moving his mouthparts.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is a disturbance in the Collective. Our ship, which is in orbit around your satellite, has contracted an infection which will require self-destruction. My brother and I must participate in this destruction, and—”
The speaker turned and noticed that the other insectoid, who had been hovering near the podium, now started floating toward stage right, faster and then faster, as his brother spoke. The speaker moved his mouthparts in a strange way, gesturing with the top pair of arms at his brother, and the translator box descended into a cascade of static.

The speaker turned and reached under a folded pair of wings at its midsection and retrieved a peculiar-looking plate with an oblong box on one side. He pressed the top of the box, and the other insectoid, who, having seen his brother take out the plate, was waving his arms frantically as he accelerated his liftbelt, shimmered and with a crack of static, disappeared completely.

“My brother did not want to participate, as you see,” the speaker continued. “I don’t either.” He manipulated the plate again and pressed the top of it.

A cracking shimmer and the speaker disappeared.

The audience only now registered what was happening—what had happened—on stage, and there were gasps. Several of the audience members stood. The suitcoated man came to his senses and approached the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen, please, keep your seats.” He looked around for assistance as he stammered, but there was none to be found. “We don’t know quite what is happening, but I assure you that every effort is being taken to—”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” came a shout from the audience. “They just killed themselves onstage!”

“Please, please, be seated, ladies and gentlemen,” the man continued bleating. Then he spied the center’s director striding towards the podium.

He gratefully stepped back as Dr. Heather Nelson stepped up and raised the microphone so that it would match her six-foot height. “I have a report—” she said over the dull murmur of voices in the audience marveling at what had happened. “I say, I have a report—” The audience quieted as it became apparent that some information was about to be shared. “I have a report that the Visitors’ ship is accelerating out of its parking orbit around the Moon and appears to be departing.”

###
February 15, 2022 at 10:19pm
February 15, 2022 at 10:19pm
#1026783
The whine from the three Centis swimming around and around in their loop tank is what finally woke Griffin up; he’d turned the alarm off more than an hour ago, rolled over, and went back to sleep. But now he was awake; he sat up in the bunk, cracked his eyes open, and blinked against the pale green light shining through the porthole; at this point in the spacecraft’s ‘day,’ the porthole in his bunk chamber was pointed right at Beta Centauri. He coughed, and then mumbled “Dim porthole.”
The ship chimed, and then the pale green glow was reduced to a tolerable intensity.

As was his habit, Griffin’s first concern was navigation. He bunched the pillow up and lay back down against it. “Report location.”

Another chime, and then the ship’s voice came out of the overhead speaker. “Ship is on track and on speed at index location 53.”

“What’s the next turn?” Griffin asked.

Chime. “Next turn is forty-five days away.”

Griffin rose off the pillow, swung his legs off the edge of the bunk, and stood up. He went into the ship’s latrine, wincing at the noise from the loop tank as he passed. “Why are they so loud this morning?”

Chime. “It’s past their feeding time,” the ship responded.

“Ugh,” Griffin grunted.

Finishing in the latrine, he stepped into the main chamber and opened a locker along the wall. The locker was filled with identical canisters, unlabeled, with tops that could be opened by the leverage of a human finger. He took one of the canisters off the shelf and turned to the loop tank, sliding open a panel on its top. Peering down into the tank, he could see the churning liquid and the muscular bodies of the Centis swimming in their endless circles around and around. He popped the top of the canister, dumped the contents into the tank, and flipped the empty can into a nearby container as he turned away from the tank.

Chime. “The door is still open on the tank.”

Griffin ignored the ship and stepped over to the galley, flipping open a compartment and retrieving a foil package. He tore off the end, picked up a fork from the counter, and started forking the contents of the package into his mouth. He was facing the galley porthole—not really paying attention to it, or to what was outside the ship on that side—when a glint of light out there caught his attention.

He peered through the galley and saw that something was occluding the stars on that side. Hurriedly, he swallowed, and then: “What is that on the port side?”

Chime. “Sensors show no object to port.”

Griffin was looking more carefully now. “There’s something out there that’s blocking starlight, and it’s moving.”

Chime. “No objects within one full parsec.”

“Hmm.” Griffin put down the foil pack and stepped over to the control console on the other side of the main chamber. This area constituted the bridge of the ship; there were two side-by-side stations and two chairs. The left was navigation, steering, and offensive systems; the right was life support, defensive operations, and engineering. Griffin sat down in the chair on the right, activated the sensor displays, and studied the screen. “Okay, so how is it that I can see it out there but the sensors don’t show anything?”

Chime. “Hard to say. It may be too far away.”

“You can’t see the occlusion out there to the port side?”

Chime. “No.” There was a pause, and the “Sensors detect a ship at distant range.”

“Ah,” Griffin. “Yeah, I see it here.” He watched the new detect on the screen, noting its distance, direction, and speed. “Hey, what’s it doing?”

Chime. “Contact is turning to an intercept and accelerating.”

“Can you give me a visual?” Griffin looked up at the main screen, which flickered to life. The image it presented cause his stomach to sink. “Oh, crap,” he muttered. It was a Centi ship, one of the big ones, shaped like a torus, extension rooms and antennae sticking out randomly here and there.

Chime. “Continuing to accelerate. Contact will intercept our course in 41 minutes at its present speed. I recommend closing the panel on the Centi tank.”

“Oh, right.” Griffin sprang up and was at the tank in just a moment. He closed the hatch. “Will this keep them from knowing they’re here?”

Chime. “No. But it may slow the rate a little.”

“Speed us up to half of whatever speed they’re coming at,” Griffin said. The ship knew exactly what he was trying to do—wander away from the Centi without triggering their chase reflexes. “Bring us to half speed, then start speeding up from there, a few percent per minute. You understand?”

Chime. “Yes. Half speed established now, and we can match the contact’s speed in twenty-two minutes at 2 percent per minute.”

“Yeah, that might work. What will be the ending distance?”

Chime. “Four AU minimum distance.”

“Hmm. Pretty close, but okay.” Griffin went back to the Centi tank. “Is there nothing we can do to block their telepathic whatever it is?”

Chime. “No.” Griffin went over to the lockers, closing the food locker that he’d left open when he fed the Centis. He opened the locker next to it, pulled out a heavy grey blanket, and hefted it over to the tank. He lifted one end up and over one side of the torus, and then draped the other end over the other side. Chime. “That won’t help.”

“Well, it won’t hurt, will it?”

Chime. “No.”

Griffin went back to the bridge, sat back down at the sensors station, and studied the display there, which was changing as he looked. “What do they want, do you think?”

Chime: “Besides their infants, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

Chime. “Probably very little else,” the ship said. “They’ve resisted most of the interactions we’ve tried to have with them.”

“What if we jettison them?” Griffin said. “The tank is space worthy, isn’t it?”

Chime: “Yes. We could jettison the tank and just wander off.”

“Wander at full speed,” Griffin responded.

###
February 14, 2022 at 11:15am
February 14, 2022 at 11:15am
#1026687
Smelk pushed his way through the door and dropped his pack. “Yeah, there are five or six of them wandering around out there,” he said as he pulled off his gloves and put his hands up to the warm radiator.

His sister, four years younger, was on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket. “Why do you gotta make so much noise coming in and out all the time?” she whined.

“Why do you gotta be a fat pig and sleep all the time?” Smelk batted it back to her. Then to his mother, who was standing in the kitchen: “Where’s Dad?”

“Where do you think he is?” she answered, stirring eggs in a pan.

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Smelk said. He stepped heavily across the kitchen, opened a nondescript door, and disappeared down the stairs, ignoring his mother’s Close the door behind you! She slammed the door behind him as he reached the bottom and stepped onto the concrete basement floor.

The basement was dark, and Smelk paused for a moment. “Dad? Are you down here?”

“Shh!” Smelk’s father replied. Then, in a whisper: “Come on in, but walk softly and don’t say anything.” Smelk turned the corner and saw his father in the dim blue light of the resonator governors. His back was to Smelk; he had both arms up and in the equipment. Smelk stepped over gingerly and took a position to the side, peering at what he was doing. “See this splitter here? In needs a filter in front of it. That’s why the positron gain is so low.”

“Hmm,” Smelk responded. He looked up at the row of dials near the top of the panel. “You’re over pressure on the intakes.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Let me finish this.” His father had the filter in place now and was using a small screwdriver to fasten down screws on the four corners. That done, he pulled the semicircular heat shield over the filter and the splitter, and the visibly relaxed. “I should have turned the power off to do that, but you turn it off, you’ve got to wait an hour before you can turn it on again.” His head cocked back and he looked up at the pressure gauge, where the needle was dropping. “How high was it when you looked?” he asked.

“It was over seventy,” Smelk said.

His father turned to look at Smelk, frowning. “Over seventy? How much over seventy?”

“I don’t know, Dad. Somewhere between seventy and seventy-five.”

“You’re sure? It wasn’t at eighty, was it?”

“No, seventy and a little more.” Smelk picked up a circuit board that was lying on the counter in front of his father. “Isn’t this supposed to be in there somewhere?”

“No, it’s the bad one.” He spun his chair away from the machine and stood up. “I’m going to try a short jump this afternoon, you want to come along?”

Smelk shrugged. “I’m supposed to be at practice at one,” he said. “But I don’t really feel like going.”

“One, huh?” Smelk’s father looked at his watch. “How about if we set up at about that time, and we plan for a 1:20 jump back an hour? If it works, then you can go to practice then and I’ll reset all this and we’ll be all set for this weekend.”
“What if it doesn’t work?”

“If it doesn’t work, then you miss practice. You can help me look at the traces and figure out what the problem is. It’s already Wednesday. If we don’t get this thing going, nobody’s going anywhere this weekend.”

Smelk saw his point. “Yeah, that’ll be okay. We’re only going back an hour?”

“That’s right.”

“Okay, well, Mom’s cooking eggs, you want some breakfast?”

“No,” his father said, turning back to the machine. “I need to get this all put back together and get the computer going on the projections for the 1:20 jump.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you. Mom thought she heard some shelki walking around this morning and I went out to look and there were five or six of them out there,” Smelk said. “Two males, and the rest females, but one of them was a baby.”
“Hmm. You didn’t chase them off?”

“No,” Smelk said. “They were just walking back and forth, circling around the baby, you know how they do.”
“Yeah, okay.” Smelk’s father had his hands back in the machine. “Come on back down here about 1:15 and we’ll take the jump.

“Okay.” Smelk walked back up the stairs.

In the kitchen, his mother and sister were at the table, finishing breakfast, and his sister scowled at him as he approached. “What is he doing down there?” she asked him.

“Fixing stuff, I guess,” Smelk answered as he wandered over to the counter, picked up an empty plate and started scooping eggs out of the pan. He put two piece of bread in the toaster and carried the plate over to the table. “He wants me to go on a jump with him at 1:20 today.”

“Jump?” His mother’s face scowled just as his sister’s had done. “You two have no business jumping today. How far does he want to jump?”

Smelk pulled out the chair and sat down. “He said he wanted to jump an hour back, and that if it worked, I could go to practice from there.”

“No, honey. You go to practice at one like you’re supposed to.”

“I told Dad I would go with him, though.”

“Well, you’re not going on any jump today,” his mother said. Her voice had that note of finality that used to mean discussion over when he was a kid.

Smelk shrugged. “Whatever. I don’t care whether I go or not, but I think Dad’s going anyway.”

“That machine is a piece of junk,” his sister piped up, her mouth full of breakfast. “You two are going to get stuck in the olden times one of these days.”

Smelk rolled his eyes. “Nobody’s going to get stuck in olden times,” he said. Then to his mother: “I do have a bad feeling about the way the columnators are not lining up right, though.”

“Well, be sure you wear your bouncebacks, Smelk,” she said. “You do wear your bouncebacks, don’t you?”

“Sure,” he said. “I do.” He knew his father sometimes didn’t wear his, but Smelk make a point to always wear his own.

###
February 13, 2022 at 5:55pm
February 13, 2022 at 5:55pm
#1026636
Kel had been able to see the roof of the building for some time as he approached, but the trail was descending as it neared and so he kept his head down and continued to trudge through the mud. He came out of the forest and into the clearing in which the building was located and saw that he was approaching the back end; there was a door, but Kel recalled that during the last renovation, that door had been boarded up and the interior wall built over it such that if you were able to open the door from the outside, which he would not have been able to do in any case, it would open onto the inside of the wall. So he deviated slightly on his path toward the building such that he would be able to swing around the corner and then around that side to get to the front of the building.

Kel touched the front pocket of his jacket where the keys to the building were for the fiftieth time; his nightmare was to come all this way and get to the building and then not be able to get in for lack of a key. As he rounded the corner, he recognized the shed that was still standing—barely—alongside the main structure. He had selected the spot for that shed and assembled it out of parts sent from Earth only a couple of years after the building was built and the colony established. Now weeds grew all around the shed and along where the sidewalk had once encircled the building. A hundred years ago, it had been Kel’s duty, among many other things, to keep those sidewalks free of weeds and to collect whatever weeds were there and make sure they got into the organic processors. Nowadays, nobody collected weeds anymore—there was no longer any need to conserve carbon after the planet warmed up and carbon started to outgas from the surface.

He continued around the side and then turned the corner and stopped there for a moment. A hundred years ago, he had been a young man here; he had been on the second colony transport from Earth and had helped to set up the atmosphere processors and the methane plant and the tanks that produced the first surface water on Mars in over ten million years. Now, of course, there was an ocean on Mars, and sufficiently warm temperatures and atmospheric pressure to keep it liquid, and all the consequences of that were evident on the planet, including, of course, rain; it had rained on him on the trail just this morning. But the rain stopped and the clouds passed and the Sun, visibly smaller from the vantage of 142 million miles that it is at 92, hung high in the sky.

Kel proceeded down the weeded sidewalk on that side and found himself at the four-door entrance. There had been glass doors there in the old days—the structure’s entire exterior had been made of glass. The idea had been to entrap sunlight and use that to help warm the building. It was like living in a greenhouse, only instead of a wet, warm, steamy interior, the best that the old Sun could do at that distance was to keep the water pipes inside from freezing, and that only during the middle of the days in the summer. The electric heaters were always kept at the ready, summer and winter. Most of the glass had been replaced over the years; when the weather started, the glass wasn’t sufficient to keep the moisture out, and so after the ocean was formed and the crust started to outgas, the glass roof had been replaced with sheet iron recovered from the iron-rich surface soil. The sides of the building had been covered over too; only the glass doors remained to call to mind an earlier, tougher age.

Kel touched the keys in his pocket for the last time and then unbuttoned the pocket and fished them out. There were three keys on a silver key ring—real silver, apparently, or at least so had said Donna when she put the keys in the pocket two days ago. “Look, here are the keys,” she had held them up so he could see, if he had bothered to look, which he did not. “I’m putting them in your top right pocket.”

Kel had his head down in a manual, but he heard her and grunted.

“You hear me? Shirt pocket, top right side.” She put the keys in the pocket of the shirt that was draped carefully on a wooden rack; beside it was a pair of sturdy pants. A pair of hiking boots with socks draped over them was on the floor beside the rack. “I think that’s everything. You’ve got the codebook?”

“I’m looking at it right now,” Kel responded.

“Those old codes aren’t going to work, but maybe the keys will,” she responded.

“Okay, so, you go through the door and then I remember the big lavatory is on the left and then the hallway goes left from there, or you can continue straight, isn’t that right?” Kel asked as he puzzled over the old floor plan.

“It was your lab,” his wife said. “I was only in there a time or two the whole time we were there.”

“Hmm. It’s been so long, I can’t remember what was down the hallway to the left.”

“Oh, don’t waste any more time trying to remember. You’ll remember when you get there. It’s always that way. I could barely remember my grandmother’s old house in Pennsylvania, but when we got there, I knew exactly where everything was. Didn’t I?

“Yes, you did,” Kel said. He closed the manual. “Those old keys aren’t going to work anyway, so it’ll just be hiking for the exercise anyway.”

Kel’s wife wandered into the dining room to find Kel tucking the manual into his backpack that sat on the table. “One day’s hike, if you can’t get in, you camp there on the old porch or in the old parking lot, and then hike back the next day,” she said. “Easy peasy.”

“And if I can get in?”

“If you can get in, well—” She went over to the refrigerator and opened the door. “Then I’ll be there 24 hours later and we’ll take a look.”

###
February 12, 2022 at 5:53pm
February 12, 2022 at 5:53pm
#1026564
The two men stood next to each other in a field full of parts and pieces of various spaceships and related equipment; on his left, David recognized the shell of a mid-sized Morda transport and beyond that, there were two huge Klondike warp engines laying on the ground next to each other. On his right was some sort of canopy structure lying upside down and a big pile of what looked like computer drawer consoles. The parts and pieces related to these structures and many others were strewn on the ground among them. Above them, the stars shimmered in a dark sky through the clear celluline fabric that kept the atmosphere in.

“Yeah,” the shorter man drawled, “we got what you need right here, and if we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

“Just how big is this—do you call it a planet?” David asked.

“Oh, naw,” the proprietor answered. “The whole place is only five clicks in diameter, that makes it about 16 clicks all the way around. Heck, you can walk it in a couple of hours!” He chuckled. “When my boy was still here, he used to run around it from time to time.”

“Five kilometers in diameter,” David said. “Hmm. The gravity feels about Earth normal.”

“Yep. Zero point nine six, as a matter of fact.”

“How is that possible on a structure this small?”

“Oh, the whole thing is built around a little top-spin positive-charge black hole right at the center,” the shorter man said. “Corps of Engineers found it somewhere or other and towed it out here. They got it spinning by dropping asteroids down into it and then they built a steel sphere around it, spun that up, and put about forty feet of dirt on top of that.”

“That’s interesting. How do you keep the hole right in the middle?”

“The inside of the sphere has a series of attitude jets that make little corrections, but as long as we’re careful up here with what mass goes where, it doesn’t need much correcting,” the proprietor responded. “Couple of little shots a couple of times a year is about all that’s required.” He pulled a bandana out of his pocket, wiped his brow, then pocketed it again. “The hole weighs 480 quadrillion tons. You wanna know how big that is?”
David’s mathematical mind and training in physics told him that the black hole—any black hole—would have a size of zero, but he presumed that the proprietor of Kerry’s Junk Planetoid meant the diameter of the hole’s Swartzchild radius, the distance within which no escape from the black hole was possible. David’s mathematical mind and training in physics did not tell him how big the Swartzchild radius of a 480-million-ton rotating top-spin, positive-charge black hole was. “Sure,” he responded.

“Point three millimeters,” Kerry answered. “You don’t want to get that close to it, though, that’s for sure.”

“No, I guess not,” David answered.

“You say you got Avastar Y-body with Haver engines?”

“That’s right,” David responded.

The proprietor stroked his cheek and squinted. “We’ve got two of those out here, if I can just remember where…?” He reached into the top of his bib overalls and retrieved a bundle of loose papers that were folded over. Unfolding them, he thumbed through them. “Yeah, I think I put one of them in the K row somewhere.” He stepped off and David followed him. The various pieces of junk they were walking past didn’t appear to be in any particular order—certainly not arranged into rows—but as they continued to walk and more of the junkyard appeared over the horizon, David saw that the area beyond that which surrounded the proprietor’s office was in fact mostly pieces of debris arranged into rows. They continued to walk, and then David noticed something on the ground ahead of them.

When the two of them got to it, David saw that it was a concrete square with the letter F on it. “Okay, this is F,” the proprietor said, “so K is just a little ways ahead.” He consulted his papers again. “Or, no, maybe it was S, I can’t remember.”

“Well, let’s start with K,” David suggested. “I’ll recognize a Y-body when I see one.”

“So will I,” the proprietor said, his voice adopting a certain annoyed tone. His head was still down in his papers. “Yeah, I think it is K. Come on.” The two of them stepped off. David turned around—already, the office and the landing lot where his GV shuttle was parked was over the horizon.

“I didn’t lock my shuttle, it’ll be all right, won’t it?”

“Oh, yeah,” the proprietor said. “You and me are the only souls on this little piece of rock this morning.”
They continued past Row G and Row H. “We don’t have a Row I, so it’s not much further.”

“No I? Why not?”

“Oh, it’s too hard to tell a letter I from a number 1 on documents and whatnot,” the proprietor answered back. “The damn regulators are so picky about things like that these days, well—” He was already up to Row J and was swiveling his head back and forth, squinting, holding his hand over his eyes to block the glare of the nearby star that was shining down. “Oh, I think I see that Y-body,” he said. He turned ninety degrees and started walking down Row J.
David didn’t see any Y-body in that direction, but he followed. He did see a series of old Avastar products in various states of disassembly; there was a Glower, there was the front end of what looked like one of the Argonaut models, and there was the outer shell of Scimiar with laser holes burnt into it. “You got a lot of stuff here,” David said.

“Yeah, the yard is almost full,” the proprietor answered back. He stopped. “No, damn it, I think it is Row K after all.” He nudged past David, going back the way they had come, and David followed.

____###____
February 11, 2022 at 12:40am
February 11, 2022 at 12:40am
#1026444
The four Shaleeni sat at the four compass points of the little square table, belted in but not speaking or even looking up at each other. One had his trunk draped over the table; its end hung over the opposite edge. The others’ trunks were held passively in their laps.

The door opened and a man in the uniform of a regional brigadier entered; the Shaleeni whose back was to the door raised his trunk and turned it around to get a look at the man; the others gave no sign that they were aware of their environment at all.

The man sat down in one of the chairs along the wall and pulled a small notepad out of his inside jacket pocket. He folded it open and balanced it on his thigh. “Any of you creeps speak English?”

The Shaleeni across from the one that had looked at the brigadier now opened his mouth. The organ was placed above where the trunk extended from his face. “I be can speaking.”

The brigadier rolled his eyes. “Yeah, you be can speaking real nice.” He picked up the notepad and brought it to his face. “It says here that you four were picked up in the alley behind a warehouse, is that right?”

One of the Shaleeni picked up his trunk and pointed it at the one across from him as the Speaker responded. “Alley be were being I and—” he made a noise that sounded like the tsk tsk that the brigadier’s kindergarten teacher made when one of his daughters spilled her milk “—be were being alley in alsooooohhh.” The Speaker’s voice trailed off as he pronounced the final syllable.

“So what were you and tsk tsk doing there, hmm??” When the brigadier made those tsk tsk sounds, the Shaleeni whose back was to him raised his trunk and turned it around to take another look at him. The brigadier knew that tsk tsk was a word in the Shaleeni language, presumably a name of some sort. Maybe it was a collective term along the lines of colleagues. Exactly what it meant, he didn’t really care; he knew, as the Shaleeni themselves knew, that they would be convicted of theft or breaking and entering or both—or at least of trespassing—and be deported on that basis.

The Shaleeni who was looking at him spoke. “Can be I not being alley in be and being not!” it said with some insistence.

“Whatever the hell that means,” the brigadier muttered to himself as he made notes on his notepad. “All right then,” he announced. “Anyone else got anything to say?”

No one—Shaleeni or human—moved or made a sound, and then the door to the interrogation room opened and Lester Miles leaned into the room. “Frank, we’ve got a call, apparently one of these is somebody important.” Miles turned to the Shaleeni. “One of you called tsk-chee?”

The Shaleeni who had spoken with emotion turned his trunk toward the door and scanned it from side to side. “Tsk-chee can be he being at table not being but at table,” he said.

Miles looked over at the brigadier. “You got any idea what that jibber jabber means?”

“I never know what any of them are saying,” the brigadier answered back, standing up as he did so. “Look, you deal with these monsters for awhile. I was supposed to be off twenty minutes ago.”

Miles stepped into the room. “Yeah, yeah, okay. The door to the room was still open, and a figure hurried past, but Miles noticed. “Rags, get in here!” Miles yelled at the open door.

A figure appeared in the doorway—a young man in the uniform of a regional sergeant. “Yeah, Chief?” He stepped back as the brigadier stepped through the door, then took a step into the room and stared wide-eyed for a moment at the Shaleeni, who continued to sit passively.

“Take these four over to Lockup Eight. Put them all in eight, you understand?”

“Uh, yeah, Chief, okay, but—” the sergeant looked back and forth from the Shaleeni to the chief. “Do they—can they understand me?”

“Yeah, yeah, just tell them what to do, they won’t try anything. They’re about as aggressive as kittens.”

“Uh, well, okay,” the sergeant said. He didn’t look very confident, but he steeled himself. “Uh, now, you Shaleeni get up and follow me.” There was no reaction and a tense moment passed. “Please,” the sergeant added.

The Shaleeni who had answered Miles when he asked about who tsk-chee was made a moaning noise to the others, and they started shifting their massive bodies, pushing the chairs back and preparing to stand up. They stood and moved away from the table, lining up in Shaleeni fashion, and Tsk-chee, if that was his name, slowly hulked his way through the door. The others followed him. The sergeant watched as the last one, the smallest of the four, stumbled through, and then stared at Miles for a long moment.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Take them down to eight!” Miles finally said.

“Uh, yeah, sure, Chief.” The sergeant hurried through the doorway. Miles went over to the table and started pushing the chairs back, returning them to their places.

The door to the interrogation room was still open—the sergeant hadn’t closed it—and another figure popped his head into the room. “Les, we’ve had another report about Shaleeni hanging around the tourist areas.”

“More?” Miles asked incredulously. “What the hell is it tonight, some sort of Shaleeni holiday?”

“I don’t know, but there’s Shaleeni blocking entrances to businesses and standing in the middle of intersections, that sort of thing.”

“Well, send a couple of units down there,” Miles said as he moved through the doorway and closed the door on the empty room. “And can we ask the embassy about it? That one Shaleeni there, the whatcha-call-it, he can speak English pretty good, and—”

“The Figurehead, that’s what the others call him.”

“Yeah, yeah, the Figurehead or whatever. Get him on the line, will you, and let’s get him to tell the damn Shaleeni to knock it off.”

“Okay, Chief.”
____###____
February 10, 2022 at 10:52pm
February 10, 2022 at 10:52pm
#1026439
Maxim’s voice crackled in Ginger’s headset. “Crystal Seven, do you read me?” She ignored him and continued programming the weapons safeties and organizing her approach. Her gloved hands moved efficiently over the controls. The tail end of Yeemans was plainly visible in her front window, and it was steadily getting bigger as her ship approached.

“Crystal Seven, do you—” Ginger pressed her own press-to-talk, interrupting him. “What do you want, Max?”

“You’ve got visual yet?”

“Yes, yes, I’ve got visual,” she answered back, annoyed. “Now stop bothering me.”

“Okay, but be sure you—” This time, Ginger interrupted him by shutting off the channel, then she switched on Mozart. The opening strains of Violin Concerto Number 4 in D major began, and she clicked the volume up two clicks as she finalized the security handshaking between Yeemans and her ship. “All right now, let’s see what’s going on up there,” she muttered, activating the approach computer and tensing as the ship accelerated to come alongside Yeemans.

She flipped the ship over so that its canopy was directly above her own; she let her ship float down toward Yeemans, peered up and into Yeeman’s cockpit, and saw the top of the pilot’s helmet. She flicked the comm channel back on. “Max.”

There was a pause, and then Max responded. “You turned your comm link off?”

“I’m over the ship right now,” she said. “I can see somebody flying the thing. Is McKenna in there by himself?”

“Supposed to be, but who knows?” Maxim answered. “There are a couple of dozen Vimili missing from the lab.”

“What kind of Vimili?”

“Blues. All blues.”

Ginger glanced at her console time display. “Those blues won’t live long without a yellow. Did he take a yellow?”

“Nope. All the yellows are accounted for,” Maxim said. “Look, before you confront him, you should—”

“Crystal Seven out,” Ginger cut him off, once again flicking off the comm channel. She turned a dial and then cleared her throat and made a conscious effort to sound calm and approachable. “Yeemans Four, this is Crystal Seven. You in there, Terry Mac?”

After a moment, there was a slight crackle in her headset and she held her breath for a moment, thinking that McKenna’s voice would follow—but it did not. After a few more moments, she tried again.

Yeemans Four, Yeemans Four, this is Crystal Seven, do you read?”

Nothing. She peered up again and watched for movement in Yeemans cockpit. As far as she could tell, the helmet was stock still. Then there was movement to her left and she looked over to see that Maxim had maneuvered his own ship alongside hers. She could see him under his own canopy. He was holding a hand up, first one finger, then two, then back to one, then he held his hand outstretched to signal five. One two one point five—the emergency frequency. He saw her looking and then he pointed to the side of his helmet and signed 121.5 again.

Ginger sighed and flicked her comm channel over—not to 121.5, but to the usual ship-to-ship frequency. “What do you want, Max?”

“Crystal Seven, base says abort mission, I repeat, abort mission and return to base. I’m going to turn, you turn and follow me.”

Oh, for crying out loud, Ginger thought to herself. “What about Terry Mac?”

“I don’t know. Base says abort and return. Turning in three…two…one….”

Maxim turned his ship away. Ginger let her ship float up to create room to flip over and had intended to turn when she glanced up one more time, and this time she saw that the inside of Yeemans canopy was completely occluded by a grainy blue material. Ginger flicked the comm channel “Max! I thought you said there weren’t any yellows missing!”

A pause, and then Maxim answered. “That’s what the lab said.”

“Yeah, well, the little monsters are reproducing. They’ve filled up the damn cockpit over there, I can see them through the canopy.” She deftly maneuvered her ship around and under Yeemans and raised up against it, docking against Yeemans’ hatch. “I’m going to go in and kill them.”

“No!” Maxim said. “Wait a minute, let me—”

Ginger flicked the comm channel off again, pulled the quick releases on her harness and spun the chair around. In a moment, she was out of her flight boots and socks. She stood up and peeled off her flightsuit, dropping it on the floor, then wriggled out of her underwear and strode out of the cockpit, down the corridor, and into the hatch room. She yanked open the weapons locker, assembled the big flamethrower, and shouldered it. She climbed up the ladder to the hatch door and entered the open code into the panel; the hatch slid back to reveal the exterior of Yeemans’ hatch and its lock keypad. Now what the hell is the code? She closed her eyes, trying to remember from the last time she had flown Yeemans.

Ginger entered the six digits and pressed the button—wrong code. Damn it. Back down the ladder, she toggled the comm channel there in the hatch room. “Maxim! What’s the code to get in?”

“I’m not telling you that, Ginger! You can’t go in there if the blues are breeding.”

“I took my clothes off, dammit. I know what I’m doing. Give me the code!”

“No.”

“Give me the code or I’m going to blast the hatch open.”

“Blast it, then. I’m not giving you the code.”

“Fine!” Ginger didn’t bother to flick the comm circuit off, but instead put the flamethrower on the deck and opened a drawer below the locker. She plucked one of the grenades out of the drawer, climbed back up the ladder, and placed the grenade onto Yeemans’ hatch, turned it on, and activated its magnetic attach. Then she keyed in a countdown—120 seconds—and pressed go. The grenade blinked green, and then red, blinking in time with the count that appeared on its face. She closed her own hatch, climbed down the ladder and stepped back into the cockpit to get her own ship out of there.

____###____

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