judicious_imitation: Two red feathers on opposite pages of an open book; a fountain pen lays in the center, a magnifying glass across the top (Default)
[personal profile] judicious_imitation
Story: Starstrewn
Title: There Will Be a Surcharge for Placing Your Captain in Danger
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 34,926
Notes: This was written for [community profile] originalbigbang. Sara's fantastic mix for it is you know you're not alone. Warnings for attempted genocide of an alien species.
Summary: Bryta is just your local independent shipper and trader. Things like wormholes into another universe are not part of her plans, and forget inter-universe rescue missions.


Bryta’s fingers glide across the screen, deftly inputting orders, before saying aloud, “Jenna, set destination for Halli, Veni settlement. I’m going to get some sleep.”

“Veni settlement input,” Jenna’s gentle alto comes back from around her. “Sleep well, Captain.”

Bryta smiles, weary and almost sad, and pushes up from the control pad, gently enough that she won’t ricochet. She shoves off toward the cargo bay to grab a serving of rations, which she adds water to, reseals, and heats in the unit before settling to eat a hot, reconstituted vegetable stew.

It gets cold in space, even with climate controls. The blackness does it, Bryta thinks. There are the stars, the galaxies and objects, but they’re distant. It gets to her sometimes, the surrounding emptiness. It’s been more than a standard month since she’s seen another lifeform. She adores Jenna, but she hardly counts.

A few hours after she falls into sleep, Jenna says, “Captain, we’re approaching the Atri settlement in Halli. Estimate six hours before the Veni settlement if we continue at this speed.”

Bryta rubs her eyes, yawning, and pushes up almost too hard. “Thanks, Jenna. I’ll take control soon. Keep us on course.”

“I shall.”

She delays just long enough to take an air shower and scrub washing powder through the roots of her hair before heading back to her controls, dehydrated fruit in hand. “I have the controls,” she says, and the touchscreens light up as Jenna lowers her power use a notch.

An hour before reaching Veni, Bryta thumbs on the comm. “Veni Customs, Captain Bryta Tobson speaking, Clever class ship number Alpha Charlie 2697, designation Jenna, requesting permission to dock in approximately one standard hour. Over.”

The reply is in no time. “Captain Tobson, Sergeant Hale speaking. How’re you today?”

“Dorry!” Bryta grins. “I’ve missed you. Glad to be back around beings.”

Jenna makes a vaguely sympathetic humming sound, her lights shifting to a pale green.

“Glad to have you back. What do you have today?”

“Shipment includes nanotubing materials and those acromium sheets off the asteroid belt in the Coyote system. I also have Earth pearls that some of your jewelers ordered.”

It takes Dorry a moment to answer. “I have a berth for you on Level Eight, slot Zulu Tango. I’ll meet you there myself.”

“Roger that. Out.” When she’s thumbed off her end of the comm, she says to Jenna, “You’ll be glad for upgrades.”

“Yes, Captain, and to be around other AI.”

Bryta grins. “At least we keep you shipshape, my love.”

The lights wink a soft pink. “Slot ZT, level eight.”

“I know.” Bryta turns her attention back to guiding her ship properly into place, and when she docks in their assigned slot, the vacuum lock seals around the hull, and she opens the door, Dorry is there to meet her.

He sweeps her up in a hug, kissing her cheek. “It’s been too long.”

She hugs him back, rib-cracking tight. “How long is customs going to be?”

“I’m expediting you on the grounds that you need interaction with someone other than Jenna.” To the ship, he adds, “How are you, sweetheart?”

“I’m well, thank you.” Her voice reverberates into the berth. “How are you?”

“I missed your lovely captain. I might steal her when I’m off.”

“That would be good for her,” Jenna says.

“Jenna!”

Jenna doesn’t answer.

“She’s lonely too,” Bryta says to Dorry. “Space…”

He nods. “I like working the port, myself, with plenty of beings. I might come planetside with you. Off in a few hours.”

“If I’m cleared quickly, you’re welcome aboard.” She sighs, straightens her shoulders. “Are you inspecting?”

“No,” he says, regretful. “I’m just your welcoming committee. Get your plasfilm in order, though, they’ll be here soon.”

“They?”

“You get M’Von today.”

“Oh, I like them.” She heads back into her ship as he leaves.

M’Von clears her ship with no issues; they know her, so prioritize Jenna, but are still thorough, as they should be. Bryta would be disappointed if they weren’t.

By the time she’s starting to feel guilty about not clearing the slot, Dorry or no, and has been cleared to enter the atmosphere, he hurries down the ramp to the berth. “Sorry,” he says, “sorry. I had to grab my bag.” He holds up the sack in question.

“Come aboard,” she says, gesturing. “We need to clear out.”

Dorry joins her, strapping in in case of turbulence on entry, and she says, “Through atmosphere in three minutes.”

“Three minutes,” Jenna repeats. “All systems are functional and ready,” she adds after a second.

“There’s a mech upgrade you could afford with this shipment,” Dorry says.

“Few minutes, then tell me.” Bryta’s fingers race across her screen, altering settings, before lifting off from the dock and turning to the proper angle to land on Veni.

The burn is easy and graceful; Jenna handles it as well as she ever does, which means perfectly. Bryta takes them to a landing area outside the main city in the province, then says to Dorry, “A mech upgrade?”

“Gravity unit. They’ve gotten it to the point that it fits Clever class and above. Moxie and below are too small still, but Jenna could handle it.”

She considers that. She could afford it, she’s sure. “How many credits?”

“Forty-eight five for just the equipment. The install on a Clever is another ten.”

“What do you think, my love?”

Jenna hums again, her signal that she’s running a process, before saying, “You would have an easier time performing your exercises to maintain optimal health, and you could have a companion.”

“I could,” Bryta muses.

“You have mentioned a rikicat.”

“I was thinking more sapient,” Dorry says.

Bryta flashes him a grin. “I think, for now, a rikicat. They get talkative enough.”

When Jenna touches down on Veni, at a spacefield equipped for ships up to Rascal class, Dorry gives Bryta a hand doing the proper shutdown procedures that have to be handled manually for the life-support systems. Then Bryta checks her plasfilm verifying Jenna’s registry and makes sure she has her identicard and credits log.

The fieldmaster, a Human man, meets Bryta when they open Jenna’s side door and push down the stairs. “D’ya have your plasfilm?”

“Right here.” Bryta hands it over, and he connects it to his reader.

Everything must show it’s in order, as it should, because he grunts and hands it back. “Jenna, are ya?” he asks in a raised voice.

“Yes.” Her voice carries through her door easily.

“Y’want the whole deal, fibers for updates and all along with your software upgrades?”

“That would be wonderful, thank you.”

“She’s getting a grav install,” Bryta says. “I’ll set that up and let you know when it’s happening.”

He nods. “I’m not here, tell the office.” With that, he turns and slouches away.

“Friendly,” Bryta murmurs, smiling a bit.

“I don’t deal with him much.” Dorry sounds almost apologetic.

“He has been good when I’ve docked here before,” Jenna puts in.

“I know, he’s just busy. He’ll take good care of you, love.”

Bryta and Dorry hang around while Jenna’s connected to the ports and cleansers. It’s going to cost a bit to get her the full treatment, nevermind staying docked for who knows how long, but with their shipment, they can afford it. Besides, it’s not like they’ll have to pay for anything mechanical beyond the grav install unless they want to; Bryta handles almost all of that. Of course, she’ll have to learn to maintain the grav mechanisms, and she might have whomever does the install check over the drives, if they’re qualified.

Bryta herself makes sure the acromium and pearls in particular are locked away in the hold portion of Jenna’s bay; the nanotubing materials are less precious. Jenna says, “It’s sealed, Captain,” when she presses her palm to the touchpad.

“Thank you, Jenna. Keep it safe.”

“Captain.” That’s reproving, and she grins.

“I’ll be back tomorrow to deal with selling it. Take care, sweetheart.”

“I shall. I have other AI with whom to communicate. Enjoy your evening with Dorry.” Jenna sounds downright mischievous.

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that and hope he didn’t.”

Jenna gives her no clue either way, and Bryta leaves the hold area to find Dorry in her small living quarters. They’re not cramped, just right for one person, but she’s probably biased in favor of her ship’s space.

“I’m not sure how you live here,” he remarks.

“And you were hinting,” she says, a smile tugging at her mouth. “I mostly sleep here, nothing else. Jenna wouldn’t mind if I expanded my berth, would you, my love?”

“If it would make you happy,” Jenna says after a moment, as though she’s distracted.

“Broadcasting,” Bryta says knowingly. “We’ll leave you to it.” She catches Dorry’s hand and tugs him after her.

Dorry has a living unit downtown in the province’s main city. He has a unitmate, but she works the opposite shift, and after they have dinner on Bryta’s credits, they make it only to his central room’s floor, which fortunately has soft carpeting.

“A being in every port,” Dorry says fondly as they dress in the predawn light.

“I happen to know you have a steady rotation.” She buttons her top. “I’m due for jabs. Which clinic is best right now?”

“Three blocks south, the creatively named South Crew Clinic. You’ll probably be seen by a Vargiite or two, but they’re gentle with hypos. Considering they’re hypos, that is.”

Bryta snorts. “Considering. I’ll comm you sometime. We have to do this again before I lift off. We’ll be here awhile for the grav install.”

Dorry nods and grins. “Have fun with your haggling.”

“Haggling is a perk, heathen.”

I’m the heathen? I live planetside, not wandering space.”

Bryta kisses him firmly. “Space is the only way to live. You’re up on your fertility jab?”

“Of course. We would have done other things if I wasn’t.” Dorry kisses her, softer. “You know the good shops.”

“I do. I’ll wander until the clinic opens anyway. I haven’t been here in a standard year.”

“It’s only been nine Veni months,” he points out, “but I see your point.” He checks his watch. “I have time to stop at a cart for breakfast. There’s a good one for tisanes and pasties.”

“Pasties?” Bryta repeats.

“They’re good. Like pies with handles. Ze has a variety of them, fruit, vegetable, meat… I think they’re originally from Old Earth. I don’t know how a Bengen came across them, but ze makes them well.”

“Sure,” she says with a shrug and bends to yank on her boots. “I’m planetside, I might as well be adventurous, right?”

“That’s the spirit. What’s the point of wandering otherwise?”

“Oh, you’re really not cut out for the nomadic style.” She straightens. “You’re paying this time.”

“Five credits each? That’s easy.”

The pasties are as good as advertised; Bryta gets one with a mix of tender-firm local sweetfruits, and the handles prove to be as sturdy as the rest of the crust and convenient for eating while walking. Especially when she has a cold cup of a sour-sweet root tisane in her other hand.

She and Dorry split up a block away from the cart; he catches a ground transport to the spacefield so he can grab a shuttle, and she turns south to find that clinic.

*


In her slot at the Jacavi’noq Province, Veni, spacefield, Jenna rests. There are no pasties for her, but there is a replacement of metal fuels that she’ll appreciate when in space. Her inner workings are scrubbed clean by tiny bots with only the most rudimentary AI, nothing worth conversing with, just the programming to keep them on task without damaging any of her parts. They get the slight film some of the cleansers leave off and remove where organic oils have built up in the joint of a pipe, but otherwise, they’re largely redundant. Effective, though.

Jenna appreciates effectiveness and even redundancy. It’s similar to having a captain when she could fly perfectly well on her own.

The fiber hookups feed her news, everything they’ve missed from around the universe when they were too far from satellite relays to be able to catch up. It pours into her, and she processes it, storing it in different aspects of her memory, able to recall any of it at a moment’s notice for a conversation with her captain.

Even better, though, is the talk with the other AIs at the field. There’s a little Frisky, Evin, a few spaces over, and Jenna finds him adorable. She finds most Friskies and Zests adorable, though, and a few Zips. They’re just so small compared to her. They’re perfectly intelligent; their AI is nearly the same as hers. But it’s like they think they need to be more upbeat because they’re small, and sometimes they’re feistier than the Moxies on up. Maybe they do need to; Friskies are good for planet-to-satellite trips, rarely interplanetary hops; they just aren’t built for the rigors of close interstellar travel, nevermind far jumps. For one thing, they lack hyperdrives. Zips can at least get from close system to system.

The biggest at this field is a Rascal, the largest class the field can accommodate. Jenna’s met her a couple of times before; she’s Kana, and she’s quiet and stately. If Jenna’s honest, she finds her slightly intimidating. Kana’s just so big, with so much more room than Jenna has, an honest-to-goodness crew of six, even housing two small children and three female rikicats. Jenna, on the other hand, has Bryta and will soon have a rikicat. She could have a small family aboard, two or three parents and a child, but it would get crowded unless berths were cut out of her bay.

Really, Jenna finds most Rascals a bit intimidating, and all classes above them. She can hardly manage to talk to Brilliants for downtime conversation unless they initiate it, and even then it’s difficult. They awe her, the ease with which they hop from one end of the galaxy to the other, their speed and elegance, the crews it takes to keep them in working order and managed.

On the other hand, Jenna’s maintenance can be done by her captain, and it takes one person to fly her. She has that advantage.

Conversation between the ships is near lightspeed, zipping through airwaves, everyone contributing as thoughts occur to them. That’s something their crews never understand, how fast their processors, essentially their minds, work, and it’s part of why Jenna is always glad to dock somewhere or land planetside. She loves Bryta, but sometimes it’s nearly painful to listen for her to finish a thought. Then, with her, Jenna has to vocalize, so she’s just as slow.

Evin is the first to lower his power use for the night and stop broadcasting; Jenna thinks of how he reminds her of all the information she has stored on children. Her interior lights wink a soft, indulgent lavender, and she continues the conversation but keeps the thought to herself. As the three moons rise over Veni, the smaller ships gradually power down, until it’s just Jenna, Kana, and a Dapper, Veci, left. They power down together when the third moon is high in the sky. It’s nice, Jenna thinks to herself as she swaps power usageamong her drives. Companionship.

*


Jenna’s hold is sealed shut when Bryta comes aboard in the late morning, after she’s had her jabs. She just checks before going to change in a form-fitting suit with an old-fashioned jacket over it. A glance in the mirror shows she looks good, fitting for a governmental sale.

The provincial representative is a Bengen, a species native to Veni. Ze examines the nanotubing materials without any sort of lens; hir excellent vision is evolved for this sort of close work, and each of hir four eyes can focus independently to get an extremely complete image. A Bengen friend of Bryta’s, Nv.gôk, tried to explain the appearance of a view like that once, but it’s just not something Bryta can wrap her head around.

The representative, Vïhl!prû, says at last, “This is of excellent quality.”

So they get down to the haggling.

With the quantity of materials Bryta and Jenna carted here, it’s a fairly simple matter to get two hundred and fifty thousand credits for the lot of them. Vïhl!prû does the transfer right away. Then they turn to the acromium sheets. For those, Vïhl!prû samples a bit and does a quick chemical test, probably to confirm they are what she says they are, before haggling on those starts.

Bryta is no fool. While she was in the city, she checked the current prices of acromium within the system. Vïhl!prû doesn’t try to short her, exactly, just to undercut the price for the quality of the sheets.

“They’re from Coyote,” Bryta says. “The asteroid belt. You know the quality there,” and names her price per sheet.

Vïhl!prû’s pupils contract vertically for just a split second before ze agrees, and that’s another credit transfer, another three hundred thousand for the twenty thick sheets. They shake firmly, and then Bryta offers hir a tisane while they wait for the materials to be loaded onto a government ground transport.

Bengens are too fragile to do the lifting and hauling of things as dense as acromium; their co-evolved species, with whom they have a symbiotic relationship, does that. So Bryta is entirely unsurprised when a pair of Dvõks, beings much sturdier than any Bengen, stand at the bottom of the ramp. One calls in Basic, “Permission to board, Captain.”

Bryta climbs down the stairs to the bay and says formally, “Permission granted. Welcome aboard.” She’ll have to avoid pronouns for them unless they use them first; she can’t tell which they are.

The Dvõks keep to themselves. Each hauls a sheet of acromium alone; she would be impressed if not for seeing Dvõks carry much heavier objects. They’re gentler with the nanotubing materials, and then Vïhl!prû makes hir way down the stairs.

“It has been a pleasure doing business,” ze says, and offers one of hir hands. It’s a very Human gesture, one Bengens don’t usually make if they’re not in some official capacity and dealing with Humans.

Bryta shakes hir hand, then bows, which ze returns. Ze leaves down the ramp with the Dvõks for their vehicles, and Bryta closes the hold, pressing her hand to the palm lock.

“That seemed to go well,” Jenna says around her.

“Love, we are going to have absolutely no problem affording your grav install. If you don’t mind a stranger looking at your workings, we can even have a pro make sure everything is sound.”

She takes a brief second to answer. “Everything appears to be in working order, but that would not be objectionable.”

“Then I’ll have someone come out.”

*


Bryta swings into her berth long enough to change into a pair of stained coveralls and say to Jenna, “Today’s the day, my love.”

“Would you like to take a short trip into space to test it once it’s installed?” Jenna asks.

”That would be a good idea,” she agrees, “especially before we get a rikicat.”

“I don’t think want a floating rikicat chattering at us.”

Bryta bursts out laughing as she fastens the coveralls. “The mental image. You’d have to share it among all the ships if it happened.”

“I would.” Jenna’s own amusement shines clear. “You’ll have repairs to make to my bay after installation is complete.”

“You talked to a Banter, didn’t you?”

“His name is Zak,” Jenna says. “He’s very kind.”

“Did I see Kana when I came in?”

“Yes. She’s as wonderful as ever.”

If Bryta didn’t know better, she’d say her ship has a crush on the Rascal. Instead of saying as much, she uses the doorway of the berth to swing herself into the walkway above the hold. “Monitor as much as you can while we install. I want to know the second something goes wrong that shouldn’t.”

“You sound as though you expect it to.”

“Of course I expect it to. If I didn’t, it would be guaranteed to go wrong.”

Jenna’s silent at that, but her lights twinkle a bit, and Bryta smiles.

The specialist mechanics are only a few moments late, hardly enough that Bryta notices. Their vehicle is wheeled, with a large bed that holds the gravitational unit and has a crane attached. The team is one Dvõk and one Lotì, the same species as M’Von.

“Jenna?” the Dvõk asks.

“Yes,” Jenna answers.

“I’m Tr’ockl, and this is R’Bic. We’re doing your gravitational installation.” Tr’ockl looks up the ramp. “You must be Bryta.”

“That’s me.” She walks down the ramp and offers her hand to each of them. The shakes are perfunctory, something uncommon for each of the techs’ species but the closest they can all manage as a professional greeting. Bryta’s neck doesn’t bend properly for a Lotì greeting, and Dvõk greetings are beyond her linguistic abilities. “I want to at least watch everything you’re doing.”

“Bryta performs my maintenance,” Jenna interjects.

“I figure it’s easier to maintain the grav unit if I see what you’re doing and you explain some to me,” Bryta says.

R’Bic nods, a quick bob of their head. “That is logical.”

So the two of them show Bryta everything they do, and she gets her hands, arms, and coveralls absolutely filthy from delving into the inner workings of the unit.

When it’s connected, oils and coolant running to it, electricity hooked in, Jenna makes an almost surprised sound. “It feels different.”

“I’d imagine so. In a good way?”

“I won’t know until we fly.”

Bryta grins. “I’ll get us cleared soon.”

*


Finding a rikicat is Bryta’s last task on Veni. The pearls have been sold for a tidy sum, everything for Jenna except her space at the field has been paid off, the rest of the credits are banked on her card, and Jenna’s records are updated to reflect the addition of the grav unit and her software and firmware upgrades.

It’s really too bad that Jenna can’t meet the rikicat with her. They’ll both be living with it. Instead, Bryta has to keep Jenna’s personality in mind when she goes to the housing center for the creatures. The odd rikicat wanders the streets, but most of the ones who don’t have buildings or ships of their own live in centers, tended by more sapient beings who love them. Rikicats are descended from Old Earth felines, a mix of domesticated cats and larger wild ones, with a dose of genetic meddling tossed in. It worked better on rikis and demicats, the tiny version, than the experiments on canines that Bryta’s heard about. Those weren’t allowed to spread; the sapience never worked properly, turned them either over-reliant or savage. Rikicats, on the other hand, have adapted to pretty much any planet hospitable to Humans, and demicats are apparently imperious little things with similar adaptability.

“A ship?” the Human woman behind the desk asks. She’s wizened and grey, but stands surprisingly fast. “Come on. How big is this ship?”

“She’s a Clever class.” At the woman’s blank look, Bryta offers, “Medium sized?”

“You have a gravitational system on this ship? The rikis don’t like floating. It makes them angry. Demis are worse, of course, but they can also get lost behind panels.”

“Just installed last week. It works well. We’ve tested it.”

“I expect you have a staircase.”

“Right.”

“Rules out the old ones,” she mutters. “Come on. I think I know which would be good for you.”

Bryta follows her back into a large room outfitted with ledges, high trees, and big, soft-looking beds throughout the room, extending into a glassed-over sunroom. The rikicats here aren’t nursing mothers or kittens; if she had to guess, she’d say they’re all at least young adults. The chatter in the room stops as soon as they enter, all eyes on Bryta.

“She has a ship,” the old woman announces. “Clever class, if you know what that means. Medium. Gravitational unit included. I’ll leave you all to get acquainted.”

As she leaves Bryta alone with the fifteen or so rikicats, a blue mackerel who looks younger than several of the others comes over and stands against Bryta’s abdomen.

“Smell good,” it says in the odd chattering way rikicats have.

“Thank you.”

The others come to sniff at her and rub against her before they apparently decide she’s worth getting to know.

“Have young?”

“Big ship?”

“Travel alone?”

“Another riki?”

Bryta answers the questions as they come, trying her best to keep up with them all. Then another rikicat, not one of the seven or eight around her, says, “Hush,” and they all fall silent.

This riki stands atop a ledge with fluid grace. It leaps down and walks over to Bryta. The others give it room. It’s not until it looks up that Bryta realizes it only has one eye. Even so, it’s gorgeous, a red-and-orange flecked mackerel with a white patch on its chin, the mackerel pattern swirling over the closed lids of the missing eye. It’s built more like an Old Earth puma than any of its other ancestral species, especially over the comparatively small caracals and bobcats, not to mention the housecats who contributed colors and domesticity more than anything. Rikis may all be the same species, but they have intense variability, thanks to the combination of parent species.

“Get trees,” it says.

Bryta, bemused, asks, “Multiple?”

“Three. And big bed.” The rikicat stands up on her shoulders and rubs its cheek imperiously against hers, which makes her realize just how big this one is, by far the biggest in the room. She thought it was mostly its presence. “I Nemo.”

“I’m Bryta.” She strokes Nemo’s shoulder. “Our ship is Jenna. She’ll like you as long as you stay off her consoles.”

Nemo sneezes against her ear.

Bryta laughs, rubs his head, and decides that Nemo is very right to claim her.

Getting him from the center is a simple matter; rikis are sapient and therefore technically in charge of themselves. They can’t really hold jobs beyond guard duties, though, and they prefer living with humans or in colonies, so they find themselves groups, and the centers are subsidized. They also can’t carry their identicards without wearing some sort of pouch; Bryta gets Nemo’s from the woman at the desk before they leave.

She has to pay quite a few credits to get enough to keep Nemo happy. He needs food, of course; that’s a given for any creature. Even Jenna needs food of a sort. But he also needs his trees and bed, and even though he doesn’t ask, she buys solid Eurythian rubber balls and thick natural ropes to tie around the trees. There’s also his harness for traveling through atmospheres and a wastebox that she can hook into the spacevent system to keep the ship nice and clean; he makes sure it’s going to be big enough for him. It’s only a few more credits to have everything delivered to Jenna.

“Have you seen a vet?” she asks him after they’ve stopped at a cart to buy lunch. He’s already finished his, a breadless meat sandwich; she has a vegetable version with soft local bread.

“Yes. Recent. Need offplanet jabs.”

“Yeah, I guess you do. Know where one is?”

Nemo gives her a look. “Rikis know direction.”

“I bet demis do too.”

He sneezes, a sound she recognizes now as one of dismissal. “Demis. Tiny fools. This way.”

“So you don’t want a demi friend?” she asks as they turn a corner.

He looks up at her, his eye glittering. Answer enough.

“We should get a harness and leash.”

“No.”

“Some planets require that kind of thing.”

“No. I sapient.”

He has a point, but she can’t change planetary laws. “A decorative one,” she offers. “Nothing major. You could easily get away. We’ll just find one that looks nice against your coat and in my hand.”

He hisses, and the Human woman coming toward them skirts into the street. “Weak one.”

“Okay. After your jabs.”

There’s a bit of a wait at the walk-in feline clinic; there’s another riki, a beautiful one who takes after its cheetah ancestry and is probably ten kilos lighter than Nemo, and two tiny demicats ahead of them. They can’t be more than two kilograms apiece, and they’re both fineboned little things. One of them is blue-ticked with two wide, dark bands across its front legs and a triangular head; the other is fawn with red spots and a narrow head, like the Siamese from the old holovids. Despite Nemo’s apparent disdain for demis, he and the other three cats fall into a rapid, chattering conversation that Bryta can’t keep up with. The demis’ voices are high and almost squeaky compared to Nemo’s smooth rumble and the cheetah-looking riki’s purring depth. Rather than have a conversation with the non-felines, Bryta listens and watches Nemo with growing fondness.

One by one, the other ‘cats are called back, until it’s just Bryta and Nemo. “Did you enjoy your conversation?”

Nemo regards her and places one paw on her knee. It must be bigger than one and a half of her handspans. “Yes. Nice talk to other ‘cats besides from center.”

“Are you going to get lonely?”

In one quick, fluid move, he goes from sitting to standing on his back legs with his front paws on the back of her chair, one on either side of her shoulders. He butts his forehead into her cheek and purrs in her ear. “Have you. Not lonely.”

“You’ll have Jenna, too.” She rubs just over his empty eye, and he turns his head into her touch.

“Jenna good ship?”

“She’s the best ship.”

Nemo makes a content-seeming sound, gives her cheek a sandpaper lick, and sinks back to the floor just in time for them to be called.

He gets weighed and measured, and they discuss which planets and systems they’ll be going to for the jabs Nemo needs. The vet goes over Nemo’s diet when they’re in space and discusses the jabs, how many he needs and how they’ll affect him. The three of them decide Bryta can administer the ones after this visit; the vet shows her how, including how to register the vaccines on his identicard.

When they’re done, Nemo doesn’t verbally thank him, but does rub against his hand with his cheek before striding from the room. Bryta follows as soon as his identicard has been ejected and the vet hands it over. She pays at the front.

After they leave, she asks Nemo, “Do you care about the color of the harness?”

If he could shrug, he probably would. “No.”

“We’ll go with white with a black leash,” she decides. “Both easily cleaned.”

Nemo doesn’t answer. She assumes he isn’t interested in the least.

At the store, he barely cooperates with being fitted with the harness, one with thin leather straps that he can easily bite through. She doesn’t spend much time on the backwaters that require rikis to be leashed, but it’s sometimes inevitable. Better to be prepared, she reasons, and he can always stay aboard Jenna.

“Ready to meet Jenna?” she asks when they finally leave.

Nemo mrrows in reply, and she laughs.

When they get to the spacefield, one of the employees stops her. “You’re Jenna’s captain?” the Dvõk asks.

“I am.”

“You’ve had deliveries.”

She and Nemo detour to the large office to pick up these deliveries of everything they bought for him. After surveying the heap, she asks, “Can we borrow a ground transport?”

The Dvõk grunts. “There’s a small lorry you can use.” Bryta gets handed a set of keys. “It’s the yellow one in the back. You can bring it around and load it up.”

“Want to wait?” she asks Nemo, who settles proprietarily in front of his stuff.

The Dvõk kindly helps load everything onto the lorry; Bryta would tip if Veni was a planet with that custom. As it is, she gives her profuse thanks, and Nemo purrs before leaping into the front of the lorry.

First things first, Bryta decides when they get to Jenna, and she enters the code to open the bay door. Jenna lowers her ramp and says, “Welcome, Captain.”

“I’ve brought a friend, Jenna.”

Nemo strolls aboard like he’s been on ships all his life. “Greeting, Jenna.”

“Hello. What’s your name?”

“I Nemo.” He heads straight for the hold door, sniffing at it, and then to the stairs up to the next level. “You biggish ship.”

“I appreciate my size.”

While the two of them talk, Bryta hauls one of the trees aboard. “Love, I need to bolt some things down once we figure out where to put them.”

“All right. Is there a substantial mass difference?”

“I can carry it all, so it shouldn’t be too bad.”

When she gets everything aboard, she finds Nemo lounging just behind her seat in the bridge. “Like it here,” he tells her.

“I was going to install your flight harness up here. Good place?”

He mrrs at her, which she assumes means yes.

“I need you to help me figure out where to put your trees.”

Leisurely, he gets to his feet. “Bed in berth.”

“I thought so. There’s room on the floor, but I might step on it. I can’t block my closet.” She and Nemo walk to the catwalk over the hold. “Want one up here?”

He walks over to a section that’s not in front of any easily-removed panels or storage areas. “Here.”

“Okay. Let’s pick which.”

About a standard hour later, all the trees and the flight harness are bolted down, the ropes are tied tight to the trees, and the bed is tethered in place, with the rest of Nemo’s things stored in cubes and cabinets. “I’ll have to get your food for you, but we don’t want it in the way.”

He mrrows at her and leaps up into one of his trees. “Is fine. Get when I say, is okay.”

“I will,” she promises. “You know when you need to eat better than I do.” She checks her watch. “We’ll be lifting off in twenty-two standard hours. I’ll get your wastebox connected, but after that, I have a date. Do you mind staying aboard alone?”

“Not alone. Have Jenna.” That evidently ends the conversation, because Nemo begins to bathe himself.

Connecting the wastebox to the spacevent system takes some real work to make sure it’s thoroughly sealed so no air will escape when the box is evacuated. It has a second layer that waste can drop into at the press of a button, and that seals off whenever it’s closed. The actual evacuation into space takes a palm-press, presumably because rikis, while sapient, aren’t that intelligent.

Bryta and Jenna test the unit’s security under vacuum pressure; Jenna sucks all the air from the spacevent system, and after a moment, she tells Bryta, “The system is sealed.”

“Thank you, my love.” Bryta starts to put away her tools and looks ruefully at the grime on her hands. It can’t be helped; she’s a mechanic and a captain. Grime in her fingerprints is a near-constant. As long as it doesn’t rub off, it’s nothing she really worries about.

Dorry meets her at Jenna a few minutes after she hears a Frisky land; it must have been the transport. He has a sack slung over his shoulder, and he’s grinning. “Dinner is on me.”

“How should I dress?”

“Something nice. I won’t be seeing you for months, I assume.”

“Probably not,” she agrees.

A mrr almost startles her, and then Nemo’s head rubs against her hip. “Who this?”

“This is Dorry, my date. Dorry, this is Nemo, my new companion.”

“Hello, Nemo. It’s good to meet you.”

Nemo doesn’t answer aloud at first, sniffing Dorry’s hands before deciding, “You too. Hi, Dorry. Be nice to Bryta.”

“He always is.” Bryta heads for her berth. “Play nice, you two.” She selects a white shirt with a cut that flatters her breasts and waist and a long scarlet skirt she only wears on nice dates. She knows full well how she looks in the outfit without even checking the mirror; her brown hair fans out against the collar of her shirt, and her skirt fits well around her hips.

After they leave Jenna, Dorry says, “A protective riki.”

“Apparently. I’d like to go to a bathhouse tonight. I love taking real water baths when I’m planetside, especially before I lift off again. Air showers aren’t the same.”

“It’s been awhile since I’ve been to one,” he agrees. “First, dinner. I have reservations.”

Dinner consists of local vegetables, grilled and spicy, paired with mild fruits and a yogurt-based drink. Meats are on the menu, but Bryta never eats them; she was raised vegetarian, and she’s always preferred vegetables and fruits, especially when they’re fresh.

She pays for the bathhouse, and they strip down together before joining a couple of Bengens, a Vargiite, and a Human in one of the deep, warm pools. Bryta just soaks up the warmth and wetness; her next stop is two and a half standard weeks out, and that’s an asteroid belt that won’t have anything this luxurious. She gets to see a close friend who isn’t exactly a lover there, though; it might be, if they had compatible sexual organs, but neither of them could manage anything with the other’s parts. For now, she has Dorry and sex tonight, and tomorrow, she gets space, that beautiful black.

The next day, Bryta faces the stars and the black with a smile. They may be lonely, but they’re sweet and home, and Jenna and Nemo are all the company she wants on this trip to Frog.

“You’ve never been in space, have you?” Bryta asks Nemo.

“No. Heard about it.” He lounges in the other seat in the bridge. What looks like half of him hangs off the seat, some on each side, but he seems comfortable.

“We’ll be going into hyperdrive soon. It may be a jolt to your stomach.”

“Be fine.”

“I hope so. Jenna, darling, set course for Frog.”

“Course set,” Jenna says a split second later. “Hyperdrive in one standard minute.”

Bryta can hear the change in the engines and the circuitry, mostly from long familiarity with Jenna. They’ve been together for ten years, ever since Bryta upgraded from the Moxie she piloted as a paid courier. Jenna’s been paid off for six years now, mostly from pinching every credit that passed through their accounts. Bryta knows every inch of Jenna, every change in pitch that she makes, what her shifting lights mean, and Jenna knows her just as well. Now they need to fit Nemo into that knowledge.

Jenna counts down to hyperdrive once there are ten seconds left, and Bryta can almost hear excitement in her ship’s voice. She can’t blame her; hyperdrive is downright fun.

Nemo yowls when Jenna makes the speed jump; he tumbles back, but rolls straight to his feet with a complete ‘I meant to do that’ air about him. “Be on tree in hold,” he says haughtily and stalks off.

Bryta smothers her laugh and says to Jenna, “I’m going to get something to eat. We should be there in two and a half standard weeks, if all goes well.”

“All circuitry running as normal, Captain,” Jenna reports a second later. “I will keep running maintenance exams during your downtime.”

“Thank you, my love.” She leaves the bridge and, from a locker, grabs some of her fresh fruit that’s fairly shelf-stable. The cooling unit has more, and the freezer is stocked with meat for Nemo, but by the time they get to the Frog system, they’ll be out of fresh produce and low on non-dehydrated meat. “Hey, Nemo!”

A moment later, Nemo sticks his head around the door into the galley. “What.”

“Do you think you could stand mixing jerky and raw meat so the raw meat lasts longer?”

“Try jerky,” he decides. “Small piece.”

She can do that. There’s a big pack of jerky in one of the floor-level cabinets, and she rips it open so she can toss him a piece. He bats it out of the air and crouches to chew. He decimates it in seconds.

“Need water,” is his verdict, and Bryta laughs.

“There’s a dish right there.”

As he pads past her, she presses the button to unlock a drawer, gets a knife—not something to have floating around in zero-gravity; she did that once as a child and was thoroughly chastised—and turns to cut her fruit.

The time passes in a steady routine. Bryta sleeps seven standard hours; then Jenna wakes her. She uses her exercise equipment for forty-five minutes, takes an air shower and uses washing powder on her hair, then eats breakfast.

After spending six hours with Jenna and Nemo, she eats lunch and exercises another half-hour, then gets Nemo on her treadmill and has him run at a steady twenty kilometers an hour for forty minutes. Both of them need the conditioning; Jenna’s grav unit isn’t planet-equivalent, and bones are built to sustain weight, not to be in low gravity conditions for long stretches of time. She’s really not interested in either of them breaking something because their bones have lost density. For her, it would make flying difficult and space a bad idea.

Dinner follows eight hours after she returns to the bridge. Sometimes there’s maintenance to do in between lunch and dinner, but Jenna’s mechanic did a fine job, and she’s in top condition. Most of the maintenance has to do with tightening a bolt that secures one of Nemo’s trees or reorganizing supplies that have slipped. Every other day, she gives Nemo a vaccine after dinner, until she runs out of them a day before they reach the belt.

Two standard weeks and three days after leaving Veni, Jenna reports, “Entering the Frog planetary system in one standard hour.”

“And then it’s another hour to the Porwigle belt,” Bryta says, mostly to herself, but Jenna answers anyway.

“That is correct, Captain, unless I remain in hyperdrive.”

“Let’s not do that. Maintain course, love. I’ll take the controls in a few minutes.”

Jenna’s lights blink pink, and Bryta smiles as she gets up. She double-checks the security of Nemo’s harness and hooks him in; despite his professed dislike of harnesses, he flops to his side and cushions his head on his paws. Then she fastens her own harness.

“I have the controls.”

“You have the controls,” Jenna agrees a second later, and her power use hums just lower.

Bryta leans forward, fingers tapping and gliding over the panels, and she stays like that until they enter the Frog system, when she thumbs on the comm to request landing permission and confirm their position. The comm on the Lotì’s end sounds crackly, off.

When they dock on the asteroid, there’s the distinct thunk of a seal being applied around Jenna once the power levels have been lowered. Again, her comm crackles when V’mar instructs her to remain aboard until her custom check is done, the standard greeting when landing anywhere new. That done, Bryta rises, stretching.

“We done?” Nemo asks.

“For now. We won’t be here that long, though, just a couple of days. I need to pick some things up, and then we’re on our way to a planet again.” She rounds her chair and bends to unfasten the buckles of his harness. “Mostly acromium. It’s useful stuff.”

“What for?” He stands and stretches, from his long tail to his great paws.

“Building ships, sometimes fueling them. Acromium fuel is pretty outdated—Jenna doesn’t use it—but some older ships do.”

“Why?”

“It’s cheaper in the short term than buying a new ship.” Bryta shrugs. “Long term, it costs more, but depending on what you do with your ship, it might be okay.”

“New engines?”

She laughs, and Jenna does too, not aloud but through her twinkling lights. “Replacing engines is incredibly expensive. You have to redo the workings of the ship.”

Nemo gives her what she recognizes as the feline version of a smile. “Make demis do it.”

She whoops with laughter and barely hears the comm; Jenna has to say, “Jonas is outside.”

Bryta clears her throat and wipes her eyes, but can’t get rid of her smile. “Thanks, Jenna.” She walks to the controls and presses her palm to the pad, unlocking the mechanism to lower the bay door.

“I’m Jonas Stark. Permission to come aboard,” a Human man requests.

“Permission granted. Welcome aboard.”

“What are you carrying?” he asks as he strides up the ramp.

“No goods for sale. I have a rikicat aboard and food for the two of us, plus fuel for my ship. There are also some hydroponic plants to help air quality.”

“She’s in wonderful condition.”

“Thank you,” Jenna says.

“You’re welcome.” To Bryta, he says, “I’d like a look around.”

“Of course. You’re a customs agent. You’re welcome to look.”

Nemo strolls out of the bridge just as Jonas starts for the stairs. Nemo says, “You examine ship.”

“That’s right. You don’t look like other rikis I’ve met.”

Nemo purrs almost smugly. “I special.”

Bryta stifles a laugh. “The galley is to your left.”

“Did you notice anything strange with your electronics as you landed?” Jonas opens the cooling unit and peers in.

“Strange how?”

“Anything flickering, crackling, that sort of thing. Maybe the lights or the comm.” He moves on to the cabinets.

“The comm did crackle,” Bryta says. “Jenna, was there anything else?”

“Power usage fluctuated more than is normal,” Jenna reports, “but that can happen when going through an asteroid belt.”

“Why?” Bryta asks Jonas.

“We’ve been having reports of that sort of thing, and a lot of the electronics on the asteroid have been going haywire. A few days ago, compasses started spinning for no good reason, and we had to shut down the mine for a shift.”

Bryta frowns. How odd. She hasn’t heard of that sort of thing happening unless there’s a stellar flare, and he likely would have mentioned if that was the case.

Once Jonas has thoroughly examined her ship and cleared her and Bryta has pressed her thumbprint to all the plasfilm-displayed documents that need it, she pays for her berth and asks Nemo, “Want to come buy stuff?”

He cocks his head. “Fun?”

“I get to haggle.”

“Haggle,” he repeats.

“You know. Argue with beings over how much I’ll agree to pay them for what I need.”

He gives her a feline smile. “Fun.”

Mostly, during the haggling, Nemo stretches on the floor or sits on his haunches. At one point, while she’s testing a sheet of acromium, he leaps atop the stack and stretches out.

“Get him down,” the Juunpen in charge of the refinery’s sales demands.

“He’s a sapient being,” Bryta says, and she has no idea how she’s not laughing. “I’ll give you one-fifty for the lot of it.”

The Juunpen gurgles in its throat. “An insult.”

She talks the Juunpen down from one eighty to one sixty-five, exactly where she wanted. It looks as relieved as a Juunpen can. They lack muscles that would create expressions; their faces can mainly move their mouths to chew (and therefore they speak in a relatively distorted way) and their eyes to blink horizontally. Otherwise, their expressions are rigid and gaunt.

Within two days, the last of the acromium is delivered. Bryta does a little browsing while they wait, and she finds a store of gold that the mine hasn’t been able to shift. She can sell that for use in electronics and old-fashioned jewelry. She gets it for a real steal, only twenty thousand credits. It’s delivered a few hours after the acromium delivery is stashed away. She hires a couple of Juunpeni to help get everything stored and tethered down before she files her exit plans. None of her on-asteroid time meshes with her Juunpen friend’s offtime, which is unfortunate; she was looking forward to meeting with Nunci.

When she has permission to lift off and Jenna reports, “The seal has been released,” she and her ship navigate their way away from the asteroid and through the belt.

Almost as soon as they leave the system, there’s a jolt, and Jenna begins to rattle. The lights flicker, and the screens blink.

“Jenna?”

Jenna doesn’t answer. The seat vibrates, and Bryta thinks she can hear Nemo growling.

The lights flash, start to strobe, and then go out entirely. In the pure black, Bryta thinks she can’t breathe. “Jenna!”

All at once, the shaking stops. The lights blink once, stark red, before coming back up. The screens light up in displays Bryta has always wished to never see, booting screens and then a list of errors, and she realizes, suddenly, that she’s lifted up from her seat. Her harness is still in place, but her butt isn’t firm against the vinyl like it should be with the grav system.

“Jenna, lovey, say something.”

“Running system checks.” Jenna’s voice is off. She doesn’t sound calm. If anything, she sounds frightened. “Attempting to orient navigation systems.”

“What do you mean, attempting?” Bryta unfastens her harness and leans forward, reading the screens. “That’s not—Jenna, I don’t recognize any of this.”

“Star systems not found in any database, Captain.”

“What happened?” Nemo asks.

“We’re trying to figure that out.”

“Floating,” he says plaintively. “Don’t like floating.”

“I’m sorry. It would probably be best for you to not move much. If you want, I’ll undo your harness when we work this out.”

“Gravitational unit is offline and cannot be reactivated,” Jenna reports. “Navigation systems unable to orient. Cooling unit is offline. Attempting to reactivate. Attempting to stabilize palm locks.”

“Run a probability process on what would cause electrical surges and shortages, along with severe vibrations and the lack of orientation,” Bryta directs. She lifts herself up and pulls around the seat. “Do you want me to unhook you, Nemo?”

He looks up at her, distinctly unhappy. “Show me what do.”

“First of all, don’t push off anything too hard. If you do, you’ll go flying away from it. Be gentle. Try to keep your paw hooked around a railing or something as you go. I’ll help you as much as I can, but we’re trying to work this out.” She pulls down just hard enough that she can almost touch the deck and starts to unfasten the buckles of the harness. “I’ll be up here.”

Nemo huffs and gingerly pushes himself upright, enough that he floats above the deck.

“Captain,” Jenna says, “I have the probability calculations.”

“What does it give us?”

“Approximately 98.72 percent certain we entered a wormhole.”

“Ninety—” Bryta curses. “Okay, um. Use the navigational systems to make a note of where we currently are in relation to all systems, and… we’ll see if there are sapient lifeforms in the nearest planetary system.”

“Nearest system is within twenty standard minutes,” Jenna says, sounding apologetic. “Two potentially lifebearing planets are present, unless colonization and terraforming of the others has occurred. One gas giant and two ice planets present. One rocky planet aside from the planets in the habitable zone. Twenty-three moons in the system. One small asteroid belt.”

“Thank you,” Bryta murmurs. She straps herself into her seat so she doesn’t accidentally push away when she works on the screens. “We’re going to have to work together on getting to a planet, my love.”

“If you connect it, I will test the translation unit’s functionality.”

“Excellent idea. Keep running diagnostic processes.” She unfastens her harness again and leaves the bridge to find the unit. Before she does find it, she comes across Nemo, floating in the perfect middle of the hold, growling. It would be funny at any other time.

“Help,” he says plaintively.

She shakes her head. “It’s time to use your flight harness anyway. We’re going to try landing on a planet.”

“Harness good,” he agrees.

The translation unit is in a locker, and she grabs it before returning to Nemo, whom she rescues with a couple of calculated bounces. He gets led back to the bridge by a paw, and she buckles him in before connecting the unit to a console.

“It appears to be in working order,” Jenna says after a moment. “Entering unknown planetary system.”

“Let’s designate it Worm,” Bryta says. “Pending the local name.” If it’s just what ancient humans did, named the local equivalent of ‘Solar System’, she’s sticking with ‘Worm’.

“Entering Worm,” Jenna agrees.

Bryta fastens her harness and leans forward to get to work. The only way she and Jenna could work more closely is with neural implants, and it shows with how well they navigate an unfamiliar planetary system and enter an unknown atmosphere to land on a planet they never knew existed.

“Test the atmosphere,” Bryta instructs. She’s in her seat again. The gravity feels close to average, maybe a bit on the light side. At least it’s gravity. “Nemo, how are you doing?”

“Not floating,” he says behind her seat.

She laughs. “Good, then. Okay.”

“The atmosphere is 22.58 percent oxygen by volume, 77.23 percent nitrogen, 0.027 percent carbon dioxide, and a combination of other gases, none of which are toxic to Humans or felines in present quantities. Temperature is 297 degrees Kelvin. Gravitation is equivalent to 9.79 meters per second per second,” Jenna says.

“Okay. Are the palm locks stabilized?”

“It appears so, but will not be confirmed without a test.”

She has to be rattled. Even Jenna is usually less formal than this. “Then we’ll do that.” Bryta takes off her harness, grabs the translation unit, and gets up to let Nemo out of his. She takes a deep breath. “Let’s do this,” she says, mostly to herself. Beside her, Nemo purrs, and she drops a hand to his head.

The palm locks prove functional when Bryta tests the one to the hold. In case the planet is hostile, she opens the small door on the side instead of the hatch. She pushes down the stairs and steps out onto them, shielding her eyes against the glare of the planet’s yellow sun. Below, three beings have gathered. It takes her eyes a moment to adjust, and then she sees they’re quadrupedal, with arms and hands in addition to their lower limbs. She’s never seen a species quite like them, in person or on holovids. They dimly call to mind the old stories of centaurs.

Centaurs, though, were based on horse bodies. These don’t quite look like horses, at least not the equines Bryta has seen. They’re elegant, like them, with clean, refined lines from their muscled forelegs to their thicker back legs. Both sets of legs have an additional joint. Their tails, instead of being made of long strands of hair, are more like Nemo’s, but proportionally longer; based on how they’re curled, they’re potentially prehensile. Their torsos are clean extensions of their lower bodies, upright from their forelegs. Like their bodies, they look like they have a short coat of fur or hair covering them, though it’s hard to tell from above if it’s that or textured skin; whatever it is, they’re all green, ranging from sage to olive, shades that don’t blend with the slightly yellow cast of the vegetation beneath them. She can’t make out any sexual traits from where she stands, presuming they have any sort of external differentiation between sexes or genders. Their hands look unlike hers, but she can’t tell exactly what the difference is. She also can’t make out much about their facial features, except that they have long noses. They don’t appear to be armed.

“Ready?” she murmurs to Nemo.

He mrrs in response.

They start down the steps together, Nemo close by her side but not quite touching. The beings watch her; one of them raises an arm in what might be a greeting. She can’t be sure.

She switches on the translation unit just before she reaches the bottom of the stairs and says, “Greetings.” She doesn’t expect it to work.

At this level, she can see that they do, in fact, have short green fur covering their bodies, almost everywhere but their faces. It’s thicker and longer on the sides of their broad faces, nearly obscuring their rounded ears on top of their heads, and just above what she can now see are grey cloven hooves. The palms of their hands are also bare. Similarly to their lower limbs, their arms appear to have two joints between the shoulder and wrist. They have two opposing digits, one to either side of the rest of their digits, for a total of nine on each hand. Maybe they can default to a binary numerical system if math gets involved in their communications, since a base-ten system seems unlikely when they have eighteen digits. Assuming they ever communicate.

They have strong-looking jaws, but their teeth aren’t sharp; they don’t have canine or carnassial teeth, she can see when one of them gives her what she hopes is a greeting in a liquid, slippery language. Her translation device doesn’t say anything, so she can’t be sure. They have long, wide noses overhanging their mouths, and their three eyes are perfectly round, with what appear to be black pupils, blue irises, and brown sclera. Their faces are green, darker than their fur, as are the palms of their hands. She assumes this is true for all their skin, but it may be because of stellar exposure; she can’t be sure. They’re all roughly her height at the tops of their heads.

Verbal greetings don’t work. Noted. She tries a bow instead. She would go for a smile, but maybe that’s a threat here. It is for some species.

Success. The three lean forward at their waists. She has to assume it means the same here as it does for many cultures. One of them digs in a pouch tied around their waist and produces a small metal object. They press a button and repeat what the more olive being said earlier. In Lotì-accented Basic, the device says, “Greetings.”

Bryta’s eyes widen. She’s not the first. At least one other ship from her universe has also landed here—and stayed long enough to at least begin translation work. It’s logical, given the wormhole, that her ship wouldn’t be the only one, but she didn’t want to assume before. “Greetings,” she says. “My name is Bryta.”

The being’s translation unit is silent, as far as she can tell, but a moment later, the being says something that’s translated as, “I am Lrrjuf.” As it says the name, the being points to themself. “My friends are Imbt,” Lrrjuf points to the sage one to their right, “and Yofft,” the olive one who originally spoke, to their left. “We are Murrols. This planet is Palk.”

Murrols, Palk. She might have to ask the beings’ names again later, just to be sure she’s pronouncing them correctly, but she commits the species and planet names to memory. “I am Human. My species is originally from the planet Earth. My companion is Nemo. He’s a genetically engineered species called a rikicat.”

They have to have some sort of earpieces; the device isn’t relaying what she says as far as she can hear. When Yofft speaks, she catches an approximation of Nemo’s name; he evidently asks, “Is Nemo sapient?”

She glances down, at Nemo’s pinned-back ears. “Yes,” he says, nearly growls.

“Did a Lotì ship land here before?” she asks. “The translation unit speaks with a Lotì accent.”

“Ships have landed,” Lrrjuf says, “only messenger ships with no beings aboard. We have used them as extensively as possible.”

That’s better than other beings coming through and no news traveling through her ‘verse; it doesn’t have the implication that there’s no leaving. “There was a wormhole we came through.”

“Yes,” Imbt says, sounding unsurprised. “We created it.”

All Bryta can do is stare. No species in her universe can…

“How?” Nemo asks for her.

“The unit cannot translate that,” Lrrjuf says. “You carry acromium aboard.”

“How did—” Her eyes narrow. “The wormhole zeroes on acromium?”

“We require it.” Bryta doesn’t know Murrol body language, but based on most species she does know, Yofft appears apologetic, looking down and slightly turning their body away. The translation unit is no help on this count. “You have our apologies.”

“You abducted me, and now you want my cargo?”

Lrrjuf says, “We will not take it by force. It is your cargo. We will make an exchange.”

“What kind of exchange?” she asks suspiciously. “Something like I go home in exchange for my load?”

“We have other materials you may find valuable. We will trade for your acromium. It is needed.”

“What do you need it for?” she demands.

“Fuel,” is the answer she doesn’t expect. “We require acromium fuel to leave Palk.”

She presses a hand to her forehead. “I’ve been hijacked so you could refuel your ships? Are you serious? I’m not even in my ’verse anymore, and all because you haven’t updated your engine specs?”

They just look at her.

“Look. What I mean is, acromium engines are fifty years out of date. Why do you need fuel that badly?”

“Your engines do not require acromium?” Imbt takes a step toward Jenna. Under their hoof, vegetation crunches.

“No. Why do you need to get off Palk so badly?” They can’t be trying to escape a murder rap or something; a wormhole would presumably take far more doing than three beings can muster, and if “ships have landed”, then this has been going on for a little while.

The three beings look at each other and take a long minute to answer, during which Nemo settles at her feet. “Palk is under attack.”

All she wanted was to turn a profit on that damn acromium. She sighs. “Let’s talk out of the sun and away from my ship.” She slaps her hand to the palm lock, and Jenna folds up the stairs and swings the door closed. “Nemo’s coming with me.”

*


The Murrols don’t have chairs, at least not here, which makes some sense for quadrupeds. Tripedal Bengens at least use stools. Specially adapted stools that require a certain amount of balance, but at least they keep Bryta’s feet from aching like they do now. One plus to the slightly light gravity is that they ache less than they might otherwise. She tries to shift subtly, but she’s been waiting for what must be half a standard hour. Nemo has given up on any pretense of manners and is giving himself a thorough bath.

Her escorts are discussing something with another Murrol off to the side of the chamber. They quiet when a door opens and a light sage Murrol comes into the chamber. They’re holding a translation device, and they say, “Human Bryta and rikicat Nemo of Earth,” which is accurate to the information she gave, if not to her life, “I am Secondary Ministerial Representative Pyof of Palk. I will speak with you about your ship.”

Nemo rolls to his feet and nudges her hand with his cheek. Bryta strides over, Nemo easily keeping pace with her, and bows. “Greetings, Representative.” She hopes that she shortened that properly. Then again, this species hijacked her, not the other way around.

“Please, call me Pyof. This way.”

Bryta follows them—she feels strange, assigning ‘them’ as a neutral pronoun, when the Murrols she’s met probably have preferred pronouns and assignations, but it’s a time-honored choice—into a smaller chamber. Like the larger one, it has clear ceilings and windows lining the walls, with yellowish plants in the corners. Here, a table sits slightly off-center, but Pyof leads her to what resembles a pair of barely-elevated couches. They sink down on one, keeping their torso upright even as they fold their legs under their body. She tries not to stare at how that works with the second joint in each limb.

“Please, relax.”

Bryta sits, crossing her legs, and catches Pyof also trying not to stare either at her or at Nemo, curled up beside her. “I was told I was brought here through a wormhole the Murrols created.”

“That is correct. We created it because we require acromium.”

“To leave Palk because it’s under attack,” she says, nodding. “Except it’s my acromium, acromium-fuel engines are outdated anyway, and I’ve seen no sign of attack.”

Pyof looks past her. “It is not a direct attack. It is an attack on our planet. A supervirus is exterminating plant life. Everything is withering and dying, and our stores will run out soon. We have ships in production, but they require fuel.”

“Who would attack with a supervirus aimed at plants?” she has to ask.

Pyof rises. “Wait here.” They click across the room to the table and return with a transparent tablet that they tap at with one many-fingered hand even as they sink back down. Then they hand her the tablet.

Bryta nearly recoils, millions of years of instinct telling her to get away from what she sees. A three-dimensional hologram of a bipedal, four-armed, reptilian individual stares at her. Its feet have three claws, and its mottled green-brown skin looks rough and scaly. It has long, thin digits, at least seven per hand, all capped with long nails or claws, that it flexes as it breathes. Its head is large for its body, perhaps a quarter of the total height, much longer than it is wide. No matter how long she looks at its flat, reflective eyes, it doesn’t blink.

“That is a Nidel. They are from Kial. Nidelan steal planets. They strip them of resources and leave them to die. Sometimes they kill the sapient species already on the planet. Sometimes they enslave them. Either way, anything alive will die with the planet. They want Palk because it is rich in some metals and minerals we do not use much. They have already killed Ryäl, the other lifebearing planet in our system. Its atmosphere is depleted, and it has no resources left. The Ryäler fled far from the reach of the Nidelan. They had the ships and the acromium. We do not have either.”

Bryta swallows and passes back the tablet. Pyof taps it, and the hologram shrinks down. “Acromium fuel is inefficient. My ship doesn’t use it.”

“You mentioned it is an outdated fuel.” Pyof watches her carefully. “No other ships have used anything but acromium.”

She shrugs. “Almost all AI-guided messenger ships are outdated. Jenna’s new. She uses other metals that are more efficient. I’ll trade you my acromium, but I can trade you something more useful instead. Knowledge.”

Pyof leans forward. “What would you ask in return?”

“If you can get non-acromium engines into production, I want acromium to carry back, and I want a way back.”

They shift. “This may not be possible.”

She gives them a deeply unimpressed look. “You made a wormhole that can come here. You can make one that leaves. Don’t you have any sort of peacekeeping force, a federation or anything?”

Pyof’s fingers tap the joint between their upper body and their front leg. “They are corrupt.”

Of course they are. If a species has done this many times before, enough to know how to do it efficiently—and destroying the food supply is damned efficient—they would be stopped by a useful peacekeeping force. “The one in my ‘verse isn’t.”

*


“Let’s get food,” Bryta says to Nemo as she presses her hand to the palm lock outside Jenna. She enters her code, and the bay ramp begins to lower. “Then we’ll work.”

“Welcome back, Bryta,” Jenna says as she steps onto the ramp.

“How are you, my love?”

“Cooling unit is online. Power to the gravitational unit has been disabled.”

“That doesn’t quite answer the question.” She and Nemo start up the stairs. “But I’ll see about fixing the grav unit later. For now, I have work for you to do.”

“Are we leaving?” She sounds downright hopeful.

“Sorry, lovey. I’m showing your parts off to beings.”

Jenna doesn’t answer.

“Your engines. You’re going to save lives.”

“If you insist.” Her ship sounds annoyed.

“I borrowed a translation device. If I manage to connect it, think you can download the language and work some tech for me?”

“Would you like me to enhance its vocabulary?”

“As much as you can. I want to be able to talk to them better.”

“Did you discover how they made a wormhole?”

“I thought you were eavesdropping.”

“You left the door open.”

Bryta laughs aloud. “I love when you’re snarky. I might find out more about how they made the wormhole once you do some translation work for me.” A xenolinguist would be horrified at using a ship to do the work, but it’s not like Jenna is starting from scratch, and Bryta’s willing to bet the entire contents of her hold that no xenolinguist is familiar with both Basic and the main language used on Palk, the name of which translates to Common.

“I will do my best.”

“And your best is very, very good.” Bryta pulls open the cabinet and gives Nemo a handful of jerky before refilling his water bowl. She reconstitutes a bowl of soup for herself and leaves it to heat while she walks to the bridge to examine the ports where she might connect the Murrol translation device. Before she’s narrowed it beyond “splice cables”, Nemo calls for her, and she leaves it on the console so she can eat and think at the same time.

“This good idea?” Nemo asks when she’s sitting at the little counter, between cabinets.

“What, helping beings to escape from being enslaved or exterminated?” Bryta blows on a spoonful of her soup.

“Don’t know beings.”

Bryta glances at him. “I know we got sucked through a wormhole and these beings are the only way home.”

“Will you be watching when they examine my engines?” Jenna chimes in.

“Jenna! Of course I will!” Bryta drinks down the soup on her spoon, which gives Jenna a chance to press on.

“They may disable more than my gravitational unit.”

Nemo growls. “I stop them.”

“They’re quadrupeds who probably can’t move as fast as him, and if they fit with usual evolutionary patterns, hooves and dull teeth without visible canines mean they’re obligate herbivores. Nemo could easily stop them from doing you any harm, which they won’t anyway. I’m going to be right there.” Her soup should be cool enough; she picks up the bowl.

“They want our shipment,” Jenna says flatly. “If they are determined enough, they can steal it and give us no assistance.”

Bryta nearly chokes, she tries to swallow so fast. “They need to study your engines! They’re under attack, Jenna. We’re making a trade. Information and a wormhole home in return for more acromium and getting the Federation to come help.”

“Dangerous plan,” Nemo mutters.

“It’s the only plan we have!” Bryta exclaims. “I don’t want to be stuck in a ‘verse where we’re the only ones who speak Basic, there’s one riki and one ship that doesn’t run on acromium, and I don’t have a proper translation device. Not to mention that I don’t even know if I can eat anything here.”

“I will work on the translation device when you connect it,” Jenna nearly snaps. “I agree with Nemo. It is a risky plan.”

Bryta stills. “I need your cooperation for it to work.” Jenna is fully capable of electrifying her panels so that no one can access anything , a feature meant to deter intruders and thieves, and she can heat her engines without actually igniting them, which would make it impossible to show everything to the Murrol engineers.

Jenna doesn’t answer for a long minute that Bryta spends wiping her bowl and spoon clean and getting herself water. “You have it,” she says at last, “but I wish to make my displeasure clear.”

“You’ve made it very clear, love.”

“Still dangerous,” Nemo says, drawing out the word.

“Are you going to kill Murrols?”

“Only if hurt you or Jenna,” he promises, sounding reluctant.

“Thank you. Let’s figure out connecting that device.”

Nemo stalks her back to the bridge and climbs into the other seat. He perches there, golden eye fixed on her. She tries not to let it get to her.

Since they gave her a translation unit and its cord, it should be fine if she strips the cord and splices it to one of her own that actually connects to a port. If she can just make this work…

It takes the better part of two hours to splice the cord properly, but when she gets it connected to one of Jenna’s ports, the light above it flashes green.

“Do you have it?”

“It will take me some time to decode the software,” Jenna says, “but I am much smarter than a translation unit. I should have something for you in approximately five hours, two minutes, and seventeen seconds.”

“Thank you. Nemo, want to nap while we wait?”

“You sleep. Maybe make better choices.”

“And what are you going to do, conspire with Jenna?”

He gives her an unreadable look. ‘Cats.

“I am going to sleep, though. Once I clean up.” She nestles the unit in a holder on one of the consoles and stands, stretching, before she picks up the scraps of wire and cord and her tools. “If you want to join me, come on.”

Nemo gets down from the other chair, but only to stretch his great paws in front of him, extend his claws, arch his back, and stretch so far Bryta almost feels her own back crack. Then he turns his back on her.

“No eating Murrols while I sleep,” she says, half-jokingly, but makes sure the ship is closed up just in case once the scraps and tools are in lockers. The last thing she wants is an inter-‘verse problem because a rikicat eats a member of a newly-contacted species.

Nemo does end up joining her; he stretches out along the length of her, his chin on her shoulder and a foreleg draped across her body, his massive paw dangling by her ribs. Despite his displeasure, he purrs gently, easing her to sleep.

Some time later, Jenna wakes her with, “Captain, I have finished running the process.”

Bryta rubs at her eyes and tries to remember which process. She pushes upright, swinging her legs off the side of her bed, and catches sight of Nemo bathing himself on the floor. “You decoded the software?”

“And completed as much translation as I can,” she says, a hint of reproof in her voice.

“I’m sorry, love. You just woke me. I’ll be up in a minute.” She looks down at Nemo. “Did you stay here the whole time?”

He just licks between the pads of his toes.

“Thank you for that non-response. Jenna, how long did I sleep?”

“Four hours, fifty-two minutes, and three seconds, based on respiration.”

If her ship was a person, that would be creepy. As it is, she appreciates knowing Jenna watches out for her. “I’m going to take a look at the grav unit and see what I can do before I talk to the Murrols again. I want it online before we take off again.”

“Captain, what is the point if you plan to take us through another wormhole?”

“You can take it offline, love.” She steps around Nemo. “Prevent a surge, and when we’re through, I don’t need to mess with it in zero-g while we’re trying to find a Federation outpost.”

“I cannot calculate whether the wormhole would be that predictable, Captain. There are still errors I have to repair from the last one.”

Bryta pauses. “No effects on the life support systems?”

“No.”

“Then it should be fine. I hope. We’ll take as much as is safe offline before we go through, and before we go, we’ll review emergency procedures for safely bringing you back.”

Jenna doesn’t answer. Bryta runs a hand through her hair and walks to the bridge. The translation device is just where she left it, plugged in and nestled in the holder. Its small screen is lit, and when she examines it, it displays a menu in Basic.

“You really did make it something I can use.”

“Its vocabulary is not as extensive as a true language, but I improved it as much as possible without further available matched words.”

“Thank you,” Bryta murmurs. She unplugs it from the cord and turns. “We’re going to work the grav unit problem together.”

“I don’t like having my systems offline. It would be a relief to bring it back.”

“I thought you asked what the point is.”

“That doesn’t mean I would not find it reassuring to have it back.”

Her ship can be so very like a being. “We’ll do it soon.”

Getting the grav unit back online involves having a whiskery face poked into her workspace, a damp nose nudging her hand so he can see better, and a ship telling her every minor change she feels. That last is actually helpful; Bryta and Jenna together bring it back online, after more than four hours’ intense labor and changing of wires and short-circuit preventers. At least nothing important is fried. Jenna’s lights twinkle as Bryta bolts everything back in place, and Nemo asks, “No more floating?”

“No more,” Bryta says, “except when we deliberately turn it off. If that works, then no floating after the wormhole.”

Nemo growls. “Don’t like wormholes.”

“None of us do,” Jenna says, “but it’s the only way home.”

Bryta finishes and stands to crack her back. “I need to go talk to Pyof about getting engineers over here. They need to be off this planet fast.”

“So do we,” Jenna says. “We need to be home.”

“We’re working on making that happen,” Bryta promises. She packs away her tools and turns to the locker. “Soon, love.”

Nemo mrrs and jumps straight up into the top platform of his tree, three meters off the ground. Bryta will never tire of seeing him do that.

“So you’re not coming?”

He looks down at her and yawns, showing off his canines. “I come.”

She smiles.

*


If the only bare skin you have to tattoo other than your palms is your face, Bryta supposes you’ll take it.

It’s not the kind of face tattoo that generally says things about Humans who have them, anyway. Some non-Human cultures use facial tattoos as a sort of status signifier, and evidently, Murrols are among them. Aerospace and astrospace engineer Murrols, at least, are among them, because all five of the ones she brought back with her have tattoos of what she recognizes as their planetary system along their wide, hairless cheeks. Only one of them has it on the right; the other four have the tattoo on their left cheeks. She has to wonder if there’s any significance to that, or if it’s a matter of preference. Maybe handedness.

“How do you create the wormholes?” she asks as the ground transport takes the six of them back to Jenna.

One of the ones with the tattoo on their left cheek speaks up. It takes her a moment to remember their name: Wifft. “Universes are adjacent, separated by what amounts to a thin skin of specific matters and energies, including dark matter. A wormhole between them is a tunnel through that skin. It takes dedicated energy and a lot of focus to breach the skin, as it would to make a tunnel through a mountain of stone.” Their nose wrinkles. “The effects are much worse if the tunnel rips apart the skin than if a tunnel brings down the mountain.”

She smiles a bit. “And zeroing on acromium?”

“That was much easier,” another of the engineers, Tyul, says. “Essentially, it involved programming the tunnel.” Their middle eye blinks. “The metaphor falls apart there.”

Briefly, Bryta wonders if Jenna or the Murrols’ previous contact with AIs from her universe made the translation of “metaphor” happen, and either way, she has to wonder how it happened. That’s not really important, though. “It seems to,” she agrees with a bit of a laugh to her voice. “So how did you discover how to make a wormhole? It’s not something any species from my universe has managed, and we’ve mastered cross-galactic travel.”

“We’re a highly scientific society,” Nefel, the one with the tattoo on their right cheek, says. Contractions are an improvement Jenna made. “We explore and focus on the stars and space. Wormholes were initially the project of a small team of experimenters.”

“I was on it,” Wifft says.

Nefel’s eyes flick to them. “She was the team leader.” Aha, a pronoun! Now to figure out if there’s a way to tell genders. Or how many genders there are. It’s always easier if there are two, but so often, there are more. Anyway, she should probably stick to “they” in her head until she knows the proper pronoun for each individual. “The team had very little oversight. I doubt they would have made the discovery with more.”

Wifft’s nose wrinkles again. Bryta thinks it might be the Murrol version of a smile. “We wouldn’t have, he’s correct. Our team was made up of programmers, physicists, chemists, engineers, and an ethicist. It took more than a year to make the first wormhole.”

Bryta nods, then catches herself; they can’t know what that means. “I see.” She almost bites her tongue before deciding to ask. “Why haven’t you moved past acromium fuel?”

“Acromium engines were introduced by the Union approximately twenty-six standard years ago,” Fiirn says. “Research has been ongoing into other fuel sources, but we don’t have time to change sources on our own, and few are willing to help, with Nidel attention on us.”

The Nidelan seem like a good topic to avoid. “Jenna’s engines should be able to help you. I have the schematics and specs ready to show you, and we can take a look at them to see anything you’re unsure about.” She pauses. “She’s not sure about showing you her engines, so be careful with what you touch.”

All five of them blink their middle eyes. “We won’t upset her,” Wifft says. “Your ship has a gender?”

“All our ships do,” Bryta says. “What the gender is depends on how their programming manifests and on who wrote the programming. Jenna’s series is manufactured and programmed primarily by Humans, so they have Human genders. Your ships don’t?”

“They have artificial intelligence, but no genders,” she says.

There’s another thing to wrap her mind around. After the fact that they can make wormholes, though, it’s a pretty minor detail.

Nemo sits up and places a paw on her knee. “Almost to Jenna?”

“I think so.” She rubs behind his ears, and he purrs. “You hungry?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll get you something when we get there. Tell me what you want and I’ll see if I can find it.”

“You told your greeters that Nemo is genetically engineered?” Fiirn asks.

“That’s right.”

“How did that happen?”

Nemo turns to fix them with a look. “Team of scientists used DNA from five species of cats, one small and two large, other two in between. Wanted intelligent companion felines who could talk. Same team made demicats, very small felines, from five small species. Hundreds of years gone.”

Bryta keeps rubbing behind his ears. “Demis are about this big.” She stops rubbing long enough to approximate their size. “Rikis come in a variety of sizes, from about a third of Nemo’s size to a bit bigger. They both have a lot of colors and patterns.”

“Do you all have one eye?” Nefel asks.

“No,” Nemo says shortly.

Wisely, none of them ask why he does.

The ground transport comes to a halt, and the Murrol closest to the door, Mifot, opens it. Once Bryta gets out, she walks to the palm lock for the bay door and presses her hand to it, entering the code with her other hand. The ramp begins to lower. “I’ll show you the schematics first, and we’ll go over the specs. After that, I’ll actually show you her engines.”

“We would like to start manufacture as soon as we can program our machines,” Nefel says. “We can do that tonight if we’re done here.”

That’s remarkably fast. “We’ll move as fast as we can, as long as it’s accurate.”

As soon as they’re inside, Bryta goes to the interface she’s hauled out of storage and hooked up to Jenna’s mainframe. “Jenna love, please bring up your engine schematics.”

Jenna doesn’t answer aloud, but the holograms come up, three-dimensional versions of her schematics displayed above the screen panel.

“Thank you. This is the team of engineers—Wifft, Nefel, Mifot, Fiirn, and Tyul. We’ll be careful with your engines, I promise.”

Jenna says something in Common that Bryta thinks is the greeting that Yofft used when they first made contact, and they all glance at each other before Fiirn replies in kind. The translation unit, a split second later, confirms that they both said, “Greetings.”

It seems very strange to need her ship’s words translated.

In Common that the device translates for Bryta, Jenna continues, “Please take care with my engines. Bryta is very good at maintenance, but we lack access to a mechanical engineer who is an expert with my series’ engines.”

“We will,” Wifft promises. She turns to study the schematics.

“What do you want to eat?” Bryta asks Nemo in an undertone.

“Jerky fine.” He keeps watching the Murrols, all of whom have tablets out, their fingers flying across the surfaces.

“I’ll be right back.” She jogs to the galley and pulls open the cabinet with his jerky, grabbing a few pieces before returning to the bay. He’s still sitting there with his tail around his precisely-placed paws, the tip twitching as he watches the Murrols, and she really hopes he’s not thinking about how they’d taste. Probably not, but she doesn’t know how rikis think.

When she gives him the jerky, he crouches down and gnaws at the pieces, and Tyul watches him for a moment.

“Is that flesh?”

“Yes,” Bryta says, since he’s eating. “Felines are obligate carnivores.”

That seems to unsettle Tyul, and Bryta takes it to mean she was right: Murrols are obligate herbivores. Tyul turns back to the schematics, but takes a moment to start taking notes again.

Nemo finishes gnawing the last piece of jerky, pads past the Murrols, and leaps to the top of his tree. He settles on his stomach, front paws dangling in a faux-casual manner, but Bryta has no doubt that he’ll be down on the floor in no time when they go to actually examine the engines.

In preparation for just that, she goes to the locker and gathers her toolbox. There are some things they can do from the inside, but mostly, they’ll need to be outside to get a look at Jenna’s workings. It’s always more difficult when she’s planetside, but they’ll make it work.

And they do. Bryta opens the panels inside after getting permission she doesn’t really need from Jenna, mostly to assure her ship that no one is doing anything harmful, and lets each engineer make as many notes as they need. They go outside, Bryta opens a hatch that allows them a closer look at the engines from that side, and they fill hard drive space with more notes. She hasn’t actually seen any of the tablets, so there may be more than just notes; it’s likely they’re creating drawings to refer to later, too. Finally, Wifft steps back from her third look at Jenna’s engines and says, “I think we’ve seen enough for now.”

“Would you be willing to come to the factory tomorrow and be sure everything is in place?” Nefel asks.

Bryta blinks. “I’m not an expert.”

“You know more than we do,” he says. “Your input would be invaluable.”

“Being modest,” Nemo tells her.

“Just because you couldn’t do it…”

He blinks at her. “No opposable thumbs.”

She laughs, shaking her head. “I’ll come.” Because Nemo’s right: she is fairly expert with Jenna’s engines, and she would certainly know if anything is wrong.

She closes the hatch and escorts them back to their transport before turning to Nemo. “I told you they wouldn’t sabotage anything.”

Nemo turns his back. “Want nap.” He paces back up Jenna’s ramp and says something she can’t make out. Jenna replies, and she can’t hear that either.

That’s not good. Bryta doesn’t want them talking behind her back. They might be talking about her. She races up after Nemo.

*


The ground transport arrives when Bryta and Nemo are outside, Nemo racing around like a kitten and making her laugh while she walks around Jenna, just to make sure her ship in good condition. She doesn’t really need to—Jenna would tell her if anything was wrong—but she needs the exercise, and it’s soothing to check her ship for herself. She’s taken to keeping the translation device clipped to her waistband, just in case she runs into a Murrol.

That turns out to be a good thing, because one of her greeting committee members steps off the transport just as she and Nemo get back to the bay ramp; she’s pretty sure it’s Yofft. “Bryta of Earth, I’m here to escort you to the factories,” they say.

“I’ll be ready in a moment,” she replies and really hopes their comm unit has been upgraded based on Jenna’s work. The engineers’ were, as was Pyof’s, but she doesn’t know about the others.

It must work well enough, because Yofft says, “I’ll wait here for you.”

“I wait down here,” Nemo says.

“All right,” she says to him. She watches him settle at the base of the ramp, then walks up into the bay. She can shower later; for now, she brushes her hair and cleans her teeth, changes her shirt and boots, and says to Jenna, “We’ll be back later. Electrocute anyone who touches the hatch or engines.”

“Of course. Will you be long, Captain?”

“I have no idea,” she admits. “I think Nemo’s coming with me.”

“He likes to make sure you’re safe.”

Bryta smiles. “I like having him with me. Please make sure everything is optimized. I don’t know when we’ll be leaving, and I want to be ready.”

“I always do. Make sure they will not blow themselves up.”

She laughs. “Our schematics are solid, you know that. They should be fine.” She walks back to the bay and down the ramp. “You coming?” she asks Nemo, who just gives her one of his extremely unamused looks. “I thought I’d ask.” Once the bay ramp is up, she and Nemo walk to the ground transport.

“Greetings, Bryta of Earth,” Yofft says, bowing.

She bows too. “Greetings, Yofft of Palk. You’re taking us to the factories?”

“Yes. I am thankful for your assistance.”

“I’m not a fan of genocide.” That gets her a blank look. “Of killing an entire species.”

Yofft’s mouth twitches, and they turn to board the transport again. She and Nemo follow them on.

This one is smaller than the one from the day before, but it’s not carrying seven beings and a driver. Instead, Yofft drives, and only Bryta and Nemo sit in the flat back. It’s disconcerting, being on a ground transport that lacks safety belts or harnesses, but she supposes it would be awkward to harness a Murrol body without one standing, and that would be an entirely inappropriate safety mechanism for her.

Yofft doesn’t say much; Bryta and Nemo just relax against each other for the ride. The vehicle is air-cushioned and glides over any bumps or dips, and it doesn’t take long before it slows. Bryta looks through a window to see a large factory, billowing steam. She wonders what their power source is. Probably nuclear.

“I am to take you in. Fiirn will meet you. She will escort you to the production floor.”

“Thank you,” she says as they get off the transport. “I appreciate it.”

“It is my pleasure.” They walk beside Bryta, with Nemo just behind. When they get to the factory door, Yofft has a quick conversation with the guard, and then they’re in.

“Greetings, Bryta,” Fiirn says as soon as they’re through the door. “We have a prototypical engine for you to examine, if you would be so kind.”

She blinks. Granted, she knew they planned to have one done soon, but she didn’t expect quite this soon. “Of course.” She turns to Yofft. “Thank you.”

“You’re the one who deserves thanks.” Yofft bows. “Someone will return you to your ship when you’re through here.”

Bryta bows back. Yofft turns and walks leaves, and Bryta turns back to Fiirn.

“Let’s go.”

It feels almost mazelike, the doors and turns to get to the part of the production floor that hosts the engine prototype. When they get there, Bryta feels like she did the first time she got to be hands-on with an engine for repairs, when she was thirteen standard years old and learning to help repair her family’s ship. This isn’t the same kind of engine, but that was also a small one, a learner’s engine unlike this prototype, and she gets to examine this for any flaws, anything that would keep it from being spaceworthy.

She takes a deep breath and grins. “Let’s do this.”

The engine, as it turns out, looks good. Solid and steady. The thrusters are accurate, the power source is in the right place, the converters are modeled exactly after Jenna’s and placed properly. As long as they scale up precisely—and since they could build an engine based on a day of examining a working one, she’s sure they can—this will work.

“It looks good,” she says to the team, more than an hour after she started to examine it.

Nefel says, “It will fly?”

“It will,” she says with a grin. “You’ve done a great job. How fast can you scale it up and get these built?”

“We have teams all day and night,” they say. “We’ll install them in ships over the next week and complete the system conversions as that happens.”

Bryta nods. “When do I get the wormhole home so I can bring backup?”

Wifft steps forward. “My team is working on that. I wanted to be sure the engine would work first.”

“Good. I want to bring you reinforcements.” That gets her blank looks. “Peacekeepers.”

“Pyof would like to speak with you,” Nefel says, “now that you’ve finished here. Is that acceptable?”

“Oh, yes, it is. At that office?”

“Someone will take you,” they say. “Do you need a guide out of the factory?”

“Please.”

Fiirn reaches out a hand. “This way.”

Bryta follows her back through the maze, Nemo at her back. As soon as they’re back in open air, he sneezes.

“You don’t like the smell of the production floor?”

“Stinks.”

“Cleaner air soon,” she promises.

The driver for this trip is Yofft again, who bows to them again. “This way.”

“Are you driving all day?” Bryta asks, once they’re in the back of the transport.

“Possibly.” The transport starts to move soundlessly. “I may have other duties.”

“It’s nice to see you again,” Bryta tells them. She’s not sure how much she means it, but she only moderately tolerates this level of formality from her ship. A complete stranger is too much.

“I return the sentiment.”

So much for that. She looks at Nemo, who looks for all the multiverse like he’s laughing at her.

Pyof meets them in the lobby this time; they might actually be anxious. She’s not sure about their body language yet. “Please, follow me.”

She revises that to “definitely anxious”. No greeting this time. She and Nemo trail them back to the same chamber as the day before. The plants are nearly brown now, withered.

Once they’ve all settled on the low couches, Pyof begins, “We have a team working on getting your wormhole created.”

Bryta says, “Wifft told me.”

“It seems to be more difficult than the others because it is two-way. It may take another day.” They lean forward. “We need assistance as soon as you go through and can return.”

“Are food stores low?” she asks.

“Nearing critical levels. We have some reserved for the ships for when we evacuate, and we’ve decreased rations, but we must leave Palk as soon as the ships are ready.” All three of their eyes blink. “We currently have nowhere to go. No other planet is willing to take us because of the Nidelan, and uninhabited planets have frequently been claimed for future colonies or resource rights. We need a new home, or we will all die in space.”

Bryta revises what she’ll tell the Federation. “I know where there’s a Federation posting. We’ll get there as fast as we can—and Jenna is a fast ship—and come back as soon as I convince them.” She pauses. “It would work better if someone comes with me.”

Pyof doesn’t answer for a long minute. “An ambassador,” they say at last, “and an astrospace engineer.”

“Wifft?” she suggests.

They blink their middle eye. “She would be sufficient. Lrrjuf greeted you when you landed, is that correct?”

Bryta nods.

“He’s a young ambassador, but he has been trained and has been offplanet. We can spare him.”

“I’ll need food for them,” she says, “and we need to install harnesses for when we leave the atmosphere and enter another. I also want to exchange Jenna’s water. Is there a lake or reservoir we can use?”

“Yes, there’s one within twenty kilometers. We also have the landing field forty kilometers away, if that would be easier.”

Bryta considers that. Every culture she knows uses round hoses for their strength, rather than any sort of angled hose, and if it’s the wrong size, they can always join the right size to it. She’s sure Murrols have connectors. “That would be better.”

“I would like for you to take care of water and stocking food as soon as you can so that you’re ready when Wifft and Lrrjuf come to your ship. They’ll come as soon as the wormhole is ready. Wifft can give you the spatial coordinates once you leave the atmosphere.” Their mouth twitches. “How long will it take to bring back your peacekeepers?”

“I hope only a few days,” she says. “Will you close all the wormholes after things are done?”

“If we have a sanctuary, we will do everything we can to prevent anyone from coming or leaving here.”

Good enough. “I’d like to ready my ship. I need those harnesses.”

Pyof rises. “I will send them with someone who can help install them.”

Nemo growls softly.

Bryta shakes her head as she and Nemo stand. “I’ll do the actual install. I just need someone who can model where to fasten them.”

“Understood. Yofft will return you to your Jenna now, and within a standard hour, someone will come with the harnesses and directions to the landing field. Someone else will bring rations.”

She nods. “Everything will be ready within a few hours. Jenna will be back where she’s been, so they can come there when the wormhole is ready.”

“Thank you, Human Bryta of Earth. There are no thanks sufficient for your assistance.”

“Give me all your acromium,” she says, straight-faced, “and it’s thanks enough.”

Pyof’s nose wrinkles. “We will load any empty space on our evacuation ships and transfer it to your ownership, if it won’t fit on your Jenna.”

The three of them leave the chamber. Yofft is already in the lobby, and she wonders if they ever left.

“Bring Bryta back to her ship. Everything has been handled,” Pyof says to them.

The two of them bow to one another; once both Murrols straighten and Yofft turns for the door, Bryta follows them out.

There is no conversation this time. She can recognize a losing battle.

True to Pyof’s word, Jenna says to Bryta, only thirty minutes or so after she and Nemo have gotten back, “There is a ground transport outside.” She says “ground transport” the same way Nemo says “demi”, and Bryta smiles.

“Thank you, love.” She closes the cabinet and heads down the stairs.

A Murrol waits at the bottom of the ramp, and they ask, “Permission to board requested, Captain.”

It’s good to know some things are multiversal. “Do you have the harnesses?”

“Yes, and the coordinates of the landing field.”

“Come aboard.”

The Murrol has one harness slung over each shoulder, the long straps looped. “My instructions are to model where to place them.”

“Do these go around your upper body and lower?” Bryta asks. They nod. “Standing?” Another nod. She curses silently. “Can I attach them to a wall?”

“That is usual.”

Much better. “This way.” She detours just long enough to heft her tool chest.

The Murrol picks their way cautiously up the stairs, and Bryta realizes then that she hasn’t seen more than a single step in one place. Their ground transports are low enough to take one step up, and the buildings have ramps. “Are these usual for your people?” they ask.

“Pretty much all sapient species in my ‘verse can use stairs. Over here.” She guides them to a space on the starboard wall that’s free of lockers and cabinets. “I need you to put on the harness and show me the connection points. My name is Bryta, by the way,” she adds at the realization that she bypassed introductions entirely.

“I am Julmin.” They bow slightly, a gesture Bryta returns, before they set down one of the harnesses and busy themself putting on the other.

She watches carefully, and when they’re done, asks, “These straps connect to the wall?”

“Yes.”

She owes her ship repairs after this. “Jenna, going to make four connections on your starboard wall, then four more for the other harness.”

“Yes, Captain.” She sounds clipped. Bryta resolves to get her a full cleaning and all the care she wants at the next landing field in their ‘verse.

She gets to work, drilling pilot holes and then using the pneumatic wrench to secure the bolts holding the straps to the wall. The straps are made of a material she’s not familiar with, but she’s sure Murrols know best what will hold them in place during atmospheric breaches. They would know better than her, anyway; she’s skeptical of standing during the breaches, though.

Once the first is in place, they do the same with the second harness, a couple of meters closer to the bridge. It should, apparently, be far enough that one of the two isn’t hitting the other with their tail. Evidently, their tails are prehensile like she guessed; Julmin picks up the one they dropped that way. Presumably, using their tails for that kind of thing is easier than bending that far, but it wouldn’t be as accurate as using their dexterous fingers…

She cuts off that line of thought and turns to Julmin. “Do you want to ride along to the landing site?”

“Those are not my instructions,” they say cautiously.

“It’s an invitation. Besides, you could help with connecting the piping—you’re a ship mechanic, right?”

Their nose wrinkles. “I am. How did you know?”

“You were going to install the harnesses,” she points out. “Come on, take a ride on a stranger’s ship.” Something children are always firmly told not to do, but Julmin is no child. She thinks. Not if they’re a mechanic, anyway.

“I’d like that,” they say at last, and Bryta grins.

“Let me close the ramp, and we’ll get going. Jenna, warm your engines.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Once she’s taken care of the ramp, she hurries to the bridge, sitting down and glancing at the screens. “Julmin, what are the coordinates for the landing site?”

They rattle them off—dammit, they do have a base-nine system, but Jenna can handle it—and Bryta’s fingers race to input them. Then she initiates liftoff procedures, touching the screen and flipping switches, Jenna’s engines’ purr grows louder, and they’re off the ground.

Nemo walks over to her and sits beside her chair. “No space?”

“Just exchanging her water.”

Jenna turns, gliding toward the landing field. She doesn’t speed—there’s no need to affect everything around her—but she still doesn’t take more than about ten minutes to get there. She slows when they approach, circling, and Bryta hopes like all hells that her comm works with theirs. “Captain Bryta Tobson of ship Jenna to landing site personnel, requesting a landing site. Over,” she says to the translation device, which she holds to the comm.

Her comm has an odd crackle when someone replies. The translation device says, “We have been expecting you. There’s a site available between the two transport ships. The lights are on and a red flag has been positioned there.”

She scans the field and grins. “I see it. Over.”

“Someone will be there after you land to give you connection instructions for your clean water.”

“Acknowledged. Out.” That part is automatic, even though the tower didn’t use “over” at all. She and Jenna work as one to turn to the spot, easing her ship between the two much bigger ones. Then she turns to Julmin, standing a meter or so back from the bridge. “Have fun?”

“It was enjoyable,” they agree.

“Enjoyable? My love’s an amazing ship.”

“She does seem good.”

Jenna’s lights twinkle a mossy green, the flirt.

“She very good,” Nemo says firmly.

Bryta says to Jenna, “Initiate landing field procedures. Prepare for water system flush. We need to get this done fast.”

“Preparing. I can do fast.” She sounds reproachful. “Procedures initiated.”

She stands, turning. “Let’s go get things hooked up.”

Nemo leads the way to the stairs and down. Julmin follows him, and Bryta stays right behind them, close enough that their tail could touch her. She opens the bay door and heads down the ramp with the other two to where another Murrol waits.

“We have a connection ready for the water flush,” they say. “We just need to be guided.”

Bryta nods. “This way.”

By some stroke of luck or similar planning, the hoses Murrols use are the same size as is standard in Bryta’s ‘verse. That means the old water can be drained and new water can fill the system and no real issues occur. The valves close off properly and the caps seal over them, and it’s done within forty-five minutes.

Once the three of them are back aboard Jenna, her ramp up, Bryta thumbs on the comm and uses the translation device as she says, “Permission requested to lift off.”

“Permission granted.”

Perfect. She and Jenna exchange information on the screen, fix the angles and the degree of thrust, and Jenna lifts off smoothly to return to the same place they left. Bryta would bet credits that she settles back in the exact spot they left.

After Julmin leaves, Bryta goes about the mundane tasks of making sure her ship is ready for liftoff. The last task is running all the computer checks and being sure herself that the mechanical parts are in good working order, which involves lifting a lot of panels and getting herself filthy with oil and some grime Jenna must have picked up by being planetside. At least she remembered to change into her coveralls before doing that part.

While she’s filthy, another Murrol comes by with a load of rations. The two of them bring them into the bay, and Bryta secures them before she changes out of the coveralls.

Then she has nothing left to do but get some rest.

“Jenna, wake me in seven standard hours or when a ground transport stops here, whichever comes first.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Coming, Nemo?”

He yawns at her and pads off toward her berth. She should probably start thinking of it as theirs at this point; he sleeps there at least as much as she does, often sharing the bed with her. His warmth and purring is always a comfort, and in the blackness of space, it’s a reminder of life.

Of course, right now, they’re just sleeping together in their cool ship, waiting to go back where the three of them belong. Even if one of them hates zero-gravity.

*


“Captain,” Jenna says what feels like much too soon, “there is a ground transport outside the bay.”

Wonderful. Bryta tries not to disturb Nemo as she sits up, barely jostling him. “Be ready to begin liftoff procedures,” she says in an undertone.

“Acknowledged.”

She runs a hand through her hair in an attempt to smooth it, but really, it can wait until post-wormhole, if that’s what’s going on. She leaves the berth and is unsurprised when Nemo bumps up against her.

“Murrols here?”

“Jenna says there’s a ground transport.”

“Space soon.”

“Probably. And we’ll have gravity this time,” she promises.

He mrrs at her and rubs his cheek against her hip.

Once the ramp is down, Bryta steps down into darkness, Jenna’s light shining behind her onto two Murrols. “Greetings.”

“Greetings, Bryta of Earth.”

“Greetings, Bryta. The wormhole has been opened.”

“I can’t see you too well. Wifft and Lrrjuf, right?”

“Correct. Permission to board requested.”

She wishes she could tell which of them is speaking, but with the light the way it is, that’s not really possible. “Permission granted.”

Once they walk up into the bay, Bryta can see better, and she knows it’s Wifft when she says, “We have brought tablets to show the Nidelan to your peacekeepers.”

“Excellent,” Bryta says with a nod. “I have harnesses installed. They’re upstairs, so be careful.” She turns to lead the way. “Jenna can lift off within twenty minutes. Jenna, warm your engines,” she adds.

“Is there anything I can do?” Wifft asks.

“No, I’ve got it. Just don’t come far into the bridge. Lrrjuf, we’ll be meeting with peacekeeping officials as quickly as we can get to the nearest Federation post, so you should prepare.”

“Thank you, Bryta.”

“Of course.” She walks into the bridge and settles in her seat. “Nemo, lifting off soon, come up here, please.”

He’s absolutely silent when he walks up, which is a bit unnerving. He usually has something to say, some sound to make. This time, he just sits by her chair and watches her work with their ship.

“Okay,” she says at last. “Everyone should get in their harnesses. Wifft, Lrrjuf, your harnesses are on the starboard side. Nemo, I’ll do yours now.”

After she has Nemo strapped in, and her own harness is secure, she asks Jenna to relay in Common, “Is everyone secure?”

The in-ship comm picks up one of them saying, “We are,” which Jenna translates for her.

Bryta nods to herself and says to Jenna, “Liftoff in five seconds.”

Jenna counts down, and then Bryta feels more than hears the thrust that takes them up toward space.

The grav unit proves entirely functional once they’ve left Palk’s gravity, for which Bryta is immensely grateful. She can handle zero-gravity with no problem, but she knows how Nemo feels about it, and she has no idea how her passengers would react. Besides, Jenna seems glad it’s working.

“We can remove our harnesses, but I don’t recommend it. We’ll be going through the wormhole in about thirty minutes. Wifft, I need the exact coordinates. Use your tablet and broadcast them. Jenna can decode the signal.”

“Broadcasted,” Wifft says a moment later, at least according to Jenna, who relays it through the main console only.

A moment later, Jenna adds, “Coordinates fixed,” and displays them on the screen.

“Okay,” Bryta murmurs. Her fingers fly across the screen as she reads and absorbs every bit of data her ship gives her. “Okay, let’s… fixed. Let’s go, love.”

When they’re within five standard minutes of the wormhole, Bryta says, “Disabling the gravitational system in thirty seconds. If you have electronics, power them down. We’ll be going through the wormhole in five minutes.” Thumbing off the comm, she adds, “Nemo, I’ll unharness you when we’re through it and the grav unit is back online.”

“Is fine.”

“Jenna, power down the gravitational system.” As soon as that’s done: “Power down the cooling unit. Power down the palm locks. Life support systems stable?”

“Yes.”

“Anything else non-essential we can power down?”

“Your translation device.”

Of course, how could she forget? She takes it from its holder and turns it off, then returns it. “Power down hologram projector interface.”

“Everything not essential to life and basic functionality is powered down.”

She takes a breath. “Tell them we’ll be going through the wormhole in two standard minutes.”

Jenna passes it on in Common and then says to her, “We’ve prepared with the reboot and emergency procedures.”

“I know. I just hate seeing you that way, my love. An unwanted reboot is never good.”

“I have backed up all data and just completed backing up everything from liftoff on. I will be fine.”

“I hope so,” Bryta murmurs, and then Jenna starts to vibrate.

The trip through the wormhole is just as awful as the first time, and Bryta’s nerves feel mangled when the vibrations cease. She leans over the screen, reading the data as Jenna reboots, and says to Nemo, “We’ll have the grav unit online soon.” At least the lights are on. That’s always a good sign.

She thumbs on her translation device and hits the in-ship comm, since Jenna can’t relay for her right now. She holds the device to the mic. “We’re currently rebooting, then we’ll re-enable the grav unit. This is similar to what happened the other time we traveled through a wormhole. Please do not be alarmed.”

If they say anything, Bryta doesn’t hear over the sounds Jenna makes as she restarts.

“Jenna?” Bryta asks once the screens have turned fairly normal.

“I am back.”

“Good,” she says on an exhale. “I missed you. Bring the grav unit back online.”

Jenna says, and she sounds shaken again, “Bringing it online.”

A moment later, Bryta’s arms take the slightest bit of work to keep up, and her butt sinks into her chair.

“Better,” Nemo declares.

Into the comm, Bryta says, “It is now safe to remove your harnesses.” She does just that and turns out of her chair, kneeling to free Nemo. “Jenna, bring all other units back online.”

“Bringing the cooling unit online. Enabling palm locks.” A moment later, she says, “All units online.”

“Scan your system for any damage,” she says as she settles back in her chair.

Nemo jumps into the other one.

“Yes, Captain.”

Bryta hears the click of hooves on the deck behind her. “Is that similar to what happened the last time?” That’s probably Wifft. It’s a good thing she left the translation device on, though Jenna could also do it now.

“Very similar, except we were unprepared and Jenna had to work a lot harder to fix things. The grav unit took hands-on work.” She glances over her shoulder to, yes, Wifft. “If we’re going through a tunnel through energies, it should be expected.”

“Nonetheless, my apologies.”

“Thank you,” she says, and Jenna echoes her. Nemo doesn’t say a word.

“Please tell me if I can be of any assistance.”

“I will. Thank you, Wifft.”

“Lrrjuf is reviewing what he’ll say to your Federation commanders.” She wrinkles her nose. “He may have questions, since he knows nothing about your universe.”

“That’s fine. I’ll be right there, too.”

“Thank you,” she says, her voice soft before her words are translated. “For everything.”

*


It takes three and a half standard days to reach the nearest Federation post. The Atri settlement is closer than Veni, and they process customs planetside instead of in a space station. Bryta could have gone for Veni, but dealing with customs on a station when she has two members of a species no one has ever seen before aboard her ship would be too much of a hassle, and much too slow.

That makes three and a half days of two extra beings aboard, three and a half days of working around them, adjusting to them in her space, and it settles things for Bryta: she does not want to live with a partner or even have a family. She would have to have a bigger ship for it to be comfortable, and she will not part from Jenna. Instead, she’ll settle for her lovers in various ports, and they could always have another riki, or maybe a demi, join them.

Thankfully, when they approach Atri, she’s able to use the comm with no static or other interruption, unlike when she landed on the Porwigle asteroid. “Atri Customs, this is Captain Bryta Tobson of Clever class ship number Alpha Charlie 2697, designation Jenna, requesting permission to land in approximately one and a half standard hours. Over.”

“Captain Tobson, Lieutenant V’til speaking,” they say after a moment. She’s vaguely surprised a Lotì is the one to answer; Atri’s gravity is generally uncomfortable for them to adjust to. “We have a space for you at latitude sixty-seven degrees thirty-two minutes, longitude fifty-eight degrees exactly, the Atri-Urb Field. Your space will be Tango 521. Remain aboard your ship until a customs official inspects your ship. Over.”

“Acknowledged, Lieutenant. We’ll need a Federation representative on hand. I have news of an urgent diplomatic matter. Over.”

V’til doesn’t respond for a long minute. “I’ve alerted the base. Someone will be on hand. Over.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. We’ll call in when we’re ready to enter the atmosphere. Out.” She leaves the comm on to receive, but turns her attention to her screens and her ship.

“Bryta,” one of the Murrols says behind her; she’s pretty sure it’s Wifft, “are the planet’s gravity and atmosphere comparable to Palk’s?”

“The atmosphere is slightly less oxygen-heavy, with nitrogen making most of the difference,” Bryta says distractedly, “and the gravitation is greater by about five-hundredths of a meter per second per second. I think it should be fine. You’ve done well on Jenna, haven’t you? Her gravitation is two-hundreds of a meter per second per second greater than Palk’s.”

“We have,” she agrees. “We’ll leave you to the landing.”

“Thank you. I’ll let you know when to fasten your harnesses.” She focuses on the numbers and calculations Jenna is displaying and murmurs to her ship as her fingers fly, reinforcing what she’s entering and programming as she goes. Jenna doesn’t acknowledge her aloud, but rather by what she shows on her screens. That’s all they need.

An hour later, Bryta says to Jenna, “Please pass on that it’s time to get in harnesses.” She’ll call Nemo herself if he doesn’t come to her.

Which he does, announcing himself with a half-growl, half-mrrow. “Don’t like harness.”

“Yeah, but you’d dislike the turbulence of reentry more if you didn’t have it.” Bryta rises. “Let’s do this.”

“Almost done?” he asks, and she knows what he means.

“We’re getting there,” she promises. He crouches over his harness, and she bends to fasten it around him. In a low voice meant for his ears only, she says, “We’re meeting a Federation representative. If it goes well, we’ll have mobilization within a day.”

He purrs softly in response, turning his head to give her a rough swipe of his barely moist tongue along her arm.

After she has Nemo safe and she’s checked in with the Murrols, she returns to her seat, fastens her harness, and thumbs on the comm to send. “Captain Bryta Tobson of Alpha Charlie 2697, Jenna, requesting permission to land at the Atri-Urb field. Over.”

A different, familiar voice responds this time. “Captain Tobson, permission granted to land in twenty-eight standard minutes. Try not to bounce off the atmosphere this time. Over.”

She laughs. “Kv.âlb, that was when I was fifteen and attempting my first entry. How do you remember that? Over.”

“Bengen memory,” ze says, a good answer. “Tango 521 is clear for landing. You may enter the atmosphere at your convenience. Over.”

“Acknowledged. Out.” She flicks the comm off from sending and says to Jenna, “Let’s do this right.”

“We always do it correctly, even on previously unknown planets.”

Bryta laughs. “That’s very true. Still, I don’t want Kv.âlb to have ammunition. We’ll do it properly and land clean.”

Jenna’s very silence is offended. Her bright pink lights enforce it for her.

“I’m sorry. I know you can do it on your own if you have to. We’ll do this well, love.”

“Of course we will.” Her lights fade to a much gentler shade. “Entry calculations displayed on the main screen.”

“Thank you.” Bryta bends back over them, calculating the burn needed, then tells Jenna, “Six second burn on my cue. And… now.”

She feels and hears the thrusters’ growl and counts the seconds; it’s six, just as she asked, and turbulence starts to shake the ship as they rip through the atmosphere. “Atmospheric entry accomplished,” Jenna tells her.

Bryta double-checks that she’s input the correct coordinates. “Soft flight to the landing field. I have the controls.”

“You have the controls,” Jenna replies. Her power use feels lighter then, just a bit.

Bryta thumbs on the comm unit. “Atri-Urb station, Captain Tobson, Alpha Charlie 2697, Jenna, speaking. Atmospheric entry accomplished. Approaching field in approximately eight standard minutes. Over.”

“Captain Tobson, we have your landing time in ten standard minutes. Hover two kilometers from the field at a height of eight kilometers until that time. Over,” Kv.âlb comes back.

“Ten standard minutes, acknowledged. Out.” She switches off the comm broadcast and says to Jenna, “I know you love hovering,” deadpan.

“It’s a true joy,” Jenna returns, just as dry, and Bryta laughs.

Despite her dislike of it, Jenna knows full well how much fuel is saved by hovering instead of circling, and she does just that outside a large city while they wait for clearance. As soon as they have it, Bryta takes the controls and eases them forward, and Jenna corrects the slight tilt as they lower to land.

“Captain Tobson, remain in your ship until you have clearance from your customs official. There is a Federation emissary on her way to speak to you.”

“I will remain aboard,” she agrees. “Nice talking to you again, Kv.âlb.”

“Same to you. Out.”

Bryta stands, stretching. “Tell them they can take off their harnesses, please.”

“Done?” Nemo asks her.

“Just about,” she agrees. She crouches and unfastens the straps of his harness.

As soon as he’s free, Nemo stretches his spine and front legs first, then his back legs. It’s fascinating to watch, the lengths he can stretch beyond his apparent size. “Water,” he says, and turns to leave the bridge.

Bryta laughs and follows him. They’re intercepted by Lrrjuf, whose eyes are slightly slitted and nose is held flat. One day, she’ll learn to interpret Murrol facial expressions. “We will have an official aboard soon?” he asks.

Nemo huffs.

“Soon,” she agrees. “Very soon. Are you prepared?”

“I would like you present to confirm what I have to say.”

“I was planning on it. We’ll all be there. Jenna can help translate if we need her to.” Bryta’s pretty sure that Jenna has been expanding her Murrol vocabulary.

He makes a gesture, pressing the back of his hand to his chest and fluttering all his digits. “My thanks, Bryta of Earth.”

Bryta nods. “Nemo wants water. Excuse me.”

Now,” Nemo says firmly.

Just after she fills Nemo’s bowl and he’s crouched to lap up water, Jenna says, “There is a transport outside and a Human waiting by the bay.”

“Thank you, love.” Bryta hurries out of the galley, calling, “We have our Federation representative.” Customs officials take longer to arrive. “Meet me in the bay.”

They do, and Bryta presses her hand to the ramp’s palm lock. It lowers, not fast enough, and by the time it’s fully down, Nemo has joined them, sitting in front of Bryta.

The Human woman at the bottom of the ramp has an officially-marked Federation ground transport parked there. She’s dressed somewhat formally, in a professional-looking suit that makes Bryta feel underdressed. She just stares for a long moment.

Bryta murmurs, “Wait here,” to Wifft and Lrrjuf and starts down the ramp, Nemo keeping pace.

“Those beings,” the emissary says. “What—”

Bryta offers her hand. “Captain Bryta Tobson.”

It seems to startle the woman back into professionalism. She shakes her hand. “Deputy Ambassador Jaid Meckel. And you are?” she asks Nemo.

He purrs at the acknowledgment. “Nemo.”

“My greetings to you both. Now my original question.”

“My ship was sucked through a wormhole,” Bryta begins. “They’re from a planet in the other ‘verse. Their planet is called Palk. Their species is Murrol. The dark sage one is a male named Lrrjuf. He’s an ambassador as well. The moss green one is a female named Wifft. She’s an astrospace engineer who headed the team that created the wormhole.”

“Created,” Ambassador Meckel repeats.

“They’re quite advanced, scientifically.”

“I assume they don’t speak Basic.”

Bryta shakes her head. “They’ve had messenger ships, just AIs, come through the wormhole and had a translator developed. Jenna, my ship, has worked out more of a dictionary. We can hold conversations pretty well now.”

She nods briskly. “Congratulations on first contact. Why did they come back with you?”

“That’s best for them to explain. Permission to come aboard granted. When you greet them, a bow is appropriate.”

The three of them walk up the steps together. Nemo unsubtly sniffs Ambassador Meckel as they walk, probably to get a read on her, but settles by Bryta when they stop. Bryta makes certain her translation device is turned on and hands it to the ambassador, who nods to her.

“Greetings,” she says. She bows slightly. “My name is Ambassador Meckel.”

They bow in return. “Greetings,” Wifft says. “My name is Engineer Wifft of Palk.”

“I am Ambassador Lrrjuf of Palk.”

“Captain Tobson has told me that you create wormholes from our universe to yours. How is that possible?”

“Complex engineering and hard science and calculations,” Wifft says. “My team took one of our years to develop it.”

“Why did you need to?” she asks.

“At first,” Lrrjuf says, “we intended to explore outside our universe. The goal was to learn for the sake of knowing. We are a scientific species, interested in other worlds and exploration, not in conquest or war. We began creating more because we had a great need for acromium to fuel our ships.”

Ambassador Meckel nods. “Why did you need it?”

“Our planet is under attack from a species called Nidelan. They have infected our planet with a supervirus that wipes out vegetation.”

Wifft brings her tablet out of the pouch she wears around her waist. Her digits glide across the screen until it displays a hologram, about twenty centimeters tall, of a Nidel. She hands it to Ambassador Meckel, who recoils.

“This is a Nidelan?”

“A Nidel, yes,” Lrrjuf says.

“They’re horrifying,” she mutters and hands the tablet back to Wifft.

“They attack planets to strip them of resources. Sometimes they kill the inhabitants, and sometimes they enslave them. We do not wish to find out which they plan to do with our species. We needed the acromium to fuel our transports so we could leave Palk.”

“I was carrying acromium,” Bryta puts in.

Ambassador Meckel nods to her. “You said needed, not need,” she says to Lrrjuf. “Do you have enough?”

“No,” Wifft says. “Bryta and Jenna allowed us to examine Jenna’s engines. She uses a different fuel mixture. We are producing engines based on Jenna’s. We have access to the metals for her fuel.”

Ambassador Meckel nods thoughtfully. “Do you have a federation that could help stop the Nidelan?”

“They are corrupt,” Lrrjuf says bluntly. “Wifft and I came with Bryta to ask for help from your peacekeepers, your Federation.”

Ambassador Meckel looks at Bryta. “I would have to get permission from the commanders and Ambassador T’Rif to authorize anything.”

“I know,” Bryta says. “This is urgent. I have the coordinates of the wormhole they created to bring us back. It can take us to their universe. We can evacuate Palk and bring the Murrols through to here. They won’t be safe there.”

“Ambassador Lrrjuf,” Ambassador Meckel says slowly, “would you and Engineer Wifft be willing to accompany me to the embassy to discuss this with the Peacekeeper commanders and Ambassador T’Rif?”

Lrrjuf blinks his middle eye. “Of course,” he says. “We would do anything to save our species. You must understand.”

Bryta and Ambassador Meckel share a look. Bryta’s sure she must be thinking of the evacuation of Earth, the placement of Humans throughout the galaxy to save their species. “I understand,” she says.

“We would like Bryta to accompany us,” Lrrjuf adds. “Is that acceptable?”

“Would you be willing, Captain?”

She’s come this far. “As long as Nemo can come.”

Ambassador Meckel nods. “Then as soon as Customs comes through, we’ll go to the embassy. Excuse me.” She hands back Bryta’s translation device and walks back down the ramp, pulling a small comm unit from her pocket.

“That went well,” Bryta says to the other two.

Nemo mrrs. “She will help,” he says. “She smells like a good person.” However that must smell.

“She seemed truly interested in assisting us,” Lrrjuf agrees.

Wifft touches the tattoo on her cheek. “I believe they will agree.”

“If they do,” Bryta says, “we’re going to need to find a place for your people.”

The Murrols exchange a look. “Anywhere would do,” Wifft says finally, “as long as it can grow plentiful vegetation suitable to our digestive systems.”

That’s probably where a xenobotanist would come in useful. “I’m sure we’ll see what we can do. Bring samples of your food to help.”

They look at each other, then nod. “We will package samples of everything,” Lrrjuf says.

Ambassador Meckel returns then, just as another ground transport pulls up. “I’ve arranged a meeting in one standard hour. We’ll take my transport back. Will it be comfortable for you?” she asks Lrrjuf and Wifft. “There’s a space in the back without seats. I think it’s big enough, if you lie down.”

“May I look?” Wifft asks.

“Of course.”

The two of them walk down the ramp, and a Bengen who came from the other transport calls up, “Captain Tobson.”

Bryta walks down the ramp. “Greetings.”

“Greetings. I am Mt.ôlk, your customs inspector. Permission to come aboard?”

“Permission granted.”

“What are you carrying?” ze asks as they walk back up the ramp.

“Gold and acromium. I also have a variety of vegetation for my guests to eat, as well as food for Nemo, the rikicat, and food for myself.”

“Your guests,” ze repeats. Hir eyes are on Lrrjuf. “Please explain them.”

She holds back a sigh. “They’re from another universe. They’re a sapient species, highly advanced, called Murrols. They’re obligate herbivores.”

“I will need to inspect their food,” ze says as they step into the bay.

“Of course. This is Lrrjuf, one of the Murrols who came to speak to the Federation. He’s an ambassador. The other, down with Ambassador Meckel, is Wifft. She’s an astrospace engineer.”

Ze inclines hir head. “My greetings to you, Ambassador Lrrjuf.” His name comes out slightly mangled, but Bryta can’t entirely manage it, either. A Bengen accent, with how their mouths form words, would naturally say it differently. “I am Mt.ôlk, a customs official here on Atri. I’ll need samples of your food to be sure they won’t bring anything harmful to Atri.”

“Of course,” he agrees. He’s only barely disguising his curiosity, and she considers how a fragile, bronze-skinned triped with four eyes must look to him.

“Do you want to start down here and work your way to the galley?” Bryta asks.

“Yes, that is acceptable.”

Wifft and Ambassador Meckel don’t rejoin them until Mt.ôlk is nearly finished, just inspecting Bryta’s berth for any contraband or smuggled items. Ze seems satisfied; the two of them walk to the bay together.

“Report any sales you may make while on Atri,” ze says to Bryta. “There will be a tax when over a certain amount unless sold to the government.”

Bryta nods. “I’ve sold on Atri before. I’ll download forms before any sales.” She glances at Ambassador Meckel. “I need to go to the embassy, but I’ll check in with the landing field foreman when I get back for recycling Jenna’s oil and water.”

Mt.ôlk inclines hir head. “Acceptable. Do you have your plasfilm?”

Bryta produces it from one of her pockets and hands it over. Ze attaches a reader to run an update and download before passing it back.

“Welcome to Atri, Captain, Ambassador, Engineer.” With that, ze leaves Jenna.

Bryta turns to Ambassador Meckel. “I’d like to change my clothes and brush my hair. Do we have three minutes for me to do that?”

She glances at her watch. “Yes. Please be fast.”

Bryta nods and rushes up the stairs to her berth to dig through her closet. She opts for a well-fitted pair of slacks and slightly loose blouse. Once changed from the loose, worn clothes she wears for comfort on board, she runs a brush through her hair, scrubs her hands under hot water and splashes some on her face, uses a touch of fruit-scented perfume from Veni, and finds a pair of flat shoes before jogging back down the stairs.

Lrrjuf is just tucking a sealed bag that looks like it has samples of their food in it into his pouch. “Are you ready?” he asks her.

“I am. You have your food for the botanists?” she replies.

“Yes. I hope they can make something of it.”

“Let’s go,” Ambassador Meckel says, and she leads the way down the ramp. “Nemo, there’s a row of seats you can stretch out on.”

“I like that,” he says, and she smiles.

“I have a pair of rikis living with me, both females. One looks more like a cheetah and the other like a bobcat. I think you’d like them.”

“Might,” he agrees. He jumps into the back row when she opens the door, and Wifft and Lrrjuf climb into the cargo area in the back of the transport.

Once Bryta has closed the ramp and locked up her ship, she climbs into the front seat of the transport, beside Ambassador Meckel.

Another Human is standing outside the embassy when Ambassador Meckel pulls up. They all get out, and Bryta catches the man’s eyes widen slightly at the sight of the Murrols. He doesn’t say anything, though, beyond telling the ambassador, “I’ll park your transport.”

“Thank you.” She hands him the keys. “This way,” she adds to the four of them. “Ambassador T’Rif should be waiting.”

They follow her through the building and to a bank of elevators. It’s a tight enough fit in one that she sends Bryta and Nemo over to the next one after keying it open. Theirs opens just as Ambassador Meckel is stepping off the other, and she gives them a brief smile.

“Ambassador T’Rif’s office is just that way.”

‘That way’ is past three glassed-in waiting areas and attendant rooms; they don’t even need to sit in the one outside Ambassador T’Rif’s office before the ambassador themself comes to the open door. To their credit, they don’t stare at the two Murrols. The Murrols don’t stare, either, but after meeting a Bengen, a blue-tinted, long-necked biped like a Lotì must not be much of a shock.

“This way,” they say. “We have a conference room ready. Commanders Yalick and H’Vil and Admiral No’Imv are already there.”

Bryta takes out her translation device and asks, “Ambassador, do you have a xenobotanist on hand?”

Their eyes slide over to Wifft and Lrrjuf. “You have brought plant samples?”

“We have,” Lrrjuf says. “Food sources.” He bows. “I am Ambassador Lrrjuf of Palk. This is Engineer Wifft.”

Ambassador T’Rif bows in return. “I am Ambassador T’Rif, representative of the Federation. You are welcome. Ambassador Meckel has told me some of your story. We will try to help.”

“I thank you,” he answers.

“Please, this way,” they say, so the five of them follow them down the hall and into a conference room.

On the way, Ambassador Meckel says to Ambassador T’Rif, “The other two are Captain Bryta Tobson and Nemo.”

A Human, a Lotì, and a Dvõk, all wearing Federation peacekeeper insignia, sit around the table, and they stand when Bryta and the others enter the room. “Ambassadors,” the Dvõk, who must be Admiral No’Imv, says, “our greetings.”

Ambassador T’Rif inclines their head in that impossible Lotì way. “Admiral No’Imv, Commander H’Vil, Commander Yalick, may I introduce Ambassador Jaid Meckel, Captain Bryta Tobson, Ambassador Lrrjuf, Engineer Wifft, and Nemo.”

The three at the table give their greetings, which the other five return, and then Ambassador T’Rif says to Wifft and Lrrjuf, “I apologize, we have nowhere appropriate for you to make yourselves comfortable. Do you mind if the rest of us have a seat?”

“Of course not,” Lrrjuf says. “We will stand.”

With that permission, the bipeds all take seats. Nemo lies in his alert pose beside Bryta’s chair, and she drops a hand to his head. With the other, she puts her translation device in the middle of the table.

“Please,” Ambassador T’Rif says, “tell us what the problem is, Ambassador Lrrjuf.”

Lrrjuf reaches up and adjusts his earpiece slightly, then takes his tablet from his pouch and taps it. “We are a species called Murrol from a planet called Palk. We are a peaceful species. We focus on sciences and exploration, and we do not participate in interplanetary wars. Our planet has come under attack from a species called the Nidelan.” He taps the screen once more and sets it in the middle of the table. Commander Yalick recoils, and the other three who haven’t seen it before and don’t have instinctual fear of reptiles stare in fascination. “The Nidel culture is one of theft and murder. They steal planets and kill or enslave the species native to the planet. We have seen it done countless times, and now we are the ones under attack.”

“How are they doing it?” Admiral No’Imv asks.

“With a supervirus that attacks plant life. We believe it is native to their planet and harmless there. On our planet, it’s devastating everything, even what we try to keep isolated. We have fewer microbiologists and virologists than other scientists, and they can’t come up with something to fight it. The virus mutates rapidly.”

“Like a retrovirus,” Commander Yalick says. “A plant version of AIDS.” He looks at Meckel, then Bryta, who assumes they’re the only ones who truly understand the reference.

“I don’t know this AIDS, but I assume it’s similar. We have been trying to evacuate Palk, but we lacked the necessary fuel.” He looks to Wifft. “Engineer Wifft can explain this better.”

“Our ships’ engines relied on acromium fuel, but we didn’t have enough to power sufficient ships for a planetwide evacuation. We created a wormhole—” She stops at the murmurs this inspires.

“You created a wormhole?” Admiral No’Imv asks.

“Yes. We discovered how some years ago. I led the team that did it. We lack sufficient translation abilities to relate how. It requires high specific energies and focus in order to breach the thin skin of matters and energies between universes.”

The admiral nods slowly. “So you created a wormhole.”

“Yes,” she says. “We essentially programmed it to zero on things carrying acromium. That is how Bryta came to our planet.”

“I had a holdful of acromium and some gold from a Porwigle asteroid,” Bryta puts in.

“Bryta’s ship was not the first. The previous ones were AI messengers only. All used acromium fuel. Bryta’s ship does not. She showed us how to design our engines to use her ship’s metal fuel mixture. The other engineers are overseeing production of new engines and redesign of our ships’ systems to use that fuel instead.”

“And that’s how you plan to evacuate?” Commander H’Vil asks.

Wifft looks to them. “It is. The rest is for Lrrjuf to say.”

“We have no planet to go to and no recourse against the Nidelan,” Lrrjuf says. “Our Union is corrupt. The Nidelan have done this many times before and nothing has happened to stop them. We come to beg your assistance.”

“I’ve been there and back through wormholes,” Bryta says.

Admiral No’Imv nods to her, such a strange gesture on a Dvõk. She’d expect a gesture with an upper hand, not that. “And did it harm your ship?”

“The first time, when we were unprepared, it took several things offline and shut down the mainframe for the duration of going through. The backup systems continued running the life support systems, and my ship got everything except her grav unit back online. When we came back, we deliberately shut down everything unnecessary and knew she’d go offline until we got back.”

The admiral nods slowly, apparently considering that.

Ambassador T’Rif says, “If we help, where can you settle?”

“A planet much like this would suit,” Lrrjuf says. “As long as we could grow appropriate vegetation for our diets and it has similar gravitation and atmosphere, we can develop it to suit our needs.”

Ambassador T’Rif looks at Ambassador Meckel. “We would have to research a suitable planet.”

“Or contact other planets to see if they have room,” she agrees. “What’s your population like?” she asks Lrrjuf.

“Approximately three billion seven hundred and sixty million before this began,” he says, “though we have lost many with the attack.”

“Is there any sort of attack force around your planet?” Commander Yalick asks.

“Not as of when we left.”

“Around your system?”

“Not that we could detect.”

Wifft wrinkles her long nose. “We would be able to detect it. We have many devices through the system.”

Yalick smiles briefly and leans over to say something quietly to No’Imv.

“What sort of force do you think we would need?” Commander H’Vil asks.

“We would appreciate transport assistance,” Lrrjuf says, “and perhaps a small military force. We have none.”

The military members exchange a look; then the admiral looks to the ambassadors. Ambassador Meckel is the one to say, “Would you please excuse us? We’ll speak in the hall.”

“Of course,” Lrrjuf agrees.

The five rise and leave the room. Once the door closes behind them, Bryta says, “I think it’s going well.”

“Don’t smell angry,” Nemo puts in. She scratches behind his ear, and he gives her a soft purr for her trouble.

“Does that vocalization have a purpose?” Wifft asks.

“Many,” Nemo says. “Pleasure, pain, anger, aggression. Depends on how sounds and what’s happening.”

“Do you think they’ll agree?” Lrrjuf asks.

“I hope so. I think they will. Our Federation provides assistance to member planets and newly-found ones.”

“Will there be a planet we can occupy?” Wifft asks. Bryta wishes she could tell what their tones mean; Wifft’s is unusual.

“I don’t know,” she admits. “They found planets for Humans when we had to leave our home planet.”

“Why did you?” Lrrjuf asks.

“It was extremely polluted. The air was decaying humanity. Resources were depleted due to our ancestors using them unwisely. Beings were dying.” Bryta shrugs. “It was long before I was born, but all Humans know about it. Our species is spread through the galaxy, so far apart and for so long that some are evolving beneficial changes, like bone density and build adjustment for different gravities.”

“That might be acceptable,” he says, and Bryta doesn’t think he’s talking to her.

Wifft makes a hand gesture Bryta can’t interpret, a wave of her arm and a touch of her two opposing digits of one hand together. “If it means we survive.”

Lrrjuf makes an answering gesture, touching his arms together from the lower joint to the tops of his digits. “We will discuss it.”

“You take what given,” Nemo says practically. “Only way to live. ‘Cats do it if want good life.”

“I give you a good life,” Bryta says to him. “And Jenna gives us both a good life.”

He purrs in answer, deep and rumbling. “Maybe invite another riki sometime.”

“Not a demi?”

“Only if also riki.”

She laughs. “We’ll talk about it sometime, after this is all over.”

The four of them go quiet while they wait. Bryta keeps rubbing behind Nemo’s ears, trying to ignore the rising tension in the room.

Finally, the military members and ambassadors return to the room. Ambassador T’Rif says, “We have decided to give our assistance. Ambassador Meckel will be on Admiral No’Imv’s flagship to meet with your government. The force will mobilize in two standard days. We will find a planet where you can settle within one standard week. I will have xenobotanists examine your plantlife.”

“We cannot say how thankful we are,” Lrrjuf says. “You have saved our species from extermination. That means much.”

Ambassador T’Rif inclines their head. “Captain Tobson, you will lead the way.”

Bryta starts. “I will?”

“You’ve been through the wormholes,” Admiral No’Imv says. “Your ship can communicate what to do. You can lead us to the wormhole to take us there and then to come back. And you can safely transport Ambassador Lrrjuf and Engineer Wifft.”

“I will,” Bryta sighs. She looks at Wifft. “Will all the ships need acromium to go through?”

“Yes, regretfully.”

“We have an active government-run acromium mine on-planet,” Ambassador Meckel says. “That won’t be too much of a problem.”

“Are your ships built of acromium?” Wifft asks.

“Yes,” the admiral says.

“Then it will be sufficient to trigger the wormhole.”

“Two standard days,” Ambassador T’Rif reiterates. “Engineer Wifft, do you know anything about your plantlife?”

“Very little, regretfully.”

“Would you mind meeting with our xenobotanists to work on your plantlife nonetheless?”

“Xenobotanists,” Wifft says slowly, like she’s testing the word as she forms it. It sounds foreign and strange from her, slippery like her native language. “This is for plantlife?”

“Yes, for offworld plants.”

“I will meet them. So will Lrrjuf.”

“I know some,” he says, “maybe more than Wifft.”

“Very good. Will you meet with them now?” Ambassador T’Rif asks.

“Yes,” Lrrjuf agrees for both of them.

“Ambassador Meckel will take you to them.”

“This way,” she says. They follow her as she leaves the room; Bryta hands the translation device to Wifft as she passes.

“What do you need before we leave?” Commander H’Vil asks Bryta.

“Mostly, I need to restock food. Fresh meat would be good for Nemo. He hasn’t had any since before Porwigle.”

“And for yourself?” they ask.

“Fresh produce. If I can find someone on short notice, I’d like Jenna’s grav unit looked at to make sure I fixed it properly.”

“We’ll send a mechanic and a load of fresh rations,” Admiral No’Imv says briskly. “You’re assisting with a rescue mission. You’ve been drafted. You’ll be compensated, of course.”

Between Federation compensation and all the acromium the Murrols have promised her, she’s making out like a pirate. “Thank you.”

“What kind of ship do you have?” the admiral asks.

“Clever class, and a better ship’s never been in space.”

“A Clever giving orders to transports and fighters. Your ship should be proud.”

“She will be, Admiral.”

“Someone will give you a ride back to her,” Ambassador T’Rif says. “I assume you need to prepare.”

“Mostly, I need some sleep.” Bryta rises. “Thank you, Ambassador, Admiral, Commanders.”

“It’s our duty,” the admiral says.

“I will escort you down,” the ambassador says to her. “You need key access for the elevators. This way.”

She hesitates. “You should probably replicate my translation device,” she says to the admiral.

“We should,” the admiral agrees. “Someone will get it from Engineer Wifft. It will be returned when the mechanic comes to your ship.”

“Thank you, Admiral.” She and Nemo follow Ambassador T’Rif through the offices and waiting areas to the bank of elevators. The ride down is quiet, punctuated only by the ambassador saying something into a comm unit. When they get to the ground floor, a youngish Dvõk is waiting.

“I’ll take you to your ride,” the Dvõk says.

Bryta can’t help but feel grateful the immature-looking Dvõk isn’t their driver. “Thank you.”

Their ride, as it turns out, is a small ground transport driven by a Human. “Back to the Atri-Urb field?” she asks.

Bryta opens the back door for Nemo to jump in, then gets in the front seat. “Yes.”

“My orders are to take you straight to your ship, so tell me where you’re landed and we’ll get you there.”

For the first time in days, Bryta begins to relax, and when she’s aboard Jenna and in her berth, she falls onto her bed. Nemo stretches beside her, his front leg across her ribs and giant paw touching the mattress, and she sleeps deeply for the first time since leaving the asteroid.

*


The day they’re to leave Atri, Bryta feels restless. She paces the length of Jenna, checking again and again that everything is closed and secured. Nemo, up in his tree, twitches his tail and watches her, but doesn’t say anything. Down in the bay, Wifft and Lrrjuf hold a conversation; Bryta purposely keeps the translation device off whenever she goes near so as to not eavesdrop.

Jenna’s lights flicker at midmorning, as though she’s been interrupted or startled, and she says, “Captain, to the bridge, please.”

“Coming.” Bryta hurries up the last few steps, and when Nemo joins her, her hand automatically reaches for his head. “Yes, my love?” she says when she takes her chair.

“I have been contacted by a transport from the base. We are to lift off and hover one kilometer to the west of the base.”

“Then we’re going to fly three and a half days, give instructions to the Federation ships, and go through the wormhole,” Bryta says, “and then we’re letting Lrrjuf use your comm to reach Palk, and then we’re taking everyone there.”

“That’s as we’ve discussed,” Jenna agrees. “Nemo, will you be all right with this?”

He mrrs at her. “Your gravity work, I fine.”

“I’ll keep it online,” she promises.

“Warm your engines, love.” Bryta stands again and walks down to the banister over the bay, switching on her translation device as she goes. “We’ll be lifting off in thirty minutes,” she calls down. “We’ll hover at the base until they’re ready, and then we’ll be leaving to find the wormhole again.”

“Thank you, Bryta,” Wifft says. “We’ll be ready.”

Bryta nods and returns to the bridge. She settles in her seat and touches the screen, bringing up specs. “We’re sufficiently fueled for the trip?”

Even as Jenna answers, she sees the numbers. “We are.”

“And we have clean water and fresh oils,” she mutters, mostly to herself. “Life support is online and active, grav unit appears functional, everything is secured… Okay, I think we’re set to lift off.”

“Agreed. Everything is within standard limits and we are sufficiently stocked on everything within my control.”

“Are you ready to tell a bunch of transports and fighters what to do?”

Jenna’s lights blink blue for just a moment. “It will be my pleasure.”

Bryta laughs. “I’m sure it will.”

“Think they have rikis?” Nemo asks; he’s sitting in the other chair, looking down at the consoles.

“Maybe. Jenna, mind asking?”

Jenna takes a moment to answer. “They’re busy with preparations. I’ll ask after takeoff.”

“It must take a long time to get something that big ready to lift off,” Bryta muses.

“I prefer being this ship,” Jenna says firmly.

“I prefer you being this ship, too.”

“Do you ever consider a family?”

“We must be bored,” Bryta remarks. They’ve touched on this discussion before, usually in deep space when they’re out of every other conversational topic either of them cares to address.

“I am ready to lift off,” Jenna says, a paragon of dignity. “It’s a fair question.”

“It would affect you,” Bryta agrees. “I’ve thought about it. It couldn’t be more than two adults and a child if we had more than one riki aboard. Maybe three adults and a child if we only had Nemo. But,” and she lowers her voice, “having our guests aboard made me realize I like it just being the three of us.”

“Maybe another riki,” Nemo reminds her.

“I could stand another cat,” Bryta agrees. “But I’d prefer you not have a litter.”

Nemo just looks at her.

“I mean, if it’s a female riki.”

He still doesn’t answer.

“Impossible creature,” she mutters.

Jenna’s lights twinkle. “Engines are ready for liftoff when permissible, Captain.”

Bryta thumbs on the comm. “Captain Tobson of Clever class Alpha Charlie 2697, Jenna, to Atri-Urb Field. Permission requested to lift off in twenty-three minutes. We will not be leaving the atmosphere. Over.”

“Captain Tobson, you are scheduled to go to the base at that time. Over.”

“That’s what we’ve been told. Over.”

“Permission granted to lift off in twenty-two standard minutes. Out.”

Bryta leaves the comm on, though not transmitting, and says to Nemo, “I guess you could have a litter, but only if you’re all right with finding a center or other ships for the kittens to live in by the time they’re, I don’t know, a year old. It would get crowded.”

“I see. Don’t know if other riki would be tom or queen. And kittens might eat demi.”

Bryta bursts out laughing. “We could have demis who have kittens…”

Nemo sneezes at the idea.

Just before their liftoff time, Bryta and Jenna run programming together, and at the half-hour mark, they lift off smoothly and turn toward the base.

The wait there isn’t as long as Bryta thought it would be. It’s well under a standard hour from their arrival when Jenna says, “The fleet is prepared to lift off. We have been instructed to exit the atmosphere and await the fleet in space.”

“Acknowledged. We will take off in four standard minutes. Please let our guests know they need to get in their harnesses.” She stands and gestures for Nemo. “That goes for us too.”

If he could, he would probably roll his eye. As it is, he gives her a disdainful look as he steps down from the chair to get to his harness. She fastens him in with efficient movements and then straps herself to her chair so she can talk to her ship and ready for atmospheric breach.

The next few days seem to drag. It’s three and a half days of sharing her space, of others crowding her ship, of not doing what she loves. Granted, she’s helping to prevent genocide, and that’s far more important than doing goods transport and having the black to herself, but she’s looking forward to doing something enjoyable instead.

Just before they finally reach the wormhole, Bryta says to Jenna, “Are you in contact with the admiral’s transport?”

“I am in constant contact with all the ships.” In what must be a narrow band of thought, Jenna admits, “I miss having quiet.”

“Soon, love. Interaction will be a treat instead of overbearing in just a couple of weeks. Time to brief them on how to prepare for the wormhole. Give them the coordinates and fill them in. Make sure they tell their captains what to expect about rebooting.”

“Nemo, five of them have at least two rikis, two others have one, and three have colonies of demis,” Jenna says, sounding distracted.

Nemo mrrs at the news. He sets a paw on Bryta’s knee. “Harness for wormhole.”

“I know. It’s going to be easier on you in zero-gravity.” She strokes his head. “You’ll be around other ‘cats soon. First time since you joined us.”

“’Cats not always good company.”

“We are?” she can’t help but ask.

“No stupid questions.”

She laughs and bends to kiss his head; he allows the indignity without protest. “I love you too.”

“The fleet is clear on what will happen when we go through the wormhole,” Jenna says. “We are to try to go through one at a time, which the admiral’s ship acknowledges may be difficult when we’re not completely certain where the wormhole is. We’re to go first.”

“Of course we are,” Bryta mutters. “Since you’re the only one who’s been through it before. Do you have a fix on the coordinates of where we entered the system before?”

“I do. We will reach it in approximately four hours and twenty-one minutes.”

“I’m going to run,” Bryta decides, rising. “Jenna, make sure I’m up here within three hours, just in case.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Do you want a turn on the treadmill when I’m done?” she asks Nemo.

“Yes. I sleep while you go.”

“And probably after I’m done,” she says fondly. “We’ll all get in our harnesses at three and a half hours.”

“Long time in harness,” Nemo says, sounding annoyed.

“You don’t want to end up floating again.” The two of them walk toward the hold. “Hungry?”

“After wormhole.”

“Good idea.”

After their runs, Bryta cleans herself up and changes into fresh, worn coveralls. Nemo curls up on the floor beside her chair while she and Jenna discuss where the wormhole almost certainly is; when Jenna announces that it’s time for harnesses, he cooperates without complaint, if with irritated looks. Bryta secures her own harness almost as soon as Nemo’s settled. Despite her rising dread, she and Jenna fly together straight for the wormhole, leading the fleet.

And they hit it nearly ten minutes before predicted, which means the fleet also comes to it early. As soon as the shaking starts, Bryta has a horrific mental image of ships crashing into one another, more coming through the wormhole before the ones already through have restarted…

But they’re far enough off that they must see Jenna disappear, because the next ship comes through five standard minutes after Jenna has arrived in the other ‘verse, more than a minute after she’s restarted and has had a chance to fly away from the mouth of the wormhole.

With twenty-three transports and ten fighters, that makes more than two and a half standard hours of waiting while the fleet comes through the wormhole. Bryta waits in the bridge, drumming her fingers on her knee, until the last ship is accounted for and Jenna announces, “The admiral’s ship asks that we have one of our guests communicate our intent to approach with the Murrols.”

“Call them up, please.”

Wifft’s hooves clicking against the floor give her away when she reaches the bridge; then she asks, “How do I communicate with our base?”

Bryta flicks on the comm, but doesn’t set it to transmit. “Jenna will broadcast to the planet.” She takes it from its holder, setting it to transmit just before handing it back to Wifft. “Jenna, go ahead and send.”

Some of Wifft’s words aren’t things the translation device knows, and that makes figuring out all of what she’s saying difficult. Bryta knows she’s requesting permission to land, but either it’s involved or there’s
more to it than she’s used to. Either way, Wifft hands the comm back after a few minutes.

“We have permission to land. The base requests all others but the admiral’s ship remain in orbit until we know where to best have them land.”

“Jenna, pass that on, please.” To Wifft, Bryta says, “When do we land?”

“As soon as we reach Palk. There are no ships scheduled for takeoff.”

Bryta nods. “Let’s go, Jenna.”

Wifft gives them the coordinates for where they’re supposed to land, and Bryta recognizes the field where they exchanged Jenna’s water supply when they touch down. There are more ships now, at least half a dozen more big transports, and Bryta hopes there are more fields across the planet. If there are and they all have this many ships, getting the population off-planet might actually be doable.

“I hope they’ve tested out the engine,” Bryta murmurs to herself. Fortunately, Wifft and Lrrjuf are nowhere nearby to hear. She’s sure they would have before building this many ships, but it’s still a worry.

Admiral No’Imv’s flagship touches down nearby just after hers, and over the comm, the admiral says, “Captain Tobson, please bring Ambassador Lrrjuf and Engineer Wifft with you and come to my ship. Over.”

“Yes, dzati.” ‘Dzati’ is a Dvõk honorific, used for ranking members of all their genders. “Out.” When she switches the comm to just receive, she says to Jenna, “Go ahead and cool down, love. I’ll get them.”

“I come,” Nemo says, his tone brooking no argument.

“Of course you will. Come on.”

When she tells the Murrols that they’re to meet the admiral at his ship, they exchange a glance before Lrrjuf says, “I should contact Pyof about our arrival.”

“Jenna can connect you. Or do you have a comm unit?”

He finds something in his pouch and holds it up. “I have one.”

She nods. “I’m going to change. Tell her when you’re ready, and she’ll let me know.” She heads for the berth, Nemo at her heels, and finds a clean pair of pants and loose tunic. Those, a belt, and a pair of flat shoes, and she’s ready to meet the admiral and probably the ambassador.

“Captain,” Jenna says in the berth, “they are ready to disembark.”

“Thank you, my love. Do you need anything from me before we go?”

“No, I’ve initiated cooldown and resting procedures. I will be fine.”

Bryta hesitates, torn between relying on Jenna to do that on her own and doing as the admiral ordered, before deciding that she’s essentially been conscripted and so should obey the admiral ahead of anything else. Besides, Jenna has gone through the procedures while Bryta just observes hundreds of times. She’ll be fine. “Let’s go, Nemo. Maybe the flagship has a ‘cat.”

“Maybe. We find out. You do important work.”

She drops her hand to rub the spot just above his empty socket, making him purr gently. “So do you.”

He doesn’t argue, just pulls away from her hand to walk out the door.

Because the Murrols have such trouble with stairs, Bryta lowers the bay ramp. The four of them walk down together, and the other three wait while she presses her palm to the lock and shields her eyes, watching the ramp close back up before turning to them.

“Let’s go.”

The admiral and Ambassador T’Rif are outside the flagship, a ship that looks five or six levels high and maybe a quarter of a kilometer long; a delicate, lavender-point demicat sits perched on Admiral No’Imv’s broad shoulder. Nemo looks up at the demi and says something too rapidly for Bryta to understand, using a combination of feline sounds and Basic, that it returns in a high chitter.

Bryta bows to the ambassador and the admiral, which they return. “Greetings.” She adjusts the earpiece for her translation device as discreetly as possible.

“Greetings, Captain Tobson,” Ambassador T’Rif says, inclining their head. “Greetings, Ambassador, Engineer, Nemo. Ambassador, we must meet with a high-level official before we continue the process of evacuating your people.”

“Of course,” Lrrjuf says. “I have contacted the local representative, Pyof, and she has contacted the governmental—” This word doesn’t translate, and he tries again. “The small group in charge of executing the government’s directives. One of them is on her way, and a higher-level ambassador is already present at the governmental building. Pyof is sending a ground transport.”

“Thank you.”

“Captain Tobson, we would like you to accompany Engineer Wifft to examine one of the transports to be sure the engines are to specifications,” Admiral No’Imv says. “My ship’s mechanic will join you.”

Bryta knows when she’s being shunted to the side, but she also knows having someone who has no significant role present while things like non-aggression pacts are signed is highly unprofessional. Besides, it sounds boring. “Of course, Admiral.”

“We’ll discuss your further role after this meeting,” the admiral adds. “Keep your comm unit on.”

She taps it on her belt. “It already is, dzati.”

The demi on the admiral’s shoulder jumps down to the ground and reaches up to pat Nemo’s muzzle. “I come with you,” it says.

Nemo looks at it and says, “Queens,” in the dismissive voice he so often uses when talking about demis.

She flattens her ears and returns, “Toms.”

“This Lily,” Nemo tells Bryta. To Lily, he adds something too fast for Bryta to make out, but it makes her give him a warning growl.

The ambassador says, “Ey has assigned the mechanic already.” At last, Bryta knows the admiral is fourth gender. It’s taken long enough. “Please wait here. Lrrjuf, Admiral No’Imv and I would like to speak with you.”

Lrrjuf nods, a mannerism he’s clearly imitating from Bryta. Murrols are short-necked, so it’s barely more than a bob of his head, but she’s oddly touched that he’s paid that much attention. Then again, they’ve shared a ship for more than a week; if she could, she’d wrinkle her nose when smiling by now. “Would you like to walk?”

“That would be appropriate.”

The two ambassadors and the admiral walk past Bryta and Wifft, who look at each other. Wifft is the one to say, “We wait here for the mechanic?”

Bryta shrugs. “We don’t have permission to go aboard, so I guess we do.”

She catches Wifft’s ear twitch. “Food stores must be nearly gone by now.”

“I’m sorry you have to leave your planet.”

“Why do you apologize?”

“It’s an expression of sympathy in addition to an apology. It means I feel for you. My species’ home planet has been abandoned for generations.”

Wifft makes an almost guttural sound that has no translation; Bryta takes it to mean she understands or similar. They lapse into quiet for a few moments.

Lily breaks it with, “Nemo say good see ‘cat.”

Bryta looks down at her. “I think he’d prefer a riki, honestly.”

Lily turns her ears. “I no get lost in panels.”

So that’s what made her growl. Bryta stifles a smile. “Want to walk? You can ride on Nemo if you want.”

This time, Nemo flattens his ears at her. Lily, though, walks to Nemo’s eyes and stands against him, stretching as high as she can. She doesn’t even reach three-quarters to his shoulder. “Behind neck.”

Nemo turns and gives her a long lick against the grain of her fur. She smacks him on the nose, but as far as Bryta can tell, she keeps her claws in. “You no use claws on me,” he tells her. He hunkers down, and Lily delicately jumps up between his shoulders. As he rises, a Human walks down the ramp.

“You Captain Tobson?” he asks.

“That’s me.” She offers her hand when he reaches them and unplugs her earpiece from the translation device so that he can also understand Wifft.

“I’m Rupert Winders.” He shakes firmly and turns to Wifft. “Sorry, don’t know how to say your name.”

“Engineer Wifft.”

“Wifft,” he tries. He’s probably as close as Bryta was when she first heard Wifft’s name; she’d like to think she’s gotten better. The way the word is supposed to slide and is accented are unlike any other names Bryta knows. If she learns Common, it’s going to take a lot of practice to wrap her tongue around it.

Wifft wrinkles her nose. “Approximately, Rupert.” She says his name in a much more liquid way than it should be pronounced, but it’s probably as close as how he said her name.

“Which ship should we look at?” he asks.

“I should contact the field manager,” she answers, taking a comm unit like Lrrjuf’s from her pouch. She turns away to use it.

“So you’re Federation?” Bryta asks as she turns down the translation device.

“Six years now,” he says. “And you own your ship?”

“Free and clear,” she says, smiling. “It’s just her, me, and Nemo.”

He shakes his head. “Sounds like a lonely life, Captain.”

“It’s Bryta. I don’t really hold rank in a Federation sense, just on my ship.”

He smiles. “What kind of ship is she?”

“She’s a Clever, only twelve years old. Best ship to ever fly.”

“She best ship,” Nemo agrees.

Rupert grins and looks between them. “You two are biased.”

“Is it biased if it’s the truth?” she asks.

Wifft turns back to them, and Bryta turns the volume back up. “There are engineers inspecting a transport down that way.” She points straight ahead. “You can look at its engines.”

“Sounds good,” Rupert agrees.

The three of them and Nemo, with Lily on his back, walk in quiet. It’s probably a little more than a kilometer, and Bryta spends it trying to calculate how many Murrols would fit on each ship and, therefore, how many ships they’re going to need. More than on this field combined with the ships in the small Federation fleet, she knows that.

Wifft hails a Murrol whose coat is a soft green when they near the ship. They exchange greetings, and Wifft digs in her pouch as she says to the Humans and ‘cats, “This is Engineer Sittol. Sittol, these are Bryta, Rupert, Nemo, and Lily.” She indicates each of them as she gives their names. Then she comes up with another earpiece that Bryta recognizes as one of their wireless translators that connect to the device hooked to the strap of the pouches the Murrols wear.

Sittol takes it and slips it into place. Bryta and Rupert bow and give their greetings, and Bryta catches Sittol trying not to stare. She doesn’t blame them, since they’ve never seen a Human or a ‘cat. Besides, Rupert has been stealing looks at Wifft since he came down the ramp of the flagship.

“Greetings,” Sittol says, bowing in turn. “You will examine the engines, Wifft says.”

“Right,” Rupert says. “We’ll want to look at the entire propulsion system.”

“Are they the same on all the ships?” Bryta asks.

“Yes. They are as you showed Wifft and her team. All the ones across the planet have the same design.”

“Then I hope it’s right,” Rupert says in Bryta’s ear, and she nods.

“Will you show us?” Bryta asks.

“Yes.” Sittol closes and picks up a toolbox. “This way.”

They follow Sittol to the engine port and wait for them to open the panels over it. Once those are out of the way, Bryta lets Rupert examine it closely, using his fingers along with his eyes to judge. When he nods and steps back, she takes her turn. Every curve and angle, every connection, looks just like the ones in Jenna’s engines, if much bigger, and she says, “You’re using the fuel mixture I specified?”

“Yes,” Sittol answers. “We have yet to test.”

“Do you have any smaller ships that use this design?”

“No.”

That’s not a surprise. Transports really should be a priority. “Should take one up soon,” she murmurs to herself, but Wifft must overhear.

“We will have a crew test an atmosphere breach soon after you clear the design,” she says.

Bryta nods. “Okay.” She looks at Rupert. “Do you want to check further?”

“No, it’s good to me.”

“I will show you the internal portions,” Sittol says.

Those also prove to be to specs. Bryta isn’t terribly surprised; with how intensely the engineering team examined her ship’s engines, took notes, and drew schematics, not to mention that she checked out the prototype, they should be good.

“I will arrange for a test flight,” Sittol says. “It will likely be tomorrow.”

Wifft ghosts her fingers over the tattoo on her cheek. “I’d like to be on it.”

“How many can each of these ships hold?” Bryta asks.

“Fifty thousand,” Wifft and Sittol say at nearly the same time.

Fifty thousand into three and a half billion equals one hell of a lot of ships. “You’re producing them all over the planet?”

“Yes. The population has been depleted in the time you’ve been gone.”

Wifft looks sharply at Sittol. “How bad?”

“Many have been lost,” they say vaguely.

She waves her arm and walks away, and Sittol follows.

Bryta turns the volume on her translation device down all the way. “I hope it’s not too bad,” she mutters.

“Genocide,” Rupert says in an undertone. “I think they’re lucky they have a fair number of survivors.”

She twists her mouth. “Have you seen a Nidel?”

“Should I?”

“They’re the genocidal ones.”

“… And?”

“They look evil. Old Earth reptilian, almost.”

Rupert shrugs. “But it doesn’t make a difference, does it? They must be evil if they’re genocidal.”

Wifft and Sittol return then, and Bryta turns the volume back up. Wifft’s expression is blank, her eyes flat. “We should return to the admiral’s ship,” she says.

Bryta regards Wifft for a moment, debating, before she says softly, “You have my sympathy, my friend.”

Wifft touches the back of her right hand to her left shoulder. “Thank you, friend. Sittol, I will meet with you later.”

Sittol hands back the earpiece and says, “Yes, Wifft. There’s a meeting this evening.” What follows doesn’t translate.

“I’ll call for a transport.” She turns to the Humans and ‘cats. “Let’s go.”

When they leave the ship, Bryta asks, “Do you think one of us should come on the flight?”

“If you’re willing. It may be good to have someone who knows how they should sound listen to the engines.”

“I will,” Rupert offers, “as long as the admiral approves it.”

“If he doesn’t, I will.” At Rupert’s look, Bryta points out, “I’m technically a civilian.”

“I thank you.” Wifft runs a hand through the long fur framing her face. “We must go soon.”

“How bad?” Nemo asks.

“Very.” Wifft doesn’t elaborate, and not even the ‘cats ask.

When they get back to the flagship, Bryta says to Rupert, “I’m going back to Jenna. If the admiral wants to see me, I’ll have my unit on.”

“I’ll pass that on,” he says.

“Wifft, would you like to come?”

“I would.”

Bryta and Rupert shake hands. “It was a pleasure meeting you,” she says.

“As it was you.” He bows to Wifft and walks back up the ramp, waving to the sentry.

Lily jumps off Nemo’s back. She says something to him, and he drops his head to rub his cheek along her side. She rubs her much smaller cheek against his neck and says, “Bye,” before turning tail and dashing into the ship.

The three of them turn to walk back to Jenna. Bryta drops a hand to Nemo’s head, running her fingers through his short fur, and lets quiet settle over them. It’s when they get back to her ship and she has her hand on the palm lock that Wifft breaks the silence.

“It is very bad.”

Bryta keys in the code and asks, “How bad?”

“All the elders have volunteered to end their lives, as have nearly a quarter of younger adults. Almost all recorded pregnancies have been voluntarily ended, and most of the others ended naturally. Young in isolated areas have died. The food supply is critical.”

Bryta can’t answer for a long minute. The loss of life stuns her; the scale is beyond comprehension. When she can find words, she says, “I am so sorry, Wifft. I wish we had gotten here sooner. Maybe we could have saved more.”

“Ships would not have been ready.”

That’s true. “By the time we get back, the botanists should have a food solution worked out.” It’s weak, but it’s the best Bryta has.

“I will miss Palk, but I will not miss the reminders of the dead.” With that, Wifft walks up the ramp.

Bryta sits down on the edge of it, and Nemo stretches on the dead grasslike plants. They crunch under his weight. “Are we doing enough?” she asks him.

“We do everything we can.” He rolls onto his back, back legs splays and front paws in the air. “Cannot fix. Just help.”

“Wise ‘cat.”

They stay there for another half hour or so. Nemo rolls around for a few more minutes, then steps onto the ramp beside Bryta and starts to bathe himself. Bryta leans her head on his shoulder, and he lets her stay there until he switches to bathe that side; then she lies back on the ramp and lets the star warm her face.

Finally they go up into Jenna. Nemo jumps into his tallest tree, and Bryta finds her mop and bucket to start swabbing down her ship’s floors. Jenna doesn’t interrupt, just plays music Bryta hasn’t heard before and turns her lights bright so Bryta doesn’t miss a spot. Wifft works away on a tablet down in the bay; Bryta mops around her. When another section of floor is dry, Wifft walks there, and Bryta comes back to finish up.

The admiral still hasn’t commed by the time Bryta finishes. So she scrubs the galley, then cleans the consoles, sanitizes the commode and Nemo’s box, freshens and tidies the berth, and finally gives up, sits cross-legged on her berth, and pulls up a novel by a new Vargiite author on her tablet. Nemo joins her after some time; he curls up against her, and she reads aloud to him.

It feels late when her comm unit buzzes on her hip. Bryta takes it from her belt and answers; it displays Admiral No’Imv’s face. “Yes, dzati?”

“Please come to my ship, Captain. I’d like to meet with you.”

“Now, Admiral?”

“Yes.”

“Should I bring Engineer Wifft?”

“That’s not necessary. Representative Pyof will debrief her.”

“Nemo and I are leaving now, dzati.”

Ey nods. “Thank you, Captain.” With that, ey ends the call.

Bryta stands and slips on her shoes, turning off her tablet. “You can tease Lily more.”

“Demis easy to tease,” Nemo says dismissively. He jumps from the bed to the door, padding out. “Long meeting?”

“Probably not.”

Wifft is just putting her tablet back into her pouch when they reach her. “The ground transport for my meeting is here.”

“We’re about to leave to meet with Admiral No’Imv.”

“I doubt I will return tonight. Thank you for all you have done, Bryta.”

“Maybe you’ll be on my ship when we go back to my ‘verse,” Bryta offers.

“I’ll request it.” Wifft bows.

Bryta bows back. “I hope to see you soon, Wifft.”

“Bye.” Nemo rubs his head against Wifft’s flank.

It takes a second, but Wifft does as she’s seen Bryta do so many times before and pets Nemo’s shoulder. “Goodbye, Nemo.”

The three of them walk down the ramp together and split up as soon as they hit the ground; Bryta and Nemo walk to the palm lock, and Wifft climbs into the ground transport. Then she’s gone, and it’s just Bryta, the ‘cat, and the ship.

When Bryta and Nemo get to the flagship, the sentry posted at the foot of the ramp asks, “Captain Bryta Tobson?”

“That’s me.” It’s not like there are any other Humans on-planet who aren’t from the admiral’s ship.

“One moment, Captain.” He lifts his comm unit and says, “Escort requested for Captain Tobson and a riki.” The reply is too muffled for Bryta to make out, but the sentry nods. “Someone’s coming for you,” he says to Bryta.

“Thank you.”

A woman in a Federation uniform walks down the ramp not two minutes later. “Captain Tobson, I’ll be your escort this evening.” She offers her hand. “Lieutenant Andria Chien.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Chien.” Bryta shakes with her. “This is Nemo, my companion.”

“Greetings to you, Nemo.” She offers her hand to him, and he sniffs it thoroughly.

“Greetings,” he says.

The three of them walk up the ramp past the sentry. “I’ll take you straight to Admiral No’Imv. I believe ey has a late night planned.”

Bryta nods. “I imagine so, if everything is agreed upon.”

Lieutenant Chien gives her a shrewd look. “You’re a trader?”

“Trading and shipping,” she confirms.

“So you know something about agreements.”

“Not quite of this type.”

Lieutenant Chien passes a card over a scanner and presses her hand to the lock. The door of an elevator opens soundlessly, and they step on together. “Admiral No’Imv is meeting you in a room on the third level. I’ll bring you back out of the ship after you meet with em.”

“Thank you.”

She nods and faces forward, standing at what Bryta thinks is called parade rest. She doesn’t know much about Federation regulations and protocols for the peacekeeping force, though, beyond recognizing insignia.

When the elevator comes to a stop, Lieutenant Chien presses her hand to the lock by the door and leads them off. “This way.”

The corridors are in a grid pattern, easy to memorize. The room Admiral No’Imv is in has a long table covered in interfaces, tablets, and plasfilms; the admiral eirself sits at the end of the table, studying a model.

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Chien says, “Captain Tobson and riki Nemo.”

Ey looks up. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Captain, I’d invite you to have a seat, but…” Ey indicates the apparent mess that Bryta assumes has some sort of organizational system to it.

“Of course, dzati.”

Ey presses a button, and the model minimizes. “Your role from now on will be minimal until we leave Palk. You have two Murrol harnesses installed currently, is that right?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you have space to install three more?”

She frowns, thinking about the space requirements. Jenna won’t be pleased, but… “I believe I do.”

“Very good. I would like you to carry Engineer Wifft, Representative Pyof, Ambassador Lrrjuf, a cultural expert, and a historian. Your ship is most experienced in going through wormholes. Should something happen to another ship carrying leaders, you’ll still have some important Murrols safe.”

That will be tight, but she can manage it. “Yes, dzati. I’ll install the harnesses as soon as they’re delivered.”

“Very good. Now, we’re leaving by the wormhole we came through, and we’ll turn from there to Atri. Ambassador Meckel will have a place for us to take the Murrol by the time all this is over, and I want to get there right away. They’re critically low on food.”

“Wifft talked a little about that, dzati.”

“Of course she did,” ey says under eir breath. In a normal tone, ey continues, “Do you have any questions for me?”

“Should we remain at our spot in the field, or should we move away so there’s more room in case a spacebound ship needs to land?”

“You should be fine. Keep your comm on and your ship’s connections active in case we need to contact you.”

“Yes, Admiral.”

“Winders mentioned your offer to go aboard for the test flight, but that won’t be necessary. He’ll go and report back.”

She nods.

“You’re dismissed.”

“Thank you, dzati.”

*


It takes five days to get all the kinks worked out for the evacuation plan. Bryta doesn’t want to think about how many Murrols die, whether by starvation or through requesting euthanasia, in that time. But by the sixth day, acromium is loaded in her hold, the orbiting ships have been landing shuttles all night to pick up their passengers, the ships the Murrols built have mostly been loaded, and her passengers are due to arrive any minute.

She tests the three new harnesses again, throwing all her body weight into yanking on each one, and none of them budge. That’s good, though she’ll have to remove the harnesses and get the holes repaired after her passengers have been dropped wherever they’re going. Nemo watches her from atop his tree; when she glances at him, he’s just barely twitching the tip of his tail.

“Captain,” Jenna says soon after she’s done making sure all the lockers are secured, “there is a ground transport outside.”

“Thank you, my love.” She hurries down the stairs to hit the palm lock and lower the bay ramp. “Welcome aboard!” she calls when it’s down. She recognizes Wifft and Lrrjuf instantly, Pyof a moment later, but has no idea who the other two are besides ‘cultural expert and historian’. “You may come aboard.”

The five Murrols walk up the ramp in a cluster. Their hooves click on the metal. “Greetings, Bryta of Earth,” Pyof says with a bow.

“Greetings, Pyof, Wifft, Lrrjuf.” She bows to the group as a whole.

“Historian Malf, Teacher Tsrif, this is Captain Bryta Tobson,” Lrrjuf says.

“Greetings,” the nearer, a forest green one, says. “I am Malf.” They bow.

“And I am Tsrif.” They’re a muted grey-green. They bow to her as well. “My greetings. I thank you for your hospitality.”

Bryta smiles. “Have either of you ever been in space?” She fully expects their negative answers. “You, Pyof?” She gets the same answer. “Two of the harnesses to keep you safe during takeoff and landing are in the bay. The other three are up on the other level. Wifft, Lrrjuf, will you show them everything necessary for bodily functions before we take off?”

“We will,” Lrrjuf says. “Do you have sufficient food stores?”

“I believe I do. It was delivered with the harnesses. Water has been fully cycled and is drinkable.” She looks to the three new to her ship and explains what flight and the wormhole are like, then continues, “You can go anywhere in the ship except the hold, the bridge, and my berth.” She points to each as she says it. “Any questions?”

“No,” Pyof says, evidently for all of them. “We thank you again, Bryta.”

She nods and says, “Please come off the ramp. I need to close it to prepare for takeoff.”

Wifft follows her to the palm lock. “It will be the same wormhole for exiting the ‘verse.”

“Are the other wormholes closed?”

“We finished everything involving the wormholes yesterday,” she confirms. “This one will be closed when we can bring a ship near it from the other side.”

Good. No one will accidentally end up in a completely foreign ‘verse with no idea why. “We need to ready for takeoff. We’ll probably be one of the first to leave the ‘verse.”

“I imagine so,” Wifft says, nodding. “It should be the last wormhole you travel through.”

“How I hope so.”

The bay door thuds into place; a moment later, Bryta hears the clunk of the seal closing. There’s another, lighter thud immediately after it that elicits gasps. She spins to see Nemo eyeing their new guests.

“That’s Nemo,” she calls to them. “He’s my companion.”

“He appears to be a carnivore,” Tsrif says. It’s hard to make out their actual tone when they’re so quiet.

“He is,” she says cheerfully, “but he won’t hurt anyone who doesn’t try to harm me or our ship.”

Tsrif and Malf take steps back from him.

“Jenna, greet our guests?”

Jenna’s lights twinkle, and she greets them in Common. That doesn’t seem to bother them nearly as much as sharing space with Nemo does; Tsrif actually engages her in conversation.

“Come check my coordinates,” Bryta says to Wifft. She starts up the stairs, and Wifft follows her cautiously. She hopes the Murrols don’t have to deal too much with stairs wherever they end up.

Forty-three minutes after inputting the coordinates of the wormhole and verifying it by chart with Wifft, a voice comes onto her comm. “Captain Tobson of Jenna, you have permission to lift off in thirty standard minutes and promptly exit the atmosphere over latitude eighty-two degrees ten minutes, longitude twenty-three degrees eight minutes. Over.”

“Half an hour with prompt exit, acknowledged. Out,” she says, then thumbs off the outward transmission. “Jenna-love, please let our guests know they need to get into their harnesses very soon.” She glides her hands across the screens, bringing things up and switching views, and adds, “Warm your engines and increase coolant circulation.”

“Announcement made,” Jenna says. “Engines are warming and coolant circulation speed has been elevated.”

“Thank you,” Bryta murmurs. “Nemo, time to get off that seat and into your harness.”

He pins his ears back at her, but slides off the copilot’s seat and stalks to his harness.

“I’d wait if I didn’t have work to do,” she points out as she kneels.

He huffs instead of giving an actual answer, but flops to his side once his harness is secure. That frees her to get back to work with Jenna, double-checking weight calculations versus fuel content and the exit angle.

Seconds before the half-hour mark, Jenna’s engines heat to a burn so that she’s ready to lift off as soon as her countdown hits zero. Bryta keeps deft control, mostly sticking with Jenna’s guidance but adding the human judgment in case something goes wrong. They keep the burn going until they’ve exited the atmosphere with a rattling jolt and are in orbit around Palk; then they ease the engines down and wait for their next orders.

They’re some time in coming. Jenna narrates each time a ship communicates it has left the planet, and by the time she gets to Admiral No’Imv’s flagship, Bryta is considering undoing her harness.

“The admiral has sent a message,” Jenna tells her. “Shall I display it?”

“Right screen.” She turns to face it.

The admiral’s face comes up; ey looks focused, serious. “Greetings, Captains. We will exit Palk’s orbit as a fleet at twenty-one hundred hours. My ship will exit first, followed in the designated order by the transports and Captain Tobson. The fighters will remain behind until last. As each ship comes through the wormhole, I must ask you use a burn appropriate to get you well clear of the exit. Be sure your ship remains within contact range. We will proceed to Atri from there.” With that, the screen shifts back to the opening frame, and Bryta swipes her hand across to clear it away and bring her original display of systems statistics back up.

“We follow the flagship through the wormhole, my love. Five minutes after they go into comm silence, we go.”

“Acknowledged, Captain.”

Bryta checks the chronodisplay. Just under forty minutes until 2100 means it’s not worth unbuckling harnesses. Instead, she switches on the in-ship comm. “Greetings, passengers. In thirty-nine minutes, we will be exiting orbit. From here, we’ll go straight to the wormhole, which we’ll pass through five minutes after the Federation flagship. If you’d like to know what the wormhole experience is like, ask Wifft or Lrrjuf. Any further questions, Jenna can relay to me.” She pauses, considering, before saying, “You have my deepest sympathies.” With that, she switches off transmission and says to Jenna, “Do you have a lock on the flagship?”

“I do, Captain. We have been ensuring we all know our order.”

Bryta supposes it’s natural they do it, considering how many ships there are and how much faster it is for the ships to discuss it than it is for the captains to get on the comms. Still, it makes her feel slightly redundant.

When it’s their turn to leave this ‘verse, Bryta murmurs, “I’m so glad there won’t be any more Murrol wormholes,” to Nemo and Jenna.

Nemo makes a rumbling sound deep in his chest that doesn’t sound quite like a growl. It’s not pleasant, though.

“Love, shut down everything except the life support systems.”

“Shutting down, Captain.”

“I’ll see you in a couple of minutes.”

Jenna dims her lights slightly. “I will boot as fast as I can.”

And they go through.

*


“Captain,” Jenna says, three days after the fleet regrouped past the wormhole, “Admiral No’Imv is on the comm.”

Bryta brings the display up. “Greetings, Admiral.”

“Greetings, Captain. I’m sure you know we’re three hours from Atri’s orbit.”

She nods. “I do, dzati.”

“When we arrive, my ship will land at the base,” ey says. “I want you to bring Jenna down to the base so that you may land and receive copies of everything the botanists have for the Murrols’ food supply.”

That does make more sense than dispatching a shuttle and dealing with resealing it to its transport. Besides, she’s pretty sure all the shuttles are full. “Yes, dzati.”

“The base will have your ship’s information for when you comm to get your landing instructions. Stay aboard your ship. Ambassador Meckel estimates it won’t take more than two and a half hours to get all instructions and goods transferred to the ships.”

“I’ll make sure my passengers know, Admiral.”

“You’ll be compensated outside what I know the Murrol ships are carrying for you. This isn’t your job.”

She smiles. “Thank you, Admiral.”

Eir lips pull back in what would be a snarl on a human but, on a Dvõk is a smile. Then eir image disappears, and Bryta flicks on the in-ship comm to relay what Admiral No’Imv told her.

The fleet remains in orbit over Atri when Jenna and the flagship peel off and burn through the atmosphere. The admiral’s ship lands first; Jenna is a few minutes later, in a spot close to enough to the admiral’s that Bryta could probably throw a rock and hit it.

When she unhooks Nemo’s harness, he steps up onto the copilot’s seat and sits with his tail curled neatly around his paws. Since he doesn’t seem inclined to say anything and Jenna shouldn’t need her, Bryta takes her tablet from its pocket on the side of her chair and brings up a logic game.

It actually takes more than three hours before Jenna interrupts her with, “Captain, there is a ground transport stopped outside.”

“Thank you.” She puts the tablet to sleep and looks at her copilot. “Coming?”

Nemo gives her a disdainful look and steps down from the chair. He’s been dozing, yet he’s already perfectly alert. ‘Cats.

In passing, she says to the passengers, “We have a delivery,” before reaching the ramp’s lock. It lowers too slowly, seeming to take years instead of barely over a minute. When it’s down, she sees a fleet-issue lorry with a long back.

“Captain Tobson?” a Vargiite, squat and solid as they tend to be, calls up to her.

“That’s me.”

“We have a delivery for you from the embassy.”

Bryta strides down the ramp, Nemo by her side, and shades her eyes when she reaches them. “What do you have?”

“Seeds and seedlings. They’re in sacks and trays. You have the room?”

“We’ll have to rig something to tether them down.”

“Straps in locker,” Nemo suggests.

“Yeah. Yeah, do you remember which locker?”

He ignores her. Evidently not.

“Can you back that up the ramp?” she asks the Vargiite ensign. “It would be easier than hauling it all.”

“Sure thing, Captain. Make sure your, uh, passengers are out of the way.” She waddles back to the cab and lifts herself in.

Bryta and Nemo walk back up the hold, and Bryta calls, “Go upstairs, please. She’s driving the transport up here.”

“Can we help?” Pyof asks.

She glances them over, judging their sizes. With their length, it might get crowded. “One of you can, yeah. I’d like everyone else on the stairs or the upper level until the transport is up, though.” She swings up the stairs, headed for the starboard lockers. She’s pretty sure she left the straps in one of them.

The lorry beeps as the ensign backs it up. She stops it with the back wheels just into the bay proper, where it’s going to be easy enough to get in and out and still have room to put everything down. Pyof meets Bryta in the bay, and they stand at the rear until the Vargiite comes over to the two of them.

She unlocks it and swings out the two doors, then pulls out a ramp. “Captain, you want to plan where we’re putting everything?”

Bryta steps into the back. There’s a fair amount here, enough that it’s going to be crowded for the rest of the trip. The Murrols will have to bed down upstairs. “Let’s start with the sacks.”

Almost as soon as the Vargiite ensign drives away, Jenna says, “Captain, the flagship is hailing us.”

Bryta mutters under her breath and starts to raise the ramp before dashing back up the stairs. “Bring it up,” she says the second she’s to the bridge.

An image of the admiral flickers onto the screen. “Captain Tobson, you’ve received your delivery?”

“Yes, Admiral. I need to finish securing it before takeoff.”

“You’re scheduled to lift off in… twenty-nine minutes now. Will you be ready?”

Bryta resists the urge to swear. “Yes, dzati,” she says instead. “Will it be a long trip?”

“Is your bay crowded?” ey asks instead of answering.

“Very much so. I don’t know where my passengers will sleep.”

“It will only be a few hours,” ey tells her.

“Hours?” She runs through every habitable planet nearby and frowns. “Veni?”

“Ambassador T’Rif has made the arrangements. My home planet is sparsely inhabited on one of the continents, and two others can take the overflow.”

She can’t help the broad smile spreading over her face. “That’s wonderful, dzati. I’m sure the Murrols will be happy to know they have a home.”

“Further instructions will be sent in a message,” ey says briskly. “You have to ready for liftoff. I’ll meet with you sometime after landing, Captain.”

“Yes, Admiral.” She waits for em to end the contact, then taps the screens and works with Jenna to ready for takeoff.

When she gets back to the hold to finish securing the goods and seal the ramp, she finds her passengers working in teams to batten things down. It makes sense, she supposes; it’s their food. Still, she calls, “Thank you,” over the railing.

“It’s the least we could do,” Pyof says. At least, she thinks it’s Pyof. None of them are facing her, and her translation device talks over the words so that she can’t distinguish the voice long enough.

“We’re taking off in twenty-one minutes,” she tells them as she walks down the stairs. “Jenna will count down when there are five minutes left.”

“We’ll be ready.”

“I have news,” she bursts out while entering the code to seal the ramp. It’s not fair to not tell them.

That gets them to all look at her.

“Your new planet is less than seven hours from this one. You’ll have one continent mostly to yourselves, and there are two others your population can spread to.”

Almost immediately, all five of them burst into talking. Her translation device can’t distinguish the words with how they run over each other. From what she can see, they all have their noses wrinkled, and all but Tsrif make quick gestures to go with what they say.

“Tell Jenna if you need me,” she calls. They give no sign of hearing her, and she mentally shrugs, returning to the bridge.

Just before Jenna starts to count down, Bryta gets up again to walk to the bay. Everything appears to be secure; she just tests the straps to verify that nothing will shift.

“Captain,” Tsrif asks, “what is the name of our new planet?”

“Veni,” she answers. “It’s the native planet of the admiral’s species, Dvõks, and a co-evolved species, Bengens.”

“Is it similar to Palk?” Malf asks.

She pauses, considering the question. Before she can answer, Jenna says, “Five minutes to liftoff.”

“I’ve never been to the continent you’ll have,” Bryta says. “The climate may be different. The gravitational force is a bit lighter, but the air makeup is similar, and the sun is also yellow and relatively moderate in brightness.”

“Thank you,” Pyof says before there can be any more questions. “We’ll ready for takeoff.”

She nods. “Less than eight hours and we’ll be in orbit around Veni.” With that, she jogs back to the bridge.

It takes almost exactly seven hours before they settle into orbit around Veni. A few minutes before they do, Jenna says, “Captain, we have a message from the admiral.”

“Play it, my love. Right screen again.”

The admiral’s face comes up. “Greetings, Captains. We have scheduled the first landings on Cekiq, the second-largest continent. We cannot land all the ships. Once a transport is empty, it needs to go back into orbit. This will be coordinated from my ship. Our landing and immigration center is in Cekiq’luto Province. Please direct your passengers to remain onboard until identicards have been issued. This is not going to be a fast process, I must emphasize. Veni needs full records of its new citizens. When each being aboard your ship has an identicard, they may leave the ship. There are large ground transports set to disperse them across the continent in new settlements. The Federation has made arrangements for use of Veni shuttles to bring crews down after ships are returned to orbit. If you have governmental officials aboard, have them gather near the exits so they get their identicards first. They will be directed to a gathering point. If you have any questions, contact my ship.”

Almost as soon as the message has returned to its original screen, Jenna says, “There is a second message.”

Bryta runs a hand through her hair. “Please play it.”

This one opens with Lieutenant Chien. “Captain Tobson, greetings. We have arranged for your ship to land alongside the flagship and first transport, since you carry farming goods. A Veni governmental worker will come to Jenna to make the identicards for your passengers, and someone will bring a transport to take the seeds and seedlings. The admiral asks that you stay on-planet until ey has a chance to speak with you. Please contact me with any further questions.” With that, the message flicks back to its first frame.

“I hope he’s going to pay us,” Bryta mutters.

“It seems likely,” Jenna says. “Shall I ask the passengers to secure their harnesses?”

“Please do. Nemo?”

He hisses and slinks behind her chair.

Not long after, a Bengen comes onto the comm with, “Captain Tobson of Clever class ship number Alpha Charlie 2697, designation Jenna, this is Tg.ïmp of the Cekiq’luto landing field. Do you read me? Over.”

“I read you, Tg.ïmp. Over.”

“Captain Tobson, you are instructed to breach the atmosphere at 2048 local time and to land at the field. The field is currently clear. Land beside one of the other two ships. Over.”

“Acknowledged. Out.”

Not fifteen minutes later, Jenna breaches the atmosphere over Cekiq and decelerates smoothly to land at the field beside the flagship. Bryta goes through her shutdown procedures before flicking on the comm. “Feel free to remove your harnesses.”

“Me,” Nemo says.

“Coming!”

When she gets the ramp lowered a few minutes later, she’s greeted with a lorry and two Dvõks leaning up against it, near a Bengen with an identicard maker, complete with sensitive touchscreen for fingerprints, DNA sampler, and camera.

The two Dvõks do all the work of hauling the seed sacks and seedling trays to the bed of the lorry, which leaves Bryta to observe the process of making identicards. She knows how it’s done, of course, but watching them try to figure out Basic letters that match up with Common ones tells her just how long it’s going to take to process the entire remaining Murrol population. That is, until Jenna breaks in with, “Would you like assistance?”

The Bengen looks at Pyof, who’s the first Murrol to get an identicard, then at Bryta, and then up at the ceiling. “Have you transliterated the alphabet?”

“Engineer Wifft and I devised a project of it two weeks and one day ago, yes,” she says serenely. “Captain, I have sent it to your tablet.”

That means Bryta has to get her tablet from the bridge, but when she returns, it has a graphical representation of the Common alphabet paired with corresponding Basic letters.

“May I connect this to my tablet?” ze asks Bryta.

“Of course. Jenna, my love, please send the transliteration to the rest of the ships.”

“I already have.”

“My thanks,” ze says to Jenna. “You’ve saved us a lot of time.”

“It was my pleasure.”

“Xenolinguists are going to create a holiday in your honor, love.”

“As long as I get the day off.”

Bryta laughs as the Bengen prints off Pyof’s identicard and moves onto Tsrif.

When all the Murrols have their identicards and have gathered their things, the Dvõks have long since unloaded Jenna’s bay. That means the only thing left to do on her ship—besides remove the Murrol harnesses and get repairs done—is to escort the Murrols down onto Veni and direct them toward where the governmental officials from the admiral’s ship are gathering. They exchange goodbyes, complete with deep bows, and Wifft surprises Bryta by clasping her hand in both hers to shake gently. Then Bryta and Nemo walk back aboard Jenna, into blissful isolation and quiet.

It doesn’t last, of course. It can’t. Bryta’s mopping is interrupted by someone calling up the ramp, “Captain Tobson.”

She shields her eyes and looks down. “Lieutenant Chien.”

“Admiral No’Imv has requested your presence. Ey would like you to bring your record plasfilm, your credits log, and your identicard.”

She sighs and puts the mop back in its bucket. “I’m coming.” She doesn’t even care that she’s somewhat sweaty or that her hands are damp. She’s ready for this to be behind her.

Lieutenant Chien escorts her to the same room as before. At least, Bryta thinks it’s the same room. She says, “Admiral, Captain Tobson,” and then steps back toward the wall.

“Captain,” ey says. “Did you bring the records I requested?”

“Yes, dzati.” Bryta takes them from her pockets and passes them to em.

“It has been a pleasure working with you on an unpleasant duty,” ey tells her. Ey scans her identicard with a reader and connects her credits log, eir fingers dancing across the screen. “Unfortunately, the Federation has decided that the Murrols cannot pay you in the acromium they stored aboard their ships.”

“Admiral,” she protests.

Ey raises a hand. “The Murrols need a resource to begin paying for their settlements beyond their ships. You are being paid one hundred twenty-five thousand credits for your heroic actions. It may not be as much as you would have earned from the acromium—”

“Nowhere near,” she mutters.

“—but the ambassadors and I have judged it fitting for your participation, and you may keep the acromium already aboard your ship.” Ey disconnects her credits log and attaches her plasfilm record. “You are also being put forth for the Red Star. Do you know what that is?”

“The civilian version of the White Star—the award for heroism above and beyond the call of duty,” she answers numbly. She did what anyone would do, didn’t she? No decent being would leave a civilization to extinction.

“Deserve it,” Nemo tells her.

“The decision won’t be made for another six standard months, until after the Federation conclave, and ceremonies happen three standard months after that. Wherever you are in the galaxy, you should hear in time. The ships will spread the news.”

“Thank you, dzati,” she manages.

“It’s no less than you deserve.” Ey hands everything back to her. “Lieutenant Chien will escort you out. Contact the field management for instructions on takeoff.”

“Thank you, Admiral.”

“You’re dismissed.”

Once Lieutenant Chien leaves Bryta and Nemo outside the flagship, she says to him, “So want another ‘cat aboard?”

*


“Cekiq’palk field, Clever class ship number Alpha Charlie 2697, designation Jenna, requesting clearance to land. Over.”

The voice that comes back has a distinct Murrol accent; the words are distorted, slippery, but they’re recognizable as Basic. “Ship designation Jenna, you have gone through Customs? Over.”

“We have. We’re currently in orbit. Over.”

“Captain Tobson, is that you? Over.”

She grins. “I’m guessing… Imbt? Over.”

“Yes, Captain. It is pleasant to hear from you. You are cleared to land at space 3-1 Tango in thirteen minutes. Over.”

“3-1 Tango, acknowledged. Out.”

When Bryta lowers the ramp to let Nemo and Matilda race down into the sparse groundcover, she grins. Below, she sees Tyul, Yofft, Tsrif, and a Murrol so small and fragile-looking that they must be nearly newborn. She walks down and bows as soon as she reaches the ground. “Greetings, my friends.”

They bow back, murmuring their greetings in a combination of Basic and Common. Yofft says, “Welcome to Cekiq’palk, Bryta. We are honored to host you.”

She smiles. “Thank you. I’m here on business too, you know.”

“Yes, but Wifft is expecting you. It is not all business.”

Bryta acknowledges that with a slight shrug. “Who’s this?” she asks, squatting before the young Murrol.

“This is my child,” Tsrif says. “Her name is Erth.”

Date: Tue, Nov. 13th, 2012 02:06 am (UTC)
shipwreck_light: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shipwreck_light
SURCHARGE WAS NOT AS EXPECTED *ded*.

Ahem.

THIS WAS REALLY COOL THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR POSTING IT WHERE WE COULD ROLL AROUND IN IT.

A lot of the stylings and set pieces reminded me late 70's/early 80's sci-fi, which is what I grew up reading, so the story itself was really homey and comfortable and fun. /But/ it didn't come prepackaged with that aura of conflict and red tape. The federation, upon hearing the Murrols are in trouble, doesn't hesitate to send an envoy to rescue them and apparently they did much the same with humans in the past. Hell, they park the Murrols on a planet that one of them came from! It really gives a sense of the setting being not-earth, but also not a space where humans dominate. And really, how could they manage that with so many apparently very nice species going around loving the shit out of everyone?

'cats? Actually acting like cats? So awesome! And I just love that they go everywhere with their humans, including on freaking army ships.

Murrols sound like creatures from a Ghibli film. They remind me a little of Puppeteers, but less bitey and paranoid.

And reading about Bryta being all- it's just my job. WAIT NO IT ISN'T. Oh wellllllll. Instead of arguing or going all hero on everyone was really delightful. She's like a cat in her own way- self-interested and petable.

Oh! And Jenna longing for other ships to talk to, then realizing she'd stuck with a bunch of federation vehicles XD.

Thank you again for posting. I've been working on it on and off between writing. I know you were feeling gloomy so I wanted to make sure you got a comment on this today.

Date: Wed, Nov. 21st, 2012 05:57 pm (UTC)
annariel: Alex Kamal from The Expanse (Default)
From: [personal profile] annariel
Very much enjoyed this story, although I kept worrying that the Murrols were up to something!!

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