Embala was watching over the common room from the bar, her photosynthesis notes glowing softly on its surface under her bottle of cherry-flavored Fizztown Funk. The room was lit only by the glowing bar top, on which her father was standing, and stirring a large pot of stew.
“Sounds like he’s a runner from the Homeworld Protectorate,” he said. The pot bubbled. Did they have a pot like that? Had she seen it before? She looked down again, and Henry was sitting across from her at the bar, glaring at a bowl of soup.
“Oh, it’s ‘wholesome’, is it? You’re a Protectorate agent, aren’t you?”
She blinked, and backed away. “No, Ilgai isn’t part of-”
He lunged and grabbed her sleeve. Her father frowned at the stew pot. “I heard they’ve got a lot of propaganda with words like ‘wholesome’ and ‘faith’.”
He dipped in a ladle and pulled out a Homeland Protectorate badge with a tiny camera lens glinting in the glow from the bar. Henry tugged on her sleeve, and her father nodded. “It’s why the stew tastes so bad on Earth.” The badge vanished from the ladle and appeared pinned on the shoulder of her shirt as Henry tore the sleeve away.
“See?” He shook the badge in her face. “You’re part of the Protectorate! You want to kill me!”
Embala was shaking her head. “I’m not! I swear I’m not!”
Henry sat back and pointed at his bowl of stew.
“Reservation confirmed,” he said.
“Try to make him feel at home, ‘Balalaika,” said her father. “That’s our job here, and he needs it more than most.”
She looked at her father as he poured a ladlefull of stew onto the bar top.
“Hey!” Henry was glaring at her now, and holding his bowl of stew out to her. “Reservation confirmed! Ship approaching!”
She opened her eyes and tried to knock the bowl from Henry’s hand, giving herself a hard smack on the thigh. She blinked and rubbed sleep from her eyes.
“Reservation confirmed,” said the ship’s computer. “Ship approaching.”
“On monitor,” she said, wiping her pajama sleeve across her mouth. With her other hand she tapped the wall next to her bed, and had a momentary rush of terror as the whole wall was replaced with empty space.
“Shit! No!” She rolled away from the wall and out of bed. “Window mode!”
The wall reappeared with a rectangular window in it about three feet across. In the center of the screen was a “Fishfrog” – one of the dozens of interchangeable budget star-hopper ships, capable of limited faster-than-light travel. It looked like a combination between a frog and a fish had been hidden somewhere inside a plain white cylinder with the arms of a cheap FTL drive sticking out of one end like an eight-pointed star. The other end was aimed to latch onto one of their jetties in about an hour. Embala glared at it.
“Tell Ebb to sign them in. I have to go put up vent covers.”
The computer chimed a confirmation and sent the message as Embala got dressed and shuffled off to the delivery bay.
It took the whole morning to get the rest of the vent covers up, with Eagun helping Lisa and Anansi set up the farm. She grabbed a couple food bars from the kitchen and retreated to her room to review Brigadoon’s inventory for the rest of the afternoon. When she came to the dining hall in the evening, she found the guests and several crew members sitting together as Eight gently tipped a steamer full of dumplings onto a platter at the center of the table. She took a seat across from Eagun, and next to Lisa. The guests introduced themselves as Anwhar and Catherine.
At dinner, the guests ate at one of the common tables with the crew. The husband, Anwhar, did most of the talking, not just for himself and his wife, but also for the rest of the table. He was eager to explain how they showed up so soon after Brigadoon had opened for business.
“We were in the area for our honeymoon.”
Ariadne’s eyebrows shot up. “But-”
“Why were we out here, with nothing around?” Anwhar took a gulp of beer and leaned in, looking around the table. “Space ghosts!”
Embala glanced at Catherine, as she sipped her tea without giving any indication of her opinion. Anwhar continued.
“See, for thousands of years, we’ve been zipping all over the galaxy, mining planets out of existence, setting up space stations and abandoning them, and dying all over the place. This area was a hub of industrial activity a few thousand years ago, and we think some of the structures that got left behind – like this place – might be haunted!”
“Wow. I keep forgetting people like you exist.” Ariadne’s muttered comment was clearly audible.
“Ariadne,” said Embala, “could you refrain from insulting our first lodgers?”
She glared at Embala, who raised an eyebrow, thinking, you did volunteer for this.
Eagun set his own cup down with a thunk.
“My friends, you must forgive dear Ariadne! It is that same electricity that fills her veins and causes her words to arc so brightly, that lets her keep our little village here on the boundary of reality, and what lies beyond!” As he spoke, the lights seemed to dim.
“She’s our electrician, is what he’s trying to say,” added Gregg. Red mist began to creep in from the newly darkened corners of the room.
“Not so!” Cried Eagun, “She is our lightning elemental!”
Lightning struck at one end of the room, and then froze in place. Another identical bolt struck next to it, and another, and another, until the perimeter of the room was a palisade of identical lightning bolts. Eagun cursed and poked at the part of the table he had leaned on. The lightning bolts and mist vanished leaving Embala with after-images filling her vision.
“Eagun…” Ebb Spacedragon was rubbing her eyes. “Can we expect you to monkey around with the holosystem every time you speak?”
Slamsall sniffed. “I merely give my words the weight they merit! I apologize for the excessive lightning though.”
Anwhar giggled. “You all make an interesting crew.”
Embala opened her mouth to apologize again, but Catherine cut her off.
“That’s a good thing.” She took a sip from her martini and cleared her throat. “I believe my husband mentioned that we are spending our honeymoon looking for that which is our of the ordinary. So far this has been everything we hoped for, including this gentleman’s theatrics.”
“Fair enough.” Embala hid a grin in her drink. Both of them had blushed when she called Anwhar her husband.
Gregg cleared his throat.
“I’ve got a few stories, from my family.” He glanced at the lodgers, and added. “I’m a Mattersmith, you see.”
“No shit?” Anwhar looked around at the other crew members. “How’d you guys manage to get an actual Mattersmith?”
Ebb chuckled. “It was more the other way around.”
“Right. Of course. Money and favors, yeah?”
“More or less, yeah. Uncle Argus was called out to help Vulturecorp with an outdated matter forge on a refitted transport ship. They weren’t clear about what the problem was, but a job’s a job.”
Eagun did something on his control panel and the walls and ceiling of the room slowly faded away until they were sitting under a glass canopy with all of the universe above and around them. Embala’s gut clenched and she downed her drink. She raised her cup toward Eight with a pleading look as Gregg continued his story. Eight nodded and went to the bar.
“This was what, almost two hundred years ago now. Uncle Argus got there to find most of the ship flooded with water. It’s still one of the more common ways a forge will cope with a malfunction, you see – sort of a relief valve for when something more dangerous might otherwise be made.”
Embala nodded with the others. They had all heard stories about early matter forges going wrong.
“Well, normally any halfway competent engineer can fix any problems that come up, but theirs had died when the forge malfunctioned – drowned before he could even tell anyone what happened. The rest of the crew didn’t know there was a problem until the lower levels had already been flooded.”
“Oh, come on,” said Ariadne. “Even back then they had had automatic segmentation for centuries. The levels would have locked off as soon as a flood was detected, and there’d be alarms.”
“Exactly!” Greg pointed at her with a grin. “That’s why it was so weird! The crew was in a shuttle outside the ship, and old Argus had to go in alone, in a dive suit.”
“Couldn’t they just vent it all into space?”
“Along with everything else on the station?” Gregg shook his head. “Better to fix the matter forge, and re-route the water back to it for electrolysis. That way you don’t lose as much.”
Eight came back with Embala’s drink, and she took it with a smile. It was some sort of cordial; sweet and strong.
“So he goes in, and it’s just emergency lighting. He had to go down two levels from the airlock, and it was pretty dark. So he’s going down a flooded corridor, and he sees a door to the side open a crack, and then close. It freaks him out for a second, but then he thinks it’s just a current or something. Until the door opens again, and he sees someone peeking out at him.”
Embala looked up at the star-studded blackness around them and shivered. It was all too easy to imagine the normal rules of reality breaking down in that endless void.
“Argus has always been brave, so he goes and opens the door, and of course there’s nothing there. He closes it again, makes sure it’s latched, and moves on without looking back. The whole trip down, though, he keep seeing things out of the corners of his eyes, like there are people moving around him that he can only catch glimpses of.”
“Sounds like his air supply had been doctored.”
Gregg raised an eyebrow at Ariadne, and then shrugged.
“Could have been. But when he got to the matter forge, the dead engineer was just floating there at the console, upright. When Argus touched the course, it was like puppet strings had been cut, and it sank to the floor.”
Embala finished her drink and glanced at Ahmed and Catherine. Both were listening with rapt attention, holding each other’s hands in a white-knuckled grip.
“He found the problem, fixed it, and started breaking down the flood waters. The corpse moved a bit in the currents that made, but nothing more than you’d expect from a dead body under water. They never found out why things went wrong in the first place, or why none of the flood protocols worked.”
“What happened to the ship?” Asked Catherine.
“I don’t know, to be honest. Uncle Argus either didn’t know, or didn’t feel like telling me.”
“Good story, though,” said Lisa. “Who’s next?
They traded wild tales of apparitions and disappearances since the advent of faster-than-light travel. Embala leaned on her elbows, slowly drinking the cordial Eight had poured her, and watching Eagun’s careful operation of the holo-control program he had opened on the table in front of him.
When Gregg had told her that the whole station would be equipped for holo-projection and universal console access, she had been thrilled. The ability to bring projections from home with her had eased her fears for the psychological effect of living in a space station light-years from any inhabited planet.
Looking around the table as Eagun played, she began to see the potential downsides. Most of the crew was just enjoying their drinks, stories, and the holo show, but Anansi was closely watching the control panel, and the glint in his eyes was not comforting. She gulped the rest of her drink and excused herself to find another. She had forgotten that one of her colleagues had chosen to name himself after a trickster god. At some point, the spider Mimic was going to cause trouble.