“You piece of shit,” I growled, hitting the metallic panel over and over again. A few D’Tali workers stopped to stare at me, but I ignored them, hammering the metal ’til my arms grew tired.
Then I just started kicking it.
Finally, the damn edges of the panel slipped into place with a harsh click, covering a small part of the hull.
“What?” I stared back at the closest D’Tali worker as he arched one eyebrow. “This is what’s called high-level problem solving. This is how you fix things back on Earth.” The worker grinned and opened his mouth, but I shot him down before he could make some dumbass remark. “If you don’t get it, just move along. I’ve got plenty of shit to get done today.”
“Lunatic,” he muttered.
I made a very conscious effort not to throw the wrench at his head. Instead, I grabbed a metal sheet and tried to fit it over the panel I had installed with my patented ‘kicking-it-into-place’ technique.
I was almost done when I heard a loud snort. I glanced over my shoulder to see a numa’s snout poking out over the edge of the crater where the ship sat. Standing, I narrowed my eyes to see past the afternoon glow of a bright, sunny day. Beads of sweat rolled down my face, the heat almost oppressive, and I wiped them off with the sleeve of my overalls.
“Isabella?” I cried out, my voice ringing throughout the crater.
When she first arrived here, she had been one the shyest women in the group, but her personality truly bloomed once she and Vokar became a thing.
Theirs wasn’t a match I had expected to see—after all, Isabella was a brilliant but shy engineer, and Vokar…well, Vokar was Vokar, always moving in the shadows, a thousand daggers hidden inside his cloak or on his body. Still, it was obvious to everyone that they loved each other. Every time they were in a room together, the atmosphere charged up.
I tensed as one second later Isabella climbed down the crater with the help of the tall, purple D’Tali with golden horns who’d been shadowing her in her workshop for weeks.
His gaze fixed on me, a penetrating and disconcerting blend of annoyance, amusement, confusion and something else. He rarely spoke to me, and I mostly ignored him—and the shiver of energy that swept up my arms whenever he wandered a little too close.
I said tall, but it’s not like there were many short D’Tali around. It seemed like these guys had been fed fertilizer for breakfast during childhood. And this one was not only tall, but massive, the kind of shoulders and chest that reminded me of a walking battering ram.
“Have you brought me what I need for that locking mechanism?” I asked.
“I have,” she replied, now standing right beside the ship. I sat at the top of it, right where the sun felt most punishing, which meant that I had to look down at her. “Torvok is bringing it down.”
She pointed at Torvok, and I looked up to see him enlisting the help of two other D’Tali. Using a couple of ropes and wooden beams for support, they were dragging a thick metal block down the crater’s slope.
“That thing isn’t a porcelain cup,” I shouted at the D’Tali hauling it down. “Are you afraid it’s gonna break, or what? Hurry up!”
Torvok shot me an annoyed glance but didn’t say a thing. He continued leading his slow-ass procession down the crater’s slope, driving me crazy in the process.
“Don’t rush them, Amber,” Isabella said as I climbed down the side of the ship. “What matters is that the piece is already here.”
“And thank God for that.” I wiped the sweat off my face once more, but all I managed to do was get a smudge of grease on my cheek. Oh, well. “I’ve tried opening those damn doors in every imaginable way, and I’m dying to see what might be inside that cargo bay. I really hope that this thing is gonna work.”
“It’ll work,” Isabella said, stepping aside as the D’Tali finally closed in on the ship’s ramp entrance. “The coding mechanism was damaged, which kicked the security locks into place, but with this bypass—”
“Yeah, yeah.” I waved her down, not really interested in the details. Isabella was a genius at what she did, but I wasn’t a fan of going theory-crazy like she did whenever I asked her a question. I was all about making things happen via sheer intuition.
Of course, that didn’t mean I was clueless about my job.
In fact, it was just the opposite.
I’d spent my childhood inside my pop’s garage rebuilding classic cars, and I had been pretty damn good at it. Sure, now I was rebuilding a massive starship, but there wasn’t that much of a difference. I figured that a spaceship was just a mountain-sized version of a 1965 Shelby GT 350, and it didn’t hurt that my methods worked more often than not. That’s why Isabella had placed me here.
“Where to?” Torvok asked Isabella, straightening his back.
His muscles rippled under his shirt, making his forearms seem like tree trunks. He also had a soldier’s sharp jawline, but something about him told me that he wasn’t a warrior. Not that he wouldn’t be able to fight—with muscles like that, he’d be able to punch through a brick wall. His body, though, seemed to have been shaped by something more practical than war.
“Come with me,” I barked at him, leading the way up the ramp. Isabella trailed after me. Soon enough, the grunts of the D’Tali filled the vast hallways of the ship. Shaking my head, I grabbed a heavy-duty dolly and walked toward them. “For God’s sake, put it on here. If you keep pushing it like that, this is going to take ages.”
The D’Tali did as I told them, but Torvok shot me another annoyed glance. “Can you speak softly?” he grumbled, clearly annoyed.
I folded my arms over my chest and stared him down. What, was I too loud and bossy for him? “This is who I am. Got a problem with that?”
“Just my luck,” he muttered under his breath.
I was already cocking my arm back, ready to send a wrench on a collision course with his head, when I felt Isabella lay her hand on my arm.
“Remember, Torvok is our best blacksmith,” she said, her voice dipping into a whisper so that he wouldn’t hear us. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff he’s capable of doing. I don’t understand why you two don’t get along better.”
“Yeah,” I said with a sour laugh, “right.”
I wasn’t known as the gal that got along with people easily and, besides, I hadn’t gotten started on the right foot with this Torvok guy. We were complete opposites. But whatever. It’s not like I was particularly worried about being liked.
Once the metal block Isabella had built was on top of the dolly, I started pushing it through the maze of hallways, leading the entire group to the cargo bay. The massive doors rose in front of us, taunting me, and I stared at them with unbridled fury. It was time this obstacle was crushed into oblivion.
“Now what?” Torvok asked, hands on his hips as he looked from the doors to the piece. Eventually, he found the large hole in the wall, right next to the doors. “Is that where it’s supposed to go?”
“Yeah,” I replied, surprised. “That’s exactly where it’s supposed to go.” We unloaded the piece and, side-by-side, pushed it into position. Once it filled the hole in the wall, I connected the ship’s wiring to it. I immediately heard an electric crackle. “Oh, that sounds promising.”
“There’s a current going through here,” I said, tapping the metal block. “That means there’s a chance this is going to work. The locking mechanism for the cargo bay was pretty banged up, but I think this is gonna solve it.”
I spun around, making a straight line toward the electrical panel on the side. The cover slid aside with the push of a button. It revealed a tangled mess of wires and connectors, but I didn’t hesitate.
I reconnected the wires, then punched the large red button mounted beside the doors. There was a whooshing sound, and the hydraulics started hissing furiously. Just a couple of seconds later, the gigantic doors slid aside, tucking themselves inside a hidden partition within the wall.
“Now this is what I’m talking about,” I exclaimed, a wave of excitement washing over me. Without thinking, I pulled Isabella into me and hugged her tightly. “You, my friend, are a goddamn genius.”
“Let’s check it out,” Isabella said, chuckling as she tilted her chin toward the massive cargo bay. I nodded and strolled inside the large room we had just unlocked. Dim lights flickered overhead, revealing mountains of crates covered in dust.
“I figure there’s at least three hundred of them,” I said, doing a quick count. They were of different sizes and shapes. With some luck, they would all contain things which would make life easier here. Or, even better, things that would help us rebuild the ship even faster.
“I think this might be where the cargo manifest is stored,” I heard Isabella say, and I looked at her, to see her messing with a wall-mounted display. She continued speaking but, once I noticed what was behind her, I stopped hearing.
“Holy shit,” I muttered, unable to believe my eyes. “Is that a…?”
I rushed past Isabella, Torvok, and the other D’Tali, toward the far end of the cargo bay and halted, marveling at the vehicle someone had stored there. It reminded me of a futuristic hovercraft from an old science fiction movie, except this one was real. It appeared to have a cockpit, with engines located underneath the—
“Amber, I’m gonna need you to do an inventory,” Isabella said, laying a hand on my shoulder. “It’s important that we—”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said absently. “Paperwork. Great.”
How could I listen to her?
I enjoyed the process of working in a massive spaceship, but now I had an opportunity to do something I hadn’t done in years. I was gonna tinker with this thing until its engines purred like kittens. Then, I was gonna sit behind the controls and… well, I was gonna drive the hell out of it.
I was in hog heaven.
But first… I’d made a promise to Isabella, and I should get that done first.
I wondered what was in all those crates. I walked over to some shelves along one wall of the cargo bay.
I will have to investigate this stuff if I’m going to give Isabella her inventory list… don’t lie to yourself, Amber, you know you just want to snoop.
Okay, that too.
So, I started snooping, starting with the shelves in the back. I inspected some of the crates, trying to decide which I wanted to open first. Several of them had display panels with different settings.
Wish I could read that. Maybe some of these crates are temperature controlled. That would make sense for smugglers.
I dragged a large crate from the bottom of the shelves so I could reach the smaller ones packed at the top.
Might as well, I’d need help with the larger crates and I wasn’t ready to get anyone else involved. I pulled a medium-sized one over, opening it like a Christmas present. I missed Christmas presents.
I pushed that thought to the side and focused on the here and now.
A glow poured from the crate as I lifted the lid. My eyes went wide as I saw more power crystals carefully packed into it.
Isabella was going to love this! I closed it so I wouldn’t damage them before I could give them to Isabella, placing the crate next to my legs.
I quickly scanned the shelf, looking for the next to explore. This was better than finding a suitcase of money under a floorboard!
A smaller, bright orange crate caught my eye.
Wonder what’s in there…
I pulled it to the edge, trying to be careful. This one was pretty high up. Maybe I should find another crate to step on.
I hefted a sturdy-looking crate onto the large one under my feet. I stepped atop it, used the extra six inches of height to get my fingers on the orange crate, and worked it to the edge of the shelf.
What’s even in this? Seems heavy for something so small. I pulled.
The orange one came down—and brought another with it. I tumbled off my impromptu ladder with a resounding crash and found myself on my back on the cargo bay’s floor, the orange crate cradled in my arms.
I looked over to the crate the orange one had dislodged. It looked like that one was damaged in the fall. It hung open, filled with vials filled with something fuchsia. One of the vials lay shattered on the floor near my head.
Damn, Amber, you did it this time.
Well, I didn’t know what was in it, but, at least, I didn’t break all of whatever it was.
The broken vial’s fuchsia filling lay near my face.
Then the fuchsia thing twitched.
No. That’s creepy. Is it… alive?!
It uncurled, waving what looked like tiny legs attached to the circumference of its segments.
I tried to push the heavy orange crate off me so I could get away from the little creature, but it was really awkward. Before I could get distance between me and the critter, it crawled right for me.
Hell! That thing was moving fast!
I squealed as it crawled up my head and—into my ear.
I picked up the welding torch and handed it to Isabella. As many times as I’d used that particular tool, I still marveled over it. A portable flame! Incredible heat, the kind I would usually need to build a forge to achieve, at my fingertips. Truly a small marvel.
Isabella had chosen me to assist her because of my talents, but I still had a lot of catching up to do. Despite that, I was proud of how much I had learned about human and Skarg technology. Before the humans had arrived, I was just another blacksmith, but now I had an opportunity to tinker with godlike technology.
“Oh, drat.” Isabella sighed, holding the unlit torch but making no move to use it. She ran her fingers over a spot on the ship’s hull.
“Is there a problem, Lady Isabella?” I stepped closer and looked at the area myself.
Whatever she’d been about to say was cut off by a burst of sound near the rear of the ship. Rattling, clanging, and a loud whirring noise. Isabella and I exchanged looks and began to run toward the commotion.
Before we rounded the corner of the hallway, the source became clear. It was the thing Amber had called a ‘transport’ that we’d discovered within the cargo bay. The huge gray shape careened into view, its back-end flailing like mad.
“Oh my god!” Isabella shrieked and sped up. “What is going on?”
I gaped. I’d never seen anything like the sight in front of me. The hunk of metal was larger than several small D’Tali dwellings put together, yet it hovered off the ground—and moved! Despite its massive size, the vehicle was faster than any numa. I couldn’t believe it.
The transport veered towards us, that deep whirring intensifying as it neared our position. I caught up to Isabella and grabbed her, pulling her flat against the wall. We pressed ourselves back as the transport whooshed by us. We couldn’t relax our guard yet, though. The thing turned away from the wall, backed up, turned again, and backed up more.
Isabella sucked in a breath as the back of the transport almost crashed into the hull of the ship. It skimmed mere inches from the curved metal, to our great relief. That would’ve been a breach that would take weeks to patch up, and who knew what internal mechanisms might have been harmed by such a collision.
The transport finished its many-pointed turn and shot back the way it had come. Zooming past us, it headed back down to the central work site. Isabella pushed herself away from the wall and chased after the vehicle.
I gulped. If something happened to her, Vokar would kill me. I ran after the assassin’s mate, hoping to keep her out of harm’s way.
We rushed past the thrusters and into the main clearing, right as the end of the transport clipped a stack of crates. They made a tremendous clatter as they fell and scattered, thankfully all of them revealed as empty.
“Is that… Amber in there?” Isabella pointed at the wedge-shaped front of the transport.
To my horror, I saw what she meant. A blonde head glinted behind the transparent window. As the thing rocketed past us in a wide arc, I caught a clearer glimpse inside.
Amber was laughing. That crazy female was being beyond reckless and enjoying it to the hilt. What was she thinking? I kept myself from cursing in front of Isabella, but only barely.
Amber was mad.
Every time I saw her, I didn’t know what to think. But something deep inside me felt like it knew what it wanted to do.
As I said. Mad.
The triangular front of the transport suddenly detached. Connected to the boxy body only by a hinge on one side, it swiveled so it was almost flush against itself. Both the back end of the vehicle and the driver’s window were now facing Isabella and me.
Then, the rectangular second part swung slowly around on that hinge, until it reattached to the wedge with Amber in it. The vehicle had accomplished a complete turnabout much quicker than it had with the many-step turn we’d seen a few moments ago.
My mind wanted to be impressed by the neatness of that turning mechanism, but my thoughts were too filled by panic. The transport hurtled directly at us. All I could see was Amber sitting in the driver’s seat, glowing with maniacal glee.
We were going to die, crushed by an insane human female at the helm of an impossible invention.
I put Isabella behind me, despite being aware of the futility of the gesture. As I tried to accept my fate, a high squealing noise filled my ears.
Somehow, the transport came to a miraculous stop, mere feet in front of us. It shuddered as it halted, and a side door in the wedged front popped open. Amber leaned out of it, waving happily.
“How cool is this thing?” she shouted down, a wide grin on her face. “I’m naming him Rover!”
I leaped down from Rover’s cockpit. Beaming with pride, I headed for Isabella and Torvok. He looked a little like he might barf on me.
Why would he be nauseous? I asked myself. Nobody gets motion sick from watching someone else drive a car.
“Look what I did!” I bounced up to Isabella, pointing back at Rover. “He’s ready to go! He was in greatshape, fixing him up barely took any time at all.”
Looking a bit dazed, Isabella didn’t respond. I figured she needed a minute to take in the fact that we now had a high-speed ground vessel. It was a game changer, for sure.
Torvok, on the other hand, had gone from looking queasy to looking horrified. If his skin wasn’t purple, I’d bet his cheeks would’ve been red, which was confusing. What did he have to be upset about?
“Why… were you driving around so much?” asked Isabella, her voice faint.
“I was working out the kinks on how to maneuver it.” I shrugged. “I’ve always been a learn-by-doing kind of girl.”
“Ah.” Isabella’s eyes were still wide.
“Isn’t that turning trick cool?” I grinned, remembering the moment I figured out Rover could do something so fancy. “That hinge mechanism is way more efficient than a three-point turn. Smugglers get the best toys!”
Neither Isabella nor Torvok responded, even though they’d been right there when I gave the hinge a try. Giving them both up as a lost cause, I headed for the cargo bay. Most people didn’t have my enthusiasm for cars—or hover vehicles, clearly. I was used to it.
“Were you not aware of how dangerous a situation you put us in?” called Torvok from behind me.
“You weren’t in danger,” I shouted back over my shoulder. “I’m a terrific pilot, I was in control the entire time.”
Well, except for the little matter of the pile of crates, I amended silently. That was an accident, but Grumpvok over there doesn’t need to know that.
The D’Tali in question was still sputtering in frustration when I dragged the crate I wanted over to them. Isabella’s gaze kept darting between me and Rover. She opened her mouth, then closed it. Opened it again and sighed instead of saying anything.
I decided whenever she figured out what she wanted to tell me, she would. Until then, I had something to show her. I was about to make Isabella very happy.
“Check it out!” I pried off the top of the crate, which I’d loosely reattached for protection once I’d seen the contents. Then I removed the top layer of cushioning. “Power crystals!”
Isabella blinked at me and looked down.
“Oh my god! Amber! This is amazing!” She knelt, staring at the gleaming spheres.
There were three of them, nestled in individual cradles. The material around them was soft, yet molded to make for secure packaging. For all their ickiness, the Skarg had done a good job with this crate. I was impressed that all three globes were intact, despite two crash landings.
Isabella picked up one of the power crystals and examined it.
“I can’t believe you found so many of them,” she murmured. “This is an incredible discovery.”
“It makes sense, actually,” I told her. “If the ship needed a power crystal to work, there’s no way they’d only have one. It’s common sense to have some back-ups for a part that important. I’ve been wondering if we’d find a stash like this.”
“Well, it’s quite unexpected for me!” Isabella replaced the power crystal in its nest and stood, her face animated. “This one crate changes everything. So many of our problems just got solved. What else did you find?”
“I haven’t completed a full inventory yet,” I admitted. “It’s a little difficult to identify everything. Oh! There are a few more things I think you’ll like, though, hang on.”
I dashed back into the dark cargo bay. Surveying the assorted contents, I tried to remember where I’d put everything.
Why is it that I never forget where a single bolt goes in an engine, but lose track of everything else? I wondered, looking at the mess I’d created. Because engines make sense, when not much else does. Especially now that I’m on this alien planet.
My eyes found what I was searching for—a small crate crushed on one side. I went to drag it out, but when I turned back towards the entrance, I saw Isabella and Torvok had followed me inside the ship.
“Come here!” I waved them over. Well, I waved Isabella over, and Torvok followed like a dopey puppy, a cute, but cranky, overly serious puppy.
“What are those?” Isabella peered into the crate.
“Translator bugs!” I plucked out one of the vials and held it out to her.
Gingerly, she took it from me. Lifting it so the light was behind the glass tube, she squeaked. A fuchsia worm with thin tendrils wriggled in the container.
“A parasite?” Torvok drew closer, staring at the segmented shape. “Why would the Skarg carry around parasites?”
“They’re not parasites,” I said, then paused. “Well, they aren’t just parasites. They’re translator bugs, and they work great!”
“What do you mean, they work great?” Isabella lowered the vial. “Amber, did you open one of these up?”
“No! Well, not on purpose. I was crawling around in here, and I knocked over this crate. It had obviously already been damaged in the crash, so when it hit the deck one of these babies popped right out. It shattered—see that mess over there—and a bug crawled right in my ear.”
Once again, both Isabella and Torvok were speechless, gawping at me like I’d just sprouted a new head.
“Never want to do that again,” I shuddered, remembering the bizarre slippery feeling of all those cilia slithering into my ear canal.
“Amber,” breathed Isabella. “You have got to be more careful. What if it had hurt you? Or worse!”
“I didn’t mean to let it in my brain! But I survived! I’m right here!” I tapped my temple. “And now I can read more of the labels on this stuff. Cool, right?”
“That may not be the only effect,” she warned.
“I’m pretty sure it is.” I bent back over the crate and produced the universal instruction manual I’d found—of course, after one of the little buggers had already made me its new home.
“Are those diagrams?” asked Torvok, sounding interested.
“See for yourself.” I held the slim pamphlet out to him.
The D’Tali took it, arranging himself so Isabella could see too. I knew what they were looking at and wondered if they’d find it as instructive, yet hilarious, as I did.
The pamphlet depicted two sad-faced aliens—one with tentacles and one with antenna—trying to talk to each other. Their speech bubbles were filled with scratches and scribbles. In the next panel, antenna-alien was shown sticking a translator bug up its nose. That sounded even worse to me than my ear entry method.
The final panel was the clincher. Post-translator bug, the two aliens had happy faces. Their speech bubbles were filled with small drawings of recognizable things, like a sun, a flame, a spaceship, and inexplicably, a fish.
Do the D’Tali have fish around here? I pursued my lips in thought. I hadn’t seen any.
“I guess this explains that those critters were meant for this purpose,” said Isabella, hesitantly.
“The diagrams are remarkably clear,” agreed Torvok.
“I’d call them cartoons, not diagrams, but whatever!” I rummaged through more crates, looking for the second coolest thing I’d found.
“I do not know this word ‘cartoons’,” Torvok said.
“Simplistic drawings,” Isabella told him. “Don’t worry about it, they’re an Earth thing.”
“So, after the translator bug, I could read what these are!” I hefted the crate of personal communication devices I’d found. I dropped it gently down on another pile so that the contents would be waist-high.
“They look like big coins.” Isabella picked one up. “But are those buttons?”
“Yep! It’s a personal communication device, according to the manifest I found… where did I put that?” I decided to look later. “That light shows you when someone wants to talk to you. You press this button to respond voice only, and this one to open up holographic communications. That third one sends what’s essentially a “call me back later” response. Oh, right, and if you get one of those when trying to contact someone, this other light will come on.”
Torvok and Isabella gaped at me.
“How do you know all that already?” Torvok looked bewildered. It was kind of a cute expression.
“I told you! Translator bug means I can read everything, including instructions. Plus, I tested two of them already.”
Finally, Isabella looked appropriately excited. I was glad to see a grin on her face, and hoped she’d gotten over her anxiety regarding all these alien creations.
“These are amazing discoveries. I had no idea the cargo in this thing would be so useful!” She tossed me a communication device and took another for herself. “What else did you find?”
“Mmm, over here—or maybe over there?—I found some crates of what seem to be medical supplies. They’re a little confusing, though, and don’t have clear instructions. Aliens all have different physiologies, which makes it hard, I guess. One of them—”
“Excuse me! Lady Isabella?” A new voice echoed into the cargo bay.
“I’m over here, Gorvo!” Isabella waved and I flicked on my light. It was pretty dim in here after the sunny outside.
A blue-skinned D’Tali picked his way through the maze of crates. Isabella began heading in his direction, moving faster. They reached each other, and I heard the D’Tali say something I couldn’t quite catch.
Isabella’s response, though, I caught clear as a bell. She stepped back, looking appalled.
“What do you mean, we’re out of metal?”