This is a somewhat revised draft, so there are some inconsistencies with previous chapters. For example, I’ve renamed the “extreme fitness challenge” to the “Atlas Challenge” and other such stuff. The main story hasn’t changed, and there are still some awkward phrases, typos, and some fine details missing. I’ll also be adding additional background for people who haven’t read the Folding Space Series. I’ll publish a new chapter every week. Enjoy!
Warning: To avoid having issues with book retailers when I publish, I will be deleting Chapters One through Eighteen the week before I post the last chapter, which is Chapter Twenty. You have been warned! Read fast!
See Chapter One here.
Q hauled another bag of trash into the cargo bay, gagging at the stench again. She should be used to it, but no. She tossed it up on the growing pile, watching as it teetered, then stayed. Whew. If it tumbled down, it might have broken and made everything worse. Although, that didn’t really seem possible—she was so tired of cleaning. Saree was kind of a taskmaster. But she was right—the shuttle smelled a lot better without all the garbage.
She rolled her eyes at Bonnet’s continuing threats and gratefully closed the airlock hatch behind her, opening the next and trotting to the sani-mod—she wanted to wash her hands in the worst way. “Are we done yet?” Q asked Saree, hating her whining tone but too tired to try and fix it.
“Yes, we’re done,” Saree said with a tired sigh.
“Thank the Mother.” She washed her hands and plopped down in one of the seats. Q checked her alerts—the Valenti net techs found another of her nuisance attacks and shut it down. The time lag had grown to the point where there was little she could do anyway. All she could do was check her few remaining alerts for news of them, and even that was old news by now. Q rubbed her eyes, trying to stay alert.
“Any sign they know we’re here, Q?” Ruhger asked.
Again? She scowled at him. “For the three hundredth time, no. None that I’ve noticed or seen, but there could be notifications going out right now on systems I don’t know about or have never thought about. I don’t know what I don’t know!” Could he make her feel like more of an idiot? She wasn’t an expert; she was still a trainee! She was doing the best she could, but the time lag was making it impossible.
Ruhger sighed and held up a hand. “I’m not trying to insult you. I’m just trying to plan for the worst, assuming I know what the worst is. Which I probably don’t.”
“None of us does.” Saree was trying to play peacemaker, but her fake calm was annoying. She continued, “Look, we’re all frustrated by the lack of control and the waiting. But that’s all we can do. Q, it’s your turn to take a nap. You’re just checking things now, not actively working, so there’s no reason not to. We’ll wake you up if there’s a problem you can fix. But really, at this point, it’s up to fate or the gods or whatever you may or may not believe in.”
That actually made some sense. “Fine.” Q rolled her eyes and lowered her seat back. “But I doubt I’ll be able to.” She was so wired. But she was tired too. Exhausted. She concentrated on her breathing and shut their quiet conversations out.
“Bonnet, get back here! The bugs—you’re not Bonnet! Who in all the suns are you?”
Q blinked up at the guy yelling on the shuttle’s screen. Who was that?
“The new captain,” Ruhger said dryly. “Bonnet tried to double-cross me and now he’s a bit tied up. So… what can I help you with, Engineer Hindenburg? I am an experienced folder captain and pilot.”
Oh, yeah, the engineer on Bonnet’s crew list. He’d been crossed out, so she’d thought he was gone. Maybe it meant Bonnet wanted to get rid of him? Either way, he wasn’t a Blatto. Q’s nose scrunched.
“You… you… you!” Hindenburg stuttered.
“Use your words, Hindenburg.”
He stood up straight and glared. “Fine. If you can get me out of here alive, you can have this bucket of blast and rad.”
“What’s going on?” Ruhger asked.
“The bugs are eating everything. I can hear them chewing through the walls. Literally.” Hindenburg was practically jumping in his seat, looking totally paranoid.
But Q didn’t blame him. If the Blattos were eating the walls… Ew.
“What do they want, other than food?”
“Until they get food, that’s all they want.”
“Do you know what food they prefer?”
“I don’t think it matters, as long as it’s organic. Thank the suns they can’t eat cerimetal.” Sweat ran down Hindenburg’s face. “I think.”
“How about plain plas?” Ruhger asked calmly.
Hindenburg shot an incredulous look at him. “I said they’re eating the walls, didn’t I?”
“So you did. All right.” Ruhger nodded. “Well, we’re currently hiding in a plas transport, so we’ll see if we can’t break one free and bring it along. If we can pressurize it, the plas should lure the Blattos in, then we leave them and the transport behind. Make sense?” Ruhger shot a glance at Saree and then her.
Would that work? Q had no idea. She shrugged.
Hindenburg laughed. He sounded a little crazy. “Sure, why not only steal from Familia but also dump a load of Blattos on them? Guess it’s better than dying.”
Ruhger said, “That’s the spirit. Are the fold generators working?”
Hindenburg looked off to the side for a moment, then back. “Mostly. They’ll get us through some short folds, but they’re overdue for a major overhaul. Clocks aren’t stable.”
“Ah. Don’t worry about that; we’ve got that covered.”
We do? How? Q looked at Ruhger and Saree. They didn’t have anything but the clothes she’d printed for them on Familia’s shuttle.
“You’ve got one of those fancy portable fold clocks?” Hindenburg looked skeptical.
“Something like that.” Ruhger shrugged. “The less you know, the better for you. Anyway, if we can make you safe, will you help us fold out?”
“Did you kill Bonnet?” Hindenburg’s tone was accusatory.
“No. He’s secured with the trash.”
“He’s tricky.” Hindenburg shook his head, then pointed a finger at them. “You keep him and the Blattos away from me and keep the Blattos from eating the entire ship, and you’ve got a deal.”
Q wouldn’t trust this Hindenburg guy with an auto-bev, let alone a folder, but they were stuck with him.
Ruhger said, “Contract terms. You turn all controls, including piloting and comms, over to us upon docking and operate the folder in a safe, secure manner to a series of destinations of our choice. When we reach our final destination, we’ll leave the folder with you.”
“No dead systems! Leave me in a system where I can find a pilot, capisce?”
Uh oh. This guy is Familia! She got up and got in Ruhger’s field of view, mouthing, “No!” at him.
“Understood.” Ruhger shot a look at Q, but she couldn’t read his expression.
Ruhger said, “Agreed. We’ll be there shortly.” He looked at her. “What, Q?”
“Did you recognize him?”
“No.” She scowled at him. “Didn’t you recognize the term he used at the end? Capisce?”
Ruhger shrugged. “Sure; it means, ‘understand’ in Old Earth.”
Q stopped her eye roll—she needed to check the folder comms now. “Familia uses it all the time.”
“Well, it’s either make a deal with this guy or wait for Familia to find us.”
She searched for the messaging system. “That guy is probably messaging them right now!” Hah. Found it.
“Yeah, oh.” Q scowled at Ruhger and flicked off the transmitter. “Hah. Got ya, sand flea! Stopped him from sending by turning off all outgoing comms. Brute force approach, but he might not even notice his message didn’t get out.” She hoped it didn’t get out. What if she didn’t get it turned off in time?
“Good. We can worry about refinements later.” Ruhger nodded at Q.
He appreciated her pointing out his shortcomings? How odd.
Ruhger turned to Saree. “Now, can you break one of these transports off and set it up so we can tow it along?”
“It will be noticed, Ruhger,” Saree told him. “And it’s empty.”
Ruhger chuckled. Q stared at the unusual sound coming from the grim captain.
He continued, “Mostly empty. I’m sure there will be plenty of plas left in the cracks and crevices. More importantly, will it hold pressure, and is there enough air to fill it?”
Saree swiped through screens. “Hmm. I’ll look.”
Q volunteered, “I can break the last transport in line away and set up a link. But we’ll be seen.” A plas transport wasn’t stealthy or small.
“Ah, but it’s part of my plan.” Ruhger looked confident. But he always seemed confident. “Once the orbital controllers start yelling at me, I’ll yell back about how it’s not my fault, I didn’t do it, get it off me. We’ll keep the transport between us and the station, just in case they start shooting. This thing—” he waved a hand around “—is big.”
Well, sure, the plas transport was huge. But it was hollow, and it didn’t have anything but rudimentary asteroid shields. What kind of protection did it offer?
“Good news, Ruhger,” Saree said. “The last transport in the chain isn’t a big bulk transporter. It transports the raw materials for the food printers, so it’s a series of smaller compartments. Each one is designed to hold air for loading—they blow the food powder in, then suck all the air out, then use air to blow the powder back out again.” She looked up with a grin. “Even better, the report on this one says some of the compartments are malfunctioning—the valves are blocked. So, they’re full of food and air.”
Q took the backdoor Saree made—with Q’s worm—and found command and control. Now, which one was the food transport? Ah. Got it.
“Perfect.” Ruhger nodded. “We latch a tube to the folder’s cargo hold, lure all the Blattos out, and leave it all there. The fold to Antlia is short, so this hunk of junk should make it. We leave it and the engineer with Gov Human and get Gov Human to message Lightwave.” Ruhger paused for a moment. “And we negotiate with Gov Human for a protection fleet. It’s just not a secret anymore, Saree.”
Q looked up from her holo. What wasn’t a secret?
Surprisingly, Saree nodded grimly. “You’re right, it’s not. It’s time to stop hiding because if I do, we’ll all lose. We can’t keep hoping for ignorance; it just makes us an easier target.”
Q stared at Saree, bewildered. “Who are you?” And whether Saree had to hide or not, Q still had to. Familia wouldn’t let her go easily.
Ruhger raised a brow at her. “If you really want to know, we’ll tell you when we’re someplace safe. I don’t trust these beings. There’s probably vids all over this shuttle.”
“Good point.” Q nodded her agreement.
“And you’ll be safer not knowing, Q,” Saree said. “Truly, you don’t want this secret.”
She wasn’t sure about that. Secrets got people killed. Q told them about the stupid tattoo, didn’t she?
Ruhger frowned at her. “Unless you’re going to stay on with us. Then, you’ll have to know.”
Q grimaced. “Not sure I want to work with Katryn. She’s a stickler.” All the rules, all the time. Boring.
He huffed. “True. And you’d be working for Tyron and Katryn, not with. Tyron’s lead.”
From what she remembered, Tyron was a good guy. “He’s sexy. I could work for him.” At the look on Ruhger’s face, she snickered to herself.
Saree snorted. “And Katryn’s the jealous type. Don’t even think about it.”
Q kept her eyes from rolling—again. She was just kidding. “Fine. Ruin the fantasy. What about the other guys?” She was trying to remember the crew, but her time on Lightwave was confusing and crowded. It was a long time ago.
Saree laughed. “Chief’s too old for you and probably not interested. Grant will be interested, but not for a long-term relationship.”
Ruhger said, “Grant won’t be interested. He doesn’t mix business and pleasure. If she’s working for us, that’s what it will be, a working relationship.”
Saree considered him. “Loreli?”
Chef Loreli? What about her? Q wasn’t attracted to women, unfortunately. Life would have been easier with the Sisters if she had been. If they weren’t going to become full Sisters, a lot of the older orphans formed relationships.
Ruhger shook his head. “No. We’ve all been friends since we were born, but that’s it.”
Saree nodded. “Makes sense.”
Q told them, “You’re talking around me like some little kid!”
“No, just as beings who have known each other for a while,” Saree said. “We just met you. Be patient.”
How long had Saree flown with Lightwave? Q was sure she wasn’t onboard during the Cygnus Gliese evacuation—Saree stood out too much to miss, even in a crowd of women. Guess it didn’t matter; Q didn’t have any other choices right now. And thinking about choices, she’d better get back to the plas train. She found the correct area of command and control, the release commands for the individual plas pods, and the last one in the line. She looked deeper to be sure. Yes, the last one was a bulk food transport. Then, she got ready to open the hatch of the pod they were currently hiding the shuttle inside.
“And speaking of patient, are we ready to go?” Ruhger asked her.
Q looked up at Ruhger. “I got the transport ready to break away and follow.”
“Okay, let’s do this.” Ruhger nodded at her. “Strap in. Open the transport hatch, and we’ll fly out.”
Q plopped back into a seat and fastened her harness, finding the right control and flipping the hatch to “open,” then went back to the food transport. “Got it. Hatch is open, last transport ready to break away.”
“Good job, Q. Release it now,” Ruhger told her. “Sit back and enjoy the ride. Get a little more shuteye if you can—it’s going to be a long fold when we reach Nebula Wraith.”
Q flipped the transport release switch. “Transport free.” Nice to be appreciated rather than yelled at for not being better or reading a tech’s mind. Q snuggled back into the now-clean chair and closed her eyes. Maybe she could sleep all the way to the folder, maybe all the way out of Valenti. Wouldn’t that be nice?
It would never happen. Still, she was tired. Q dropped into meditation and hoped for sleep to follow.
Did Ruhger really think this would work? Q considered him. Maybe he was too tired to think.
“Okay, Q. Send the message,” Ruhger told her.
“Here goes nothing.” She poked at the translated message, sending it over the speakers of the folder, and shuddered at the weird noises. Yuck. Her view of Cargo Bay One was terrifying, and the rest of the folder worse; the interior was stripped down to the cerimetal. Only the water storage pods in the bulkheads were left.
Meter-long bugs scuttled in on all six legs. Ew. Q shivered and activated the voice distorter for Ruhger.
The first bug stopped before entering the flex tube. “You promised there is air, safety, and food and to take us far from Familia.”
Ruhger said, “There is. I promise.”
The bug stood up and stared at the vid. Q shoved back into her seat and turned the folder’s sound back up. She wanted to check the voice distorter. Although, if it didn’t work, it was too late now.
“If you have betrayed us, our tribe will hunt you down and eat you. It has happened.”
So, the game vids were right! She knew it.
Ruhger said, in a very calm voice, “There is air and food on the transport. Someone will pick it up. I cannot promise what will happen after that. You can go there or starve here.”
All the Blattos hissed. Q shuddered and tried to burrow into her seat.
“We go. You are not a friend of Blatto, Captain Ruhger. Do not look for help from us.”
“Understood.” Ruhger swept off the comms. “How did he know my name?”
Good question. The voice distorter worked. She’d listened. Q shrugged and shook her head.
The Blattos disappeared into the tube. Less than a minute later, the tube disconnected. Thank the Mother they were gone.
Ruhger closed the cargo bay hatch and did something to the fold equations. Adjusting for the plas transport? He said, “Hindenburg, ready for fold?”
The engineer didn’t reply. Q checked the comms—they were all working correctly. Well, marginally, just like everything else on this folder.
“Q, pull up the vid outside engineering.” Ruhger’s tone bothered Q, but she did what he asked.
The hatch to engineering stood wide open. Uh oh. Q had a bad feeling about this.
Saree asked, “Q, can you find Hindenburg?” She started swiping through views on the big shuttle screen, bringing up Engineering.
Q pulled up vids of the crew cabins. There was nothing but cerimetal struts.
Saree took in a sharp breath, and Q looked up to see the view of Engineering zoom in on a pair of boot soles. By the Mother! They ate Hindenburg! Q put a hand over her churning stomach and swallowed hard. Nope. Not working. She was going to be sick. She sprinted to the sani-mod, dropped to her knees, and lost her dinner. The toilet cycled twice. She sat back on her haunches, pretty sure there was nothing left. Thank the Mother they’d cleaned this floor earlier. Q wrapped her arms around her middle.
Ruhger’s voice was barely audible. “…any sign of sabotage, but… it’s fold out or end up back in the hands of Familia.”
“Fold. Fold now. I want off this ship!” came from Saree.
“Fold now!” Q yelled at him. Two to one, they had to try. She wasn’t going back.
“Strap in, Q. Then, we’ll fold,” Ruhger called.
Q jumped to her feet and ran to her seat. No more thinking about—that. She shuddered.
“Fold in five, four, three, two, fold.”
Saree brought up navigation. “Antlia,” she said with a big sigh. “Contacting Laniakea Fleet for instructions on the Blattos and,” Saree paused and glanced back at Q, “further discussions.”
Great, more secrets.
“Might take a while to get the right person since we’re not sending from Lightwave or our personal e-torcs.” Saree snorted. “Guess I should have memorized a few addresses rather than relying on my e-torc.” Saree composed a message and sent it.
Ruhger said, “Thrust in five, four, three, two, thrust. At least the Blattos didn’t eat the fuel.”
“Could they?” Saree grimaced.
“I doubt it, but it is organic, so…”
“Can we stop talking about them?” Q asked, aware she sounded like a whiny little girl, but she really couldn’t take any more.
“Sure. Sorry,” Ruhger said, with a one-shoulder shrug. “I should remember that not everyone has grown up in a military-type environment.”
Really? Q scowled. “The Sisters are close.”
Ruhger laughed. Saree smiled at her. “In some ways, sure. With large numbers of children, discipline is critical to survival. When did you leave Cygnus Secundus?”
Guess they had the time to tell stories now.
“About two standard years ago. They sent me off to a new net school for ‘advanced students,’ thinking I’d be the next Katryn.” Q wrinkled her nose. “Only more grateful. Unfortunately, it was really a feeder for Familia techs. The first year at school…” She slowed. She’d told them she was a year older than she actually was, so she’d add a year to her schooling. “…was great.” Q held back her grimace. “I learned a ton and had a good time.” At least in comparison to Indomito. “The second year, things changed. They told me the Sisters had failed to pay the tuition, and therefore, I owed them three years of service. When I objected and showed them the proof of payment for a year in advance, they said that was for tuition, not room and board and all the fun stuff we’d done. I objected again, telling them I wouldn’t have done all that fun stuff if they’d told me it was extra, and they said it was my fault for not reading the terms and conditions.” She scowled. “Which is a bunch of sand scooter scat because I read every document. They changed the rules halfway through the year and didn’t tell any of us.”
“Classic Familia,” Ruhger muttered.
“They wouldn’t let me message the Sisters, and I know the Sisters’ messages weren’t reaching me. Sister Ani knows there’s something wrong because we had code words and phrases set with a schedule of messages, but I doubt she’s got the time or credits to come look for me. It’s more a warning not to send anyone else.” They had to notice the lack of messages. Or, if the school was faking messages, the lack of code words. “Hopefully, they know what to look for when a new school pops up.”
“You can message them now, Q,” Saree said. “We’ve got the time, and there’s a few credits attached to this folder, so you may as well use them.”
“You don’t need them?” She’d rather not access her accounts yet. Not on this e-torc. She needed some decent net security.
Saree smiled at Q. “No. We shouldn’t, anyway. The Fleet will come pick us up.”
Why would Gov Human military care about Ruhger and Saree? They didn’t care about the entire world of Cygnus Gliese, so why these two people? The only time she’d heard of the Fleet rescuing people was something big, like a sun going supernova or a passenger ship getting attacked by pirates. Or maybe something with rich people on the core worlds. Ruhger and Saree weren’t wealthy people pretending to be poor—Q knew what powerful people were like now. “Who are you?”
Saree looked at Ruhger, and they both laughed. She said, “Nobody. Just a small folder who’s done some favors for Gov Human.”
Right. “Uh-huh. Sure. Fine, don’t tell me.” Thinking about it, she was pretty sure Gov Human didn’t care about Lightwave either. There was something else going on here.
“Message the Sisters, Q, and say hello for us, please,” Ruhger said.
Q frowned at both of them. “Sure.” She’d do it from the bunk room. If they talked about it, then she could listen in.
“Teenagers,” Ruhger huffed behind her.
Saree chuckled. “I guess it’s good practice for me. I’ll need to raise some someday.”
Well, she didn’t need to hear any of that. Q closed the hatch behind her and brought up the shuttle’s message interface. Their code words didn’t really fit this situation, but she didn’t want to put her name in this message, either, because Familia would look for her with the Sisters. Text only was the cheapest and best in this situation. Now, what would a small, decrepit folder like this one want with the Sisters that wouldn’t get the message deleted immediately?
An emergency message alert tolled loudly, and a red light flashed. By the Mother, what was that? Q brought up the emergency alert. Oh, fold orbit assignment. That warranted a “we’re all gonna die” alerter? Yikes. She left the bunk room.
Ruhger said, “Okay, good. Foxtrot is easy enough to reach.” Ruhger brought up navigation on the main shuttle screen. “Tell Q, will you?”
“Tell me what?” Q asked them.
“We’re changing orbits, so sit down,” Ruhger said. “You know how bad the grav generators are on this thing.”
They were terrible. She plopped down. “Where are we going?” She didn’t need to tell them she already knew.
“Fold Hold Foxtrot. Gov Human’s sending a shuttle to pick us up,” Saree told her.
Q hadn’t seen the message about the shuttle. Did it go straight to Saree somehow? “Wow, that was fast.”
“It was.” Saree smiled. “About time something went our way on this trip.”
Ruhger muttered, “Oh, I can think of at least one thing that went our way.”
Q hoped they were referencing her, but they probably weren’t. Typical. Why praise the woman who saved you from Familia over and over? It just wasn’t right. But she was just a kid, so they’d continue to cut her out, keep her in the dark. Q smiled. Well, they could try.
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