Chapter 2- First Steps With The Stewards

Just Outside Earth Orbit

"OK, showtime." Daniel rubbed his hands together excitedly. "Is it bad that I'm really excited about this?"

"I don't think so, no." replied Yan Jia. "I'm a little surprised that you are not more apprehensive, though."

"Why?" asked Dan, genuinely confused.

Heinlein looked at the young man in disbelief. "You do know how Steward FTL works, right?"

"They use an Al... cube something?"

"Alcubierre drive. They somehow bend space so that we travel locally at sublight speeds, but relative to solar bodies we travel faster than physics allow for." Heinlein raised an eyebrow. "Ringing any bells?"

"Yeah, I remember the wave diagram. Why would this make me apprehensive?"

"They're bending space all around us. You don't see how that would be... dangerous?" Yan Jia frowned a little.

"Hey, it sounds a lot safer than some of the FTL ideas in the scifi I read." Daniel shrugged. "We're not getting broken down into component molecules or switching over to another dimension or anything weird like that. The Stewards are just bending the rules. Literally."

Heinlein rolled his eyes. "Well then. What do you figure it's going to look like?"

"How do you mean?" asked Yan Jia.

"Well, you know, in Star Wars the stars stretch out, all that kind of stuff. What do you think it'll look like?"

Daniel looked around appreciatively. "I think we've got about the best seats for it, whatever it ends up looking like."

Daniel was correct. The humans stood in an observation deck approximately the same size as a football field. From the outside the deck looked like a small peak of ice. From the inside the ice was clear, supported by long spikes of rock. A three inch deep pool of too-blue water rippled near the back of the room, covering up the exit ramp. If the observation deck was somehow depressurized, the pool of water would suddenly become a solid sheet of ice that would prevent further depressurization.

A deep humming noise announced the beginning of FTL travel. Around the nose of the ship, the stars began to look hazy, their specs of light turning into into dizzying swirls. Turning to either side, the humans realized that the stars seemed somehow closer together, and more tightly defined.

"Well this is a little disconcerting," commented Heinlein. "I guess I didn't expect bending space to be so... literal."

"It's like the nacelles really are pinching the space around us." Daniel squinted at the swirling light in front of them. "I think I remember something about having to project a stabilizing field directly in front of the ship, which must be where the light show comes from. Or maybe that was a Star Trek episode."

Yan Jia suppressed a barking laugh. "Only you, Daniel, would get Star Trek trivia mixed up with firsthand experience with faster than light travel."

"Are we already going faster than light?" Daniel glanced backwards at the rapidly diminishing spec that was Earth. "I know this ship is fast, but that's quite an acceleration if we're already going that fast."

"Maybe the Stewards are showing off." Heinlein chewed his lower lip while gazing at the rippling lights. "The Navigator was telling me that this ship can travel at over 500 light-somethings."

"Something similar to a light-hour of distance per hour, if I understood the translation correctly. Their units of time are pretty different than ours." Remarked Yan Jia. "Their closest unit of time to an hour is about 110 minutes, as I recall, I could have easily misunderstood what the Navigator was trying to say."

"Yeah, the Argon unit of time." Heinlein smiled in amusement. "I have to admit, using the half-life of an element does make good sense for a space-faring species. I'm glad they're not still using the day-night cycle from their homeworld, the numbers would have been completely random."

"Using Gold as a unit of time is going to be confusing though." Daniel stuck his tongue out a little to express his exasperation.

"Didn't you know?" Yan Jia tapped the communicator she wore on her belt. "You can reconfigure your translator program to use the Latin word Aurum instead of Gold."

"Really?" Daniel pulled his comm out of his pocket and unlocked the screen. "This thing has so many more options than my old phone, I don't even know where to start."

"Your old phone sucked," commented Heinlein. "These things aren't that different from a normal smartphone, the Stewards just changed out a handful of components to extend their functionality. A replacement GPS without the satellites, a tiny black chip dedicated to providing translations, and a modified wifi setup."

"Touche," replied Daniel. "Still, I kinda wished I had more time to play with this back on Earth."

"Even with Steward technology severely limited and adapted to our tech, you know that they weren't going to let it out of their sight while we were on Earth." Observed Yan Jia. "Come on, we should eat something before we rendezvous above Jupiter, the Captain said that we'll only be there for a short while, and I don't want to be thinking about food while I'm in orbit of the largest planet in our solar system."

"Sounds good to me," said Daniel, already heading towards the exit. "Are you offering to cook?"

The only reply was silence and arched eyebrows.

Later that Evening

"Wow. Look at that one." Daniel pointed through the window of the dining area.

"Which one?" asked Heinlein, peering over Daniel's shoulder.

"The one with the lances coming from the front." Daniel waggled his finger up and down. "Looks like a dead volcano."

"It is a dead volcano." Yan Jia pulled a water bladder out of a locker. "They built their warships from the cones in hopes of giving potential enemies pause."

"Ha, I can see why. That thing looks like it means business." Daniel turned away from the window. "But I thought that war was an alien concept to the Stewards?"

"Warship is the wrong word." mused Heinlein as he leaned on the window. "Defender would be more accurate."

"It's built to fight hostile alien species." Yan Jia raised an eyebrow. "Species like us, if we were more advanced."

"I don't think so," mumbled Daniel from around his protein bar. "I think that the... Defender-type ships were made to deal with something they haven't told us about yet."

"Like what?" asked Heinlein.

"Well, remember how the Stewards mentioned other intelligent species when they first came to Earth?" Daniel gestured with his snack. "We've heard next to nothing more about them, even when we've asked them directly. The Stewards have been very hesitant to discuss them."

"You think there's bad blood?" Yan Jia rolled the water bladder back and forth in her hands, genuinely interested in what Daniel might have found out.

"I think that the other species are more dangerous than the Stewards have let on. They make it sound like we're the most violent sentient species ever, but I'm betting that everyone who makes it into space has some skeletons in the closet."

"They've named them before. The Ring and The Droplets of Truth." Heinlein turned away from the window and grinned a bit. "Don't exactly sound threatening."

"The Stewards said they're in a culture race." Yan Jia shrugged. "Maybe that's the Steward way of describing a cold war."

"Maybe." Daniel crumpled his wrapper up and stuck it in his back pocket. "But they said we'd be staying in their territory, so I doubt we'll get to meet these other species."

"Maybe, maybe not." Heinlein turned back to the window. "Still, I'd very much like to know what our hosts are picking up from these ships. Whatever it is, they clearly didn't feel comfortable having it on board when they were in orbit of Earth."

"Possibly something we would find offensive?" Yan Jia started walking towards the ladder to the personal quarters. "We've been warned that Steward values differ from human values. They think eating is a highly personal activity, after all."

Heinlein paused to consider. "No, it doesn't add up. This ship is too big, they'd be able to hide an entire ghost town in here and we wouldn't know about it."

"A ghost town?" Daniel looked at Heinlein quizzically.

"First big thing that jumped into my head." Heinlein waved his hand dismissively. "My point is, it's probably not something they're embarrassed by. It's something they don't want us to get our hands on, no matter how unlikely."

"Well, you boys enjoy daydreaming about alien missiles or whatever." Yan Jia put her hand on the ladder with finality. "I'm going to check that the FTL jump didn't mess with anything in my quarters."

The two men looked at each other and shrugged in unison as Yan Jia disappeared up the ladder.

On the Bridge

"Orbits are matched, we'll be in docking range in six hundred blinks." The Navigator minimized several holograms into tiny balls of light. "Should I inform the humans?"

"Let them see it for themselves, without our input this one time." The Captain did not look up from a hologram drifting in front of her. "Only the one called Heinlein has seen one of our ships dock before. I believe it will prove interesting to the others."

"The one called Daniel certainly seems enthusiastic." The Navigator grinned, in the Steward way: by straightening the fibers on either side of his spine. "I think I will like him, his energy is infectious."

"I don't think the rest of the crew share your view." Commented the Captain wryly.

"I don't think the Lookout has never been enthusiastic in his life." The Navigator shook his head in mock despair, a gesture which (against astronomical odds) was shared with humans. "As for the Hornless... well, I doubt he would have cared for any of the humans, even before."

The Captain blinked her inner eyelids slowly, the Steward equivalent of shrugging. "Perhaps. We'll see how they react to the rigors of deep space."

"Are you looking forward to it as much as I am?"

"I doubt that is possible." The Captain sighed to herself. "I still can't believe I agreed to this plan. The fact that we're here, preparing to arm this ship with cannons, still hasn't quite sunk in."

The Navigator grinned again. "Kind of ironic, don't you think? Loading us down with devices that our very own Hornless was arrested for building."

The Captain glared at the Navigator with both of her forward eyes. "His offence was not in the building, you know that."


The Captain looked back at her displays for a silent moment, and then glanced back at the Navigator. "Don't bring up the Hornless' history with the humans. I'm not even sure how to broach the subject of how he got that way, much less why."

"Why not just tell them the truth?" asked the Navigator, studiously keeping his eyes on his own holograms.

"They don't have Hornless on their world." The Captain huffed strongly through all four nostrils. "They confine their lawbreakers to small spaces for lengthy periods of time."

The Navigator looked up in horror. "What do you mean?"

"It varies depending on their location, but generally the more serious the offense, the lengthier the period they are confined to a small room." The Captain paused. "To the humans, this is the natural way to deal with unlawful behaviour."

The Navigator shook himself rigorously, trying to ease his lingering discomfort. "I supposed the idea is to be preventative? Threaten each other with this... tortuous concept, to prevent them from breaking the law in the first place?"

"I suppose." The Captain pulled up a hologram showing the docking configuration they would need. "Start the docking adjustments, I'm going down to the primary port airlock."

"Aye aye, reconfiguration initialized." The Navigator shot the Captain an apprehensive look. "Let's hope the lawbreaker thing doesn't become an issue."

"You have the bridge. And remember, it's not our place to judge their justice system." As the Captain left the bridge she muttered to herself, "Here's hoping they won't judge ours."

Several Days Later

"Whatcha doing, Dan?" asked Yan Jia as she walked into the dining area.

"Oh, you know." Daniel leaned back from his laptop and rubbed his eyes. "Reading up on this ship. Did you know that this is actually a Generation Two ship?"

Yan unlocked a cabinet and started sifting through the colorful boxes inside, looking for something to eat. "I thought that we humans were going to be on the simplest, oldest ships, to lessen the risk of us trying to hijack one and start a war?"

"Apparently simplest does not correlate to oldest for the Stewards. They really value simplicity in design, sometimes even deliberately redesigning things to look more crude-looking but ultimately elegant." Daniel waved generally towards the door that would lead to the inside of the Concord. "Certainly explains why half their stuff looks like it's carved out of granite."

"So this ship is actually redesigned to be simpler?" Yan Jia pondered a box of crackers. "I try not to think this way, but sometimes the Stewards seem so backwards."

"Well, it's like this." Daniel scooted forwards in his chair, his trademark enthusiasm flaring up. "You know how the AK-47 is one of the most popular guns in the world?"

"Yeah, because of it's so durable." Briefly Yan Jia considered mentioning her own personal experiences with AK-47s. The thought was quickly discarded.

"It's because they're simple. The design is easy to clean and maintain. The same principle applies with this ship."

Yan Jia lifted an eyebrow. "This interstellar spaceship is like an AK. Dan, you're slipping on us."

Dan closed his eyes and bowed his head in mock defeat. "Ok, the similarities don't stick around for long, but you get the idea. The Stewards designed the Gen Two ships to be hardier than the Gen One ships, largely so that they could be maintained by automated repair systems."

"What automated repair systems? I haven't seen anything getting fixed." Yan Jia frowned as she sat down beside Dan at the metal table. "I've been all over the ship and I haven't seen a single open panel or anything."

"Ah, but have you seen... this?" Daniel pulled up a picture on his laptop. What looked like a stretched hexagon of rock sat on the floor, with the top face covered in glowing ice. The entire thing was almost the size and propotions of a twin bed mattress.

"Yeah, I see those on the walls sometimes. Always wonder why they aren't on the ceiling, like how we do ceiling lights."

"That... is the underside of an automated repair drone. Underneath it is an open panel which it is working on." Dan grinned widely. "How cool is that."

"No way. What does the top side look like?" Yan Jia leaned closer to the laptop, trying to see more detail.

"You're gonna love this." Daniel pulled up a very different picture. "What do you think?"

Yan Jia tried not to laugh. The top of the rock slab was covered by what looked like really tall grass, curving six or so feet into the air. "It looks like a green wave. I keep looking for a tiny surfer."

Daniel snorted. "Haha, you're right." He reached over and pulled up a different picture. "There, that's not as silly looking."

"How do they actually effect repairs? Are there tools hidden in there?" asked Yan Jia, regaining her composure.

"Yeah, apparently they have a whole bunch of cool little things in there, but the bulk of the repairs are actually performed by the little green tendrils. They're apparently a cousin plant to the ones growing on the Stewards."

"Like, chimp kind of cousins?"

"Uhm, more like lemurs." Daniel made a curious sideways gesture with his hands. "Same order, different family."

"How do you know that kind of stuff?"

"I like reading."

"Can't argue with that." Yan Jia returned her attention to her snack. "So we were talking about this being a Generation Two ship."

"Oh yeah!" Daniel switched back to the text he had pulled up earlier. "So, the first generation of ships the Stewards made were built with evacuation in mind. They wanted to get their most densely populated mountains into the air as safely as possible, along with the most culturally significant mountains."

"Ok, I'm with you."

"This took years, decades of work, but once they had pulled it off, they quickly realized that they needed a batch of ships with a totally different focus." Dan paused for dramatic effect.

"They needed a front line."

Daniel tried not to pout, his dramatic reveal undone. "Yeah, how did you know?"

"They made a bunch of civilian ships and then didn't know where to send them. Of course they were going to need military ships."

"Well, not military per say, that's an alien concept to them." Daniel made a chopping gesture in the air. "They made the second generation of ships to be explorers. They made them simpler but more durable, easier to repair and maintain. Gen Two isn't as fast, and it isn't as maneuverable, but it is much tougher and can apparently dish out a beating."

"We'll see about the dishing out. I can't really picture the Stewards designing very effective weapons." Yan Jia stood up, her snack meticulously devoured.

"I dunno. Like you said, we're on an interstellar spaceship. They've got to have something on here that can defend them."

Outside of the Bridge

Daniel sighed deeply. "Fold."

Heinlein smiled and shook his head. "Jesus Daniel, you're awful at poker."

"So everyone tells me," Daniel replied as he gathered the cards into a pile. "Wait, that's all you had?"

Heinlein shrugged noncommittally. "You didn't have anything better. Your face is too expressive."

"My dad always used to say that." Daniel glanced over Heinlein's shoulder as he shuffled the cards. "Oh, hello Navigator."

"Daniel Baldwin, Colonel Heinlein." The Navigator greeted them melodically, though to a Steward the salutation would have sounded rushed. "Not to be rude, but can I ask what you are doing?"

"This cliff seemed like a good place to hang out for a bit." Heinlein gestured at the breathtaking rift in front of them. "Daniel brought some cards to play."

"Cards?" the Navigator asked, confused.

"Oh, uh..." Heinlein glanced at Daniel for backup. "They're pieces of paper that, uh..."

"Each piece of paper has two distinct markings on just one side." Daniel supplied. "There's fifty-two combinations of markings, and so cards come in sets of fifty-two. Because of the number of combinations, and because the cards are unmarked on one side, it's easy to construct games using the cards as game pieces."

"Those... 'cards' seem to be marked on both sides," noted the Navigator. "Have you modified your cards somehow?"

"Well, most cards come with a design on the back for aesthetic reasons, I suppose." Daniel mused as he held a card up for the Navigator to see. "See how this card has a number and a diamond on it?"

"Yes. I see multiple diamond shapes though."

"Well, the markings get mirrored to make the cards easier to read." Heinlein mimed pulling a card from the deck. "You might pick it up upside down, and some games are very time-sensitive."

The Navigator rippled his neck hair in an understanding gesture. "So reaction speed can be a factor in success. I can appreciate that."

"Do you want to play a game?" asked Daniel as he finished shuffling. "Poker might not be a good choice though."

Heinlein frowned as he tried to think of card games that didn't require hands. "Ah... blackjack?"

Daniel shrugged. "Asshole maybe?"

Heinlein and the Navigator exchanged a look. "Really Daniel? That's the first game you think of?"

"I don't know, what about Go Fish?" Daniel rolled his palms skyward in supplication.

"Ugh. Sure,Go Fish it is." Heinlein took the cards from Daniel and started dealing. "Alright, so to start the game, we are each given five cards."

"I thought it was seven," interjected Daniel. "Or is that when you just have two players."

"I've always played with five." Heinlein turned back to the Navigator. "Important note about playing cards- the players usually can't remember all the rules, so you end up with different variations of the same game for everybody."

"That seems... inefficient." The Navigator commented as he tried to figure out the best way to pick up his cards.

"Yeahhh... I guess it keeps it interesting?" Heinlein said as he sorted his cards. "Don't let us see what cards you have, but the way."

The Navigator swept his tail over the cards and sat down like a cat. "Very well. Why am I concealing the cards?"

"The goal of the game is to rid yourself of all the cards in your possession. You can discard cards once you manage to get all four of a rank." Explained Daniel without looking up. "So if you collect all four of the Queen cards, you can put them down."

"Putting cards down means they are discarded?" clarified the Navigator as he nestled his cards in his mane, after looking at each one individually.

"Yep." Heinlein made a giving and taking gesture with his free hand. "Now, you collect four-of-a-kind by asking other players for specific ranks of card. So, for example, it becomes your turn and you have, say, three Kings. You could ask Daniel or me if we have any Kings, and if we did, we would have to hand them over to you."

"So what happens if you do not have any Kings?" asked the Navigator.

"In that case, we tell you 'Go Fish' and you draw a card from this pile." Heinlein mimed drawing a card. "That also ends your turn."

"I see." The Navigator wrapped his tail around his hooves and settled in a little more. "How is the order of turn dictated?"

"The player left of the dealer goes first."

Months Later

"Hey, um,if everyone who can please report to the human hangar bay area, that'd be... yeah." Daniel's voice sounded strangely deep and melodic over the ship's intercom, though any authority he might have gained was utterly undermined by his halting word choice.

Heinlein glanced at the Navigator and then turned to face the Captain. The Navigator also turned to face the Captain, though in his case it involved turning his head at an angle: only two of the Stewards' eyes could look straight forwards, so attention was shown by using one eye from two sets.

"Might I?" queried the Navigator, the translator easily picking up on his interest.

"Of course, I can manage here. See what he has to show, take notes for me." replied the Captain, while a few holograms drifted over to join her displays.

Heinlein and the Navigator began the trek to the human sector together, though in just a few seconds the Navigator was far ahead of Heinlein. The Concord's bridge was situated on top of a jagged ridge near the center of the ship, echoing the peak of the mountain the ship was built from. The Stewards had been considerate enough to install a footpath and some small bridges, but even at a dead sprint no human alive could hope to keep up with a Steward's enormous bounds. Still, Heinlein was gratified to find the Navigator waiting for him at the edge of the transit ravine.

Heinlein tried not to hold his breath as the Navigator and he plummeted down the transit ravine. The Stewards had no trouble dropping from one end of the ship to the other at breakneck speeds. The humans on board still found it alarming, despite the constant proof that the gravity folds precluded any chance of accident. Every time he angled his body to intersect with the disembarkment ring he was certain that something was going to go wrong and he was going to die horribly.

Yan Jia met the two at the disembarkment sphere, gracefully sliding down the edges of the connecting tunnel to normal orientation. "You guys know what this is all about?"

"I believe that the Architect has completed his 'escape pod'. He requested the materials for it shortly after we began our voyage." replied the Navigator.

"Oh yeah, he talked about the lack of lifeboats just after we finished touring the ship. That was weeks ago." Yan palmed the hangar door, causing it to open silently, looking for all the world like a sheet of ice melting in fast-forward.

"Indeed. He and Ro have been busying themselves with the design and implementation this entire time." The Navigator blinked slowly, a gesture that Heinlein hadn't figured out yet. "I am surprised that the two of you have not been more involved in the project."

Heinlein shrugged and put his hands in his pockets. "My training mostly revolved around guns. Not much I could have done."

Dan poked his head out from behind an enormous stack of metal sheets. "Oh good, you're here! I assume the Captain is staying on the bridge."

"Yeah, I'm afraid we're it. What d'ya got, Dan?" asked Heinlein, folding his arms over his chest.

"Well, as you all know, Ro and I have been working on devising a sort of lifeboat, in case of emergencies. So, I give you the first Human-Steward interplanetary escape pod!" Dan gestured grandly at a large, boxy vehicle behind him, which vaguely resembled a Kleenex box trying to disguise itself as a stealth bomber.

"Escape pod?" Yan raised an eyebrow in question. "There's nothing podlike about that. It's a box with wings."

"Well we can't really call it an escape box." Dan dropped his arms, sounding deflated.

"Perhaps you could call it a unit or a, ah, module." Heinlein gestured at what appeared to be triangular air intake. "I don't care either way, let's hear the specs."

"Ah, yes, good. As you may recall, the Stewards have strict policies limiting what technology they can can share with us, due to our talent for weaponizing things. I asked the Captain for anything should could give me, which unfortunately was not a whole lot, but I was able to get creative with what Ro could print out for me."

Daniel raised up three fingers. "A lifeboat has to do three things. First, it must get a safe distance away from it's parent vessel. Second, it must be able to keep the occupants alive. Third, it must be able to make it to long term safety."

"The Captain was able to provide me with basic, simplified life support technology. Air, heat, and artificial gravity. The designs, though automatically simplified to give them human clearance, contained capacitors that outshine anything on Earth, in case of power failure, so power during flight wouldn't be an issue. She was also able to provide some building materials we haven't discovered either, though they're pieces of straw compared to what this ship is made from."

Heinlein interrupted Dan before he could begin his next sentence. "Wait, artificial gravity? How does that fall under life support, humans can go quite some time in zero g."

"Stewards might be using this craft too you know, and their organs are not as zero g compatible." Daniel made a sweeping gesture along his stomach. "That's part of why we designed this lifeboat the way we did, we had to make it compatible with both human and Steward physiology."

"Fair enough. Get back to the three goals." Yan did not seem entirely impressed by Daniel's considerate nature, or the obvious technical achievement that making an interspecies vessel represented.

"OK, so the first goal is some form of propulsion, in order to depart from the parent vehicle. I considered synthesizing some variant of the fuel currently used in Earth-made rockets, but using fuel like that introduces a host of problems and we decided that there had to be a better system in reach."

Daniel picked up a dull black wafer, hexagonal in shape and about the diameter of his hand. "This is a backup capacitor like I mentioned earlier, scaled up for this project. In the original designs these guys were about the size of my pupil, and even then could keep their systems running for weeks. Once I found these guys, I was able to get Ro to scale them up to the point that I could use them as a full-on power storage system."

By this point in the presentation, the Navigator was beginning to shift nervously. Human ingenuity was greatly valued by the Stewards, but it was also greatly feared. Daniel's work was a perfect illustration of what many Stewards had nightmares of.

Daniel put the capacitor down carefully, trying to reassure the Navigator. "Don't worry, the capacitors are actually still being used in their original devices. This is an artificial gravity rod, printed straight from the specs provided by the Captain." Daniel held up a thin rod, about four feet in length and not much wider than a guitar string. At each end was a strange little device that looked like a six-cylinder engine the size of a marble.

"This works by creating an inertial dampening field perpendicular to the rod. Anything in the field is held roughly in place, relative to the rod. The field is only a hair thick though, and is relatively weak. Sweep the field down the length of the rod and you get something similar to faint gravity. Do this hundreds of times a second and you get a full G."

"I noticed that the artificial gravity was not fully contained by the hull in our simulation. This got me thinking: why keep the field inside at all? Heck, why not create an entire second field for that matter?"

Heinlein tilted his head back slowly. "You created an artificial gravity cannon, to launched the pod away from the ship. Create a small gravity field that would make it 'drop' from the ship like a rock."

Daniel shook his hand excitedly. "No no. That was my first thought, but that only solves one goal, and it steps way too close to the very technologies the Stewards are trying to keep us from inventing." Daniel pointed to the downward-angled wings on either side of the box. "What we ended up making were enormous rods that can create a field relative to the lifeboat, in a limited number of directions. We had to scale them up hundreds of times in order to create fields big enough to get a footing, but our simulations show that this works in orbit."

"When you say limited, how limited do you mean?" Yan Jia asked. "I assume you the rods are arranged in a grid inside the wings?"

"Not exactly a grid, it's laid out a bit more complex than that, so that it can push off at odd angles. That's why the wings angle down though, to increase the overall range of motion." Daniel gestured underneath the wing, where a trapezoidal panel was offset from the hull by a two thick arms. "I still couldn't do a vertical takeoff or landing though, so we added these secondary wings, which can actually move a little. These can easily lift the module and help a lot with stuff like the roll axis."

"So, you have designed and assembled this entire craft using simple materials and basic life support?" The Navigator sniffed once, his multiple nostrils flaring. "I don't know if I should be impressed or horrified."

"Well, Ro also had access to pretty much every modern human technology... I was able to throw together controls and communication and stuff with his expertise."

The Navigator sniffed again, longer this time. "A Hornless and a human, creating so much with so little. Wait until the Captain hears my account."

Outside of the Captain's Chambers

Daniel hesitated. Should he knock? Call out? How did Stewards get each other's attention?

The entrance to the Captain's chambers was surprisingly imposing. Like a lot of the interior of the Concord, the "hallway" was really a massive crack in the rock, with a sheet of glowing ice forming a high ceiling. Running along the sides of the rift were treacherous-looking footpaths, which sometimes required a pretty good jump to advance. The entrance itself was marked by two tall shafts of rock that gave the portal a tall triangle shape.

As usual for most of the rooms on the Concord, the "door" was open. Daniel had been told this was typical aboard Steward ships: closed doors were considered something of a safety hazard, much to Daniel's amusement. To be fair, a closed door took a couple of seconds to open on a Steward ship, since it had to go from solid to liquid state. Some of the doors also fell into shallow trenches to hold the liquid, while others were held in place by some technology that Daniel didn't know the details of.

Daniel cleared his throat and rapped his knuckles on the nearest non-stone object- in this case, a thick wooden root running down the side of the entrance wall. To Daniel's surprise, the root sounded hollow, and streaks of clear resin began to glow a cool white. Within seconds the whole entrance was illuminated by vertical veins of light outlining the walls of the cave.

"Come in!" came the Captains voice from deep inside the cave.

Daniel hesitated again for a second, and then stepped in to the curving cave. "It's Daniel Baldwin, I'm sorry to bother you during your off hours."

"No trouble at all Architect, come on in." As the Captain left her bedroom she struggled to remember human social conventions. "What is it your species says? 'I'm decent' or something?"

"Haha, something like that." Daniel walked carefully on the gravelly floor of the cave, wary of a stray sharp rock. He wondered if the Captain had been trying to make a joke or not.

"What can I do for you?" asked the Captain as Daniel walked into her greeting room.

Daniel found himself unable to speak, awestruck by the appearance of the hexagonal room. The ceiling was so high that he couldn't tell if the walls tapered inwards or not. Starting at least sixty feet above the floor grew tough-looking plants that reminding Daniel of jawbones, due to their jutting shape and spiky leaves that pointed upwards.

A few feet below each plant was a long leathery strip of bark, turned a dull gray-brown from age. Curving down the entire length of the strip was an ancient form of Steward calligraphy, penned in a dark red ink. Each of the twenty foot strips were suspended in midair by three comparatively small silver rings.

It took Daniel a moment to realize that most of the light in the room came from hundreds of small animals crawling around the room on the walls. They resembled flying squirrels in appearance, but their backs glowed as they passed each other, presumably as a means of communication. The creatures seemed to stay in constant, measured motion, disappearing into cracks in the rock wall only to reappear moments later.

Scattered about the floor of the room were what looked like stumps from trees that had blown over years ago. Daniel quickly realized that they were not actually wood at all, but some sort of plaster-like material that was being deliberately built and maintained by small birdlike creatures. The birds had fat little bodies about the size of a marble, two stubby legs, and a long furry tail. The birds were building long tubular nests at 45 degree angles, all facing towards the center of the room, every nest tube a part of a larger cylindrical structure, forming what Daniel had mistaken for stumps. Every so often one of the birds would rocket out if it's nest like a cannonball, only to transition into a smooth glide, using it's fanned-out tail to hold itself aloft.

"Don't mind the Rocket Birds," the Captain said as she saw Daniel watching the birds. "They only come out of their nests when their flight path is clear."

"What are they for?" Daniel asked, completely forgetting why he had come to the Captain's quarters.

"The Rocket Birds served as the inspiration for the Steward ships. They collect and prepare small explosives in their nests, which they can ignite with a secretion at will to launch themselves." The Captain ran the lip of her tail along the sloped face of one of the nests. "They are one of the few flying species native to our old homeworld. I like to keep a few in my quarters to remind myself of their contributions."

"Cool." Daniel found himself smiling widely. "What about the glowing squirrels?"

The Captain looked up at the irregular ring of lights. "We call them Little Traders. They constantly transport very specific food items from one nest to another, keeping their young nourished."

"Do you keep them around as a reminder as well?"

The Captain looked at Daniel quizzically. "No, I think they make for good lighting."

"Oh." Daniel scratched the back of his neck to cover up his embarrassment. "Well, uh... what are the banners you've got up?"

"The full names of some friends of mine, some family members, a few of my teachers." The Captain walked from triangular doorway she had been standing in to the center of the room and looked around slowly. "The ink is chemically altered when something happens to that individual. The resulting change in color and texture tells me the gist of what happened."

"A sort of interstellar status update, huh?" Daniel struggled to spot some pattern in the writing, or anything he could recognize. "When you say their full names, how do you mean?"

"As you know, we go by our job title, but there is more to it. Our full names include the ship on which we currently serve, our training history, and sometimes it includes references to personal achievements."

"I see, like knighthood in Great Britain." Daniel looked back down, feeling something rubbing on his leg. "Hello, who's this?"

"That is Guardian, my closest companion. He is what we call a Brave Slider." The Captain paused for a moment, listening to the translation replay. "Hmm. Both names lose a lot of their meaning in translation. You get the general idea though."

Daniel smiled and knelt down to look closer at the creature. His first impression was of a snow-white platypus, but once he looked past the short dense fur and rounded bill he could see a number of differences. Alarmingly, the bill seemed to be one solid bone, and had a sharp, slightly serrated edge. Like most animals from the Steward homeworld, it had four eyes, the back two somewhat smaller than the front two, pointing directly to the sides. At the top of the forehead were four short protrusions in a square arrangement, like short stubby horns. Also in keeping with other Steward animals, the spine was lined with the peculiar gill structure that somehow governed their respiration. The creature's tail was practically nonexistent, just a short little stub at the end of the torso, like a bear.

The back legs were also quite short, ending abruptly with two wide toenails and a coarse round pad. The longer-looking forelegs were tucked up to the creature's chest. Daniel reached down to pick Guardian up, but hesitated just before he did so. "Is it safe for me to lift him up?"

The Captain tilted her head sideways a little. "I believe it will be safe enough. Don't do it too fast and don't flip him over though."

Daniel picked up the mailbox-sized animal carefully. It regarded him jovially in return. Now that he could see its underbelly, Daniel was surprised to see that the forelegs were protected by keratinous shields shaped like the bottom half of a kayak. The polished surface of the shields indicated that Guardian used them to slide around on. The edges of the shields did not seem to be sharp, but Daniel quickly decided that he did not want to get stabbed with either of the pointed ends, nor did he want to mess with the curved claws that the creature kept close it its chest.

Daniel set Guardian down carefully and watched as it slid gracefully over to the Captain, spiraling around her with surprising speed. "Does he actually guard the place?"

"He could, if he wanted." The Captain watched Guardian with a fond eye. "Brave Sliders can be quite territorial, and can inflict a great deal of damage on intruders. Fortunately for us, Guardian is too friendly to do anything but greet new people with enthusiasm."


"Indeed." The Captain look back down at Daniel, who was still staring up at the walls. "But you did not come here to learn about Steward pets."

"Oh, right!" Daniel snapped with both hands at pointed at the Captain. "I wanted to see if you would let us do a trial run of the ship I made."

"The... lifeboat thing? Or was it an escape pod?" The Captain curled her tail around her feet like a cat.

"Uhm, yes to both, sort of." Daniel made a gesture that reminded the Captain of human juggling, mystifying her completely. "We're calling it Module One for now, or just Mod One for short."

"And you want to do some sort of test on this Module?" The Captain raised her front right hoof off the ground, a gesture that mystified Daniel in turn. "What kind of test are we talking about?"

"It needs a test flight." Daniel made a throwing gesture, hoping it would make more sense to the Captain than most of his animated movements. "I've checked that it's safe and functional as much as I can in the hangar bay. I need to fly it around in space a bit."

"We will have to drop out of FTL in order for you to perform this flight." The Captain regarded Daniel critically. "You are certain that it is safe for you to fly?"

"Actually, Colonel Heinlein has volunteered to fly it, since he's the only one of us with prior piloting experience." Daniel gave a reassuring smile. "I wouldn't let him do it if I wasn't completely convinced that the ship is seaworthy."

"Seaworthy?" The Captain was taken aback. "I thought-"

"Sorry, wrong word." Daniel interrupted quickly. "I meant that it's perfectly safe, nothing to do with oceans. It would actually be better for testing if we're pretty far from any planetary bodies, so that the gravity doesn't influence the readings."

"Ah. So the outer edge of a solar system is acceptable?"

"Yes ma'am, that would be perfect."

"Then I will have the Navigator bring the ship out of FTL a little early, we are scheduled to arrive at a system shortly after his shift resumes." The Captain made the Steward equivalent of a confirming nod. "Is there anything else?"

"No, thank you very much Captain."

"Not a problem, Architect. I will see you in the morning."

At the Outer Rim of the System S2N3-788

"Alright, we have dropped completely out of FTL." The Navigator's voice echoed through the ship like a bell. "It is safe to open the hangar doors."

Daniel tapped his side, activating his radio. "Alright, opening the doors. Heinlein, are you all set?"

"Ten-four Dan, I've got the Mod up and going." Heinlein tapped the controls of Module One, causing it to hum all around him. "Ready for test flight."

"Remember, keep to the topside of the ship, so that we can get video of you." Daniel adjusted the tripod-mounted camcorder beside him. "The observation deck can't look through the floor."

"Roger that, I'll try to restrain myself." Heinlein smiled as the humming got louder. "Mod 1 is away."

The module lifted gently from the floor, the nose of it dipping down a little. Yan Jia waved from the window to the next hangar. "Be safe in that thing. I still think we should have called it the Coffin."

"Well, we didn't have any bottles of anything so a proper name was out of the question." Heinlein joked. "Maybe when we get back to Earth."

"Really guys?" Daniel raised his hands in supplication. "The maiden voyage of the ship and you're still calling it a death trap."

"I thought you called it an escape pod." Said Heinlein as he passed out of the hangar.

"Well, shuttle more like." Daniel paused. "We could call it a runabout, like on DS9."

"What is a DS9?" Asked the Lookout as he walked into the observation deck.

"Oh, hello Lookout. I didn't know you were awake." Daniel tried to hide the surprise that the older Steward had given him.

"I admit some interest in this craft of yours. Still, what is a DS9?" The Lookout let his eyelids droop a little, the Steward equivalent of crossing his arms. Daniel misinterpreted it as sleepiness.

"Well, it's a TV show. A fictional story set in deep space, leading to the name." Daniel explained as he craned his head around, looking for the the Mod.

"Leading to the... oh yes." The Lookout made a Steward nod. "You sometimes shorten words to just the first letter in the written version."

"You guys don't abbreviate?"

"We don't have as much invested in the written word as you do." The Lookout tilted his head, raising his horns a little. "The spoken word is more important to us. When we feel the need to shorten a name, we sometimes compress it to the core sounds of each word."

"Oh." Daniel made an appreciative expression. "So it'd sound like... a staticy radio or something, where only the stressed sounds make it through."

"More or less, yes."

"Interesting." Daniel jumped a little and squinted past his tripod. "Oh, there he is! Heinlein, how's she handling?"

"So far so good. She pulls down a bit and the controls feel a little unresponsive, but I suppose I should have expected that."

"Compensating for the pull should be trivial, right?" asked Yan Jia, glancing at the laptop beside her.

"Just some number tweaking, yeah." Daniel replied. "We may be able to up the responsiveness by changing some of the software parameters as well, though without me being in the ship it's impossible to do in realtime."

"Wanna walk me though it?" Heinlein jerked his thumb backwards, despite the fact that no one could see him. "I've got a laptop in here, I would really like to get this thing flying as smoothly as possible before trying to land."

"Yeah, I don't want you scuffing up my nice safe hangar." Yan Jia joked.

"Alright, uhm..." Daniel picked up his laptop in one hand while gesturing vaguely with the other. "There's an ethernet port to the left of the control console, do you see it?"

"Yes, already plugged in and connected to the network." Heinlein pulled gently on the controls to bring the Mod to a stop.

"Great, pull up a browser and go to"

"Really? That's the best you could come up with?" Heinlein tried (and failed) to keep the disbelief out of his voice.

"Hey, this is rigged together from existing Earth tech. Just pull up the IP address and it'll open a setup page." Daniel typed rapidly with one hand, navigating his test version. "There isn't a password or anything so it should pull right up."

"OK, I'm in."

"There should be a link called flight controls, go to it."

"OK. Daniel, this website looks terrible."

"Not a graphic designer, thank you." Daniel look up in annoyance. "Click on the link titled Lower Wings."

"OK, I see a long list of numbers and labels." Heinlein squinted at the undecorated page. "Seriously, this page looks like it's from the nineties. Put some color in there, center the text up instead of letting it stay all the way to the left."

"Look, do you want to make these adjustments or not? Find a text input labeled Primary R Thrust, and change the value."

"It's set to 1.0. What should I change it to?" asked Heinlein.

Dan made an exasperated face. "I don't know, how much is it pulling down?"

"Just a little. Should I change it to 2.0?"

"No no no. 1.0 represents 100% of the intended power, 2.0 would mean 200% of the original value." Daniel shook his finger vigorously. "Uhm, try changing it to 1.1 and then fly around a bit."

"Why didn't you just make the value 100 if that's what it is?" Heinlein asked as he entered the number. "There, done."

"I don't know, it seemed like a good enough system at the time." Daniel squinted out at the Mod. "You're at zero thrust right?"

"Yes, Daniel, I didn't try to make changes while flying."

"Just checking. Hit save and let's see if that worked."

"Alright, saving now." Heinlein paused while the page refreshed. "How long should I wait before starting thrust again?"

"Oh, you should be good now." Daniel smiled as he closed his laptop. "The firmware in the ship operates much faster than our laptops, by the time the reloaded page rendered you were good to-"

"Fascinating Daniel, but perhaps later." Yan Jia interrupted. "Heinlein, is the ship still flying correctly?"

"Yeah, this is much better." Heinlein performed a wide barrel-roll over the nose of the Steward ship. "I'm going to stop and change the value just a little more- I'm thinking 1.125, Daniel."

"Sounds good to me." Daniel scribbled a note down on the back of his hand. "Hey, is life support still working correctly?"

"We've tested life support before Daniel, remember?" Yan Jia rolled her eyes. "It took us over two hours to clear out the hangar so you could check for leaks, and then heating, and then oxygen."

"Yeah, but all of those went off without a hitch."

Heinlein put on his best hurt voice. "Daniel, are you saying you want something to go wrong?"

"No, I'm just... fairly sure something should have gone wrong by now." Daniel zoomed in on the Mod as Heinlein brought it to a stop again.

"That's quitter talk." Heinlein replied with a smile.

"No, that's realist talk." Daniel glanced at the Lookout for support, but the Lookout remained as silent as he usually did. "Nobody designs something this complex perfectly the first time, much less builds it perfectly too."

"You did have those problems with the artificial gravity." Yan Jia commented.

"Yeah, but the Hornless was able to fix that in like five minutes." Daniel chewed his bottom lip. "Heinlein, how are your power levels?"

"Um, the little battery icon is still completely full." Heinlein cocked his head at the display in confusion. "Now that I'm looking at it though, Daniel, what is this little bullet icon?"

"Oh shit." Daniel yanked his laptop back open. "One bullet or six?"

"Six bullets in a hexagon, with little motion lines coming from the ones on the right."

"The alert system should have gone off, it must not be pushing to the top of the queue correctly." Daniel placed the laptop on the floor and knelt down so that he could type faster.

"Daniel, what does the icon mean?" demanded Yan Jia.

"Micro asteroids." Daniel looked up at the Lookout in horror. "This system has an outer asteroid belt that we didn't know about."

"So why the bullet icon?" Heinlein saved again and immediately turned back to the module controls.

"Well, usually they are pretty harmless, but remember, we're moving really, really fast even out of FTL. Our forward momentum turns relatively stationary micro asteroids into hurtling projectiles."

"Should I head back?"

"Yes, immediately. We're lucky that you haven't been hit yet." Daniel poked around in his laptop urgently. "I don't have a way of seeing the sensor output from here though."

"Architect, I believe this may be of use to you." commented the Lookout.

Daniel glanced up and was surprised to see a detailed hologram floating above him. Small dots of colored light indicated the position of the ships and clusters of micro asteroids.

"Thank you Lookout, that's very helpful." Daniel snapped his fingers together as an idea struck him. "Navigator, are you hearing this?"

"Indeed, the Captain and I are considering options." replied the Navigator from the bridge.

"Could you bring the ship to a full stop?" Daniel made a stopping gesture with his fist. "This ship provides most of the foothold for the Mod, Heinlein is going to need it to be as stationary as possible so that he can slow down faster."

"Hold on, why don't we just go back into FTL?" asked Yan Jia.

"The Mod was never designed for FTL, we have no idea what it would do to Heinlein." Daniel shook his head. "I'm not even sure if the Mod would be included in the FTL field."

"It would be pushed aside." The Captain stated. "Heinlein would be unharmed, but stranded. No, coming to a full halt is the right decision. We don't want any asteroids ricocheting off the ship into the module."

"Heinlein, you're going to want to put everything you've got into flying back towards the hangar." Daniel said, looking at the hologram in concern. "You're going the wrong way."

"Daniel, I don't know if you know this, but the Concord can slow down a lot faster than I can fly forwards." Heinlein grimaced as he leaned against the controls. "I'm flying straight at you but I'm losing ground."

"Crap. Keep at it, we'll see what else we can do from here."

"Colonel, I believe that you should move hard to port immediately." The Lookout said with unsettling calmness.

"What? Why?" Heinlein demanded.

"You are approaching several clusters." The Lookout explained. "The probability of you hitting a micro asteroid is greatly reduced if you move to port now."

"Alright, hard to port." Heinlein grimaced as an alarm started wailing. "Oh, and great, you're warning system just went off Daniel!"

"Oh, well that's good!" exclaimed Daniel.

"No, Dan, it's distracting!" shot back Heinlein. "Resuming heading towards the hangar."

"Colonel, I can give you instructions if you wish while the others consider options." The Lookout volunteered.

"Alright, hit me."

"Hit you?"

"Just give me the instructions!"

"Hard to starboard for three blinks." The Lookout paused as the holograms shifted around. "Now half power to port and rise by one-quarter for five blinks."

"Daniel, explain clock positions to him."

"What?" asked Daniel.

"Back to the hangar is my fore, so one through twelve are angles on the roll axis." barked Heinlein.

"Oh I gotcha." Daniel turned to the Lookout and started gesturing. "So, twelve is straight up and-"

"Heinlein, hard to port again for four blinks." The Lookout looked at Daniel with one of his eyes, the others remaining fixed on the holograms all around them. "Continue, Architect."

"Uhm, it's a system of angles. Twelve is up, one is thirty degrees to starboard from that, so three is straight to starboard, six is straight down, and nine is straight to port."

The Lookout seemed incredulous. "A bizarre system."

"Yeah, well, I didn't invent it." Daniel glanced back at the hologram. "Heinlein, hard to seven o'clock."

"Tell me when to stop." Came the reply.

"... Now!" Daniel looked back at the Lookout. "Make sense now?"

"I believe so." The Lookout adjusted some unseen control and the hologram for the module stretched horizontally. "There, that should help. Heinlein, hard to... five for three blinks, followed by a more moderate adjustment to eight for two blinks."

"You know, this would be a lot easier if you guys would use seconds instead of blinks." Heinlein said as he mentally did the math.

"We cannot have delay on my end. You have several of your seconds to make the conversion. Half-power to eleven, for three blinks."

"Whoa, what the hell!" exclaimed Heinlein as he was knocked onto his back.

"He must have hit a big one, he's been knocked way off course!" yelled Daniel as the holograms shuddered.

"I don't think I took any damage but I'm pretty turned around, give me some guidance!" Heinlein bellowed as he climbed back to his feel.

"Turn to six for three blinks, you should see the Concord after that." The Lookout's voice remained calm, but he spoke quickly all the same.

"Turning. Daniel, do I have any leaks?"

"I don't think so, we built the module using Earth-size hull plating made out of Steward materials." Daniel scanned his laptop rapidly. "In retrospect it's overkill, but at the moment I'm glad you've got it."

"Colonel, hard to seven for two blinks, followed by hard to eleven for three blinks."

"Oh crap I can see this one coming."

Daniel winced as the hologram shuddered again and Heinlein cursed colorfully over the radio. "Any damage?"

"I don't think so." Heinlein touched the back of his head, wincing. "You owe me a strong drink when we get back to Earth Daniel."

"Fair enough. Are you back on course?"

"Realigning to the hangar now." Heinlein widened his stance, bracing for impact. "Yan Jia, are you set to repressurize the hangar?"

"Got my finger on the button, just give the word."

"It'll be a while, I'm still losing losing ground, but be ready."

"Daniel, we've been running the numbers, and we need to change our strategy." The Captain spoke quickly on an isolated channel to Daniel's headset. "We need to accelerate the Concord past the module."

"The Concord is the largest local mass, it's what the Module is using as a foothold to move against." Daniel protested. "Any movement of this ship will greatly affect the maneuvering of the Mod."

"If the Lookout can line the Module up so that it can just freefall for a moment, the Navigator can fly the ship past the Module and then it will be trivially easy to fly it back into the hangar."

Daniel glanced at the Lookout, who was already helping Heinlein get into a relatively clear path. "What about deflecting the asteroids into the Mod? That's why we came to a stop in the first place!"

"We give the Colonel a wide berth. He'll be losing ground temporarily, but once we're past him he will regain the distance quickly." The Captain studied the hologram as she spoke. "Besides, the field is getting denser. As I said, we've run the numbers- at the speed the Colonel is going, the odds of him hitting a dangerously large asteroid are significant. And if he hits one, the odds of him hitting another before he can recover rise expontentially."

"Alright, do it, I'll tell Heinlein." Daniel tapped his phone quickly, exiting the private channel. "Heinlein, how are you doing?"

"Still losing ground, Daniel. Just how fast were we going?"

"Oh, you know, it's all relative in space." Daniel grimaced a little as he converted the numbers in his head. "Look, I need you to cut your thrust."


"We're going to move the Concord to be in front of you. Don't worry, the Lookout almost has you in a clear path."

"The Concord already is in front of me Daniel, and even at full thrust she's getting further and further from me." Heinlein growled.

"We'll be moving in front of your vector. Look, it's taking too long for you to slow down, every second you're out there increases the odds of a hull breach."

There was a painfully long pause.

"Alright, Tell the Navigator to hustle. I'll cut thrust on his mark. " Heinlein shook his head. "This is crazy."

"Alright Colonel, any second now." The Navigator said. "Three, two, one, mark!"

The Module began to turn slightly off course the moment Heinlein cut thrust. At the same time, the now-distant Concord dipped like a diving whale, accelerating at an incredible rate.

"We're almost out of time, Navigator." The Lookout spoke softly but urgently. "He's already drifting off the course I planned."

"Making our approach!" shouted the Navigator as he twirled his controls. The Concord twisted sideways as it changed course, arrowing back towards the Module.

"Wait, we are we sideways?" asked Daniel as they neared the intersection point. "The hangar faces forwards!"

"The Navigator intends to use our bulk as a shield." The Lookout explained. "By intersecting sideways, we clear a path for the Colonel without running the risk of asteroids bouncing into him. A difficult maneuver to perform."

"Daniel, I'm hearing little pings on the hull, can I get some direction?" Heinlein asked, his question emphasized by a glancing hit to the Module.

"Reorient to the Concord, we're matching trajectories." answered the Navigator. "It should be a pretty straight shot now."

Daniel held his breath as the holograms moved to intersect with agonizing slowness. "Any second now..."

"I'm in! Close the door!" Heinlein yanked back on the controls, bringing the module to a groaning stop midair.

"Doors closing!" shouted Yan Jia.

"Changing course," echoed the Navigator's voice through the ship. "Nice flying, Colonel."

At The Edge of Explored Space

"All hands, wake up, we have arrived."

"Arrived where?" asked Yan Jia, looking up from the laptop in front of her.

"There's a relay station just outside of visual range." The Lookout responded as he dismissed hologram after hologram. "I can pull up long range telemetry if you wish."

"Please, I haven't seen one of these before." Yan Jia paused the program she was running and closed the laptop. She was running a simulation of animal movement inside the ship, trying to figure out the logic of it, but whatever guided the migratory beasts was beyond her.

The Lookout summoned a wireframe hologram of the relay station and sent it drifting towards Yan Jia, slowly growing and turning as it approached her. At first she thought it looked like a Roman sword with a spiky hand guard, but as it rotated she realized there for six spikes projecting from the side, and the "hilt" of the hologram was a cluster of towers. Each tower was unique, suddenly getting wider and then thinner at seemingly random intervals before ending in a tuft of tiny antennas.

Yan Jia suddenly realized that tiny was a relative term though, once she summoned up a scale in Earth units. Each tower was hundred of stories tall, and even the smallest antenna was over a hundred feet long. The cluster of towers was at least a mile in diameter, and each of the six spikes could easily contain all of Manhattan Island. The space between the spikes appeared to be a massive frozen lake, with the towers rising suddenly out of the middle.

Once she switched the wireframe to textured mode, Yan Jia saw that the "blade" of the gladius shape was two ridged glaciers running the entire length of a massive rock spike. One of the glaciers was noticeably bigger and more jagged than the other, which only reinforced the impression of the station being sword-shaped.

"You seem surprised," commented the Lookout as he worked. "What were you expecting?"

"Well..." Yan Jia paused to collect her thoughts. "I remember that the Captain said that there were hundreds of thousands of these stations. I guess I thought that meant they'd be small."

The Lookout laughed, not unkindly. "No, they are among our largest creations. Since we had so much material left after creating our ships, we decided to make the relays as big as we could lift from the homeworld surface. Once we got them into space we added the pylons beside the main hangar so that we could dock more ships to them comfortably."

"I'm guessing that you could dock three ships to a pylon?" Yan Jia flicked her fingers unconsciously as she did the math. "Have you ever needed to dock eighteen mountain-sized ships at once?"

"There have been a few occasions, but it is very rare." The Lookout summoned another hologram and put it between them. "This is a model of the station's main hangar, underneath the communication array. As you can see, it's big enough to house an entire ship, in case of extreme repairs."

Yan Jia tried not to gape at the conical diagram. "That's underneath the lake? How do you even get a ship into a space that large?"

The Lookout started an animation and set it to loop a few times. "At the juncture of the pylons is a frozen waterfall. We make it liquid and let it flow into the hangar in order to create apertures big enough to enter and exit."

"Incredible." Yan Jia watched in fascination as the waterfalls fell into a lip at the bottom of the spikes, one after another, and then new liquid flowed into place to close up the hangar. "How does the liquid get back to the upper lake?"

"There's a river at the base of each pylon that flows up the wall." The Lookout pointed with his tail at a curved blue line at the edge of the hangar. "I'm told that the gravity folds are a work of engineering genius."

"I'll bet," replied Yan Jia as she zoomed in on the complex network of scaffolding and bridges about halfway up the hangar. "Wait, what's the population of this place?"

The Lookout hesitated, glancing at the laptop Yan Jia had been using. "I... are you talking about animal population or just Steward population?"

"Sorry, I meant Steward population, but both answers would be interesting."

The Lookout did a Steward nod with the hair starting at his withers. "I see. The Steward population is one, the Keeper. I believe the animal population is also quite limited, something along the lines of two hundred species?"

Yan Jia shook her head at the crew of one. "So is this Keeper like a hermit or something?"

The Lookout paused and stared at Yan Jia, perplexed. "I do not understand."

"I mean, he lives alone all the time. A hermit is someone who prefers to be alone, secluded."

"A Keeper can see as many as fifty new visitors every Californium." The Lookout struggled to keep his astonishment from showing. "It is one of the most socially active jobs we have."

"Huh." Yan Jia cocked her head to one side, showing her own surprise. "I forget that your species idea of solitude is so different from ours. Only seeing fifty people in two and a half years sounds like a hermitage to me."

"Interesting." The Lookout went back to his work, trying to shake off the strangeness of the conversation. "We will be docking soon, so you will get to meet the Keeper and evaluate him yourself. As I remember, he is quite proud of his station, maybe he will give you a tour."

Four Weeks into Unexplored Space

"Battle stations, battle stations! We have aggressive inbound contact!" The Captain's voice was loud and urgent, more so than Heinlein was used to. The anxiety was probably getting to her, the Stewards were clearly not built for war.

"What do we have?" yelled Heinlein as he entered the bridge area. He had already been on his way there, but he was still surprised that he wasn't even out of breath: living on the ship must be getting him back in shape.

"Multiple unidentified craft, all approaching from the same area." replied the Navigator, his eyes fixed on the holograms surrounding him. "Long-range analysis is consistent with the local vessels we have encountered since arriving."

Heinlein quickly dragged his fingers across the controls laid across a table for him. Holograms jumped into focus, showing the terrain. "Wow, those rings around the gas giant are a lot denser than I expected them to be."

"I was hoping that the metals we detected would be unguarded, but I suppose that is expecting too much in this area." The Captain's tail swept sideways in irritation. "What could they possibly be using all those resources for?"

"I don't know Captain, but we've got sixty blinks to decide if we're gonna fight for them." The Navigator looked up from his displays, nervous energy dripping from his voice. "Should I deploy our cannons?"

The Captain paused for a second, and almost seemed to contemplate Heinlein rather than the quick little red dots flying through the air. "So be it. Deploy secondary cannons, prepare to engage. We're going to fight for those metals like a human would."

"Confirmed, deploying secondary cannons." The Navigators head disappeared into a swirl of letters and numbers as a host of systems lit up under his control.

Heinlein decided not to dwell on the Captain's insinuation about humans and instead pulled the holographic projection of the ship into focus. He hadn't seen the cannons yet and was keenly interested in what the ship could do. It was he, after all, who urged a more offensive approach to getting the materials they needed to repair the ship.

Like most of the ship systems, the cannons were disguised like a native part of the mountain. All over the surface of the mountain, slabs of rock began lifting upwards, complex ice columns lifting them clear. Within moments the ship was littered with protrusions of rock that reminded Heinlein of Native American spearheads, points sticking in every direction threateningly. What lent real authority to the jagged protrusions, however, were the out-of-place silver rods of varying size and length, protruding menacingly from the undersides of the slabs. Each cannon had around a half-dozen rods that gleamed threateningly while the ice columns twisted and shifted, bringing the points to bear.

"Any reaction?" asked Heinlein, glancing back at the tactical holograms.

"None, they're almost on us." The Navigator's holograms sorted themselves into organized hexagons, queuing up priority targets. "Captain?"

"Hold fire, I want to see how close we can get before it comes to blows." The ship was nearly to edge of the rings, meaning that the hostiles were practically on top of them. "Let's see if they pause thanks to the cannons."

"Doubt it," gasped Yan Jia as she leaned on the table next to Heinlein, panting for breath. "I think I see that some of their weapons are already spun up."

Looking closer, Heinlein could see that she was right. The full-detail holograms showed that several of the hostiles had already clamped themselves to large asteroids and their ammo cartridges were spinning to fast to follow. It would be mere moments before their peculiar projectiles began to empty out of their spinning magazines, flying sideways down to the outer edge of the craft's arms, where a curved railing would sling the projectile in a forwards arch.

"Here it comes." Heinlein grimaced as the tactical display filled with a flood of yellow dots zipping towards the ship. He returned his attention to a detail hologram, and there, right on schedule, the projectile suddenly began to spin internally, a pair of blades spinning opposite a mirror pair of blades. This somehow caused the projectile to rapidly change course, angling tightly back towards the hostile craft, where they were collected by the other arm and reloaded effortlessly into the spinning magazine.

Most of the hostiles had begun firing well before the Steward ship was in range, but it didn't take long for the projectiles to start connecting. The ship groaned under the stress of hundreds of projectiles slamming into it, only to be jerked away after a pause to be reused. In return, blue lines of fire shot from the ship, piercing hostiles in all directions.

"We have contact. Cannons appear effective." The Navigator's voice sounded jubilant, even though the translation. "They are taking losses!"

Heinlein twirled a control to zoom in on a single hostile that had just been hit. Secondary explosions blossomed around it as systems failed, and the projectiles returning to it began to veer off course, their invisible propulsion cut.

"Look at their insides." Yan Jia muttered, almost to herself. "Hollow."

"Maybe the operators don't like small rooms?" theorized Heinlein. "Could be some kind of flying bug, if they look anything like their ships. Probably like big open spaces."

"No, I don't think so." Yan Jia twirled a long series of controls like she was playing a piano. "Look at the replay of those explosions."

"What about them?" Asked the Captain, who had turned two eyes towards the humans.

"They're spherical."

Heinlein cast a sidelong look at the Navigator. "Yan, any explosion in space would be spherical. No wind pressure or ground to distort the shape."

"Exactly, no wind. No atmosphere of any kind." Yan Jia finished her control entry and a set of numbers popped up near the hollow cavity at the hostile's core. "They have a vacuum inside, identical to the external conditions. There's nothing inside of them to distort the explosions whatsoever."

"This is all very interesting, but we're taking serious damage." Pronounced the Navigator, holograms all around him darkening to black. "Captain?"

"Give me manual control of the port cannons that are still online, I think I can increase their effectiveness." The Captain stepped into the controls rising from the ground and closed all of her eyes. "Be ready for evasive maneuvers if this goes poorly, this fight is getting close."

Chapter 1