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John Eric Vona’s “Burst Your Bubble”

John Eric Vona, if you’ll indulge his juvenile sense of humor, is a human bean NOT BOT real human. He really teach at Steinbrenner school highs, and sponsor literary book magazine for young pupils titled The Echo. He tell advice to other humans on the Slate’s Ask a Teacher. Other fictions yes, wife yes, childrens yes! For small money investment, you can John Eric Vona as well…

Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you his story:

 

Burst Your Bubble

by

John Eric Vona

1

The Warmer Climate was one of those landmarks in space that every Luster in The Arm knew about. From Brocca to Nabuc, you could mention the name of the joint to a group of space wanderers, and they’d groan or laugh or smile fondly in remembrance of the little pub outside the spaceport with the palm tree on its snow-covered sign. It was the only place to get a decent bite to eat on the frozen world of Mohpar. No one had ever met a Mohpein with a sense of humor, so the eatery’s name had surely been conferred by some sarcastic Luster.

Vero Casa, preferring a more personal approach than simply listing his freighter on the local nets, had braved the cold to come to The Warmer Climate.

Maybe he just wanted company. The only other member of his crew, Rown, a Luster if there ever was one – the rare Sintronian who had left The Common – kept to himself. They’d go days without a word to each other. Actually, Vero recalled, it was at The Warmer Climate, that they’d met. Right after…

“You opened the Yachai Run.”

Vero lifted his face from the steam that had been rising from his soup to find the antithetical frames of two humans standing over his table: one a man nearing two hundred years old, his nearly translucent skin among the tell-tale signs of longevity treatments, wisps of white hair combed from one ear across a pale, spotted scalp, rolls of bulging blubber visible even from beneath the thick clothes needed to survive on Mohpar; the other a tall, shadow-skinned woman, taut and muscular, her lips pursed in annoyance.

They stood so close he could smell the last planet they’d come from.

Are you transmitting?” The fat man’s jowls flapped and jiggled as he spoke.

Vero took the clumsy invitation to speak in Luster Lingua and replied, “I don’t detect a time delay.”

“My name is Joorie. I have a mission objective for you.” He wobbled forward and squeezed into the seat across from Vero, his stomach bumping the table, sending Vero’s soup sloshing over the bowl’s edge. “A mission objective no sane person would take.”

The woman, still standing, rolled her eyes at her partner’s attempt to speak Luster Lingua. Mission objective was a phrase almost only used sarcastically, a term for someone else’s goal or purpose, mocking the old words of Rooter space agencies and their agendas. If he wanted to offer Vero a job, he should have asked Vero to take his money. And if he’d wanted to tell Vero that this was no safe job, he need only add ‘please.’

“That’s Charli,” Joorie said. “My partner.”

“You were in the 87th weren’t you?” Charli asked.

“You a vet?” Vero asked.

“One Nineteen Breakers.”

“Paratrooper.” Vero regarded the woman respectfully.

“Excellent! There is honor among comrades.” Saliva collected in the corners of Joorie’s mouth. “We will work together well on this job.”

Job no one wants?” Vero lifted a spoonful of broth to his lips.

That is not because it doesn’t pay. Have you ever heard of ‘The Forever Bubble’?”

Vero felt his face twist into an involuntary one-sided grimace. Joorie continued, quickly.

I know what you’re thinking, captain, but I’ve been there. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. It’s a big cargo hauler, just like the stories say. You can’t tell much more than that. The gravity-bent distorts the scanners. It’s just sitting out there in space, but you can’t reach it. We spent weeks trying.”

Vero had heard the legend as a child. Back when supraluminal travel was just beginning to shrink the gulf between star systems and interstellar trade was springing to life out of long-dreamed impossibility, the primitive bubble drives – the anti-gravitational fields generated around a ship or plane to keep its mass from increasing as it accelerated toward the speed of light – were prone to catastrophic failures. In all recorded cases, this simply meant explosion. A vessel leaves one system and never makes its destination.

The Forever Bubble legend told of a freak accident where a ship lost all forward inertia but the graviton-manipulators locked somehow, creating a stationary bubble so steep in gradient no spacecraft could climb to reach the trapped ship, stranding the crew for eternity.

The stories that didn’t end there tended to get silly: wormholes, wish-granting beings, gateways to worlds frozen in time. Between growing up in the company of cattle hands on his parents’ ranch on Greensky and spending his years since the war in the occasional company of Luster bards, Vero had heard every version of The Forever Bubble tale including the most popular: ghost ship haunted by the entombed crew.

Vero had no interest in such fantasies.

Charli reached into her coat and pulled out a scroll. She unclipped the edge and spread the screen out on the table. A dozen images of a ship, tiny and distorted, leapt off the screen.

Pictures can be faked,” Vero said.

Follow us to the coordinates,” the fat man offered. “I’ll pay you just to look at it.”

Say I just turn around afterwards?”

Legends tell of untold riches in The Forever Bubble. I don’t subscribe to that, but it is an old vessel. Back then they only bothered to move valuables through interstellar space. You won’t walk away once you see it’s real. I know we couldn’t, once we found it.”

Found it how?”

Chance!” Joorie picked at a scab on his scalp. “Salvage is our occupation, so we often travel old shipping lanes, scanning for derelicts.”

How do I know you don’t have a trap waiting at these coordinates?”

A trap for what?” Charli scoffed. “You just finished a run. That hunk of vacuum scrap you call a plane isn’t worth the time it’s taking to sit here and watch you eat.”

Vero stifled a smile. “Why me?”

You’re the human who reopened the Yachai Run.” Joorie gestured expansively at the images shifting on the scroll. “That was a feat of engineering and bravery and strategy. How long had it been since a vessel from The Arm made it to Yachai? Twenty years?”

Thirty.” Charli corrected.

And in a hunk of vacuum scrap,” Vero nodded at Charli.

Consider your payment a consultation fee,” pitched Joorie. “Present us with your best opinions on how to get onto The Forever Bubble and then go your way. Or you can help us and take a cut of the payoff.”

Vero scratched the back of his neck. The fame he’d returned to after his first trip to Yachai had been enough to send him burning out of the system again immediately. Years alone through the empty space beyond The Arm, and then he did it again, this time with Rown, which amounted to being alone. He didn’t want to make the trip a third time so he’d picked up a few quick runs to Brocca and back but that somehow proved to be even more boring.

How far away is this legend?” Vero asked.

2

When Vero returned to his plane and gave his pilot, Rown, the news of their destination, Rown just stood there in the cargo hold staring.

Ever heard of The Forever Bubble?”

Rown just shook his head.

Should look it up.” Vero never, in all his years, imagined that he’d be the talkative one in any relationship. “Fascinating bit of Luster folklore.”

Still, Rown said nothing, emoted nothing. If he researched The Forever Bubble in the days that followed, he never mentioned it to Vero.

When Rown had first approached him in The Warmer Climate after Vero’s return from Yachai, Vero thought they were similar. Sure, here was the rarest of beings, a Sintronian with their characteristic body modifications: bio-mechanical implants that framed his ears and temples, jutted like external ribs from his flanks if he removed his shirt. You could almost mistake him for a human if it weren’t for those. Almost. His jaw was too sharply square, the bridge of his nose too high, and if he pulled back his tea-colored hair, you could see the red plates like oversized scales that ran the length of his spine.

Vero had seen a handful of Sintronians during the war, maybe passed a few in a crowded spaceport, but never spoken to one. Rown hardly spoke at all. Which was fine for Vero. Most Lusters talked too much for his taste.

There were two kinds of Lusters: the drunks who brawled and boasted their way through The Arm, too wild for any civilized, Rooter society; and the griots who wandered because the journey was their life, the stars sacred, timeless markers of their connection to the universe.

Vero wasn’t a deadbeat, nor was he a Zen traveler. After the war, he’d wanted to be alone. Because, when he met him, Rown had been on Mohpar meditating with a sect of silent monks, Vero thought he would make a good fit as crewmate. But he had underestimated just how uncommunicative Rown would be, and maybe how much he needed companionship.

Rown responded with his characteristic stoicism when they arrived at the coordinates Joorie had provided. The vessel hung in space before them like a bug in amber, lifeless and unmoving, but altogether preserved. Then again, Vero didn’t react much either. The underwhelming sight of the legendary ship just made him a bit sad.

Sittin’ on a steep, stationary gravity bubble, as advertised.” Vero floated behind Rown’s pilot chair, the only chair on the bridge, as Vero still preferred the company of his rumbling engines. “Trying to fly towards it would be like trying to lift off from a small star.”

Vero took Rown’s subsequent silence to mean: “Why are you stating the obvious?”

No telling how long it’s been there.” Vero tried a new tack. “Some strange radio emissions bouncing around.”

Rown turned his head ever-so-slightly to examine the antenna readouts but made no comment.

The comm pinged, and Vero reached up to open the requested channel.

Is seeing believing?” Joorie asked. His plane, The Judge, held position four kilometers to dorsal port.

There’s a ship there alright.”

Oh, don’t play it cool, Captain Casa,” chided Joorie.

Sell the coordinates to a historical society. Never gettin’ through that gravity bubble.”

I expected a man of your accomplishments to have a little more grit. Come now. Let’s burst this bubble.”

Vero stared blankly at the man on the screen. If he hadn’t already known Joorie’s poor attempts at Luster Lingua, he might have mistaken it for word play.

It’s ‘burst your bubble’ and,” Vero added, “that’s not what it means.”

No?” Joorie looked offscreen, presumably at Charli.

Means to stop and look at something from someone else’s point of view. Not actual gravity bubbles.”

Well, will you see it from my point of view? The point of view of opportunity?”

Vero sighed.

We’ll run a few more scans and get back to you.” He cut the comm line.

Rown, without a word, began to calibrate the telescopes to investigate the radio emissions.

The gravity bubble was most definitely stable though the ship inside it appeared to be damaged in its drive section. Unlike the boxy, winged frame of Vero’s plane, the object before them was definitely a ship, never meant for atmospheric flight. A tubular spine conjoined a dozen spherical sections. The bulky drive section at the ship’s rear was cracked open with two of the four massive engines almost completely gone.

Vero floated a few ideas, receiving in return only the occasional “no” or “unlikely” from Rown, until finally the stoic pilot himself proposed a solution. In their centuries-long conflict with the Farconians, the Sintronians had developed a technique called gravitational fortressing. During The Expansion War, they had gifted the technology – an extension of the gravity manifolds or gravmans that humans already used to create bubble drives – to the War Congress’ forces as a stopgap against the Farconian onslaught. The isolationist Sintronians weren’t much for diplomacy or alliances, but the principle ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ held true.

A gravitational fortress was simple enough and resembled the forever bubble they were trying now to penetrate: a space station or other vessel would project an anti-gravitational field capable of deflecting and dispelling projectiles.

Once we gave away the technology, we felt we needed a counter to it,” Rown explained. “It’s called a gravity ram. It should allow us to breach the bubble and board the ship.”

“Should?” Joorie asked, his cheeks flapping in the video feed. “I’ve never even heard of any of this.”

“I have,” Charli spoke from offscreen. “I’ll explain later.”

“You know how this works?” Joorie turned on his partner.

“I know the theory. I couldn’t make one.”

Joorie’s fatty shoulders slumped.

“Don’t worry, we’re not going to steal your treasure,” Vero said. “This old freighter has been in need of a new gravman since the day I got her. The Judge is bigger and newer.”

Joorie smiled, wet and gap-toothed. “We have the equipment; you have the know-how.”

“Guess we’re partners.”

3

Charli, Rown and Vero hung on the side of The Judge as Joorie tacked the spear-like vessel against the gravitational forces of The Forever Bubble. Vero caught one last sight of his freighter, now a speck, parked in space some dozen kilometers away.

The stars rotated suddenly as The Judge pivoted to pull alongside the ship. A last burst from the engines gave the three space walkers a moment of gravity before being released again into weightlessness. Zero-g was good. If The Judge’s gravman wasn’t countering the forces properly at this distance, Vero would feel The Forever Bubble shoving them off.

“We’re in position.” Joorie’s voice slobbered through the comm channel right into Vero’s ears. “I am launching the first missile.”

A hollow thump vibrated through Vero’s arm as the missile left The Judge and burned straight for The Forever Bubble. A moment after its fuel ran out, a second launched. And then a third. Vero and Rown had modified each to hold a miniature gravity manipulator. They would join with the lopsided anti-gravity field that The Judge was pushing toward The Forever Bubble and, like stints in a blood vessel, open a path to the trapped ship.

Wordlessly, Rown kicked hard off The Judge’s deck and flew out into open space towards the ship in front of them. Vero and Charli pushed off as well, holding to either side of a torpedo-shaped thruster pod.

The trio passed each missile in turn, their reactors capable of holding for thirty hours. Vero was glad that Rown was out in front. His skin-tight suit was scaled the same color and pattern as the natural scales running down his back and easy to spot in space. Charli in her black Triple-F war surplus combat gear would have been impossible to see.

With Rown looking lithe and agile and Charli wearing a bandolier draped across her chest and a pulse weapon strapped to her side, Vero looked the odd man out. He’d purchased his bulky and patched construction-walker used. The way it alternated between gray and calico suggested it had been crumbled and left out in the sun. The rectangular helmet extended like a bright orange top hat above his head and boasted a broad visor that left his entire face exposed.

The derelict ship grew before them, the ruins of a toppled tower. They approached it from aft, reorienting themselves so that tower was no longer toppled. The access hatch cracked easily. No pressure on the other side.

Vero had handled the old fear of spacewalking well until this point. The vertigo hit when he looked down into that well of ink. Their wrist lights caught nothing past a few meters of wall plating.

Then Rown dove downward, headlong into the abyss. Charli followed. Then Vero.

Down.

Down.

Down.

4

“There’s no sign of emergency power.” Charli’s voice was too loud for the darkness. Vero knew it was crazy, but he felt like they should be whispering.

He forced himself to speak at a normal volume: “Why would there be?”

“Something must be powering the gravity bubble,” Charli said.

“Reactors could stay hot for a thousand years. Emergency power’s just batteries.”

They’d brought batteries with them in hopes of powering up a computer terminal and accessing a map or manifest. But so far, they were just diving. Their aft entrance had led to a long service corridor for the engines. Down and down they went.

Rown’s arms suddenly tucked and his body rolled, his feet finding purchase on the bulkhead. Charli, an ex-breaker with plenty of zero-g combat experience came to a graceful halt. Vero, on the other hand, only managed to stop by striking each wall and then pitter-pattering along the bulkhead.

Rown pointed at a screen embedded in the wall, and Vero oriented himself to it. He produced tools from his belt and began to work open the panel beneath. Out the corner of his eye he saw the flicker of Rown’s lights panning the walls.

Vero pulled wires from the wall and ran them to the battery strapped to his thigh. The screen glared white.

“Shit. That’s bright,” Charli complained.

“What did you find?” Joorie’s voice, muddled with interference, crackled over the comm. “Do you have a map of the ship? A cargo manifest?”

No.” Vero squinted at the blank white screen. “Must be dependent on a central computer.”

Vero disconnected the battery, throwing the three of them again into darkness. He paused to let his eyes adjust and stowed his tools. Rown had already resumed the descent. It’s not down, just forward, Vero assured himself. He couldn’t let himself backslide into old fears. Not here.

“Let’s keep moving,” Charli said, sounding like an order.

“What’s going on?” Joorie begged. Vero could hear the wetness of his lips through the static in the audio.

“Nothing to report yet,” Charli assuaged.

“Let me know,” he pleaded.

“We will,” Charli said, and they went on arguing like that.

Vero focused on Rown who was now some distance ahead, diving headlong, sweeping the corridor with his wrist lights.

Moments later, without word or warning, the Sintronian’s body righted, his wrist lights found purchase on a mass, faint at first but coming into focus, formless, all gray and shadow like the silhouette of a shipwreck emerging from the deep.

Rown spoke only one word: “Bodies.”

“Bodies?” Joorie slurred. “Did he say bodies? Are there dead bodies?”

“Yes.” Charli exhaled.

Torn skin, white from exposure returned the light from their searching lamps. Hair waved like kelp in the vacuum. Closer, they could see clumps of ice clinging to orifices.

“Makes sense we’d find some.” Vero’s voice was hoarse and low, still trying not to whisper.

“How many are there?” Joorie yelled into their ears. “Are any in suits? Are they all human or other races? Tahalatian maybe? What’s their-“

“Shut up, Joorie,” Charli scolded, “or I’m cutting the channel.”

“I need updates!” But he fell silent.

Rown moved along the bulkhead, circumnavigating the bodies.

Why would all these people be in an access corridor?” Vero wondered.

Probably trying to escape whatever happened here,” Charli offered.

Towards the engines?” The only damage visible from the exterior was to the engines.

They took turns squeezing past. Vero didn’t care to look too closely. Charli made a thorough inspection, even touched them to rotate the mass. She counted eight bodies, all human, and appeased Joorie with a report.

You must be nearing the end of that corridor,” Joorie insisted.

Yes,” Charli hissed.

Vero looked up to see Rown’s lights moving over a hatch.

The engine room will be the aft-most section of the main part of the ship-“ Joorie began.

We can handle it.” Charli snapped. “Wait for a report.”

Vero oriented himself so that the hatch was the floor. Magnetizing his boots and pulling tools from his belt, he and Rown cut away the latching mechanism.

Inside their lights swept over blank consoles, mechanical equipment, conduits and piping tucked neatly along the walls of the double-height compartment.

“Engine room, alright,” Vero commented.

“Don’t bother with repairs,” instructed Joorie. “Our interest is in the cargo.”

“Don’t you want to know what happened here?”

“It is not the entire ship we wish to salvage,” Joorie blathered. “Perhaps it will be necessary to release the vessel from The Forever Bubble, but that may prove difficult.”

“Found the computer core.” Vero stood over a capped well in the floor.

“I agree with Joorie,” Charli said. “Let’s find the cargo hold.”

“Might be easier with a map of the ship,” Vero replied.

“Your little battery can’t run those processors.”

“Might be some static memory. Won’t take as much juice to access that.”

Over here,” Rown called. He had made it to the opposite side of the room where the ceiling jutted upwards the height of two more decks to accommodate the antiquated gravman.

Charli and Vero joined him where he examined scorch marks that blotted the core casing and the surrounding walls.

“What is it?” Joorie asked. His voice crackled in the radio, his excitement rising. “What do you see?”

“Those burn marks?” Vero asked. “Weapons fire?”

“It looks like there was an explosion or a fire,” Charli assessed, “but I don’t see anything else around us damaged. We should investigate the cargo.”

“From my vantage point,” Rown interrupted. “It looks to be directional in nature, but laser burns are more even than this.”

Could be electrical or plasma discharges?” Vero guessed.

Gentlemen, please,” Joorie insisted. “Let us keep our eye on the prize. We’re short on time.”

Destabilizing the gravman would eliminate the time crunch,” Vero offered, still examining the casing for damage that might hint at what had happened.

White light pulsed through the room.

Vero’s hand found the hilt of his gun, tucked unceremoniously in with his tools.

“It’s coming from the console by the computer core,” Charli said. The screen blared light into the room.

“Never messed with it.” Vero tapped the battery still strapped to his hip. “Shouldn’t have power.”

A panel in the wall to their left flickered, seemed to show some kind of schematic, then the door beside it began to open and shut. They couldn’t hear it in the silence of the airless room, but they hung still, watching it slide open and closed, open and closed.

“What’s going on?” Joorie demanded.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Charli’s hand drifted toward the gun on her chest.

Why are you two whispering?” Rown floated down next to them.

“Do Sintronians not feel fear?” She replied.

The console suddenly died, the shadows of the engine room’s equipment melding with the darkness.

“What’s happening?” Joorie’s strained voice screeched. “No one is saying anything. What should he be afraid of? What’s happening?”

“I’m turning you off,” Charli said.

“Wha- You better not!”

“We’ll report in every ten minutes.”

“That is not what we-“ His voice clicked off.

“Clearly there is still power,” Rown pointed his light at the door still opening and closing.

Just old equipment acting up.” Vero knew he sounded unconvinced and unconvincing.

Let’s get to the cargo hold and get the hell off this ship.” Charli motioned towards the door opposite the one that had been malfunctioning, and they all silently agreed it was their better option.

Charli supplanted Rown as point man, and moved through the twisting corridors as though she knew the ship. Maybe it was just the urgency of fear, but they didn’t stop to investigate storerooms, work areas, crew quarters or any other compartments. Occasionally, Vero’s lights would pass over more bulkheads blackened like those in the engine room.

They passed the occasional dead body, but the vacuum hadn’t killed these people, only preserved them. Scorches marred their torsos, cauterized flesh melted to clothing.

Charli checked in with Joorie twice, each time he begged for more information, launching a barrage of questions that Charli inevitably cut-off. Vero thought that maybe he should ask about the nature of their partnership, how long they’d worked together and if he was always like this, but years with Rown had left his conversation skills rusty. And their surroundings did little to put him in a social mood.

“There’s live electrical power ahead,” Charli warned from around the corner.

Vero rounded the turn and found blue lightning, arcing left to right across the corridor.

“I think I know how some of the people died,” Charli said.

“And what happened in the engine room,” added Vero. “Question is, what’s causin’ it?”

“No time to worry about that. There’s another way around.” Charli pushed off the floor and continued down a cross corridor.

“How do you know that?” Rown asked.

“There’s always another way around,” Charli sparred.

As they turned another bend, light sprang up, blocking their way again, painting the bulkhead in fresh scorch marks.

“It just me or did it start soon as we got here?” Vero asked.

“Could we be triggering a defense system?” Rown wondered.

“We may never make it to the cargo hold. It’s time to do this my way.” Charli pulled several pieces of piping from her bandolier and began fitting them together as she moved toward the dancing energy beams.

“Stay back.” Vero anchored himself to the decking, reached for Charli’s arm but missed.

“Do what your way?” Rown positioned himself above Vero.

Charli was doing something with her hands they couldn’t see, until she squared herself and held up the weapon she’d assembled.

The tendrils of lightning suddenly coalesced and jerked toward Charli in a single blast that caught her square in the breast and burst through the back of her suit in a wriggling array of untethered power. Her body lurched backward against the bulkhead at full force and bounced down the corridor towards them, limp and lifeless.

5

“How?” Joorie’s voice erupted through thick static.

“Took a blast to the chest from an energy discharge,” Vero replied. “Was tryin’ to disrupt the energy with some kinda weapon.”

“I told her not to take-“ His voice cut in and out as a high-pitched whistle rose over the fizzing static. “-must get to the… hold and-“

Rown examined his scanner.

“Those unidentified EM signals are much stronger here.”

“Expected them to be stronger once we got on board.” Vero tapped at the screen on his left forearm, trying to regain connection with Joorie.

“They were,” Rown said. “Charli and I compensated for them and choose bandwidths for our communications that would be less affected.”

“You sayin’ the interference has changed its register?”

Rown nodded.

Charli’s weapon floated too near the still pulsing electric bands for them to inspect it.

“No sense dragging her with us,” Vero said of Charli’s body. “Collect her on the way out.”

Unsurprisingly, Rown took this to mean that they were moving forward, and no further discussion was needed. He pushed off the wall and Vero followed.

They worked their way forward until they passed through a series of double hatches and out into a vast open space, the walls falling away in all directions. Vero magnetized his boots to the small platform jutting from the hatch. Rown floated out, one hand on the railing. There were no controls to be seen. Emergency gels glowed around the interior of the dome, a faint light in regular intervals. Vero checked to see if his flashlight was still on; the depth of the cavern swallowed his light.

The static on the channel to The Judge began to clear, and Vero could just make out the mumblings of Joorie.

“Joorie, you read us?”

“Yes! Yes! Where have you been? What’s going on?”

“Trying to get away from the energy blasts that killed Charli. Thought they might be disrupting the signal. I think we’re in the cargo hold.”

“The cargo hold!” Joorie’s voice ripped with excitement. “Tell me, what do you see?”

“Hard to explain,” Vero said, but he tried to convey what was before them: the huge spherical chamber with its faint grid of green lights.

“This question might seem strange, but is there an orb suspended in the middle of this space?”

“Just a big empty room,” Vero said. “Guess we were wrong about ships back then traveling with empty-“

Rown pointed straight out.

Vero squinted. Some of the lights were missing at the other end… no, there was something blocking them.

“Hold on.” Vero closed the channel.

They launched over the handrail, into the emptiness.

Rown had the forethought to really throw himself forward, his momentum quickly carrying him ahead of Vero. It took almost five whole minutes for Vero to traverse the space, but he got to watch as Rown’s flashlight gained dim purchase on the surface of a dark orb, featureless and non-reflective.

When Rown landed on it, it was barely bigger than him.

“I believe it’s constructed of glass or some ceramic material,” he said.

Vero hadn’t aimed as well as Rown and would have missed the sphere entirely were it not for the web of thin support wires that held the object in the room’s center. Vero saw one only seconds before he passed it and grabbed on, then used it to pull himself toward Rown. He reopened the channel to Joorie.

“We’re on the object.”

“Please, captain, I must insist that you stop closing our communications line.”

“How did you know this thing was here?”

“Do you see any access points? A terminal?”

“Over here,” Rown said.

Vero pulled himself along the surface and aimed his light where Rown pointed his. It looked like a place to connect a hose or conduit. Vero and Rown eye’s met.

“You’ve no doubt found the access point,” smacked Joorie’s voice.

“You suddenly seem to know a lot more about this ship than you originally let on.”

“Captain, this is vital. You must take your portable power unit and connect it to those terminals. It will bring the energy surges under control.”

“You have some explaining to do first,” Vero replied.

“Charli was supposed to do this. She was going to tell you to wait at the edge while she activated the containment circuit.”

“Sounds like you’ve been lying to us from the start.”

“Please, captain, consider carefully your next move.”

“I ain’t gonna keep drinking the first round of a bad night.” Vero cut the comm channel and grumbled, “look that up in your Luster Lingua dictionary.”

“Vero.” Rown pointed to a break in the lights mounted within the cavernous cargo hold. A single light was out. Or was it? The more Vero squinted at it the less he could tell.

Without further discussion, they both pushed off the sphere in unison.

As they flew, a tingling sensation crept up Vero’s limbs, like fish nibbling at his extremities.

“Do you feel that?” Rown asked. “Static electricity.”

“Thought it was just this place giving me the creeps.” But Vero knew there were too many weird things happening aboard this ship for it all to be mere coincidence.

“The space around us has a residual charge.” Rown tapped at the scanner in his outstretched palm.

“What’s producing it?”

“Nothing that I can tell.”

“And it hasn’t dissipated yet? Ship has been here for a century.”

Rown gave no reply and Vero assumed it was because he had no answer to offer.

“The light,” Vero pointed. “I can see it better now. Not green but pale blue and…”

A moment later they were on top of it. Rown’s perfect aim took him right to the source. Vero drifting about ten meters to the right.

“The residual energy charge is stronger here,” Rown said without looking at his scanner.

“Can’t feel it at all over here.” Vero carefully picked his way across the concave outer surface of the cargo hold. His skin began to tingle as he neared where Rown squatted examining the light. All around him, the wall was charred black.

“The lights are still shining because they’re a biolumiscent algae set into a small self-sustaining sphere. But something has ruptured this bulb.”

They contemplated this for a few moments in silence, Rown idly running his scanner along the outer wall and Vero surveying the enormous room. Had one of those energy bursts, like the one that killed Charli, struck the wall from that orb in the center of the hold, or the other way around?

“Think there’s only one way to get answers.”

Vero reactivated the comm line.

“Are you ready to cooperate, captain?” Joorie smacked.

“Ready to hear the truth.”

“Fine. The truth is the payout at the end of this mission will be bigger than you could possibly imagine. All you have to do is activate the containment circuit and report what happens. If all goes as planned, we can put your engineering expertise to use deactivating that gravity bubble and then tow this vessel and its cargo to my buyer.”

Vero looked over at Rown. Probably the only Sintronian in this part of The Arm, the only member of a race that knew how to build a gravity ram. And conveniently with Vero, a renowned engineer and adventurer. Joorie and Charli had chosen them very deliberately.

“And what cargo is that?” Vero pressed.

“I believe that matter would be best explained in person. Now, activate the containment circuit.”

“No intention of operating with half the information.”

“Last chance, captain.” Joorie’s voice strained to stay calm.

“Fine. You want to talk about it in person, we’re on our way back.”

“Not without activating the containment circuit.”

“Or what?”

“Or I collapse the gravity ram and leave you here to die.”

Rown stiffened, pushed himself closer to Vero

“No, you’re not going to do that.” Vero formed his words carefully. “We’re coming to you. Bringing Charli’s body. Talk this through.”

“I told you to think carefully about your next move.”

“C’mon, Joorie. Burst your bubble for a second.”

Silence.

“Joorie?”

All Vero could hear was the sound of his own breathing.

6

They made for the engine room the quickest way they knew.

Rown swept up Charli’s body as he passed it, pulling it weightlessly behind him, and they didn’t stop or even glance down the corridors glowing with the light of freewheeling electrical currents. Vero struggled to keep up as Rown bounded from bulkhead to bulkhead, gaining speed and soaring through the engine room and back up the long tunnel through which they’d entered.

When Vero at last pushed next to where Rown braced himself in the exterior hatch, he could see plainly: the probes were gone.

“Bastard!” Vero slammed a fist into the airlock controls, cracking the casing. He paused to collect himself and check that he hadn’t punctured the glove of his suit.

The Judge is still here?” Rown noted.

Vero looked up from his glove and followed Rown’s gaze to the slender shape of Joorie’s ship, faint against the black.

“Probably decidin’ if he actually wants to leave us here.”

“Our only option is to try and deactivate The Forever Bubble.”

“If we can get to the communications array, might be able to send an override message to Joorie’s systems – get through even though he cut the channel.”

“What would you say to him?” Rown asked.

Good point, Vero thought.

Rown started back down the tunnel, pulling Charli behind like a doll and eventually stowing her under a workstation in the engine room just as casually.

Vero went straight back to the towering column that held the gravman. The circuitry in the emergency shut-off valves hadn’t just been fused, it had been rewired and rerouted – but through bursts of energy that had melted components together and seared others apart.

Just isn’t possible,” Vero said after he’d explained what he’d found to Rown.

“And yet.” It was all Rown needed to say.

Staring at them, Vero felt again like he was looking at the tangle of parts under the hood of his father’s pick-up truck before he’d learned a lick about engines and their workings. The basics of a gravman hadn’t changed in the centuries since their invention, but whatever happened here rewrote that playbook.

“All I can tell you,” Vero moved his scanner over the terminals running into and out of the circuit frame, “is that this unit is still receiving power from the main reactors. Only thing that is.”

“That can’t be right.” Rown’s unspoken question hung in the silence between them: if all the power was going to The Forever Bubble, what was causing those bursts of energy around the ship?

“And yet.” Vero replied.

Vero unspooled the length of cable attached to the small of his back and – after some trial and error – managed to connect it to the gravman to siphon off energy. The whole procedure risked electrocution but at this point he had little to lose.

He connected the wiring to his battery, another operation that risked electrocution as well as an overload that could blow the battery out. But the hope was that the battery’s power converter would handle the intake.

What are you doing?” Rown asked.

Tapping the computer memory.” He flew over to the well in the floor that held the ship’s processor cores and dove in, trailing the length of cable. He yanked at wiring until he isolated a single processor, then gritted his teeth as he connected the cord from the reactor.

It’s booting.” Rown called, then, “I’ve found a map of the ship.”

Learn anything?”

Rown didn’t reply. The answer was probably ‘no’ but Vero had no more time for guess work or walking on tiptoes around his partner.

Learn anything?”

Sorry.” Rown apologized for the first time since Vero had known him. “I was trying to connect to internal sensors and overlay it with the map. So far, all I can tell you is that we were in fact in the cargo hold earlier and that the part of the ship we were near when Charli died contains both the ship’s communications array as well as a large greenhouse.”

If we go to the communications array, we risk getting’ ourselves fried too,” Vero summed.

At first Rown said nothing, then he answered, “Right,” almost as an afterthought.

Vero ascended and settled in front of the monitor that earlier had flashed manically and without warning. Moments passed in silence while the two tried to coax information from the ship’s computer.

“Found the ship’s logs,” Vero announced. He selected the last one, tied the audio to their suit comms, and hit play.

The monitor displayed a bald, dark-skinned human woman.

Systems malfunctioning all over the ship. Two more deaths to report. Crewman Sheils and Rimwa. Electrical discharges of course.” She paused, focused on something offscreen. “We’re trying to isolate systems but… I feel like a military ship would have procedures for this. The infirmary is still full after the Y-module vented. Same thing happened to H and L but they were empty. Half the crew is trying to figure out how to create a quarantine or barrier while the rest are trying to fix whatever it did to the engines. If they can get the bubble drive to deactivate, we can at least abandon ship.” The log cut-off.

“No more after that. Lot of the files before that one are corrupted. Whatever’s gotten into these computers totally fragged them.”

“That’s consistent here,” Rown reported, looking back at his own console. “The navigational charts are so muddled I can’t get a sense of where this ship has been or what ways the pilot plotted. If the starcharts were paper, it’d be like a child cut them up and scattered them on the floor.”

Vero turned to look at his pilot. He’d never heard him use a creative analogy before. Then again, they’d spoken more in the last few days than they had in the last few years.

Another entry began to play, audio only:

“Explosion in the engine room now. We don’t know how exactly but-“ static interrupted the recording “-jumping all over the ship. The zenobiologists says it can move-“

The lights of the engine room began to flicker.

“’Member earlier? You insisted we were alone?”

“We are alone,” Rown condescended. “I have a reading on something. It looks like environmental systems are still functional in several sections of the ship.”

“Environmental systems?” Vero asked.

“I’m not reading heat and air, but the sensors show a dense gaseous atmosphere in the ship’s greenhouse.”

“Some kind of malfunction?” Vero demagnetized his boots and slid towards Rown to survey the map and sensor overlay.

“If I disagree with you, I would be agreeing that we’re not alone,” Rown retorted.

Man, this guy is blunt, Vero thought. And kinda funny.

“Not necessarily. Could be something the crew set up.”

“Why would the crew create a toxic gas chamber? It must be a malfunction. It could be the sensors themselves, or their uplink to the computers, which I believe you described as ‘fragged.’”

Vero chuckled.

“Yeah. Whole situation is fragged.” Vero sighed. “I can’t make sense of the gravman. Maybe we should try to contact Joorie. This greenhouse is right next to the comm array. We could check it-“
The screen Vero had been working at flicked on. The face of the captain appeared but for only a second.

You-“ she said before the screen flashed back to a scrolling directory.

The captain appeared again, dressed differently this time.

-had better-“ was all she managed before the log entry disappeared, the directory again spastically twitching before them.

How far away-“ Vero started but the captain interrupted again.

-go back-“

Vero opened his mouth to speak, but Rown held up a hand.

-where-“ “-you-“

Rown’s face slowly turned to look at Vero, fear in his eyes for the first time.

-came-“ she said. “-from.”

7

The screen didn’t return to the directory after the last word, instead freezing on the captain, her mouth agape, mid-phrase.

Tell me no one is here now.” Vero couldn’t help but whisper.

AI?” Rown suggested.

Not enough power,” Vero shook his head.

True. There shouldn’t even be enough for the atmosphere in the greenhouse. And before you ask me if something could live in there-“

I know,” Vero snapped. He’d seen the readouts Rown had found. The pressure was too low, and the gasses were what you might find in a nebula.

The captain’s face reanimated, jerking, a possessed puppet, as the image flickered from one entry to the next.

“Do not-“ Her uniform changed. “-go-“ Out of uniform now. “-near-“ A long pause while the screen flashed between the log directory and the captain’s bald, dark face, contorted in various frozen stills mid-speech. Finally, she said, “here.”

“Creepy,” Vero assessed.

Rown gave a clipped nod and kicked toward the long corridor through which they’d entered.

“Where are you going?” Vero called.

Rown didn’t respond and then was gone.

Vero gritted his teeth. Rown had always been uncommunicative; he had never flat out ignored him.

The captain’s frozen face twitched on the computer screen. Vero shuddered and went after Rown. When he passed the bodies, he realized they’d left Charli’s behind.

At the hatch, Rown pulled himself through and disappeared.

“Rown!” Vero shouted.

Vero pulled himself through the hatch. Rown waited on the hull, a few meters off.

Vero’s occupation had forced him long ago to face his childhood fear of spacewalks, but this was the first time he genuinely relished the openness of space. After the catacombs of the derelict, the stars seemed positively brilliant.

Whatever is in the ship,” Rown began, “it was listening to our conversation. Whenever we discussed going to the sections containing the comm array and the greenhouse it spoke to us through the captain.”

At least he had a good reason for taking off without talking, Vero thought.

“Let’s make a plan. Together,” Vero added.

Rown gave a conceding nod. “I propose we don’t even re-enter.”

Like the sound of that. Just try to access the array from the outside?”

Even if Joorie won’t listen to reason, we can remotely tell our freighter to come pick us up. However, we’ll have to devise another plan for penetrating the gravity bubble.”

Vero looked out towards their plane. The Judge was moving towards it.

I see it, too.” Rown said.

Vero pulled himself over the edge, magnetized his boots to the hull and began to walk. He had to plod along the outside of the hull, pulling the magnetized boots upwards with every step, making it difficult to keep up with Rown who felt comfortable enough untethered. He patted the hull of the ship with his fingertips, pulling himself along, centimeters from its surface.

“You know, never asked you how you got so good in low and zero-g.” The instant the question left Vero’s lips he knew it was the kind he’d learned not to ask years ago. The kind of question that Rown had shrugged off or flat ignored in their early days together, teaching Vero that silence would reign between them.

To his surprise, Rown answered.

“From seven years old, I trained in Mocktwa, a martial art traditional to the first colonists who left the homeworld for Sintron’s seven moons. Each moon has its own varying low gravity and in the spaces between there was none at all. We’ve always valued hand-to-hand combat and such an environment necessitated a new form.”

“Since you were seven,” Vero marveled as they rounded a broad curve in the ship’s exterior. “Ever get tired of it?”
“Do you ever get tired of building and fixing machines?”

“Not much else to do on the plane.”

“But you do prefer the company of machines. It’s one reason that I’ve left you alone.”

Wait. You’ve been leaving me alone?” Vero asked. Maybe it was the strenuous walk, but he suddenly felt out of breath.

We’ve barely spoken these last few years,” Rown returned. “You barely speak to anyone. When I signed on, you’d just spent almost four years alone on the Yachai Run. Though it had garnered you fame, you were trying your best to avoid everyone. The press. The authorities. Me.”

Different time in my life,” Vero cleared his throat. “Wanted to be alone. Wanted to get as far away from The Arm and everything that had to do with the war and being human. Guess I was kind of a loner. Thought you were to.”

I come from a collective society. Most Sintronians never shut up.”

Vero blurted out a laugh.

You’re kidding! Most humans don’t either. Particularly Lusters. But, when we first met, hadn’t you just spent years meditating with the monks in the arctic circle?”

Just a few weeks,” Rown corrected. “I’ll admit that I enjoyed that time with my own thoughts. I left my world to seek my own independence. I apologize if telling you about my time at the hermitage was false advertising. I’ve tried to remain silent, but these years of silence have been… difficult to endure. I’ve been living on the night side of Nabuc.”

Wait. First, you’re social, now you know Luster Lingua?” Vero couldn’t hide the incredulity in his voice any longer. The expression Rown had used referred to the lush garden world, that, due to its slow rotation around its three suns, has a sliver of the planet always in twilight. It was an expression of unrequited joy – the agony of living so close to beauty and being unable to see it.

I just started to learn recently. I thought it might be a way to connect with you.”

You were trying to connect with me. All this time I should have…”

Burst your bubble?”

Yeah.”

With the drive section of the ship behind them now they could see the comm array jutting from the hull that tapered conically forward.

Once there, Vero found an access panel near the base and Rown helped him pry it up without flinging himself into the void.

The bright flare of engines snatched their attention.

There was a mass beneath The Judge. Vero toggled the binocular function of his suit’s visor and in the instant before Joorie activated the bubble drive, he recognized the shape of his freighter.

And then, both were gone.

8

There was no sense trying to activate the comm array. There would be no rescue. No sense returning to the engine room either. Restarting the engines was a longshot even without the interference of an unknown entity.

They deactivated their comm lines and opened the comm array’s access hatch. The narrow corridors twisting back into the ship were lined with blown wall panels, crowded with debris. They passed a body half in a pressure suit.

It was their only choice, to face the problem while they still had air, but it felt like facing certain doom, lowering themselves down the throat of the beast.

From ahead, light caught Vero’s eye. Not the brilliant displays of lightning, but marbled and flowing, like the ambient light from an aquarium.

They turned the corner and found a glass tunnel: an observation corridor. To their left: the stars. To their right: what should have been the greenhouse was an indoor nebula. The gas shifted in tumultuous waves, as though an object ran through it, stirring up currents and swirling eddies. Light danced inside the ebbing cloud of bruised orange and violet, like the chaotic beats of a tesla coil.

The flashes reminded Vero of heat lightning over the Greensky prairie. Though it gave brief definition to the darker depths of the nebula, Vero could make out no forms.

White energy smashed against the glass right in front of them. The ominous feeling of static electricity climbed Vero’s limbs. Two finger-like sparks no larger than the arcs of old incandescent light bulbs flayed out into the corridor where they stood.

Before either could move, the wisps of energy leapt toward their suits.

The dead captain’s voice filled Vero’s ears.

Leave – me.”

We can’t.” Rown implored. Somehow Vero could hear him too. “We’ve been abandoned here.”

I have – too – been –“ and then it replayed Rown’s voice instead of the captain’s: “– abandoned here.”

“Who are you?” Vero asked.

As response, a log entry began to play.

“The plan is to use the ramscoop in an outer band of the nebula when the xenobiologists detect certain energy patterns. They say they’re indicative of brainwave patterns. I leave that part of the job up to them-“ An electric hum marked a pause, then the captain continued. “After two weeks without success, we started broadcasting signals into the nebula: your basic hello in every known language and some common math patterns. It was Joorie’s idea, not mine, but it sure as hell worked. The energy, for lack of a better word, swarmed toward us. I thought we were under attack, but then it all just stopped a few kilometers from us and held there. We broadcast again and a smaller burst moved towards us.“ The logs skipped one last time. “-the entity is secure. The suspension frame is working exactly as the xenobiologists predicted. We’re en route to Brocca.”

Rown began typing on his arm pad, his eyes reading the ghostly silhouettes that appeared inside his helmet.

The light before them swelled closer to the glass. Vero couldn’t make out any shape or form, just a bright ball of energy, crawling with electric arcs. The beam tethered to his suit grew with intensity and the captain’s voice said, “Are – you – Brocca?”

“No,” Vero spat. “Didn’t know you were here. This was a salvage mission.”

If I plot a trajectory between the Brocca homeworld and this ship,” Rown offered, “adjusting for drift and time, it would lead here.”
A starchart appeared in Vero’s heads-up display. A line began at the Brocca homeworld, ran through their current position and ended at a nebula deep in the galactic arm, almost to Farconian space: The Jantori Nebula.

“Heard rumors about that nebula,” Vero said.

“Of it being haunted?” Rown nodded. “So have I. Mostly from drunk Lusters in spaceport bars.”

“Sounds about right.”

“You heard the captain mention the name Joorie, right?”

“Can’t be a coincidence.”

The arcs of energy connected to their suits suddenly brightened.

“It was Joorie’s idea – It was Joorie’s idea – It was Joorie’s idea –“ The captain’s voice replayed over and over. Then it switched to Vero’s own, from earlier: “Joorie, you read us? – Joorie, you read us? – Joorie, you read us?”

“Yes, Joorie came back for you,” Vero shouted over himself. “But we didn’t know. He tricked us into being here. Told us it was a salvage mission.”

Vero’s voice ceased.

“We did not know you were here,” Rown assuaged. “I would never be involved in the capture of a sentient species.”

“Neither would I,” Vero joined.

“It’s killed everyone!” The dead captain cried into their helmet, pleading and desperate and dying, her voice strained with grief and fear. “It can move through the ship at will! It vented the rest of the bridge crew. Joorie’s shuttle made it out, but… it’s done something to the gravman. I just watched all the escape pods torn to pieces.”

“They captured you,” Rown said. “What you did was self-defense. We’re not here to punish you or get retribution. Joorie might have been, but not us.”

There was a long pause before the entity spoke again through the captain.

Can – you – take – me – home?”

Vero felt his heart drop. He looked over at Rown, wishing they could confer without the entity listening. Rown seemed to read his mind.

We’re off the charts with this one.” Rown said in Luster Lingua, meaning doubt about an unfamiliar situation. Could they trust this being?

Distress calls often get lost in galactic background noise.” It was one of the most common sayings among Lusters. You help others, otherwise in space we’re all alone.

How dead do you think I am?” Rown’s retort was an invitation to look at the obvious problems. The being had killed its captors, Charli, and had tried to kill them.

Vero considered this. He wondered what the alien was thinking, listening to what must have seemed like gibberish. How confused and alone it must be. It had been alone for a long time.

Rown,” Vero spoke plainly. “I think we’ve all been alone long enough. It’s time to burst your bubble.”

9

The Judge plowed through space before them, Vero’s plane in tow.

“His scopes have been able to see us approaching for days now.” Vero, struggling with the ship’s ancient engines, growled impatiently. They wouldn’t make it all the way to the Jantori Nebula, not like this. He wanted his freighter back.

“And yet, he’s made no change in course,” Rown replied from the bridge.

He’s not used to being the one pursued, Friend’s text scrolled across their helmet displays.

That’s what Rown had dubbed their new companion after they had been unable to communicate a name.

Vero had thought it would take weeks, if ever, to get the ship running again, but Friend had been able to do more than just deactivate the Forever Bubble. Able to move into and manipulate systems, a being of plasmatic energy makes for a great mechanic.

While Vero kept the old ship from falling apart, Rown spent patient hours teaching Friend how to communicate through a text software. Freed of their slaver’s voice, Friend told them of life in the Jantori Nebula, a collective of beings made of light. It reminded Rown of home, the Sintronian Common. Vero only thought of the torture it must have been, for Friend to be alone for so long.

“Too bad we couldn’t get the weapons working,” Vero said.

“We don’t need to fire on Joorie, just show him that we can,” Rown mused aloud, a new habit that Vero was fond of. “Friend, can you enter the energy banks near the forward weapon’s array and make it appear as though we’ve powered them?”

Of course.

A new array of systems came to life. Targeting controls asked for input. The ruse fooled even their own ship.

The Judge’s engines came to life. Joorie jettisoned Vero’s plane as he banked away.

“Time to go home.” Vero smiled.

“If there’s one thing Joorie has always proven, he knows when to run away,” Rown said.

This time, he won’t come back.

The forward weapons fired.

It wasn’t like lightning in an atmosphere. Across the distance of space, you could see the white lance of energy.

“Friend!” Rown yelled. “No!”

I am still here.

“How?” Vero asked.

I sacrificed part of myself.

The beam struck The Judge. Its engines flickered, died.

“Showing life support, but not much else functioning.” Vero’s hands tapped at the readings from the scopes. “Reactors crippled. He’s alive, but not going anywhere.”

Leave him.

10

The nebula sprawled, a breath of cold air fossilized in amber.

In the cockpit, Vero leaned on the back of Rown’s chair. They had evacuated Friend to a pod filled with the makeshift nebula from the vessel’s greenhouse before abandoning the derelict. Adrift in space once more, but without attendants, the reactors soon overloaded, committing the bodies within to the vacuum.

With Friend’s help, the old freighter ran better than ever. It no longer called for the naggings of a nursemaid engineer. Friend spoke of the freighter as though it were alive, said it only caused problems to keep Vero’s attention and to give Vero something to do. Vero counted this as the quirk of an alien left alone far too long and didn’t question it. The freighter functioned better than ever, and he no longer needed or wanted to hide in the engine room from Rown.

“Safe to take you in?” Vero asked, remembering the tales of vessels disappearing near the nebula.

Yes, but be careful. My people may still be wary of vessels since my abduction.

How many of those ships wouldn’t have disappeared, Vero wondered, if Joorie hadn’t taken this individual?

Rown nudged the freighter toward the nebula. Wisps of cloud trailed past them, orbiting some vague gravitational center.

Flashes began, faint at first, like the deep discharges of an underwater battle, then grew to bursts within a thunderhead, then arcs and bands of energy that darted about them. Vero’s stomach tightened, but he didn’t feel as though he were back in the war until a beam leapt across the bow, shaking the freighter in its course.

“Close enough maybe?” Vero gripped the back of Rown’s chair.

Yes. Release me. I must tell them that you are not enemies. That you have saved me.

“Talk fast,” Vero urged.

“Good luck, Friend.” Rown released the clamps that held Friend’s pod to the freighter. It floated away, then opened in a rushing plume alight with static.

Friend, a streak of light, leapt into the cloud.

The nebula around them exploded with blinding light, bulbs bursting, a thousand thunderstorms at once.

“Effect on the plane?” Vero slid into a chair, staggering under the illumination, unable to see the screens in front of him. “Rown?”

The light receded.

Rown stared after it, his face rapt in ecstasy and wonder.

“What a welcome home.”

As Vero’s eyes adjusted to the nominal light, he was able to make out tears on Rown’s cheeks.

Can you imagine such a return? They don’t have bodies so it must be like… like…”

Vero almost held his tongue, but let the old habit die.

Like being in a collective?”

Whether Rown had chosen to leave the society that made him, or he was in exile, he had to miss that unparalleled closeness. Well, not unparalleled now, Vero thought, looking at the lights within the nebula.

“Like transcendence,” exhaled Rown.

“Guess Friend got the message through.”

Rown cleared his throat. “Yes. They must have.”

“On to the next job. Back to Mohpar? Could go for some soup at The Warmer Climate.

Rown glanced over at Vero. And smiled. “I think I’ll join you.”

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