“Tianmen 1, do you copy?”
“Loud and clear, Su. How’s the shaft looking?”
Su stared out the shuttle’s windscreen. “Worse,” she replied. “Looks like the breach is getting bigger.”
“Eskel, how’s that prep coming along?”
“All clear down here, Ping. Just waiting for the wife to let me loose.”
“Roger that. Activating the toolbot now. Be careful out there, okay?”
“He’ll be fine,” asserted Su.
“Yeah, you’re right. Hail when you’re done guys. Tianmen 1 out.”
An arc of AR screens surrounded Su inside the cockpit. She enlarged the one displaying feed of Eskel in the airlock, shifting it to the centre while swiping the rest aside. “Ready?” she asked.
“You bet,” he answered, looking up into the lens. The sound of a kiss came through the comms as he raised two fingers to his visor. He pressed them up against the camera, as he always did when stepping out.
Su smirked. Once upon a time she had thought the gesture silly. Stubbornly, she still pretended not to like it, though it was obvious Eskel knew it was an act she now enjoyed. “Are you dirtying my camera again?” she teased.
“Opening the hatch now,” said Su as she worked the controls. “Try not to make a mess out there.”
“But I’m so good at it.”
“I’ll be fine, Su. You said so yourself.”
Su clicked in the button to release the shuttle’s hatch. It lit up as the airlock door opened under Eskel. He gave one last look into the camera and slipped out into space.
It was no one’s fault that this had happened. The elements take their toll. Of the Earth’s three space elevators, Tianmen 1 was the oldest. It had been standing now for a near forty years. If anything, Su was surprised that it had taken so long for something to go wrong. While the damage itself was rather minimal, the repairs had already cost them one member of their crew. Blake had been a close friend since Su was a cadet. She had barely come to terms with the fact that he was gone. Now it was her husband out there, given no other choice but to try and finish the job.
Eskel sailed up into view. Su had never known anyone to be quite as deft with a projection pack, almost smiling as she watched him soar across the open sky. Below the light of Bejing-Yi burned brightly, the distant, golden threads of civilisation stemming out from the elevator’s base like roots of a giant tree. It all looked so peaceful from up here. So still. Her attention returned to Eskel, now anchoring himself to a truss above the damaged section of the shaft. “Could you check your dampener levels?” she asked politely.
“They’re fine, hon.”
“Blake said the same when he was out there. Check ‘em.”
“You’re the boss,” Eskel quipped as he glanced down at his wrist. “Yep. They’re fine. Told you.”
“Just being thorough, Eskel.”
“Are you sending that toolbot out, or what?”
Su frowned. This was no time to be reckless. Not with so much at stake.
“Hold your horses, it’s coming.” She took the toolbot’s controls in hand, steering the rectangular block from underneath the shuttle. The white slab of metal was as old as the station itself, its dinged up titanium hull bearing the scars to prove it. Nearing the rupture in the shaft, she lowered the thrust and pitched the projectors outward, holding it steady in place. Most of the toolbot’s functions could be automated, but Su never liked to trust a machine with work she could do herself.
“Best get to it then,” Eskel said. “I don’t want to miss dinner.”
“Eskel, enough already.”
“You can’t tell me you’re not excited for noodle night.”
Su straightened in her chair. “Let’s just get this done, alright? Cut the jokes and focus.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Eskel unpacked the soldering cannon, assembled it and connected it to his suit. “Panels, please.”
Su activated the toolbot’s material rack, the ceramic-aluminium plates jutting out in a gentle tier. “They’re good to go.”
“Much obliged,” Eskel answered, magnetically latching to the first one with his gloves. He carefully slid it out and began to lead it down towards the shaft.
“Watch those dampeners,” warned Su.
She nervously bit her lip.
Eskel spun with confidence, rotating into the perfect position as his feet made contact with the shaft. The sight of its open insides was unsettling; a soupy, sizzling network of nanothread never meant to be exposed. Lowering the first plate into place, Eskel ignited the cannon. “Brazing now,” he announced, the purple light of the laser reflecting in his visor.
Su watched him closely, sighing in relief once he had fused the plate onto the shaft. “Good work,” she said.
“Piece of cake,” he replied.
“Don’t get cocky now.”
“Going back for number two.” He floated up to the toolbot and withdrew a second plate.
“Sorry,” Su said softly. “I shouldn’t have snapped.”
“It’s okay,” he said, starting to solder as he spoke. “I get it.”
“I know, honey. I know.”
Eskel cleared his throat. “So, any chance you happened to catch what kind of noodles they were tonight?”
Su chuckled. “I did, actually.”
“Soy and…” she paused.
“Always with the tease!”
Su laughed. “Soy and mushroom.”
“Oh. Oh, my. Do I dare ask what kind?”
Su leaned in close up to the mic. “Oyster.”
“Aw, now you’re just talking dirty, baby.”
“Cool it, Eskel. We’re still on open comms up here.”
“I make no secret of my love for oyster mushrooms. Maybe if they’re listening they’ll send a few more up next run.”
“Yeah,” said Su, resting back into her chair. “Sure they will.”
“What is it?”
It happened in an instant. The plates both crumpled inward, sucking Eskel into the shaft.
“Eskel!” Su leapt from her chair, banging her fist against the windshield. “No! No.” It was too late. He was gone.
Su woke, lying face down in her bed. She exhaled into the pillow. What time was it? What day? She reluctantly rolled over, sat up and flopped her feet onto the floor. Ping was probably stressing. The work would be piling up. Su crossed her quarters to the bathroom. She waved a hand under the sensor for the tap. Splashing water across her face, she caught a glimpse of her reflection. “You look like shit,” she muttered to herself.
Walking out to the control room, Su caught Ping speaking with command. She was filing their weekly report. It was a conversation that Su had heard a thousand times before, save for the matter of the trouble at the shaft. She sat down quietly in the back. Ping didn’t seem to notice.
“It’s a problem,” the speakers blared. “A big one.”
Ping sighed. “Trust me, I know. But we can’t just keep throwing people at it.”
“We understand that there have been some complications.”
“Two people are dead, Gregor.”
“Yes. A tragedy, to be sure.”
“Careful now,” mocked Ping. “I almost believed you for a second there.”
Su scowled from her seat. The bastards couldn’t care less.
“Well,” Ping suggested, “if the cargo’s that important, just have them speak to the US. Or Sumeru.”
“Olympus is military only these days. They won’t budge on that. And Sumeru will tax us through the roof.”
Ping brought up an animation stream on one of the old security monitors. She shifted slightly in her chair, grinning as the two giant mecha on screen began to duke it out.
“Ping? Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” she groaned. “I just don’t know what else to tell you.”
“This is a trillion yuan operation here. We can only slow the wheels so much. My people are getting anxious.”
“Well,” Ping said curtly, “maybe tell your people to come up with a solution that doesn’t involve another death.”
There was a short, tense silence. For a second, Su considered speaking up.
Ping switched off the cartoon. “Storm preps almost done.”
“Good. I do realise that you’re working with a limited crew up there now. Are you sure you don’t want me to transfer some of the dock workers upstairs?”
“Please,” Ping scoffed. “Those thugs can barely drive a gravlift. We’ll be fine.”
“We do appreciate you taking on the extra responsibility while Commander Su is indisposed.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Alright then, I’ve got a meeting to catch. But we need to fix this.”
“You need to fix this, Gregor. And quickly, by the sounds of things. I’ve heard your people down there are getting anxious.”
“You’re hilarious, as always. I’ll be in touch.”
Ping ended the call.
“Slimy fuck,” Su cursed as she stood up.
“Su!” shrieked Ping, jolting in her chair. “You’re awake. I didn’t even…how long have you been sitting there?”
“Long enough to hear you talk about throwing people at the shaft.”
“Su, I — ”
“I’m going to go take inventory,” Su interrupted coldly. She retrieved her wrist unit and slid it on, wincing at the familiar prick of the connector current against her skin.
“There’s work to be done,” she replied, syncing her cornea implants to the heads up display for the hangar.
“We should talk.”
Su looked up from her wrist. “About what?”
“About Eskel,” Ping pleaded, spinning her chair to face her.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Anything. I don’t know. Oh, by the way, your mother called.”
“You should probably call her back.”
“Can I just get back to work already? Or were you not done telling me what to do?”
Ping frowned. “You’re right. Sorry. I’ll let you get to it.”
“Finally,” Su grumbled as she turned to leave.
“I just want to say,” Ping paused. “He was a good man, Su.” She chuckled. “For a cosmonaut, at least.”
Su shook her head.
“Sorry. Bad joke, huh?”
“No,” Su replied as she was walking out the door. “He would have liked it.”
Su set her food tub on the table and sat down. She peeled back the lid and winced. It was beet night. She hated beets.
Ping was already halfway through her meal, nervously watching from the other end of the table.
“Say something already,” Su huffed.
“I got another call from Gregor.”
“Sounds like he’s figured something out.”
Su pierced a warm beet with her spork. She chewed it slowly.
“You aren’t curious what it is?” Ping teased.
Su swallowed and shot her a look.
“Where from?” Su asked.
“Japan. Izanami Industries.”
“Never heard of them,” said Su, staring disdainfully at her meal.
“Ever hear of Santo Kiyoshi?”
Su glanced up. “Rings a bell.”
“He’s the fox guy.”
“Right. The fox guy.”
Ping seemed even more excitable than normal. “That’s who they’ve tapped to build it.”
Su dropped her spork and brushed her food aside. She sized up the mess room door a moment before turning back to Ping. “Who builds a fake fox, anyway? What’s the point? It doesn’t even do anything.”
Ping giggled. “It’s a showpiece, obviously. You’ve seen it, right?”
“I have. Just looks like a fox.”
“With eight extra tails,” Ping chirped.
“La di da.”
“I thought it was pretty cool.”
“You would,” Su replied in a sharper tone than intended. She huffed. “All that I’m trying to say is that I just don’t — ”
“You don’t like robots?”
“I’m fine with robots. As long as they don’t get in my way.”
Ping smirked, leaning in a little closer. “What about AI?”
Su shook her head. “That stuff’s nothing but trouble.”
“You’re one of those.”
“Look, I’m no primitive, Ping. I just know that messing with AI, it’s…it’s reckless. It won’t end well for anyone.”
Su picked up her spork. “Did Gregor give you any idea of what this Kiyoshi would be sending?”
“It better not be a damn fox.”
“Did he say when?”
“Soon. That’s all. Now eat your beets.”
The airlock light turned green. Su checked the readings on her wrist. Something wasn’t right. She hailed Ping on comms. “Getting some weird-ass signals on the scan down here.”
“Radiation?” Ping replied.
“No, it’s…I’ve honestly no idea. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Gregor mentioned this might happen. Kiyoshi’s tech apparently has quite the reputation for being a little…different. As long as the grav and rads are fine, we should be good to go.”
Su suddenly found herself intrigued. “So, we just let them in then?” she asked.
“Let them in.”
The giant doors of the airlock buzzed as they began to open. Above them the orange sirens pulsed, throwing light across the hangar. While hardly the jealous type, Su felt a tweak of envy at first sight of the Sumeru shuttle. She watched in admiration as it floated past along the maglev track. Sumeru was only ten years old. Their hypersonic shuttles were still the quickest in their class, save for the Venusian Wisps. “Just look at you,” Su sighed as it pivoted to park. So sleek a craft was just aching to be flown. To be pushed. It was a shame that none of the Sumeru pilots would ever muster the spunk to do it. They were all the sensitive, yogic types. They liked to take things slow. With a hiss, the shuttle’s rear loading ramp swung open, and a tall male vyomanaut walked out to greet her. It was the first man other than Blake or Eskel that she had seen in quite some time. He was handsome. Chiselled cheekbones, smooth brown skin and a thick, proud moustache. Su caught a glimpse of his co-pilot. He was still up in the shuttle, detaching the web of cargo restraints from the mysterious new machine. Su couldn’t make out much beyond the fact that it was large and chrome.
The moustached man spoke first. “Commander Su?” he asked.
“You must be new,” she replied. “Welcome to Tianmen 1.”
“Much obliged. Ravi Dumra.” He offered her his hand.
Su shook it. His grip was gentle, yet strong. This was a man well in control.
Ravi gestured with his head towards their shuttle. “That’s Bhavesh in there, but you’ll likely want to associate with him as little as possible.”
“Why’s that?” Su asked.
“He’s an ass.”
She smirked. “Any trouble on your ride over?”
“None. Save for Bhavesh’s whining, of course.”
Su leaned to one side to better examine the shuttle’s engines. “Bet she flies like a dream,” she remarked.
Ravi grinned. “Does she ever. Cracked Mach 12 on her just last week.”
“Hell yeah,” he replied. “Damn near tore my face off.”
“I didn’t think you Sumeru lot were into that kind of thing.”
“Can you blame me? A craft like that’s just aching to be pushed.”
Su scoffed. “Right.”
“I’d be happy to take you up some time. Show you what she can do? I’m sure I could get it green-lit as a training exercise.”
Su turned from the shuttle to face him. She caught the scent of his cologne.
His eyes were locked on hers now. A confident smile framed his face. He winked, sending an awful, uncomfortable heat flushing through her cheeks.
Su was mortified. She hadn’t reacted to a man like this since — “How’s your storm prep going?” she blurted out to change the subject.
“I suppose we’re as ready as we can be. Won’t know for sure until it hits.”
“Uh-huh,” Su murmured back. She walked towards the shuttle, watching Bhavesh as he wheeled the enormous, ovoid-shaped container down the ramp into the hangar. “This is it then?” she asked Ravi, avoiding eye contact best she could.
“Indeed it is,” he replied, walking up beside her. “Very, very expensive this one. Whole lot of hubbub in making sure it got here safely.”
“What is it, exactly?”
“We don’t know. We were given strict instructions not to open it. I’m sure you know more than anyone how Bejing-Yi gets with their tech.”
“I do,” Su said flatly. An awkward silence followed.
“Apologies, Commander Su. If I have spoken out of turn — ”
“No, no. Of course not. You’re fine. You’re great.” She was panicking. “It’s just, umm…” She pointed towards Bhavesh. “Does he need help?”
Ravi paused. “Uh, sure. I suppose I could give him a hand. Should I?”
“Yep. Sure, that’s…yeah. Good.” Su cringed.
“Okay then,” Ravi said with a nod. “I guess I best hop to it.”
Su stood alone in the hangar. She felt a fool. Tripping over her words like some giddy little schoolgirl. Her embarrassment quickly fell to guilt. The whole thing was downright shameful. A betrayal, accident or not. Eskel has barely been gone a week, and here she was… “Fuck!” she cried out loud. This was the last thing she needed. Grief alone was bad enough.
Ping piped up over comms. “Su? Everything okay down there?”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine. You coming down or what?”
“On my way. Please tell me you haven’t opened it yet?”
Su stared up at the strange container before her. “No. Not yet.”
“Awesome,” Ping replied. “See you in two.”
It kind of looks like an egg, Su thought. A giant, silver egg. Certainly nothing like the plastic crates things usually arrived in. The protocol for new machinery was for it to be sent in separate pieces. Assembly was always handled on site. This was an exception. Due to the supposed complexity of the device, it had been prepped by Kiyoshi himself. All they had to do was open it. Su searched for the controls. She couldn’t spot a single seam, let alone anything to indicate how it might possibly function. The entire surface was sheer, save for a solitary word embossed above the base — GURIFIN.
“Whoa!” exclaimed Ping from behind her. “This thing is fan-cy!”
“Damn it,” Su growled. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I didn’t mean to. I just…” her eyes drifted from Su to the container. “Wow.” She giggled. “It looks like an egg, doesn’t it? Do you think it’s supposed to be an egg?”
“I think it’s supposed to just be a container, but someone had a little too much time on their hands.”
Ping didn’t seem to hear her. She was skipping, literally skipping her way around it like a child laced out on sugar.
“Ping!” Su scolded.
Ping froze. “What’s wrong?”
“How are you not more excited by this?” she asked in disbelief.
“What’s there to be excited about?”
“It’s a giant, custom-built space robot.”
“Designed by Santo Kiyoshi himself!”
“Oh, of course,” Su said dryly. “Forgive me for not trembling with anticipation.”
Ping studied her a moment. “Ah. This is about Eskel, isn’t it?”
“I mean, you know…”
Su scowled. “No, Ping. I don’t.”
“Well, it’s just that she’s kind of — ”
“Yeah,” Ping replied, pointing her thumb at the container. “All of Kiyoshi’s creations are female.”
“Of course they are.”
“Better get her open then. The shaft won’t fix itself.”
“Yeah? What’s up?”
“What did you mean?”
“Cut the crap. What does this have to do with Eskel?”
“Oh, right. That. Forget it. It was nothing. Really.”
“Say it,” Su hissed, Ping shrinking beneath her glare. “Now.”
“Geez! Fine. I just thought you might be upset because she’s kind of…you know?”
“What? Just say it!”
Su hadn’t thought of that. She felt a numbness in her fingers. She felt cold.
“Sorry, Su. I keep saying the wrong thing. I swear, I’m not – ”
“How do we open it?” Su asked, shifting her gaze to the container.
“It’s um…it’s programmed to respond to a specific voice command.”
“How do we open it?” Su asked again.
“Right, sorry.” Ping cleared her throat. “Phi. One. Six, one, eight. Ami. Bennu. Gurifin.”
The container let out a hum. A growl echoed from whatever stirred within.
Su took a small step back.
A blast of white engulfed the hangar. It softened, settling into a glowing ring around the container’s base. Strands of light trailed up across its surface, each of them carving a smouldering seam deep into the chrome. Suddenly, from the top down, the outer shell began to crumble.
“What the hell?” Su whispered, her eyes widening as she spoke. All of the broken pieces were dissolving into mist. In a matter of mere seconds the container was no more, the loading bay and half the hangar now shrouded in a shimmering fog.
“Uh, Ping?” Su said softly.
A set of large blue eyes ignited in the depths.
Su stepped further back.
They snapped in her direction.
It saw me, she thought, feeling a sudden tweak of fear.
A hulking silhouette lurched forward. It splayed a clawed appendage across the hangar floor. The limb held close resemblance to an eagle’s, complete with sharp black talons extending from the toes.
A second foot struck down beside her. Reeling back in fright, Su tripped.
Its eyes loomed ever closer, watching from above.
“Ping?” Su called quietly.
A broad beak pierced through the mists. It opened as it approached. “ROE,” it boomed in her direction, a round, melodic tone steeped in heavy bass.
“Ping!” Su cried.
“I’m coming!” Ping shouted back from somewhere to her left.
A whirring filled the air. The fog began to shift. Su shuffled back along the ground, watching as the mists rolled inward. They coiled into a singular stream, being sucked up all at once into the machine’s still open beak. When the whirring stopped, the fog was gone.
Ping grabbed Su by the arm and helped her to her feet.
Su shook her head. “Ping, what the — ”
Both of them turned to face the towering contraption before them. Silver feathers ran from beak to breast, expanding and contracting as if the machine were drawing breath. From the shoulders down its body was a smooth and shiny chrome, its rear legs more akin to a sculpture than the type of apparatus typically built for work in space. A tail flicked about behind it, a blue light blinking on an antenna at its tip.
“What are those?” Su asked, pointing to a set of rods that curved along its back.
“Wings?” Ping replied, obviously unsure herself.
This was not like any robot that Su had ever seen. She knew that it was nothing but plastic and metal. Yet standing in its shadow, it felt like something more. This thing, this machine…it had presence.
“ROE,” it bellowed once more into the hangar. It lowered its beak, extending it out in Su’s direction.
“Uh, Ping? It’s…what’s it doing?”
Ping laughed. “I think she likes you.”
It softly brushed its beak back and forth across Su’s arm.
“What do I do?” she breathed, desperately trying to keep calm. “What do I do?”
“Why don’t you give her a little pat?”
“I am not giving it a little pat,” Su snarled.
Ping grinned. “Come on.”
Su backed off from its touch.
Its head reared swiftly upward, then cocked over to one side. “ROE?”
It almost reminded her of an animal, but was unlike any she had seen before. Familiar as its motions felt, it bore the look of a creature birthed of a different world. “How do we control it?” Su asked.
“It’s built to fix things. All we need to do is let it out.”
“Works for me,” said Su, swiping on her wrist unit. “I want my hangar back.” She quickly entered the codes to activate the airlock, keeping an eye on the robot best she could at the same time. Its head was still cocked awkwardly to the side. The way it stared was making her uncomfortable. She was eager to turn it loose. “Alright,” she announced, hearing the airlock open up behind her. “Out you get.”
The machine straightened its neck but did not move from where it stood.
“Say its name,” suggested Ping.
A set of pointed ears popped up atop its head.
“Gurifin!” Su barked.
It stood tall to attention.
“Get out there, fix the shaft.”
“Go,” Su ordered. She pointed to the open doors. “Now!”
It lumbered towards the airlock, eyes locked on her the entire time. It shuffled slightly sideways, then walked its rear legs in first. It seemed oddly preoccupied with maintaining a line of sight.
“Alright,” said Su. “The damage on the shaft is beneath the central truss. Below the lower docks. Fix it.”
“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
“That’s what I thought.” Su closed the hangar door. As the airlock began to seal, Ping jogged up beside her. Together they watched an AR screen of the airlock security feed. Su opened the outer hatch.
The robot turned around and curiously approached the edge. Staring out into open space, its shoulders gave off a jostle. The rods above them pulsed.
“They’re wings!” squealed Ping. “I knew it!”
“I don’t see — ”
Reflective silver sheeting dropped like curtains from the rods. They billowed for a moment before snapping taut into shape.
“Man oh man!” Ping cried. “I think they’re solar sails! They have to be, right?”
“No way it flies with those,” Su said under her breath.
The wings began to pivot, extending across its back. It crouched onto its haunches.
Su leaned towards the screen.
The robot jumped, launching itself outside and dropping beyond the edge. It was gone.
Ping turned and ran towards the stairs out of the hangar. “Come on!” she called. “Come, quick!”
“The observation deck. Hurry!”
Su sighed, but followed her up the stairs.
Ping had already opened the shutters by the time that Su arrived. The now transparent dome offered a view of the whole station, along with the Earth below them and the endless stars above.
“So?” Su asked. “Where is it?”
“I can’t see her. Maybe…”
“Maybe it sunk like a stone and burned up on re-entry?”
Ping pressed her face against the glass. “There!” she squealed, pointing down towards the docks.
Su saw it. A distant speck of silver beyond the station’s edge. It was headed in their direction, ascending without so much as a ripple to its wings. It banked, rolled, then swooped straight up towards them, tearing past the observatory in a streak of blue-tipped chrome. Su had seen more than a thousand ships sail across these skies. Migration dreadnaughts, solar skiffs, even a few Olympus jets. Yet all were only hollow metal, inching into space. None that she had seen had ever flown as if they loved it. None until this moment had ever looked alive.
Ping nudged her with an elbow. “Admit it. You’re impressed.”
“I just want the shaft fixed. How long will it take?”
“Not a clue.”
Su winced. “What?”
“Data packets were all censored.”
“You saw that thing. It’s hardly your average toolbot now, is it?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ping shot her a mischievous smile.
“Oh. You don’t really think — ”
“Yeah. I do.”
Ping nodded. “You know the drill with this stuff. Need to know only. Heck, I’m surprised they didn’t scrub us out for a ghost crew like they usually do.”
Su peered down the shaft. “What exactly did they tell you?”
“Nothing, really,” Ping replied. “Just that it is very, very important, and that it has been sent up here to fix things.”
“That’s a tad ominous, isn’t it?”
“It’s a black project. What do you expect?”
Su groaned. “So, what? We just leave it out there then?”
“I guess so. Unless you wanted to invite her back in for a little pat?”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“Suit yourself,” said Ping as she headed for the stairs. “But I was serious. I think she likes you.”
Su sat alone, cross-legged on the floor of her quarters. She was skimming through old photos of her and Eskel on a tablet. There was one in particular that she kept on coming back to — a shot taken in the shuttle shortly after they had met. Eskel had surprised her with a picnic, complete with an airfoil blanket and stolen meals from the mess room. He had even managed to somehow get a hold of cheese and crackers, though he wouldn’t tell her how, no matter how much she asked. He actually never told me, stubborn bastard that he was. Su dropped the tablet in her lap. She closed her eyes, pressing a firm thumb into her palm. It was something he had taught her — a technique to deal with stress. It wasn’t working. It never did. She grunted, snatched the tablet from her lap and threw it across the floor.
“Tablets, right? They suck.”
Su glanced across her shoulder to find Ping in the doorway. “Huh?” She hadn’t even heard it open.
“I know you’re a hands-on type of girl and all, but I don’t know how you do it.”
Ping pointed at the tablet. “The physicals.”
“I only use the junk in the control room because I have to. The glare, that awful little screen. It’s all so twentieth century. Gross.”
“What do you want, Ping?”
“You missed dinner.”
“Can I come in?”
“Sure, why not?”
Ping sat down on the floor beside her. “Bonsai looks good.”
Su looked up at the tiny tree atop her windowsill. “Yeah. We decided that…” she stopped.
“Oh, shit. Listen, forget it. It’s fine.”
Su pressed her thumb into her palm, still staring at the tree. “We had talked about…we talked about kids. Eskel and I. Neither of us thought that we were ready. We both, hmm.” Su smirked. “We both joked that all the house plants we had owned had died. The bonsai was our test. Not easy, getting something like that up here. Eskel found a way of course, he always…” The words were thickening in her throat. “God damn it.”
Ping placed an arm around her. “Hey, hey.”
“I need…” Su shook her head. “I need to say this.”
“I’m here. I’m listening.”
Su took a deep breath in. “We decided that if we could do it, if we could keep it alive for long enough, we’d know that we were ready.” She gestured limply to the tree. “We did it.”
“Oh, Su, honey. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s a strange thing, to realise that you’ll never be a parent.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’m forty-six years old, Ping. I live in space with one other woman and a giant flying robot. I think I’m out.”
“Hey, I’m only a few years behind you and I’m still making moves. I was actually thinking about hitting up that Ravi guy from Sumeru. See if he wouldn’t mind taking me out for a private flight.”
Su looked away.
“Nothing, I…no. You know what? You should. You should do it.”
“I should, huh? I mean high-ranking officer, shuttle pilot, tall. And that moustache! Damn.”
Su laughed, turning back to Ping. “It was a nice moustache.”
Su’s smile faded. “Twice I’ve been married now. One was a dirt-bag, and the other…”
Ping gently squeezed her on the shoulder.
“I don’t think I have it in me to start again. I just don’t.”
“You never know.”
“I feel old, Ping. Old and tired.”
“I’m not surprised. I saw your logs. You’ve barely slept all week.”
Su slouched in defeat.
Ping’s wrist unit blinked. “Ah, crap,” she said, moving to get up. “Sorry, it’s command. I’ve got to get back to work. But get some rest. It’ll help. I promise.”
Su woke slick with sweat. While she could not recall the dream that roused her, the panic still prickled on her skin. She got out of bed, washed her face and sat beside the window. She had many a night found peace gazing out into the cosmos. There was a cold yet consoling clarity that came through accepting her insignificance. Lately though, it hadn’t been working. Nothing seemed to be. Su moved to close the shutters, but stopped as she spotted a familiar shape cutting across the black. Gurifin. She watched it arc then dive from view. It was headed towards the hangar.
Su opened the airlock’s outer hatch. She wondered if Gurifin would even notice. She honestly had no idea of what might happen if it did. It didn’t matter. All she cared about right now was the distraction. Something to take her mind off lying alone up in that bed. She gestured to enlarge the AR screen beside her. The airlock was still empty. Swiping through the surveillance feeds, she checked the hangar’s exterior for any sign of the machine. It didn’t look like it was coming. Su hung her head and huffed. Stupid. Of course it wouldn’t come. The damn thing probably doesn’t even —
Something landed in the airlock.
Su looked up to see Gurifin, its wings already retracting into the rods along its back. She quickly sealed the outer hatch and opened the hangar door.
“ROE,” Gurifin declared as it stepped inside.
“Welcome back,” Su replied, still not quite sure if it understood.
The bulky robot strutted straight past her and began parading around the hangar. It would occasionally peek in her direction, only to turn its beak up and face the other way.
Su couldn’t help but smile. It was sulking. Not only had it remembered, but it actually seemed mad at her for refusing to pet it the day before. “Gurifin!” she called.
It stopped. Its head swung in her direction, the sound of the shifting metal at odds with how naturally it moved.
“Get over here.”
It trotted across the hangar, stopping a few feet in front of her and puffing out its breast.
“Did you fix the shaft?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Fix it. Fix the shaft. The storm is coming.”
“Just fix it, yeah?”
It lowered its beak, steadily edging its head towards her.
“What? You want a pat? Is that it?”
“ROE.” It pushed its beak in closer.
“Subtle, aren’t you?”
“Fine.” Su reached out towards it, carefully placing a single finger at the centre of its beak. It was warm. She allowed the rest of her hand to fall, rubbing it slowly upward across the robot’s head. It exuded such a calmness. Despite the claws, the size, the steel, Su knew that she was safe. “You like that?” she asked.
“ROE…” it cooed, its artificial eyes shifting to a warmer blue. Seemingly content, it gently withdrew its head and walked back towards the airlock.
“You want me to let you out again?”
Su opened the hangar door.
Gurifin began to edge its way in backwards, but came to a decisive stop when it was only halfway through.
“I can’t close the door with you standing in it, can I?”
It knelt on its front legs, lowering its head until its beak was on the ground. The feathered metal on the nape of its neck fell flat.
“I don’t get it. What do you want?”
“ROE,” it replied, giving its shoulders a suggestive shake. “ROE.”
Su laughed. “What? You want me to climb on? And then what? Go for a ride? Outside?”
Its head bobbed up and down with glee. “ROE. ROE. ROE-RINE-DOE.”
“Sorry, Gurifin. I don’t think so.”
Its gaze fell to the floor.
“Look, I’m sorry. It’s just too dangerous. I…” Wait. Why am I apologizing to a machine? Su shook her head. “Alright, I think we’re done here. Go. In you get. Go get that shaft fixed.”
Gurifin sadly shuffled back.
Su closed the airlock door. She glanced at the surveillance feed as she opened the outer hatch. Gurifin’s ears were drooping. Its tail lay flat and limp. As if it knew that she was watching, it leaned towards the camera and stared directly down the lens. Su looked into its eyes, surprised by the guilt she felt as they returned to their former hue. It spun around and cast out its wings, dashed towards the edge and flew off into space.
“Morning!” chirped Ping as Su slumped into the seat beside her. “Get some sleep?”
Su glanced across the control room monitors to check that no one was on line. “We need to talk,” she said.
“Sure,” Ping answered, still working as she spoke. “What’s up?”
“There’s something strange about that machine.”
“I thought you two were friends now?” Ping said with a smirk.
“Your little petting session in the hangar last night?”
“Saw the security feed this morning. It was cute.”
“I couldn’t sleep. That’s all.”
“Yeah, sure,” Ping replied, her fingers still typing away. “Of course.”
“It was nothing. Really.”
Su could tell she was barely listening. She grabbed the armrest of Ping’s chair and yanked her from the keyboard.
“Hey!” Ping cried. “What’s the big idea?”
Su pulled her chair in close. “Ping, what the hell is that thing?”
“Uh…an awesome robot space griffin?”
“I need you to contact Kiyoshi.”
“I want schematics,” Su said firmly. “Details on its higher functions. Secondary directives, that kind of thing. Oh, and maybe find out why it’s taking so long for it to fix the damn shaft.”
“The shaft is fixed.”
“Yep. Whatever you said to Gurifin sent it straight to work.”
Su paused. “Huh.”
“Also, your mother called again. She’s worried. You should really call her back.”
“Get in touch with Kiyoshi,” Su replied. She stood up. “I want some concrete info on this thing.”
“What do you mean, try? Just do it.”
“He leads a pretty private life, Su. In fact, from what I’ve heard he’s kind of a recluse.”
“Well, that recluse’s weird machine is out there flying laps around my station. I need to know what I’m dealing with. Pretend there’s a problem if you have to. Get Gregor involved. I don’t care. Just make it happen.” Su headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” asked Ping.
“I need to get those heat sinks sorted. If we don’t have at least five installed when this storm hits, we’re as good as cooked. Speaking of which, any updates on our ETA?”
“Venus is pegging it for sometime in the next forty-eight hours.”
“Guess I better get to work then.”
“Kiyoshi,” Su ordered as she left.
“Mother!” Ping replied.
That night, Su found herself once again being jolted from her sleep. “No!” she cried. “No. Eskel?” She scoured the room around her, frantically searching for…she stopped. Reality pierced the haze of slumber. A sharpness twisted in her chest. It wasn’t just a dream. He was gone. Su sank back into bed, her gaze falling towards the window, then to the bonsai underneath.
“So, what do we call it?” asked Eskel.
“Uh…plant? Bonsai plant?”
Eskel laughed. “Come on.”
“That’s what it is.”
“It’s our baby, Su.”
“It’s a plant.”
“What about Eren?”
Su smirked. “Eren?”
“I don’t know, I like it. I always have.”
“Well, look at you. Mister sentimental all of a sudden.”
Eskel shrugged. “It’s a good name.”
Eskel laughed again. “Okay. You win.”
“Let’s save Eren.”
Su took Eskel’s hand.
“Oh,” he said, smiling.
“I like Eren too.”
Su jumped out of bed and smacked the bonsai to the floor. Its pot shattered into pieces, the spilt soil exposing its tiny, tender roots. She stared at it a moment. Her eyes began to sting. She kicked a piece of the broken pot and stormed out of the room.
Su sat with her back up against the airlock door. The hangar was quiet, the lights were off. She hurt. She had lost loved ones to anger, to jealousy, to fear. But she could always fight to bring them back. Or try, at the very least. Eskel was gone. There were no words to fix it. Nothing that could be done. She noticed that her hands were shaking. Tears were welling in her eyes. She pressed a thumb into her palm. Her nail pierced the skin.
A familiar thunk echoed through the airlock.
Su stopped, looking up. Gurifin. She leapt onto her feet, sealed the outer hatch and opened the hangar door.
The robot’s head bobbed up and down as it paraded in. It spun in a quick circle then sat on its hind legs. “ROE,” it bellowed proudly, puffing out its chest.
Su stared it up and down. “You fixed the shaft, I hear?”
“Good. Good job.”
“Look, I need to ask you something.”
Gurifin’s head tilted slowly to one side.
“That ride you wanted to take me on.”
“Does the offer still stand?”
“ROE. ROE. ROE-RINE-DOE!”
Su almost smirked. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
The machine watched on in silence as Su strapped up her suit. She gave little thought to what lay ahead. Only the immediate — checking she had properly sealed her helmet, prepping the outer airlock door to close once they were gone.
“Okay,” she announced after entering in the last command. “I’m good to go.”
“ROE,” Gurifin responded, kneeling down and lowering its head onto the ground before her.
Su reeled out some slack from the cable in her belt. She gripped it softly in a loop and began walking towards the robot to noose it round its neck.
“ROE!” Gurifin barked as she approached. It reeled its head back beyond her reach.
“Look, if we’re going out there, I need to anchor myself to something.”
Warily, Gurifin laid its beak back on the ground. It seemed to understand her. Su noticed that two of the larger feathers on its neck had started moving. They pivoted in place, rising from the rest until they were standing completely upright. As she moved closer they began to curl, almost as if it were inviting her to thread the cable through them. “What the hell are you?” she asked herself out loud.
“Right,” Su replied. “Of course.” The feathers locked in place once the cable was fed through. Using the curls as grips, she grabbed on with both hands and threw a leg across its shoulders. It was warm, even through her suit. She straddled herself into a comfortable position.
“ROE,” Gurifin stated as it rose onto its feet.
Su clutched on a little tighter. As a child, she had once ridden a synthetic horse at the Guangzhou Fair. Even at a slow trot, she remembered the constant struggle to not be bounced off either side. Much to her delight, Gurifin was different. Its movements were smooth and graceful as it strode into the airlock. Su sealed the hangar door behind them and punched in the commands to open the outer hatch. External sounds were swallowed as the airlock decompressed. All that she could hear was the sound of her own breath. This is crazy. Her breathing quickened. This is nuts. The hatch’s doors drew back like curtains across a stage, the majesty of open space beckoning beyond.
With its wings still tucked away Gurifin burst forward, bounding from the airlock out into the black.
Su was overcome. Propulsion rockets in its feet drove Gurifin straight down, hurtling like a comet towards the Earth below. They were quickly approaching the outer atmosphere. Su loosened the tension in her belt. Gurifin’s beak began pitching upward. Its shoulders followed suit. Suddenly, the rods across its shoulders pulsed. In a flash its enormous wings were cast out overhead, the solar sails rippling with their first taste of the sun. Su peeked back at Tianmen 1. She was startled by just how far they had flown in such short a time. The station was no more than a white speck in the distance, the shaft a fragile-looking stem strewn across the sky. In spite of this, Su did not feel afraid. She was indifferent, if anything. Content to simply fly away.
Hours passed. Su’s eyes grew heavy. She leaned into Gurifin’s neck, wrapping her arms around it. The warmth it gave off was comforting. Something to latch onto amidst the constant cold of space. Her eyes were trying to flutter shut. She let them.
“What?” Su asked, easing from his embrace.
“I can see it.”
“You.” He ran his thumb across her cheek. “You’ll make a good mother.”
“I’ll be strict. They’ll probably hate me.”
Eskel chuckled. “That’s impossible.”
“We’d have to go back.”
“Yeah, we would.”
“We both know how you get when you’re grounded for too long.”
Eskel took her by the hips, drawing her in close. “It’s worth it,” he said.
Su woke with a gasp, briefly unsure of where she was. As her vision cleared, her eyes grew wider. The Earth was putting on a show. Below them lay the Netherlands, the glow of its mountain cities draped in the northern lights. Shimmering swells of purple and green danced across the sky, blazes of colour stretching as far south as the African wastes. Tears streamed down Su’s face as she watched the cosmic flame. Such wonder stripped away the fear. It set her pain alight.
She could not say how long they flew for. Only that it ended once she began to think of Ping. Su had never seen the aurora burn so brightly. It could only mean one thing — the storm was close at hand. All of a sudden she found herself feeling worried for her friend. As if it somehow understood, Gurifin banked and turned. Su grabbed onto the curls as she felt it thrust beneath her, soaring back up into the darkness in the direction of Tianmen 1.
Gurifin swooped into the airlock. Its clawed front feet splayed out with the landing, its shoulders rolling in their sockets to bring them gently to a stop.
Su sealed the outer door and set the chamber to decompress. The feathers on Gurifin’s neck unfurled, allowing her to retract the cord and slip down to the ground. Once the hangar doors had opened, she removed her helmet and gloves.
“ROE,” Gurifin hummed.
Su looked at the machine. She still didn’t understand it. But she was starting not to care. “Thank you,” she said softly. She brushed her hand across its beak.
Su smiled. She backed slowly into the hangar, both her and the robot watching one another until the doors had closed.
“Su! Su, come on!”
Su opened her eyes to find Ping shaking her awake.
“What?” Su hissed.
“The storm!” Ping’s face was full of fear. “It’s begun.”
Su scrambled out of bed to dress.
“Venus caught some early readings. This thing is nuts. The geomagnetic currents alone are…” Ping shook her head. “I mean they’re just — ”
“What’s the ETA?” Su asked.
“An hour? Maybe less? No one knows! No one knows anything!”
She grabbed Ping by the shoulders. “You need to calm down. Now.”
“I know, I know. It’s just — ”
“Ping,” Su interrupted. “Enough. We’ve prepped for this. We’re ready. Alright?”
“I can’t do this without you.”
Ping nodded. “I know. You’re right. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologise. Just get to work.”
“That’s more like it.” Su gave Ping’s shoulders a pat before she let them go. “Have you seen Gurifin?” she asked.
“Gurifin. Where is it?”
Ping looked confused. “I don’t know. Why? The shaft’s fine.”
“We can’t just leave it out there. It won’t survive the storm.”
“We don’t really have a choice. We’re out of time.”
“Fine,” said Su, throwing on her jacket and heading for the door. “But keep an eye out, yeah? If you see it, you let me know.”
Su paced up and down the hangar. Her nerves wound tighter with the wait.
Finally, her comms lit up. “Su?” It was Ping.
“More word from Venus?” Su asked her.
“No,” she replied.
“What is it then?”
“I’ve found Gurifin.”
“She’s perched on top of the observatory.”
Su started walking towards the stairs. “What’s it doing?”
“I’m not sure. Can’t seem to catch a clear view from any of my feeds. Looks like there’s something in the way.”
“Heading up there now,” said Su, breaking into a jog.”
“Do you really think that’s a good idea? I mean, we haven’t got much — ”
“It’s a minute walk, Ping. Less than half that if I run. I’m almost there already.”
“Fine. I’ll open up the shutters, try save you some time.”
There was a harsh glare to the observatory. On the roof outside, an assorted mix of space debris had been packed into a mound. At the top of it all sat Gurifin, its eyes locked firmly on the sun. Su activated her helmet’s camera. “Ping? Are you seeing this?”
“Whoa. What is that?”
“I’m not sure,” Su replied. “Kind of just looks like scrap.”
“Is she using it to block the cameras? What the hell? What could she possibly have to hide?”
Gurifin’s tail twitched, a small satellite dish opening at its tip. It didn’t seem to notice Su watching from below.
“She’s scanning,” said Ping.
“Do you think it knows about the storm?”
“It’s possible. She is solar powered, after all.”
Gurifin slowly rose until it was standing on hind legs. Its feathered breast began to swell. It opened its wings out wide, striking a regal pose.
“Su!” Ping cried.
“Venus has just been hit! Get to the hangar! Now!”
Su sat in the shuttle’s cockpit, hands ready at the controls. Her foot tapped at the floor. She stared at the sealed hangar door just beyond her windscreen. “It’s close,” she assured herself. It has to be.
“Just got a damage report from Venus, Su.”
“What’s the word?”
“They’re a mess. It’s bad.”
Su squeezed the shuttle’s flight stick.
“Sensors are lighting up! Get ready!”
The entire station shuddered. Lights blew out across the hangar. Less than half the emergency red lamps ignited in their place. “Ping? Ping!”
The comms crackled. “…fried. Working…get it…”
“Ping, do you copy?”
“…a mess. Just a…”
“Su, can you hear me?”
“Finally,” Su sighed in relief. “Yeah, I can hear you. How are we doing?”
“We’ve certainly been better, but it’s nothing we can’t fix.”
“Right. Radiators are gone. Like, gone. Thermal insulation is toast save for the inner shell.”
“Five out of six are down.”
“Damn it,” Su cursed through gritted teeth. “How long have we got?”
“Nine, ten minutes max before things start cooking?”
“Nine minutes? Great.”
“You can do this, Commander. Good luck.”
Su’s fingers went to work, opening the hangar door and firing up the shuttle. The engines hummed as the maglev track carried them forward into the airlock. Closing the door behind her, Su fixed the ship to hover, quickly retracting the landing gear as she opened the outer hatch. Hands on stick and throttle Su cocked the shuttle sideways, bursting out between the doors before they were even halfway open.
The damage was even worse than she’d expected. The entirety of the cooling module was charred a chalky black. The radiators looked like crumbling cardboard, flaking ash and cinders before her very eyes. Su set the shuttle to maintain position and unbuckled from the cockpit. She sealed her suit and helmet and attached her projection pack. It was only standing over the exit hatch that she stopped to take a breath. “Tianmen 1, do you copy?”
“Loud and clear, Su. How’s it looking?”
“Pretty rough, to be honest.”
“Where are you with the prep?”
“All clear. Ready when you are.”
“Roger that. Activating the toolbot now. Su?”
“Be careful out there, okay?”
Su punched the airlock release beside her and slipped out into space.
As soon as Su left the shuttle, she felt it. A presence in the dark. “Gurifin?” she asked out loud. No. This was something else. Something…more. Try as she might, she could not seem to place it. All she knew was that it unnerved her. It made her feel afraid. She jetted down towards the heat sinks, the tool bot following close behind. It’s just the fallout from the storm, she told herself as she landed and latched on. Just get to work. Get it done.
“Getting the first one in there now, Ping. What’s up?”
The comms were quiet.
“What’s wrong?” Su asked.
“Are they okay? Ping?”
“They’ve um…they’ve just been hit by a second wave.”
Su started working even faster.
“Get back to the shuttle,” said Ping. “If you’re quick, you should still be able to make the atmosphere in time before it hits.”
“Just finished the second heat sink. Starting on the third.”
“Su. Did you not hear what I just said?”
“Third’s installed. Fourth is on the way.”
“Su!” Ping screamed.
“All you need is two more heat sinks, Ping. It’s going to be okay.”
“But what about you? Su! What about you?”
Su switched off her comms. She locked the fourth heat sink into place and began to install the fifth. As she fastened the final rivets, she froze. Something stirred behind her. The presence. It was close. She turned slowly to face it, finally comprehending what she had sensed amongst the stars. It was the sun. The centre. The beating, burning core. She could feel the second wave now. Rushing towards her across the cosmos like the breath of a distant God. She blinked, and it was upon her. A searing sting engulfed her skin. Heat flushed through her bones. She could taste the mother flame, hear the rising hum of its ancient, mystic light. A whimper buckled from her lips. Tears flowed down her face. She closed her eyes, gave one last breath. She surrendered to the sun.
Eskel smiled. “I can see it.”
“See what?” she replied.
“You, Su. You. You’ll make a good mother.”
Her body was belted with force, from something hard to something soft. She squinted through her fogged up visor to try and see what she had struck. Feathered metal hung before her. Silver sails to her rear. It was Gurifin. It had saved her. Encased her in its wings to shield her from the storm. A golden orb of light throbbed within its chest. Su felt compelled to touch it, but the heat that it gave off kept her from getting close. She sank back into its wings as she felt their momentum shift. Her skin was burning inside her suit, her vision was fading fast. Yet she couldn’t take her eyes off it — the strange, radiant shape buried in Gurifin’s breast. Without warning, it cast her out, sending her spinning towards the airlock. She fumbled across her wrist controls. Every breath was laced with pain. The outer hatch opened just in time, her body crunching into a corner beside the hangar door. With all that she had left she looked back out to Gurifin, its body a molten mess as it rose beyond her view.
Su woke in her bed. Her body was bound in derma-casts. A warmth itched on her skin. She tried to move. She couldn’t. With a groan, she let her head loll limp and looked towards the window. Her bonsai had been repotted and was sitting back upon the sill. It was healthy, freshly trimmed. Su tried to smile, but it hurt too much. She closed her eyes and slept.
When next she woke, the casts were gone. The warmth too, though in its place was a stiffness to her skin. She brushed her fingers up and down her arm, gently squeezed her thighs. It all felt so strangely soft to touch. She propped herself up carefully, her unused muscles trembling as she forced her legs to stand. Dressed in nothing but her bed robes, she waddled her way across her quarters and out to the control room.
“Well, look who’s up,” said Ping, smiling as she spun around in her chair to greet her. “Welcome back.”
“What happened?” Su croaked.
“You saved me, Su, that’s what happened. Me and the whole damn station.”
Su grimaced as she sat down. “I did?”
“Those heat sinks did the trick. We took one hell of a beating, but thanks to you, we’re all still kicking.”
“What kind of damage are we looking at out there?”
“Now? Not so much. Olympus sent over some grunts to help out with all the big stuff. They might take themselves a little seriously, but they sure as hell get it done.”
“How long was I out?” Su asked.
“Ten days,” Ping replied.
“Huh.” Su squeezed her thigh again. “My skin feels weird.”
Ping smirked. “I bet. They had to clone it for the grafts.”
“You got pretty cooked out there, kiddo. It needed to be done.”
Su stared at her palms. They were smoother than she remembered.
“It should feel normal in another day or two. On the upside, you definitely look a few years younger.”
“Gurifin,” said Su, looking up from her hands. “What happened to her?”
Ping frowned. “Yeah. About that.” She turned back to her console and loaded up a clip from an older surveillance feed. “Sorry, Su. This kind of sucks.”
The footage was taken from one of the cameras below the loading docks. For the first few seconds, all it showed was the shaft extending earthward, until an unfortunate-looking Gurifin fell into the frame. Its silver body was blackened with burns, its solar sails tatters on the rods that were its wings.
There was a tragedy to its descent. A sadness in the knowing that it would never fly again. Su watched the lifeless metal until it was almost out of sight, a distant speck piercing the atmosphere and bursting into flame. “Could you play it for me again?” she asked.
“Are you sure?”
“Please.” It was not an easy thing to watch, but on reflection, Su had thought she may have noticed something odd.
Ping replayed it from the start.
“Wait,” said Su. “Pause it. Right there.”
“Back it up a little?”
Ping rewound the feed. “Say when.”
“Stop.” Su leaned towards the monitor. There looked to be some kind of rupture in the centre of Gurifin’s breast. “Can you zoom in on this?” she asked, pointing to it on screen.
“Zooming…oh? That’s weird.”
Su studied the magnified image. “What do you suppose happened there?”
“Beats me,” answered Ping. “A blown core, maybe?”
“I’m just guessing. I’ve got no idea how that thing worked. Oh, that reminds me though. I managed to get in contact with Kiyoshi.”
“Yeah,” Ping grinned. “He called me! We talked for almost ten minutes. Just the two of us. It was pretty cool.”
“So? What did he tell you about Gurifin?”
“Not a whole lot, really. He was pretty upset about it not surviving, but he was actually much more interested in you.”
“Yeah, he was super-curious about all your interactions with her. You know, considering how you hate robots and all.”
“You told him that?”
“Was I not supposed to?”
Su groaned. “What else did you tell him?”
“Ah, that was it. More or less.”
“Okay, so I might have mentioned the whole thing about you petting it in the hangar. But, I explained that it was only because you had been having trouble sleeping. Because of Eskel, you know? Oh, and the bonsai! Sorry, yeah, I definitely told him about the bonsai.”
“I was nervous! The guy’s kind of a big deal.”
Su shook her head. “So, after all that, he didn’t tell you anything?”
“Nothing we didn’t know already. He just said it was built to fix things.”
“I tried, Su. I really did.”
“Yeah, sure sounds like it.”
“It’s fine, Ping. It’s fine.” Su yawned. “How am I still this tired?”
“You’ve been through a lot.”
“Yeah. I guess I have.” Su used the arm-rests of her chair to get back on her feet. “If the station needs saving again, come get me out of bed.”
Ping laughed. “Will do, Commander.”
Su stopped before the door. “Hey, did any of those Olympus guys clear the mess Gurifin made on the observatory?”
“Nope. It’s all still up there.”
“Good. I’ll take care of it tomorrow then. Night, Ping.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
Su floated out from the shuttle’s airlock. She adjusted her projection pack, aligning herself to comfortably land atop the observatory roof. The mound of metal Gurifin had collected looked even stranger from above. There was a definite order to its design. Separate sheets of scrap had been slotted into a ring, the layers tapering with the heap as it increased in height. Its peak was collapsed and crumpled inward. Su couldn’t tell if it was intended, or simply damage from the storm.
“This is Tianmen 1. How you doing out there, Su?”
“Touching down on the roof now. This thing is dense. I think I’m going to need the toolbot’s help.”
“Prepping it as we speak.”
Su swept a layer of ash off an outer piece of the debris. It was marked with Russian text. “Hey Ping, you’re not going to believe what I just found.”
“I think this is part of an old Kosmos unit.”
“Get out of town.”
“Twentieth century, by the looks of it. Wow. Must be almost a hundred years old.”
“The toolbot’s ready when you are, Su.”
“Give me a sec. I want to poke around a little. Check this thing out.”
“You’re the boss.”
Su clambered her way up to the top. After removing several of the smaller pieces, fingers of light began to emanate from something underneath. “Ping?”
“There’s something here.”
“No, its…no. No way.” Su tore out hunks of scrap as quickly as she could.
“Su, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“I know what this is, Ping. I know what this is!”
Light splashed across Su’s face as she yanked a large sheet free. “It’s a nest!”
“A nest? What makes you say that?”
Su smiled, staring down at the golden orb tucked safely amongst the metal. “Because I’ve just found an egg.”