A/N: Uses the prompts in the comments on Prompt Post One.
Like most orbital stations, Talis station had a lounge with a viewscreen looking out on the planet. Amanpreet sat in one of the comfortable chairs and stared at the planet some more. The Rune wasn’t currently in view and without it Talis looked like any other scum world – blue sea and beige land. Nothing else showed that any kind of multicellular life let alone intelligent life had once existed there.
“You’re wondering what happened here, aren’t you?” The voice was flat and artificial. She turned and saw a green Tkin Ishtari – one of the two intelligent species that had evolved on Ishtar – in an environment suit standing there. Through the suit’s face panel she could see the slender, multi-jointed feeding arms that emerged from its head racing over the suit’s voice synthesizer controls to allow them to communicate with her, though the rest of its body was hidden by the controls. “Everyone does.”
Amanpreet nibbled absently on the rim of her paper coffee cup as she considered the question. “Actually, I’ve been wondering how the first survey team missed the Rune when it’s so obvious.”
The Tkin made a rattling noise that Amanpreet knew was the quasi-plant person’s equivalent of a laugh. “It wasn’t so noticeable then. Ask your brother about it.” Another rattle. “But I forget my manners. I already know who you are but you don’t know me. My human name is Chen and I’m the maintenance engineer for Talis station. I came to find you because your engineer logged that your ship requires some repairs. We do have a bay for terrestrial-adapted Sticks on the planet. It was one of the first things we built before the second survey team stumbled onto the Rune and fortunately it’s on the Southern landmass – away from the main dig.”
Amanpreet frowned to herself. Vanna had been complaining that the minor damage from the attack had not repaired itself the way it should have – a sure sign the bioship’s cells needed their water and mineral levels boosting. That meant visiting a planet side bay or paying a fortune to bring part of a planet to her ship. She hated taking the Whisper down to a planet; it was the largest class of Stick and even though she knew it was silly, Amanpreet could never quite shake the fear that it might not be able to take off again and she’d be stuck. Still, here or Damkina, she’d have to get the Whisper fixed sometime soon. Might as well do it here.
“Thank you,” Amanpreet said. “We could do with some repair work, though it’s nothing major. How much do you charge for use of the bay?”
“I believe you’ve brought in supplies from Ishtar for us as well as from Damkina. We’re happy for you to use the bay as part of your payment for that service.”
Amanpreet opened her mouth to protest that she’d already been paid but the Ishtari interrupted her.
“On the understanding you will do at least one more supply run for us.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” Amanpreet said. “We’ll bring the Whisper down to the planet after we’ve spoken with the Mez tomorrow.”
Chen made a rustling sound that suggested curiosity. “You were attacked by a Fish? That is happening surprisingly often and the Mez are not being forthcoming. I think they are as baffled as anyone.”
“Or they are hiding something,” Amanpreet said.
Chen made another amused rattle. “You humans are always so suspicious.”
“Bad history,” Amanpreet said. “We–“
“Am!” Her brother Sangat strode across the lounge, his blue overalls and orange turban covered in dust and with his air tank still on his back. “You’re finally here! What happened? I thought you were due in days ago.” He turned to Chen. “Chen! We don’t often see you out of the Ishtari section.”
“We had a bit of an incident.” Amanpreet hugged her brother as he reached them. “I’ll tell you about it in a bit. You look like you could do with changing first.”
He looked down at himself and nodded. “I rushed straight here when Midori told me you’d arrived after we docked.”
Half an hour later Amanpreet and Sangat sat in the surprisingly large sitting room in his suite as she told him about their encounter with the apparently wild Fish. When she finished, he scowled and shook his head.
“The Whisper is the third ship to come in with a similar story in the last couple of months,” he said finally. “The other two were more badly damaged but they were also both Fish.”
“Which fits with what Kane said,” Amanpreet said. “Let’s hope the Mez have some insights when we speak to them tomorrow. They did bioengineer the Fish after all.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Sangat said. “They haven’t so far.” He leaned back in his seat. “So you’re taking the Whisper down to the repair bay tomorrow? Would you like me to pilot you? I know where it is and it’ll save you hiring an atmospheric pilot.”
“Oh, would you?” Amanpreet said. “That would be great! Thank you!”
“And for this evening, let me treat you and your crew to dinner.”
Amanpreet checked all the seals Kane and Niobe’s environment suits, then let the two of them check hers before they exited the first airlock into the long, nitrogen-flooded corridor that linked the Mez section of Talis station to the human one. The artificial gravity reduced slowly as they walked along the corridor and by the time they reached the airlock at the other end it was standard for the Mez homeworld – around a third as much as on Earth.
In the event of the airlock at either end failing, the connection could easily be severed, protecting the inhabitants of the other end from being exposed to temperatures and gases they would find unlivable. The three humans paused in the second airlock and switched on their suits’ night vision equipment so they’d be able to see in the darkness the Mez preferred.
“You’re our interpreter, Niobe,” Amanpreet said. “You’d best go first and introduce us.”
Niobe tilted her head inside her helmet. “Don’t say anything without me asking you to. The Mez are fussy about protocol.”
“I know,” Amanpreet said.
“Good.” Niobe opened the airlock and they headed into the darkness of the Mez section.
They hadn’t gone more than a few steps before a Mez came gliding through the thick atmosphere and landed in front of them. It looked like a human-sized tentacled slug – if slugs could fly using a combination of gas jetting and skirt-like membranes. The Mez extended four tentacles towards the three of them and spoke in a squeaking language.
“He’s greeting us,” Niobe said. “And says that we are expected and to follow him. I’m going to introduce us and respond in the positive.” She tapped out her response on the voice synthesizer in her suit to let the speaker make the sounds the human voice box couldn’t.
In response, the Mez curled his tentacles towards it – himself if Niobe was right about his sex, which she always was when it came to the Mez – in a gesture Amanpreet recognised as respect. He launched into the air again and led them to one of the few doors in the sector that a human would be able to fit through without slithering along on their bellies. It slid open as they approached and their guide gestured for them to go in.
The room beyond the door was actually lit to human-comfortable levels. Another Mez, nearly half as large again as the one who had guided them here, was already manipulating a voice synthesizer as they entered.
“Greetings, honoured guests,” the Mez said via the synthesizer. “Thank you for coming. We are as eager as you to figure out what is happening and how. We hope your report will help us.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Niobe said. “You honour us by using one of our languages. I came prepared to translate for my captain. We are your guests after all.”
“I am grateful,” she replied. “But for things like this a more direct conversation is needed.” Its tentacles rippled and formed complex patterns. “But you recognise my sex correctly? I’m impressed. Most humans confuse our morphs for our sexes.”
“I grew up on Cels,” Niobe said. “There’s a–”
The Mez’s tentacles stiffened then bounced in a gesture that Amanpreet thought might be pleased surprise.
“Oh! Cels! I am from the planet you call Tinia!” she said. “Which means we’re neighbours. No wonder you know us so well.” She curled her tentacles respectfully. “I am called–“ She spoke her name aloud in a barely audible set of squeaks before returning to using the communicator. “Lead administrator Midori calls me Umi and it seems to have stuck.”
Niobe chuckled. “Umi is sea in the administrator’s mother tongue.”
“Ah! She never said,” Umi said. “That explains it.”
“It does,” Niobe said before gesturing to Amanpreet. “This is Captain Amanpreet and first navigator Kane of the Damkina-registered merchant Stick, Whisper. I am Niobe, their communications officer. We are honoured to meet you, administrator Umi.”
“And I to meet you,” Umi said. “Now please, tell me what happened.”
“Well that was extremely uninformative,” Amanpreet said as she stripped of her environment suit after they had returned to the human section. “She didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know.”
“Not quite. We did learn that until recently these reports have only happened around the Mez homeworld,” Kane said. “And now they are spreading. But I don’t think she even meant to tell us that much. She just wanted my report for their investigation.”
“She knows more than she’s letting on.” Niobe removed her helmet with obvious relief and shook out her short cornbraids, agate beads rattling around her chin. “And she’s really worried. Her body language was stressed after Kane said it retreated when it realised the Whisper was a Stick. She wasn’t expecting that.”
“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t happen again,” Amanpreet said. “Sangat said he’d pilot us down to the Ishtari repair bay since he knows where it is.” She caught Niobe’s look and chuckled. “Yes, he knows how to pilot a Stick.”
Half an hour later, Amanpreet was back on the bridge of the Whisper. As Sangat settled into the pilot’s chair Vanna was fussing with the sensor panel and Niobe was talking to the station, logging their flight path.
“I’m surprised the Ishtari are allowed to keep a base on the planet,” Vanna said. “I thought all settlement activity had been stopped when Talis was designated an archeological site.”
“It was.” Sangat said. “But the bay had already been built and Sticks do need planet-based repair facilities. Since it is environmentally sealed and far away from the initial area of interest it was decided to allow it to remain for now.”
“Will we need suits again?” Amanpreet asked.
Sangat shook his head. “Talis was going to be bioformed for humans so they made the bay for human use. It maintains terrestrial conditions and we’ll only need breathers if we go outside; temperature and pressure are tolerable, there’s just very little oxygen.” As they glided into the bay he looked over at Amanpreet. “Maybe we can take a shuttle over to the main dig while the Whisper is repairing itself? I’d love to show you what we’ve found.”
“That sounds good,” Amanpreet said. “Let’s get the Whisper into repair mode and go.”
They were met by a brightly-feathered Kska Ishtari in an environment suit – female, of course. Kska males were tiny haploid creature that only lived a couple of weeks unless they fused with a female. She hurried up to them and spoke in an understandable but somewhat high-pitched clicky voice.
“Hello! I hope you can understand me. You’re from Damkina so this should be the right language. I detest those voicebox machines and I’m quite a gifted mimic.” She paused, blinking her large, slit-pupiled yellow eyes at them. “I’m Tshqi. Most humans find that hard so you can call me Shiki.”
Amanpreet stared at her in surprise. The Kska didn’t struggle with human vocal sounds as much as the Mez or the Tkin but it still wasn’t easy for them.
“We can understand you,” she said. “Thank you for the welcome. We need to use the bay. We took a few scratches on the way here.”
“Yes! I know.” Tshqi waved a couple of feather-covered tentacles excitedly. “Chen said to expect you. We’re already pumping water in and it looks like the Whisper is responding correctly. It shouldn’t take more than one Talis day to heal such minor damage.”
Amanpreet looked back and saw that the ground under the Whisper was indeed becoming saturated. The Whisper was sinking into the mud and rootlets were growing from the normally smooth surface of the bioship into it pulling up the water and minerals the Whisper needed to speed its repairs. Sometimes it was almost possible to forget her ship was grown from a variety of plants using Ishtari technology. It didn’t much resemble one except in its green and brown colouration except when it was in a repair bay.
“Can we borrow a shuttle?” Sangat asked. “I’d like to take my sister to visit the dig.”
“Of course, Doctor Singh, There’s two free–“ Tshqi broke off as another Ishtari – a Tkin like Chen – rushed in. Inside their enviroment suit, the Tkin was manipulating the voice synthesizer rapidly.
“Doctor Singh! Professor Mensah is calling for you. She says that it’s urgent. You can use the console there.” It gestured to a computer near the door.
“Thank you.” Sangat headed over to it and logged in. A woman with hair cropped close to her skull and dark brown skin appeared on the screen almost immediately. From the breathing mask over her mouth and nose, Amanpreet thought she must be at the dig site.
“Sangat!” she exclaimed. “You need to get back here now! This is amazing! There’s something under–“ She looked around at a commotion just out of view of the camera. “I’ve got to go but get your butt here now.” She terminated the call.
Sangat stared at the screen for a moment. “It must be something important to get Emma so excited. We’ll really have to borrow that shuttle now.”
“I don’t know,” Niobe said. “This sounds like the set up for a horror movie to me.”
“Hang on, I know this one!” Kane said. “It’s the one where she doesn’t tell us what they’ve found and then everyone’s dead when we get there, isn’t it?”
Sangat chuckled. “I doubt it,” he said. “Though we should probably call in before we land just in case. It’s unlikely that everyone will be dead, but the Tkin scientist who found the Rune was unconscious for weeks and is still not itself.”