The inside of Ick's ship was just as strange as the outside: there wasn't a hard corner or anything like an actual angle anywhere; the ship's corridors were all tubes that were such a blinding white that I had to walk along them with a squint. Tuvwol was still dragging me by my coat through the winding, narrow tunnels in the bowels of the Deep Inquiry. Left turn here, right turn there, U-turn next, then the corridor sloped sharply downwards, then just as sharply upwards, and then the path spiraled in on itself. At the end of it, there was a large, roughly spherical room that was nearly all instrument panels; nearly everything was covered in switches, levers, knobs, buttons, switches, holographic displays and miscellaneous gauges. There were a few bare patches that were mostly flight couches equipped with crash webbing, and one circle in the bottom that had a tiny mesh grille in it. The omnipresent centimeter-deep water was flowing down the edges of the room in tiny rivulets and drained into it.
I was about to ask Tuvwol about the water when I noticed that she was stripping off her coat and boots. Beneath it, she wore what amounted to a Thek version of a tank top (which was basically the same, but much lower cut. Her scales were very dark green, and absolutely covered in tattoos. Some were simple, winding, spiky lines. Others were complex pictures: military insignias, religious icons, portraits of beloved family members, or things that probably just seemed cool to put on her skin. Occasionally, I caught a few lines of Thek writing that I couldn't decipher without seriously violating the very dangerous little alien's personal space.
"Can't stand cold," she muttered, strapping her gauss rifle across her back again, "Don't know how you mammals can."
I was about to formulate a witty retort when a holographic viewscreen formed in the middle of the room. I couldn't see the projectors, but I really didn't care about that. The picture, like Ick's hologram in the bar, had a color balance that was a little off, but the image quality was absolutely friggin' amazing compared to most holos I've seen in Terran space. Unfortunately, the view was suddenly spoiled by about fifteen angry Zorba pouring into the landing bay. There wasn't sound, but I knew enough Zor to read their lips. Most of what they were saying was insults and curses, but I recognized "Blow up the godsdamn ship!"
They were already throwing snowballs and rocks. A few had pulled out blasters or laser pistols, but they didn't seem to have any effect on the Deep Inquiry. I was too bewildered by what was going on around me to notice that.
"Can those hurt the ship?" I asked Tuvwol. She snorted.
"Those peashooters? Nah. They'd need something like--" all of a sudden a trio of Zorba came into the landing bay toting what looked like an old Terran-made crew-served rocket launcher, "--that. Yes. That would do it."
I felt the blood drain from my face. This was quite possibly the worst day of my life.
"ICK!" shouted a gruff, toothy voice from behind me, "When the death are we lifting off?" My translator chip made a few odd digital noises, like it was accessing files it forgot it had. I turned around and jumped backwards in surprise.
And then promptly fell to the bottom of the sphere. I had seen the source of the voice: it was Ki'dai.
I was ashamed of my reaction as soon as it happened, but there was nothing I could do about it. I looked up at the Ki'dai, who grinned at me and started chuckling.
"This the doctor?" he asked, in heavily-accented Tholrish.
"Yes, that's the doctor. Bit clumsy, isn't he?" replied Tuvwol, her crest flattening in annoyance.
I tried not to stare at the Ki'dai. Ki'dai, you understand, were bogeymen when I was a kid. The Dominion and the Interstellar Republic had fought two wars against them. The last one was the Hegemony Incursion, which was, in many ways, an extension of the Great Galactic War. At the end of the War, the Ki'dai hated us for imposing sanctions on them that made their economy basically collapse, and we hated them for mercilessly slaughtering millions of our citizens. My earliest memory was of watching stars burn and fall across the Northern sky. My family lived in Melbourne, Australia, at the time. I remember realizing that they were ships that were burning. Hundreds of ships from the largest fleet ever constructed, put together for the express purpose of conquering Earth.
A few dropships managed to smash their way through the blockade and land in a handful of cities: Cairo, Berlin, Detroit...and Melbourne. Ki'dai war doctrine states, and has stated for thousands of years, that there is no such thing as "soldier" or "civilian." There is only "enemy." Enemies are killed. Quickly and brutally, and the few who survive are demoralized to the point that they never even dream of resisting Ki'dai rule. My family managed to get out pretty quickly, but I'll never forget how bright the fires were, or the looks on the faces of the soldiers who kept marching into the heart of the city. Years later, when I was working on my second doctorate, I looked at some of the old datafiles on the invasion. Even heavily censored, I still had nightmares for weeks.
He bounded down after me and landed right in front of where I lay, growing ever more damp with each passing moment. I managed not to flinch when he extended an arm and hoisted me to my feet in one easy motion. He grinned again at me and said, "Perfectly understandable reaction. No offense taken."
He extended a muscular hand and said, "Grench. Grench-32758936-Ptenkre-Thege-15, if you want to get proper about it."
"Ethel Gao," I replied, realizing that ever since I'd made eye contact with his middle eye, I hadn't blinked, "I'd list the Ph.D.s, but I don't think we have much--" a distant-sounding BOOM rocked the ship sideways for a second. I stumbled, but Grench pulled me back upright.
"How many of those can this ship take?" I asked, trying not to panic. Grench mulled it over for an instant.
"Not many. IIICK!"
"Reassembling engine pods self is. Stand by friends will, for re-arrangement of ship compounded flooding of pilot compartment," came Ick's translated voice over the ship's intercom.
"Re-arrangement?" I asked, catching myself before the next rocket could knock me off my feet.
"This ship is mostly liquid-state nanobots and memory metal. I don't understand exactly how it works, but basically Ick can make new rooms and modules for the ship as long as the fabrication units have enough raw material," said Tuvwol. That sounded interesting, but I was more concerned with getting out of the cockpit. I couldn't quite jump to the ledge--or rather, the rounded curve that turned into a sheer ramp too steep for me to climb even in the low gravity. Grench suddenly grabbed me unceremoniously by the waist and leapt to the corridor. If he noticed my objections at all, he didn't react. The water trickling across the floor was somewhat deeper, now. I could only tell because I could actually see it flowing into the cockpit.
"We should go now!" said Grench to Tuvwol, who took off with us.
Grench carried me over his left shoulder as he jogged along the corridor, which seemed remarkably less labyrinthine. In thirty seconds, the water was up to Grench's ankles. We came to the dip, which was now much less steep, and sloshed through fresh, warm, cinnamon-smelling-and-tasting water that was already up to Grench's knees. "Why the water?" I asked, getting a mouthful of it when Grench and Tuvwol rounded a bend. I got my answer a few meters later, when I saw Ick zooming past us. She porpoised to take a breath, and kept on swimming. The water was up to Grench's waist, which meant that it was also up to Tuvwol's chest. She stumbled and slipped downwards, only for Grench to grab her by the scruff of the neck and carry her over his other shoulder.
"In cockpit self is! Prepare friends will, for total flooding of corridor!" came Ick's voice over the intercom. Grench, who was up to his chest, clicked his mandibles in annoyance and stopped in front of what I could only assume was a door. The door was a bright red oval with a black outline. Grench touched a holo-pad next to it and absolutely nothing happened. He grunted and touched it again. Still nothing. The water continued to rise. Tuvwol whimpered as the water grew nearer to Grench's shoulders.
Grench drew back his fist and slammed it into the door. It sounded like he was punching wet sand.
"Mott, open the goddamn DOOR BEFORE I KICK IT DOWN AND--" bellowed Grench. The door slid sideways into the wall. Grench grabed me and Tuvwol, and threw us bodily into the room beyond. Grench moved inside as quickly as he could and slapped a holo-panel on the inside wall. The door slid closed again with a faint swish noise. I couldn't hear what Grench said next, because I was underwater, with a panicking Thek on top of me. I struggled to stand up, then got kicked in the face and pushed back down to the floor, which made Tuvwol fall beneath the surface again and start struggling to get to the surface. I was beginning to run out of air, and that combined with the cuts on my forehead from Tuvwol's talons meant that I was beginning to panic, too. All I could hear past my thrashing, Tuvwol's thrashing, and my pounding ears, was a muffled screaming noise from above the surface of the water. Two muffled screaming noises.
Right about then, the water started draining out of the room. In a few seconds, Tuvwol and I were gasping for breath. Tuvwol got to her feet and helped me up, gingerly brushing my head wound with a nimble, four-jointed, clawed finger. "Sorry, Ethel," she said. I grimaced, and looked at the fourth person in the room. He looked human, and was very, very tall, and his limbs were very long and spindly-looking. When he moved, he moved slowly and gingerly, like he was taking great care not to hurt himself. He was still arguing with Grench:
"Look, Mott," Grench snapped, "I know you said you're having trouble fitting in around here, but that's no reason to shirk your duties like that!"
"My duties have nothing to do with BUILDING A HYPERDRIVE FROM SCRATCH!" yelled the other guy, apparently named Mott.
"What?! You dont' have to build it from scratch, you moron! Just pull up the nanomachine interface, SCROLL THROUGH THE LIBRARY AND CLICK ON THE GODDAMN BUTTON!" screamed Grench, doing his very best not to punch Mott in the groin
"If you think for an INSTANT that I'm going to even consider using those UNHOLY--"
"UNHOLY?!" shouted Grench, "Grek(click)zaa'gra(click)eHrut'to! STUPID! THE LOT OF YOU! STUPID!" With that, Grench stormed off to the opposite side of the room and started pacing, muttering a mixture of curses and insults at everyone and everything that crossed his mind.
"Deployed flash-bang projectors, self has. Prepare for takeoff, friends will compounded cease worrying of Zorba miscreant hostilities," came Ick's voice over the intercom. I felt a slight push from underneath. It took me a moment to realize that the Deep Inquiry was rising. This ship was amazing--most starships I've ridden on haven't had anything like that kind of inertial dampening systems. There was another slight push and a tiny, almost imperceptible vibration in the floor. Tuvwol said, "And we're in space. Welcome aboard, Ethel."
I had taken my shoes and sodden coat off and was about to start wringing my socks out when Mott turned to me. I groned internally. He was human, after all. Just not a Terran. He was a Roian. Roians are almost as bad as Ki'dai; they were one of the first alien species we ever encountered, back when we first started exploring the Galaxy. First contact was way back in 2130, and absolutely everyone was shocked to find that they appeared, in nearly every respect, absolutely identical to Terrans. For decades, nobody really thought much about it--they were far less advanced than we were (due to their omnipresent religion preaching that the scientific method is a route to dangerous, evil thoughts), and didn't really have anything to trade with us, so we left each other alone. Then in 2150, the Terran Colonial Authority Ministry of Genetics released a study that revealed why Roians looked so much like humans: they were humans. The Colonial Authority offered an alliance immediately, and the Holy Roian State declared the TCA's findings to be blasphemy. Things got tense for a while--we realized that while they were far less advanced than we, we'd never fought an interstellar war before and didn't really have a military, while they'd fought dozens and had a huge military. Shortly after the Baikosh (one of the Galaxy's seemingly innumerable elder races with capabilities like unto gods) sheepishly admitted to having transplanted a few hundred thousand primitive H. sapiens to the Roian homeworld, they declared war. The war lasted for ten years, and nearly destroyed us, but we eventually beat them back and conquered their tiny empire.
Nearly three centuries later, there's still animosity between us. I could see it in his eyes that he absolutely detsted the fact that I even existed, and I felt the automatic sneer reach my lips. I managed to keep from saying anything, but the expression was still there. We eyed each other coolly, and he said, just quietly enough for me to hear him, "And now we're admitting heretics and murderers onto our crew. What a fun voyage this will be."
I realized I was about to spit an insult at him and bit down on my tongue. Hard. I remembered, almost too late, that very few Roians ever used universal translators and he was speaking in Roian. I turned to Tuvwol. "Any other surprises, Tuvwol? Have you found the Red Prince of the Zorba and hired him on, too? Maybe cloned a few Hitlers for the full set? Or is this it?"
If she found me clever, she didn't show it. "We're it, Ethel," she said, shaking her crest dry.
I sighed. Getting beaten to death by a mob of angry goat-aliens was beginning to seem like a good idea. I kept wringing the water from my socks and wondering if it was too late to back out when all of a sudden the walls and floor went transparent. I yelped and jumped backwards into Mott, who shoved me away instantly. "Calm down, human," he growled, "You are still in the ship. The slime-fish just likes to show off."
I exhaled and crept away from where I thought the walls were. When I said they were transparent, I meant it: I could see the water-filled corridors of the ship just floating in space alongside us, Ick flitting from panel to panel in her pilot's sphere, and in the rear of was the massive, tangled apparatus that I recognized as a hyperdrive. Below us was Snow, spinning gently in the void. Ick paused near an instrument panel to flick on the intercom.
"Forgive interruption friends must. Seen Hyperspace shunt, Ethel has?" she said.
"Uh...no, I haven't," I said, excitement and curiosity overcoming my apprehension.
"Delightful happenstance is this! Do not blink, Ethel Gao!"
Rainbows streaked and whirled around the ship in narrow bands. The familiar sensation of being stretched ever-so-slightly was coupled with the visual of everything outside the ship distending. Stars began to blur together into a slightly blueish backdrop. There was a slight tug from the nose of the ship and a slight push from the engines, and then in a flash of multicolored brilliance, we were in Hyperspace.