"Get out," says the director, who remains caught wihin the twisting-branch hands of a Tikolumian. "Get out of my station. You'll be doing that anyway shortly but I want you gone as soon as possible."
The station control room is an impressive array of buttons and switches on two big panels. It seems like the kind of thing that would take at least four engineers in order to run properly. The station itself appears to have twelve, unless the people I'm judging to be maintenance workers are also engineers. Maybe there's an overlap in skillsets. Anyway, none of them can do their jobs right now, because they're all being held fast by the Tikolumians.
Behind me are my crew, plus Sword Lesbian and the little twerps that call themselves the Resistance.
Above me is a high vaulted grey ceiling with windows here and there.
Below me is a floor that rumbles and vibrates with the sounds of a machine working merrily.
"This station is now the property of the Resistance!" says the smokey Crystalline, waving a flamethrower around.
"Oh God," says Tikreelkara, rushing over to the Crystalline, "Put that away before you get hurt -- "
But it is too late, and one of Tikreelkara's people is faster than them. The Crystalline is caught up in twisting branches and lifted high into the air. The tree growls, and makes as if to smash the Crystalline to the ground.
"Will everyone please knock it off?" I say. "We came here for parley, not violence."
"Could have fooled me," says the director.
Tikreelkara scrambles up the tree and whispers something to a spot near its eyes. It slowly lowers the Crystalline.
"Tikreelkara," I say, "are your people willing to let the station engineers go now? Our object was to get in here, and that's taken care of. I don't think these people want to kill us. Maybe. Hey, do any of you engineers want to kill us?"
There is a chorus of "no" and one "yes".
"Alright, keep hold of whoever said yes."
The Tikolumians lift their woody fingers away from the engineers. The engineers rush to the station's controls and as they press levers and flips switches they start passing jargon between each other. Can't understand a word.
"I greatly apologize for the intrusion," I say to the director, "though I hope we have not done you a great deal of harm. Pray tell me, what is your name?
The director brushes off the sleeves of her long grey coat. "Smith." She rushes over to one of the groups of engineers and begins giving them orders.
"Smith?" says Ramon. "Nice name. Hey, Robin, I'm going to go sit with the car if that's all right with you. Bye." He walks back the way we came before I can get a word in. Aristede likewise retreats, along with the members of the Resistance, and all the Tikolumians including Tikreelkara. Klunk looks at the scene, then looks back to where we parked the car, then back to the scene.
"Everyone abandons the quest at the hour when all is revealed!" I say. "Oh, what a pity, what a shame. My dear friends are not steadfast after all!"
"Fine," says Klunk, "I'll stay here as long as you hold my hand."
"What does everyone know that I don't?"
Klunk grabs my hand without even asking me, and points with her other hand towards the windows. They are narrow things, through which I can see little of the sky. Less, in the next few seconds, because a grey pall quickly blocks them. It appears we are sinking.
I turn to Sword Lesbian. She is wringing her hands. "I, uh...might have shot up a few things in order to get through the intake system."
The facility echoes with the sound of a bang then a crash, then a boom.
"Maybe a few important things."
"I'm sure these savvy engineers can fix it," I say.
One of the engineers slumps to the floor and starts crying.
"One moment," I say, but Klunk will not let go of my hand. I have to drag her along as I go to the director. "My profuse apologies," I say to Smith, "I think we have been more trouble than I had expected -- "
She whips around and glares at me.
"Maybe a lot mroe trouble?"
"Just take your pack of brutes and go," she says. "I have to go down with this ship but I don't expect you to."
"We have a vehicle that will take you and all your crew out of here," says Sword Lesbian. "And all the Tikolumians as well. I know it sounds crazy but we can get you out of here."
"I'm not leaving this place!" says Smith. "I am not going to see it crash to the ground. After all the work I did to fix it after my predeccessor ran it ragged trying to produce enough Spelunkium, after all the horrors this place inflicted on the planet, I'm not going to let it crash to the earth and leak toxic fluids all over the place!"
"Wait," I say, "So you're not the one who caused the war back down on Tikolum?"
"There are many reasons I despise the crew of the Space Slug," says Smith, "And today you added to them. I have no more time to explain -- "
"I have an idea," says Sword Lesbian. "But the first thing you need to do is shut this place down. I don't want exhaust fumes filling the cabin of my car."
"And then when the power is off, we can carry the whole thing away," continues Sword Lesbian. "Trust me, it will work."
"Wait a second," says Klunk, "are you saying -- "
"Actually, hang on a sec," says Sword Lesbian. "Keep the station floating as long as you can. We need to do this whole thing gently. I'll go tell the others." She rushes to the Tikolumians and everyone gathered around the Barracuda.
"She didn't even tell us what she's trying to do," I say. "It can't be what I think it is...right?"
"The controls aren't working from here!" says one of the engineers. "We've lost power on one of the panels! We have to do this manually!"
As he says this, I notice the rumbling and vibrating beneath my feet has stopped.
"Dammit!" says Smith. "If we go in there I'm probably going to lose three of you!"
"Sounds like a real dillemma," says Klunk. "But maybe I can help fix the problem, oh my brave mining station director. You don't have to go down with the ship without fighting the whole way. What do you say?"
"Klunk," I say, "you've thrown yourself into danger to fix engines more than enough times already."
"Do you even know how this station works?" says Smith.
"I worked in something like this back when I was a wee sprat," says Klunk. "I shouldn't have too much trouble. And you know what I can do that you can't?" She lets go of my hand and shoots up to the ceiling, then back down. "No scaffolding necessary. Come on, let a stranger take a fall instead of one of the people you're more familiar with." She grabs my hand. "Alright, Robin, let's get some work done. To the main engine room!"
"Am I the captain or not?"
"Captains defer to engineers when discussing engines. Come on."
"I could very well just leave you here. I could even drag you back to the Barracuda."
"Then I shall pull myself by my own hands towards the engine. Come on, the faster we get started the faster we get done. Engineers! Do you want to help me?"
"I still want to kill you," says one of the engineers, "but I suppose I could arrange a suspicious accident while we're all in the engine room."
"Good enough!" says Klunk. "To the engine room!"
I give up my protest, and drag Klunk through the corridors, following the engineers. Smith is following behind us, having decided that if she can't stop her beloved engineers from sacrificing themselves, she won't abandon them either. We pass through wide corridors and narrow corridors, over catwalks and under pipes, until at last we reach the core.
The core of the station is a mass of pipes, metal trusswork, and balconies surrounding a wide cylinder that stands many stories tall. The cylinder is all of metal, but there is a gap on one side where rivets have been knocked out. On the Titanic, the water poured into the gap; here light pours out, and it's as much of a problem, I'm guessing, because there's a mass of broken and twisted pipes in a blast radius near the gap.
"Alright," says Klunk, "We can patch this but it's going to take some time. We might fund ourselves getting pretty close to hitting the planet's surface before we're done. I'm going to saw off the broken bits. Engineers, if you could please gather whatever replacement pipes are available? It doesn't matter if they're wide or narrow, I'll work something out."
The engineers rush off to find some pipes.
Klunk grabs a small tool off her shoulder belt. "Robin, if you can drag me over to one of the pipes here -- thank you -- and I shall begin. Stand back. This light is a doozy." She glances towards something behind me. "The rest of you," she says, "can skedaddle. You don't want to be standing in this light. I said scram!"
I turn around. All of my crew, save Ramon, are standing in the hall, plus the Tikolumians, plus the pitiful teenagers of the Reisistance. They retreat from the light and shuffle into side room off the hall. The aquamarine Gworb sticks their head out from the doorway, still hoping to watch, but hands pull them back into the room.
"You're risking a lot," says Smith. "All for a stranger?"
"For a machine!" says Klunk. "And for a valley, I suppose. Now shoo!" She fires up her tiny saws-all. I retreat with Smith to the safety of a shadowed alcove.
"So your predecessor," I say. "Was he driven by greed?"
"Desperation," says Smith. "He was directed by the Space Slug to deliver as much Spelunkium as possible, as fast as possible. That was in the opening stages of the war, before things had setled down to a stalemate and the resource requirements of the ship were high. My predecessor knew he could get more Spelunkium into the atmosphere if he could get the Tikolumians to work harder. He figured that the best way to do it was to play their factions against each other. A lightning strike in a dry forest, so to speak. He didn't expect things to go quite so badly, though. I don't think he knew that the various traders he was employing were also supplying the Tikolumians with flamethrowers. Or maybe he did. I didn't hear him all that clearly before I threw him off the station."
"Wait, do you mean threw like, dismissed him, or -- "
"Don't worry your pretty little head," says Smith.
The engineers pass us carrying long pipes.
"Alright, Robin," says Klunk, "I need you to hold these pipes in place."
I jog over to Klunk. "Right here and here," she says, pointing to a pipe opening above another one. "Just hold it in place like that -- thank you." She takes another tool off her shoulder belt, and sets to welding the pipe together.
"I'm not sure I want to be here too long," I say. "Can't you just...duct-tape these pipes together or something?" I glance at the engineers who are already duct-taping the pipes in position.
"Anathema!" says Klunk. "I have to actually weld these things. Tape is good for positioning, thank you. You may retreat."
I dash back to the safety of the shade.
"So that's why you hate the Space Slug," I say. "They were the indrect cause of the planet's greatest tragedy. But I don't understand your command structure. I thought you were under the direct command of the rebel fleet?"
"I'm under the command of the central government of the separatist alliance," says the director. "I do not report to the Space Slug. Direct command of this place was revoked from Captain Bones and I was brought aboard. I report directly to the Council."
"But the captain of the Space Slug doesn't know that. He said the reports were garbled."
"And military commanders do what, exactly, when they wish to ingore an order?"
"Fair point. But he sounded sincere."
"Anyone can sound sincere," says Smith. "Ah, but I know the man. Dear mister Bones is a competent administrator of his own vessel, but is occasionally prone to asking far more of his subordinates than they can give. It's a steady turnover of engineers on his ship. And he hardly understands politics. No wonder he was unable to advocate for using the Space Slug offensively. The Council is dominated by people whose goal is to play defense. Not that I blame them. They've got their hands full trying to keep the whole thing together. There are fringe planets close to the core that have declared independence from the alliance, and there are planets farther from the core that have seen most of the fighting. And there are dozens of splinter terrorist groups claiming to fight for freedom, or for the Cosmic Balance, or what have you. It's a damn mess."
"The six young folk in the poor uniforms sound like they're the product of that conflict."
"Wouldn't surprise me," says Smith. "I wish that this secession had never been declared outright, and that things could have continued in a de facto manner. But, some people just can't leave well enough alone, and so you have a council trying to form a new government out of a shaky alliance of planets that were more different than alike before the war. Is anyone winning? Is anyone benefitting from this? I don't know what we're actually gaining. But, maybe I don't know politics either."
"You know more than I do. I've been busy running from the Student Loan Company for ten years, so I'm out of the loop."
"You...chose to run from them? Well, you and your crew have proven yourselves bold and willing to sacrifice. You might have bit off more than you can chew, though. How in heaven's name did you evade them this long? How do I know there isn't some assassin sent to track you down right now?"
"Are they that bad?"
"You will want to stay away from populated areas," says Smith. "Then again...you will want to be finding a new hand, so you might just be heading into a city after all."
"I what?" I lift my hand to my eyes. Well. I think I'm lifting my hand. Phantom feeling, you could call it. The nerves in my brain to move the fingers are there but the hand distinctly is not. What's left is a cloud of blue electricity about the size of my missing hand.
I dash out of the alcove.
"The pipes are in place," says Klunk. "The control panels ought to be functional again. Engineers, you can go and stabilize this place. And, uh..." She glances down at the space where her left arm used to be. There's a small cloud of blue electricity there now. "As for me the first thing I want for this year's Big Bang Day is a set of decent prosthetics."
I grab Klunk by her remaining hand and drag her at full speed away from the cylinder. Stable as it may be it's not worth hanging around and seeing her head disappear or something.