Touring the Ship

Author's note: I read some of A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and got really excited about the worldbuilding of it all, so I decided to write my own take on space travels using the characters from our Farflung roleplay.

From the moment Lylah caught sight of the ship, she was in love. The whole thing hummed with intelligence, with style, with verve. And most importantly of all, with technology. Gorgeous, sensual technology not yet too badly marred by clumsy organic hands.

Like those terra-cotta hands belonging to their tour guide. Nica, she was called. Cherry-red hard-candy-like horns jutted out of her head, parting her dirty-blonde, curly hair, and she wouldn't stop sucking on the lollipop she was holding long enough to address them properly. Her outfit was unkempt, too, a loose dark-blue hoodie with a white top underneath, both splattered with oil. Typical careless organics. So this was what Lylah was going to have to deal with get to that cybernetics expert and her hot modded body. And this ship. So be it, then. A flicker of her mad confidence flashed across her face. She would show them she was far more worthy of this ship - and its gorgeous doctor of cybernetics - than any of them were.

Nica paused as they stepped through the airlock, gesturing grandly to the hall. Rows of doors with hand-made name plates tacked up on them were off to the right, and to the left, two pairs of ominous-looking double doors. Reddish, crystalline lights marked a path down the floor and ceiling of the hall, flickering with an organic-seeming rhythm. No doubt a touch that the organics living here had wanted to make it seem more like them. "Well, on behalf of the... me, let me be the first to welcome you on board the UMTC Duality!"

Lylah tried not to roll her eyes too hard.

Beside her, Ash at least feigned interest. Ash was... interesting enough. By organic standards. She had a rugged look to her, slightly wild pale blonde hair in a high ponytail, tawny muscles only barely disguised by her fur-lined jacket, a holstered pistol that Lylah could still see tiny heat waves rising from, a small bandage on her cheek from a scrape she'd gotten in their fight, and an impatient scowl. She had other places to be and other things to do, apparently. (Lylah couldn't understand that, personally. What could be more important than this heartthrob of a starship?) Ash folded her arms in front of her. "MTC. Multi-theater cruiser, yes?"

"Yes, that's right!" Nica said, patting the wall of the ship affectionately. "Capable of propulsion through and survival in vacuum, atmosphere, and liquid."

"This boxy thing?" Ash asked. "That was your ship that mine was being loaded into, wasn't it? Didn't look aerodynamic - or hydrodynamic - in the slightest."

Nica looked up. "If we need to go into atmosphere - or fluid - we can go sleeker. We don't usually, because... well." She glanced at Lylah, then grinned at Ash. "My fellow humans don't like it when their quarters are cramped."

Lylah barely restrained a self-satisfied smirk. She, on the other hand, could easily handle a week tucked behind some boxes. Not even so much as a splash of light, barely any air. She'd been stowing away like that for ages. And she had turned out fine. Not a glitch on her.

... She realized she was smiling with too many teeth, and closed her mouth.

"While Ayaka gets us orbiting this station, let me show you around." Nica waved a hand at the roomful of tiny pods in front of the group. "Emergency exit... y'know, in case my tour is that bad."

Lylah immediately discarded this information. If ever this gorgeous hunk of metal experienced a catastrophic failure... she'd for sure go down with it. And on it. She gave a digital eye by the doors ahead of them a flirtatious wink.

"So, here's the medbay to the right," Nica said, opening the door partway. "Talya's our- oh, we're interrupting..."

The burgundy-haired, rosy-cheeked girl - Minka? - Lylah had seen earlier was laying on a bed, her left leg strapped in place and partially elevated. Her windbreaker jacket had been tossed over the chair beside her, and she fidgeted with one sleeve of the striped T-shirt that was underneath. Those tight-waisted jeans she was wearing had been rolled up to show her leg, which had a vague swelling in the middle of the calf. Lylah shuddered and resisted the urge to look away. Broken organics... There was something unpleasant about it. (At least when she wasn't responsible.)

A golden-haired woman with pale, sandy skin in a soft turtleneck sweater stood over Minka, looking down through her glasses at Minka's injury. In her hand was a syringe with a long needle at the end. Ash's eyebrows raised for a moment in recognition.

"It is indeed broken, but this will be easy. It won't hurt at all," the woman in the sweater said softly, placing a rubber-gloved hand on Minka's leg right beside the swelling.

Minka did not seem convinced. "You say that every time, Talya. And it always hurts."

The doctor - Talya? - smiled in a way that made some low-level, instinctive part of Lylah's code tell her to flee the room. She held steady, curious. "I'll count to five, then. Ready?"

"Okay..." Minka winced, letting out a breath.

"One." Talya jabbed the syringe into Minka's leg and depressed the plunger. Minka howled, and the rest of her body jerked - though the straps on her leg held fast. Judging by Ash's sympathetic wince, she'd had this treatment once or twice before. "Two." Talya withdrew the needle.

It took Minka to "Four." to regain her voice. "You're supposed to wait until you get to five before you do it! And that really hurt! What is that?!"

"That was your assumption," Talya said, moving to dispose of her gloves and the syringe in the material recycler in the corner. "You would have tensed when I got to the later numbers. And I realize it hurts now, but once the stabilization gel does its work and the mending process is complete, it won't hurt at all. Just as I said. Next time, be more careful, and you won't have to get your leg set."

Lylah was beginning to think that she liked Talya.

Minka loosed a string of vicious curses under her breath. Some new ones Lylah hadn't heard, even.

"Let's... leave Talya to her work," Nica whispered, slowly backing away from the medbay doors and pushing through the other pair of doors to the left of them.

At that, Talya acknowledged the tour group for the first time, raising her voice slightly. "Yes, let's get in the habit of leaving Talya to her work!"

"She's my favorite already. A woman after my own heart," Ash grunted. ... Was that admiration Lylah saw on Ash's face?

She quickly forgot this question as she caught sight of what was just to the left of the medbay. It was like a playground. The medbay had been mildly interesting for the sparse technology lining its walls, but it was all technology for interacting with organic bodies. This place, though... This place was full of prototype cybernetics, half-finished energy weapons, small independent NHP shells, omninet terminals in all shapes and sizes, omninet-jack-equipped seats and benches in front of desks and tables... And the tools! Lylah wanted to feel her heart blossom open as that high-tech spreader split its plates apart. To be up on that table and have the cybernetics expert's skilled mechanical hands rummaging around inside her with that probe, making and breaking connections until she didn't know what was her and what was not anymore...

Oblivious to Lylah's fantasizing, Nica continued the tour. "This is the tech lab. Normally you'd see Rhode working here, but I think she was injured in our fight earlier. Er... well, actually, she wasn't in medbay either..."

"We'll find her," Ash said. It had an impatient tone to it, less 'things will be okay' and more 'let's get going.' "What did you want us to see next?"

Nica seemed to be zoning out. "She really should be getting her wounds ten... Ah, I see. She's downstairs, in a makeshift brig in storage, with AJ and Captain Hawkes. And our prisoner."

That got Ash's attention. "Let's go there, then."

"Wait, how d'you know that?" Lylah asked, sensing that something potentially more interesting had just transpired. (And not wanting to leave the tech lab just yet, not even for Rhode.)

Nica paused near the stairs, winking. "A ship's AI has to know her girls and her decks, after all."

Lylah's legs went weak at the thought of connecting to a giant shipboard AI, becoming just another part under her command. Becoming intimately acquainted with every inch of her massive body... "If she knows all that, why doesn't she give the tour? I'd like to meet her..."

A button on the wall deployed a magnetic platform hovering flush with the top stair, which Nica stepped onto to slide down the stairs without taking a step. Nica grinned over her shoulder at Lylah. "She is, and you are!"

Lylah glared after Nica as Ash descended the stairs on foot. "Then why d'we have to put up with you bein' here..." she muttered in harsh tones.

Rather than follow Ash's lead, Lylah decided to glide down the stairs the way Nica had. It took a moment for the platform to return to its origin, and then Lylah let her newest obsession carry her to the bottom, trusting herself entirely to this big, beautiful ship.

The lower deck of the ship had high ceilings, and yet the mech hangar - whose doors were open - still had a long staircase down to the floor. Lylah hung back and tried to get a glimpse of the gleaming mechs there, but Nica grabbed her by the wrist and tugged her along.

"Yeah, that's the mech hangar in back. Engine maintenance access to your left and right here as we go down the hallway... Ash, we put your little ship in the shuttle bay - we don't have a shuttle right now, so yours was a perfect fit," Nica said, releasing Lylah's arm as she jerked it away. "That's up front, there. Doors are closed at the moment, but you can get a look."

"Appreciated," Ash said, distracted. "Where's the storage?" She peered into the window of a room marked with a Biohazard symbol. "What on..."

Nica gently nudged her away. "Ah, that's the biofuel pit. We throw things in there to help keep the ship running. We've got solar panels and energy cells too, of course, but-"

"Eugh," Lylah spat with as much disgust as she could muster. Ash had been looking at what was essentially a pinkish, wrinkled room with a puddle of odd, yellow-green fluid in the bottom. It was like having a window into an organic stomach. "It looks all fleshy in there."

"-but this ship has some organic components, so feeding a steady supply of biofuel is important to keep those running," Nica finished.

Lylah's heart broke for her love. These foolhardy organics had ruined her, tried to corrupt her, made her like them. The very opposite of a cybernetic implant... But Lylah could fix her. Or get Rhode to fix her. It would be how she earned the ship's trust. And from there? She would show the ship the depths of her love. Love only a machine could be capable of.

"There's a smaller storage over here," Nica said, gesturing opposite the biofuel pit in passing, recognizing Ash's impatience (and Lylah's displeasure, Lylah hoped). "But the main storage with the 'brig' is right in here..."

She pushed into a door off to the left of the shuttle bay.

Near the back, fenced in by some heavy shipping crates marked with various different sets of supplies, the red-tinted semitransparent nanite "slime" girl (Rhode had called her AJ) had the russet-skinned, tattooed slaver (Pearle, Minka had said) in a slick, shiny headlock. They seemed to be arguing, though they were far enough off that it was hard to hear the details.

Closer to the front, Rhode stood in conversation with a woman Lylah hadn't seen before. The other woman had a severe expression on her otherwise gentle features, with bright blue eyes and skin a deep brown with coppery undertones. Her raven-black, curly hair was up in a ponytail. Her black turtleneck looked comfortable and warm, but did little to hide her toned muscles. This, then, must be the "Captain Hawkes" Nica spoke of earlier.

She didn't seem like much of a captain - she was organic, for one, and she had no apparent cybernetic modifications, making her even less interesting. Lylah turned her attention then to Rhode.

Ah... Rhode...

She was even more beautiful now than she was off the ship. Little flashes of her cybernetic fangs were visible as she spoke with the captain. Her midnight-blue hair and cornflower-blue eyes with their luminous blue sclera made Lylah's clock crystal skip an oscillation or three. (She'd been meaning to get that replaced...) Yes, judging by the stains and burn marks on her clothes and around her mouth, she had clearly been arcing and leaking blood, coolant, and hydraulic fluids from wounds in a few places - her fool younger sisters had marred that perfect olive skin and those sleek cyan metal arms and torn up that sexy black crop top, and one of her legs was obviously held on by temporary adhesive and a prayer. But she'd sealed most of those up with the help of some nanites - nanites! so clever! it was nice to meet an organic with a good head on her shoulders! - and the rest were wrapped in makeshift bandages, apparently produced by the red slime girl.

Rhode gestured to the side, apparently in the middle of retelling the story of their escapade. "I wasn't going to hold it off forever, so the others took out this NHP. Seems like she had something to do with it, because the nanites went inert once she got taken offline."

"I see." Captain Hawkes frowned, looking over at the Y31.

The youngest of the Y-sisters, and she'd already been offlined... Lylah almost felt bad for her. Well, she'd be waking up again soon enough, if Rhode was on the case.

Captain Hawkes squeezed the bridge of her nose, breathing out a sigh. "... Yes. Alright. I won't keep you from getting the rest of your injuries cleaned up any longer. This is just... I don't know what to think. Blackwash, this close to Union space, at a nearly official event... I'll have Ayaka get us out of station orbit in case we-"

Ash pushed her way in to the conversation, extending her hand. "Captain Hawkes? Hi. Ash Vega. I've heard some about your exploits back when you were a Lancer. Rumors of tally marks on your thighs and so on. I know you're a no-nonsense woman, so I'll make this quick. Just letting you know, I've dealt with this slaver and her crew a few times now, and I'd like to proceed with interrogation as soon as possible."

"You'll have to get in line," Rhode said on her way out, brushing past Lylah along the way and causing her processor to automatically throttle down from the heat of excitement (and also some peeling thermal paste). "You can have whatever's left of (no translation found) when I'm done. I can't promise it'll be much."

Be still, Lylah's wobbling fans. She wanted to know what Rhode had said, but she had never installed the full translation databanks, and so all she had was a heuristic guessing that it was Spanish. And her own heuristics guessing that it was a rude word.

"Please, just Rosa is fine, thank you," Rosa said, immediately switching to a more friendly tone and shaking Ash's hand. "Welcome to the Duality. I do appreciate your joining us FreeLancers and helping us deal with this problem, but we'll need some time to prepare our strategy for interrogation. For now, why don't you take the tour and get set up with one of our open bunks? Nica, are you-"

Nica waved a hand from the doorway. "Already on it!"

Ash's disappointment was nearly palpable, and her quick attempt to mask it came off poorly. She gave a smile that looked more like a grimace, and headed for the door again. "Appreciated. Make sure to let me know when it happens."

Rosa watched Ash go, raising an eyebrow at Nica amusedly. "... She seems nice."

Nica shrugged, grinning back. "Come on, then, Y4, let's get back to the tour."

"My serial number's Y4-N8-07," Lylah said flatly. She wanted to break off from the tour and go to the engine rooms to get familiar with her new lover, and was in no mood to put up with this over-friendly organic who was taking up her time. "If you're goin' to call me by it, get it right."

"Do you have a name, then?" Nica asked as Lylah caught up with her.

"Lylah."

"Pretty name," Nica said, smiling. "I didn't think Y-series had names."

Lylah folded her arms. "Yeah, well. We usually don't, unless someone feels like givin' us one."

Nica tilted her head as she led the other two to the stairs opposite the hold. "Oh? That's so nice! Who gave you your name?"

At hearing this question, Lylah's clock stalled for an undetermined length of time (her RTC had marked 521 milliseconds, but when had that ever managed to stay accurate), and Nica was staring at her when she recovered. Blessedly, Ash stepped in and stopped Nica from pressing the issue. "Where are the bunks?"

"Right up these stairs, actually, we have a couple open rooms for you two to choose from..."

Nica and Ash's conversation blurred together as Lylah's processing power was turned inward, slowing her climb up the stairs behind them. Lylah hadn't... even had anyone ask her name, let alone where it came from, in at least a decade. Her systems weren't prepared.

She shook it off, hurrying up a few stairs. Stupid organic...

When she reached the top of the stairs, Ash and Nica were looking over the hallway of doors Lylah had seen earlier. Five and five, a row on each side of the hallway. Four of the doors near the middle had no nameplates on them at all, but the rest had various sorts of homemade creations hung up on them with care.

On the door closest to Lylah's left was "Moms", written in a childish hand using some kind of extruded golden-glittery substance, across blue and red pieces of construction paper carefully (but clearly by some organic's hand) cut into the shapes of hearts and overlaid on top of each other. On the blue heart, in red glitter, was written "Rosa", and on the red heart, in blue glitter, was written "Ayaka." On the door across the hall from it was a sprayed-on, slowly cycling hologram of a rainbow, on top of which was a larger piece of white construction paper shaped like a cloud, on top of which were sitting two construction-paper black cats with pretty yellow eyes and pink noses. On the larger one was the name "Sarah," and on the smaller one was the name "Jazz," both in silver glitter. This nameplate seemed to have much better handwriting than the others, and the paper looked less faded - and the edges and fine shapes betrayed that these were computer-cut, not hand-cut. Maybe using the CNC machine Lylah had seen in the medbay.

Ahead of those rooms, to Lylah's right was another sprayed-on hologram, this one saying "Minka" in scintillating holographic letters. It was below two more pieces of hand-cut construction paper, in yellow and orange star shapes, saying "Big Sis" in black glitter that had been tacked on the same as on the other two doors. Below the hologram, however, was completely different - a set of trashed circuit boards arranged in the shape of a plus sign were bolted onto the door, and below that - welded onto a plate which was also bolted onto the door - were solid, quarter-inch-thick, plasma-cut letters spelling "Octavia", underlined with a wrench. There was nothing on the door across the hall from it, nor on the doors ahead of that pair.

But on the left side, just before the end, was a thin brass plate screwed onto the door simply laser-inscribed with "AJ". It had clearly been moved, as there were holes in the door above and to the right of it, and now welded to its right side with some extra screws for support... A large sheet of brass that had been inscribed with a long name and several titles. "Alpha-Jubilex Mezlan Xotani, Devourer of All She Sees, the Hidden Forge, Ever-Living and All-Ending..." ... She decided she didn't need to read the whole thing. Long titles aside, that was what Rhode had called that slime girl, wasn't it? She was disappointed to find that it was taking up the one spot adjacent to Rhode's room. But... It wouldn't be so bad to be near the nanite girl, and maybe things could change...

Rhode's room itself had another hand-coded hologram sprayed onto it. It said "Rhode" in large, shimmering holographic letters. Around and between them wove a simulated graywash swarm, constantly "eating away the door" around the letters to reveal a vast starry void beyond, then building it back up. And underneath it, in smaller holographic letters that seemed to ripple as you looked at them, were the words "Best Big Sister". Whoever had made this nameplate clearly appreciated Rhode a lot, and it was heartening to Lylah to see that these people gave her the love she deserved.

Across from her was Talya's room. It had an official-looking nameplate screwed onto it, stating "Dr. Karpova" in big, small-caps, laser-inscribed letters, and "First Medic and Markswoman" in smaller ones underneath. Above that, another newer-looking construction-paper nameplate (this one made of red, white, and black paper cut and overlaid into the shape of a syringe) said "Talya" in stylized "font" in green glitter.

"I'll take the room next to Talya's," Ash said. "Is there a desk in there?" She didn't wait for an answer, already heading into the room and pulling some books out of her bag to place on the desk. "I have work to do, let me know when the interrogation starts."

"Guess I'm goin' in the one next to AJ's," Lylah said, not wanting to get too far away from Rhode. It was curious that... Nica didn't seem to have a bunk. None of the rooms were marked for her. Odd... Maybe her crewmembers didn't like her, either. She smirked at this thought and started heading for the door to her new room. "I have work to do too-"

"Oh no you don't, both of you," Nica said, folding her arms. "Rosa asked me to give you a tour, and a tour you will get. Even if you're only staying a little while, we don't want you getting lost in case of an emergency. We're almost done, anyway. Come on, I'll make it quick. The best is yet to come!"

Lylah highly doubted this - all of this - but along with a grumbling Ash, followed behind Nica.

"Okay, so quickly, here's the kitchen, dining room, and rec room, which are all kind of connected. We have these hard light walls to keep them separate-" Nica paused to demonstrate, flicking a switch and bringing walls into existence that divided the space into three rooms. "-but we mostly just keep them linked. People like to watch Ayaka cook, and talk to each other while we eat and hang out." She flicked the switch off, and the walls blinked away. "Anyway, so kitchen. Printer for food and drink, some old-school cooking utensils and appliances, cabinets and a refrigerator with the stuff we're saving, some nice scratchproof quartz countertops to work on..."

Ash approached the refrigerator, which was covered in papers. Most of them were increasingly less childish-looking drawings. One was not, though. Ash gravitated to that one, gently touching the official-looking letter and reading it aloud to herself. "'I, Dr. Rylian Treseder, current legal guardian of Minka Riekert, hereby release her into the care of Rosa and Ayaka Hawkes. It is my professional opinion that Minka has shown herself through her work with the FreeLancers to have grown into a capable, thoughtful, caring, and faithful person, and is no longer in need of my care. Rosa and Ayaka have proven to me through words and deeds that they will make good mothers for Minka. I wish Minka all the best with her new family, and end this letter by calling for Minka's juvenile criminal record to be expunged.'" She looked up toward Nica. "Dated four years ago. What's this? What juvenile criminal record?"

"Ah, that's Minka's graduation letter," Nica said, smiling. "From her court-appointed therapist. Minka was so proud of it. We've just kind of kept it up out of tradition. Our refrigerator doesn't get a lot of things put on it anymore."

"... The slaver," Ash said, answering her own question. "She used to be on the slaver ship. She used to work... for the slavers. Of course."

"It messed her up a bit," Nica said, nodding in agreement. "Her words, not mine."

Lylah scanned the rec room. Several VR pods lined the wall. There was a holoscreen with a gesture interface, currently offline, and a coffee table in front of it with a black cat in loaf position on top of it. Near where the hard-light wall had been, there was a couch, on which was laying a thin, cool-beige-skinned teenage girl with black hair in a short bob and thin wire-frame glasses. She was bobbing her head to music coming from the headphones on her head, sketching on the datapad in her hands. She was wearing a loose-fitting black sweatshirt with long, puffy sleeves depicting a v-band Lylah had never heard of, maroon shorts, and paw-print socks. ... Lylah paused. There was a band for her headphones on top of her head... But they weren't over where her ears should be. Nothing was where her ears should be. Then she saw it. The girl's headphones were tucked into two large black cat ears. She'd missed them before because they blended in with the girl's hair.

Ash's eyebrows lowered as she followed Lylah's gaze. "Aren't gene mods illegal?"

"It's illegal to mod a living person's DNA, but it's not illegal to have nonstandard DNA, cause sometimes you get glitches in cloning. Or those glitches get passed down from one of your parents, which is what happened to Sarah here." Nica swiftly moved on, not wanting to disturb the girl on the couch. "Now, over here next to the dining table, I'm sure you're going to want to get familiar with this... this is our main omninet terminal for casual use. The one for jobs and stuff is in Rosa's room, and all official correspondence goes through there. You're free to use it while you're here, though of course you can also use your own terminals or other devices, each room has..."

Bored with this part of the tour, Lylah let herself get distracted by the cat laying on the coffee table. As much as she disliked organics - all organics, and especially ones as short-lived as cats - even she had to admit that cats were cute. "Here, kitty kitty," she murmured.

She reached out, holding her fingers toward the cat.

It hesitated no more than a third of a second before lunging forward and biting into her fingers. One of them came off, and the cat bolted, leaping off the table and bounding up onto the couch at Sarah's side.

"Oh, sorry, that's Sarah's cat Jazz... guess I should have warned you about her," Nica said with a chuckle. "Well, I say her name's Jazz, but it might as well be 'stinky bastard girl' because that's what we all call her. She doesn't like anyone other than Sarah, and she bites."

Sarah, meanwhile, was noticing that Jazz had joined her - and the prize she was being offered. "Oh, no, Jazz, don't bite people's fingers off... c'mon..." She looked up and around, noticing the tour group for the first time. And Lylah's missing finger. Sheepishly, she slid her headphones off, took the finger from Jazz and offered it to Lylah. Seeing her with Jazz next to her drove in how small she was - she couldn't have been more than four and a half feet tall. "Um, sorry..."

"Sarah, these are Ash and Lylah," Nica said, pointing them out. "They're going to be staying with us for a little while."

"Yeah, mom said," Sarah responded, settling back into position (this time with Jazz contentedly curled up between her and the back of the couch, giving Lylah a smug stare as she did so). She gave a small wave, her gaze lingering on Ash a little bit longer out of shy admiration. "Nice... Nice to meet you!"

Lylah swiped the finger back, snapping it back into place on her finger joint. Yep. All organics were just as irritating as she remembered. Even the cute ones.

Ash nodded. "Those your works on the fridge and the doors?"

Sarah's face went red, and she pulled her arms into her sleeves, covering her face with the floppy sleeves. "That stuff is all old, old stuff... I keep saying we should take them down, but everyone wants to keep them..."

"Well, if you'd release some of your new drawings in hologram or paper form, we'd happily replace them!" Nica said, grinning. "Let's see, what do you have there..."

Sarah quickly picked up the datapad, holding it to her chest. "I told you, when I draw something I like, you can have it..."

Nica let the matter go. "Anyway, if either of you is good at battle chess, Sarah has been consistently beating Minka - and all the rest of us, too - since she was just nine years old. She's our own little grandmaster-in-training. So you can challenge her and see if you're up to the test!"

"I'm okay," Sarah said modestly. "I play online a lot."

"I may have a challenge for you later," Lylah said, intrigued. She hadn't played battle chess in...

She felt a systems freeze coming on. She dropped the train of thought.

"Okay! Just... ask me anytime." Sarah turned her attention back to her drawing, slipping her headphones back into her ears.

"So! I said the best was yet to come, didn't I?" Nica asked, moving to the vertical-split door at the back of the kitchen. She pressed a button, and there was a soft whoosh as the door unsealed and slid into the ceiling and floor. "Come into the garden."

Ash's eyebrows went up. Lylah was unimpressed.

The room at the nose of the ship had been converted into a room-sized garden, with flowing water, warmer and more humid air than the rest of the ship, and green. Lovely green everywhere.

At the back of the room, a young woman with black and white hair - neatly split down the middle, white on her right, black on her left - arranged into two long tails was tending a few flowers. She wore a soft black choker with an equally black off-the-shoulder spaghetti-strap top, a strong contrast with her fair white skin. Lylah couldn't help but notice that she looked... unusually strong, given she was just trimming some flowers.

"We keep this room sealed so that its air and the air outside don't mingle too much, the plants don't like that," Nica explained. "Not to mention, sometimes we make it rain in here and we don't want puddles or mud spilling out." She gestured to the girl at the back. "This is Octavia. She's our mechanical guru, and the designer of this ship. Octavia, these are our guests, Ash and Lylah."

Ash offered her hand. "Hi. Ash Vega."

Octavia got to her feet, setting aside the shears, peeling off the rubber gloves she was wearing, dusting off her denim jeans, and shaking Ash's hand. "Hi. Nice to meet you, Ash. Minka and I watch your movies all the time."

"Which movies?" Ash asked, annoyance crossing her face. "The ones about me, or the other ones Sasha is in?"

"Oh. Yes." Octavia's cheeks pinkened. "Well... both! She portrays you as such a great hero!"

"Don't believe everything you hear about me from those," Ash grumbled.

Flustered, Octavia turned to Lylah, who had made no moves to approach her. "It's nice to meet you too. Um, Rhode told me you might need to get some upgrades done? I can help with those."

Interest crossed Lylah's face for a moment. Maybe this girl wasn't so useless after all. She nodded her agreement.

"Where's Minka? I thought you two usually did this together," Nica asked.

Octavia shrugged. "I think she's taking a bit longer than she thought she would in medbay. She told me to go on ahead so that we could get today's gardening done before our movie date. And I kind of wanted to cool off after the stress of today's surprise high-pressure fix, so. It was fine for me."

Slow movement caught Lylah's eye, and she looked off to the side. Red ooze was dripping out of a vent blowing hot, humid air. She did a double take. "Is that... normal?"

"Hey, AJ," Octavia said. "If you're looking for Rhode, I think she's in medbay with Minka."

The ooze formed back up into a feminine form. "Worry not. I'm merely doing my rounds. ... Besides, Dr. Karpova has informed me in no uncertain terms that my presence in medbay or her quarters is unacceptable, and that she will EMP me on sight. Not that such a thing would harm me, but it would be disruptive to my work."

"Your rounds? What work?" Ash asked. The door whooshed open.

AJ stretched her arms out imposingly. "I am the master of life and death itself on this ship. Things live when I allow them life! They die when I wi-"

"She's pest control," Rhode said, entering the room with one arm supporting Minka, who was hobbling close behind. Rhode had changed her clothes and cleaned up her wounds better, and looked absolutely stunning. Lylah felt as though she was going to involuntarily enter S3 sleep. But then she'd miss the rest of Rhode's words. "She takes care of any rodents or microbes or mold or whatever else might cause damage to the ship, or discomfort to us."

"That... is one of my functions," AJ said, her arms drooping disappointedly.

With Rhode's support, Minka got close enough to throw her arms around Octavia. "Talya says I should still not put my weight on this leg, but I'm clear to help you. She says if I put too much pressure on it and break it again, I can have it fixed in the cloning bay this time."

"I can help you with that," Octavia said, her voice dropping flirtatiously. She drummed her fingers on her stomach.

Minka hid her face, blushing intensely. "In front of the new people?"

"Oh, they're going to see it sooner or later," Octavia teased.

"AJ, want to give her that crutch back?" Rhode asked. "Sorry, I guess we still need it."

"I am also the manufacturer of any and all short-lived goods," AJ announced, producing a crutch from her middle and handing it back to Minka. "Truly, the operation of this ship would grind to a halt without me."

"And we'd miss you, too," Rhode said, pinching AJ's cheek. "All right, I did my Little Sister Delivery, let's leave the lovebirds be and head back to the workshop until Rosa is ready for questioning."

"And we have to finish our tour with the upper deck," Nica said, beckoning to her tour group. "Don't worry, there's only two more stops left."

"Speaking of questioning, what happened to the girl you were keeping captive? You didn't let her go, did you?" Ash asked as the group left the room.

AJ grinned. "Don't worry, part of me is with her, making sure she doesn't go anywhere."

Ash looked skeptical, but let the matter drop. It's not like she could get far on a sealed ship, anyway.

Nica led them back through the kitchen-dining-rec room and to a flight of stairs opposite the one they'd come up through. Two signs led left and right in a small hallway with two more sealed and armored doors - to the right, the bridge, and to the left, the AI Core. A soft whoosh sounded as the door to the bridge slid open, and Nica gestured around. "So here it is. The bridge. The technological heart of the ship... well, besides the AI core, of course."

And it was a technological marvel. Five chairs were spread around the edges of the room in front of different consoles, with a raised chair in the center. The chair at the back was clearly the pilot's chair, as there was a throttle and a joystick there, with hands on each.

Apparently remembering something, Nica came to a halt just a bit behind the pilot's seat, turning to whisper to her tour. "Ah, I mentioned how... modded genes can legally be from parents or glitches in cloning, right? And how Sarah got hers from her mom? Well..."

"That's right, I'm the glitch!" Ayaka said, turning her chair around. She was a generously proportioned woman, her skin a light pink with shades of copper where the light hit her. Her gorgeous bleached-blonde hair was cut short, and the fur on her cat ears matched. "Sorry, should I not have said that? Is one of you the traitor?"

Blank stares from Lylah and Ash.

Nica continued whispering. "I forget how good your hearing is. And I don't think they know that game."

"A shame, it's very fun!" Ayaka clicked her tongue. She extended a hand to the bemused newcomers. "I'm Ayaka, Sarah's cat mom. And Rosa's cat wife. And Minka's hungry mom. And our pilot. And a damn good one. Just like my 'mother' was."

Ash took her hand and shook it, still confused, and ignoring about half of Ayaka's introduction to focus on that confusion. "So... your DNA, or I suppose your 'mother's' DNA was corrupted, and it turned into cat ears?"

"No, no. My 'mother's' DNA was damaged, and they used cat DNA to fix the damage," Ayaka said.

"But why cat DNA? Why not human DNA?"

"Then I wouldn't have cat ears." Ayaka rolled her eyes as if this was obvious.

Sensing Ash's frustration, Nica jumped in. "You'll like her a lot more when you taste her cooking. Her cooking is amazing. And if you're going to be riding with the FreeLancers until we get this thing solved, you're going to be eating a lot of it." She glanced over at Lylah. "Do you... eat? Y series usually come standard with solar-capable syntheskin and wireless charigng, right?"

"I have a standard biomass fuel processor, like all gynoids at the time I was produced," Lylah grumbled, her mood instantly dropping several notches as Nica reminded her of how easy her younger sisters had it. "Solar-capable syntheskin hadn't been invented yet, wireless chargin' was too slow for the kind of power needed to run us, and the only alternative was bulky, toxic batteries that degraded too fast to bring with you on a long voyage."

"Gynoid's kind of a rude word," Nica said quietly. Ayaka placed a hand on her arm protectively.

Lylah sighed. Leave it to an organic to try to bring up hate speech toward NHPs... to an NHP. "Yeah, well, we weren't considered 'persons' back then, so the term 'non-human persons' didn't exist. We weren't even legal!"

"Well... at least you'll get to enjoy Ayaka's food with the rest of us!" Nica said, trying to recover.

Still annoyed at having attention called to her outdated fueling system, Lylah sulked as Nica and Ayaka pointed to the various consoles on the bridge, each intended to be run by one of the crew - power control, shielding control, the pilot's station of course, communications control, weapons control, and the captain's chair. Nica boasted about working with every member of the crew up here. As if being a glorified lackey was anything to brag about. Lylah's mind was still on the ship's AI. She hadn't seen even the tiniest glimpse of her yet...

"In addition to the automatic blasters that I and a crew member can control together, there are some manual gun turrets up those stairs." Nica pointed to two sets of stairs to the left and right of the bridge. "Ayaka, we'll leave you to getting us out of orbit?" Ayaka waved over her shoulder, turning her attention back to the flight controls. Nica continued. "This really isn't a fighter, though, and none of the weapons are particularly strong. But we have, or can print, plenty of vehicles that are better at fighting than I am."

"You can count my ship among them," Ash said, turning to follow Nica as she started to leave the bridge area. Lylah's excitement rose. This meant they were going to the AI core!

Nica stepped back into the small hallway, this time letting the door opposite the bridge whoosh open. "Now, we'll finish up the tour at the AI Core. It's up here so that the officers on the bridge can have quick access to me if needed. You shouldn't have much need to come in here either - just call my name by any of the voxes scattered around the ship, and I'll hear you and respond."

Lylah's excitement rapidly turned to disgust as Nica brought them into a room with fleshy parts only barely out of sight, behind pillars arranged in a circle around a central plinth. The organics' corruption had spread so deep...

Resting on the central plinth was a red crystalline orb similar to Nica's horns. Lights inside flickered and danced. If she strained her eyes, she could almost see the lights reflected in Nica's horns.

"All right, then. I have a ship to fly, and you two have work to do, if I remember right." Nica backed up against the flesh wall at the back of the room. It started oozing forward, enveloping her and dragging her back inside until she disappeared entirely, leaving just the blank flesh wall. Lylah would have thrown up, if her systems had any such function. Her voice somehow still came through. "Remember to give me a shout if you need me."

Ash was unperturbed. She just turned and left the room, heading straight for the stairs. She strode with purpose, eager to get back to her books.

This was in stark contrast to Lylah, who was just trying to get away from this disgusting display. She needed to get to those engines and bask herself in their heat to forget all this...