I know I was skeptical about your market idea to begin with Colonel—all right, I still am, if I’m being honest—but the others have really taken to it.
Melanie, the one with the two kids? She found a bakery, complete with a pantry stuffed full of ingredients. Everything past this one double-latched door was still good, too. Flour, sugar, molasses. The works.
I don’t know how the food could stay good for so long, but the fact that it’s here definitely eased our minds. Now we’ve got fruit in the jungle and dry ingredients here. We can last.
The others have been following Melanie’s example, cleaning out carts and storefronts, dusting off curtains and arranging strange knickknacks. Mila’s been salvaging broken machinery—not Melanie’s ovens, though; I think Melanie would kill for those ovens—and she said she’s doing it in case you need parts for the war effort.
She mentioned it a couple of times, while she was dragging stuff around. Ford laughed it off, though he seemed just as interested in settling into a storefront as everyone else. Just as interested in building a home.
Mila’s convinced you might come this way again. And that when you do, you might be desperate for materials.
My point is, I guess David and I aren’t the only ones who know there’s an actual war going on. Mila saw that battle on Mandel, same as we did. Same as everyone else, only she’s facing reality.
Will you come this way again, Colonel? I bristled when David gave me the third degree in the bookshop the other day, but his questions’ve got me thinking that I’m sending a lot of information your way—and I never seem to get answers in return.
Anyway. It’s been busy here, is what I’m saying.
And sometimes, just every once in a while, a woman needs a moment alone with her mysterious bookshop. I’d been studying that book I found, the one with the ship diagrams in it, but there was only so much I could glean without knowing the language.
I needed a break. So this morning I shut the bookshop door, muffling the sounds of the market setup, and I went back to playing with that tech cube. You know the one I told you about before, with the clear sides that look like screens? I kept thinking that if I messed with it long enough, the thing might light up and give me some answers.
Turned out I was half right.
I’m not sure what I did to the thing. A double tap on the top, maybe, or a good hard shake.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it wanted me to be alone in here. David said I’ve got an affinity for the station; it sounds odd, but I think he might be right.
This morning, whatever I did to it? It worked.
First, the cube started scrolling this light gray script across the glass, like something the One Ring might reveal when you toss it into the fire. (You know about Lord of the Rings, I should hope.)
Second, the cube lifted up off the pedestal and came to hover at my eye level. I passed a hand right underneath the thing, and it stayed up. No idea how.
The cube finished booting up, or whatever it was doing, and it displayed a bunch of static text in that same mysterious language. When I was sure it was done skittering around, I tapped around at random for a while. I didn’t know what I was looking for, really; something I could recognize, I guess.
And after a few errant taps, the cube pulled up a layout of the bookshop. Another directory, or so it seemed.
Excited, I zoomed in on the area where I’d found the book with the diagram of the ship. It let me zoom and zoom, further and further—no blurring, no focus loss, just crystal clear imagery of the books on the shelves—until I found the spot where I’d snatched the one with the diagram.
I tapped on the image of the spine.
I don’t know what I expected. A full translation, maybe.
What I got? It was better.
The bookshop map blinked away, and the cube quickly replaced it with a map of the full station. Like the one on the directory we found before, only in miniature. For a second, I wasn’t sure why it’d shifted, or what I might’ve done wrong, but I waited—patient for once in my life—and the cube rewarded me by zooming again.
And I’ll be damned if there weren’t ships on that map. Tucked into hidey-hole bays somewhere below my feet, their outlines looked exactly like the one in the book.
I’m not sure I’ve ever left a room so fast in my life, Colonel. At the last minute, I swung around and swiped the cube from the pedestal—it let me, and it stayed lit, so that was a win—then hurried out into the marketplace.
I don’t know if David can sense when I’m up to something, or if it was just that obvious from the way I went charging through the area as I followed the directions on the cube. Either way, he materialized out of nowhere to chase after me, with Mila just a few steps behind.
“Where are we headed?” he asked, amiable as ever. As if we were heading out on a picnic. As if he’d been invited.
“I don’t need an entourage,” I said, though truth be told, I wasn’t sorry to have company.
“No,” Mila agreed, “you need a handler.”
Given that the last person who went crusading off on a mission came back possessed by a bot, though, I guess she’s not totally wrong, either.
“I found something,” I said. I told myself I couldn’t elaborate, because if the ships weren’t there, they’d be disappointed. In reality, I’m pretty sure I’d’ve been the disappointed one. Crushed, more like.
Maybe I just didn’t want to voice my hopes, in case of a jinx. Not that I’m superstitious.
Still, that was how much I wanted to find those ships. I was hungry for them, Colonel.
The cube led me left and then right, up and then down, twisting along a series of passages that I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention to. I didn’t know where the cube got its power, or if it’d need to be recharged. It might’ve conked out on me at any second.
I knew that. I did. And still, I continued on.
At length, for the first time since exploring this station, we rounded a corner and found ourselves facing an impassible section of hallway.
For all the exploring we’ve done in this place, we’ve uncovered no hints about the history of this station. We don’t know who lived here, or why it’s empty.
So far, it’s been nothing but mysteries. And I’m sorry to say that this hallway only added one more question to the mix.
It was completely crushed. I mean, the place looked as if a giant had clenched it in a huge fist and squeezed, ripping the floor up violently to meet the ceiling. I was used to seeing dirty walls here, even rusted and dented ones; but this section was singed black, the metal hidden behind a layer of char.
It might’ve been my imagination, but I could have sworn it smelled like a blown-out match.
I looked at the cube, at its directory, which wanted me to continue straight forward. It clearly didn’t know this particular hallway had been destroyed. The ship bays were tucked right on the other side of this mess, gleaming with possibility. With hope.
“They’re so close,” I whispered.
David stepped closer, leaning over my shoulder. “Kay,” he said, “is that—”
“A tunnel!” Mila was already moving toward a corner of the crumpled hallway, eyes lit with excitement.
And she says I need a handler.
She was right, of course. In the darkness, and with all the soot everywhere, my eyes had skimmed right by it. But there was a hole, if a tight one, leading down into an equally narrow tunnel. I followed Mila, picking my way along the ripped-up corridor to peer inside.
It almost looked… made. As if someone had dug it out of the rubble, or sliced a route through.
“We do not know where that goes,” David said.
I turned and handed him the cube. “No,” I said. “We don’t.”
And then I dropped to my knees and started to crawl inside.
I don’t think I’d ever heard David swear before that moment. But he definitely uttered a curse as I wriggled my body into the tunnel,
I’m fully aware of the reaming I’d’ve given Ford if he’d attempted a thing like this. But I couldn’t stop myself.
I didn’t know how long it would take. I couldn’t see light peeking out from the other side. I only knew the ship was there—or had been, at once point—and that was enough. Hands stretched in front to help me along, feet scrambling past broken metal edges, I crawled.
It felt endless, too, the darkness bleeding into my ears as errant screws picked at my clothes, trying to catch me, to keep me from reaching my final destination. David’s voice was a steady companion at my back; I couldn’t tell if he was uttering encouragements or cursing me to the fires of hell. Either way, the fact that he was there… Well, it helped.
In the end, I think I crawled for about three minutes. Maybe five.
The tunnel ended abruptly, and the room on the other side was so dark that I felt it open up more than anything else. I certainly couldn’t see anything. There was a draft of stale air wafting in from some vent, a whisper on the back of my ear to suggest a large space. I got to my feet, careful. No good to break an ankle back here, or worse.
When I moved, strips of light flickered on around the perimeter of the room, some of them broken and dim, others bright white.
It was enough.
In the middle of the space, standing crooked on the broken hills of the floor, was the strangest and most beautiful fighter plane I’ve ever seen.
I don’t believe in love at first sight. Not really. But I have experienced the zap of electricity when meeting a stranger, where shaking their hand felt like so much more. Like our electrons were trading places, forging a connection. Like our eyes were meant to meet.
This ship? This ship felt like that. It felt like I was meant to sit in the bubble of the cockpit, to run my fingers over the controls. To understand them.
With people, it’s usually a lie. Just ask my ex-husband.
But ships can’t lie to you the way people do.
The fighter was sleek and flat, but strong—I could see it in the way it balanced on the uneven floor of the damaged bay, like it was too proud to give up its fighting stance. How many years has it stood here, waiting for me?
I called to the others, to let them know it was safe. We’re planning to work on it. Revive it. Bring it back into action.
Now that I’ve found this ship, Colonel, I know you’ll be wanting me to join the fight. I don’t know what you’re facing out there, but this ship? It will turn the tide of the war. That’s a guarantee.