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The metal wall section opened up, sending a blast of hot air into Nicole Hammond’s face. Wading upstream against the flow, she stepped to the edge of the dark abyss. A moment later she was falling through the heat and blackness, her descent slowed by nothing more than a pair of giant butterfly wings.
The wings weren’t hers, of course. And for once, the dark abyss wasn’t very deep. She and the Wisp holding her dropped no more than ten feet before landing on some kind of metal grating. The Wisp unwrapped its thin, silvery-white arms from around her and stepped back, furling its butterfly wings onto its back. Squinting against the upward rush of hot air flowing through the grating, Nicole looked around.
They were in a large room, illuminated only by small ceiling lights that barely lit the area a foot or two around them and which seemed to extend to infinity in all directions. Unlike everywhere else she’d visited aboard the Fyrantha, the heat-transfer duct she and the Wisp had been riding seemed to end at the grating below her feet. Did that mean she’d reached the very bottom of the ship?
No, of course not—the fact that there was still hot air flowing upward through the grate meant something was still below her. The engines or motors, maybe, that powered everything aboard? “Caretaker?” Nicole called, walking away from the duct and out of the updraft. “Ushkai? Where am I?”
Nothing. Maybe the Fyrantha’s hologram projector—or whatever it was the ship used to give her Ushkai’s image—couldn’t operate this far down in the ship’s basement. Wiping the sweat off her forehead with her jumpsuit sleeve, Nicole fished a penlight out of her tool vest and flicked it on.
She’d been thinking about being at the bottom of the ship when she mentally tagged her location as the Fyrantha’s basement. Now, as she shone the light around, she saw to her mild surprise that she’d been closer to the mark than she’d realized. The damn place actually looked like a basement, or more specifically the unfinished basement at one of her old grade school friends’ houses. There were pillars all around, running between the metal grating of the floor to the corrugated underside of the metal ceiling, like the ones she and Kamali used to grab when they roller-skated in endless circles around the stacks of boxes and other stuff Kamali’s mom had stored down there.
Here, of course, as she’d already noted, the floor was a metal grating instead of a bumpy slab of concrete. Underneath the grating—
She frowned, holding the light closer to the grating. What was that down there, anyway?
It was a mass of dark brown, coming to maybe a foot beneath the grating, with tendrils of several different shades of lighter brown rippling through it. There was an odor rising from it, too; not a bad odor, exactly, but something that reminded her of the dank mustiness of Kamali’s basement.
She leaned back a little, a sudden, horrible thought striking her. Could that be—? No. Surely not.
But there were people aboard the Fyrantha. A lot of people. Humans and aliens working to repair the ship; other kinds of aliens battling each other in a huge arena. People meant waste products … and waste products had to go somewhere.
But here? Sitting under a simple grate like an open sewer? Maybe some of the alleys in her old Philadelphia neighborhood were that way, but surely not here. “Caretaker?” she called.
Again, no answer.
“Well, cra—” She looked down at the brown mass under her feet and changed her mind about the word she’d been planning to say. So the Caretaker was lying low? Fine. There was more than one way to pop a clutch. “Wisp?” she called instead. “Come here.”
The Wisp glided over, its black eyes and wide slit of a mouth expressionless as always. Nicole took its hand and squeezed the pale, silvery-white skin. What’s this brown stuff under the grate? she thought toward the creature.
It’s a part of the air system. The answer flowed across her mind. Carbon dioxide and other unusable molecules are absorbed, fragmented, and converted into oxygen and other useful molecules.
“Ah,” Nicole said aloud, peering down at the brown stuff again. Vaguely, she remembered something in one of her grade school classes about plants doing that same job on Earth, eating up the carbon oxide stuff and spitting out oxygen. She’d never fully believed that—for one thing, if it was true, how come she’d never felt more awake in a park than she did when hanging around with Trake’s gang? But the book said that was how it worked, and that was what the teacher had marked correct on the test, so she’d more or less accepted it.
There’d been something in that same class about why most plant leaves were green, too, but she’d forgotten what. The Fyrantha seemed to get along okay with brown stuff instead of green, so it probably hadn’t been important. As long as it worked, things would be just fine.
Of course, that was the problem. The elephant in the room, as her grandmother used to say.
Because the ship wasn’t working right. At least not all of it. That was why the Shipmasters had kidnapped a bunch of people from Earth, so that the ship could tell them what was wrong and they could fix it.
Of course, once it was fixed …
She shook her head firmly. One crisis at a time, as her grandmother also used to say. The Fyrantha had declared Nicole to be its Protector, for the most ridiculous reason imaginable. Nicole had tried to fix a plant in the arena, mostly because she’d been bored, and now the ship was looking to her to make sure it was properly put back together.
If and when she managed to do that, though, the Shipmasters who ran the place had some very nasty ideas on what they were going to do with it.
But that was the future. Right now, Nicole’s crisis was to figure out her way around the ship she was supposed to be the Protector of.
It was more of a challenge than she’d expected. The Fyrantha was huge: two miles long, as near as she could figure, a solid half-mile wide, and ninety-six levels deep. In the past nine days she’d visited every one of those levels, but with only an hour on each one she’d barely scratched the surface. One of those nights, as she lay awake feeling her legs throb with fatigue, she’d guessed she’d seen less of the Fyrantha even than she had of Philadelphia.
Not to mention that so far she’d stuck exclusively to the right-rear fourth of the ship. Q4, Caretaker Ushkai had called it once, which she’d later figured out was probably short for Quadrant 4. If she wanted to really know the ship, she would have to take this same tour in Q1, Q2, and Q3.
She took a deep breath. One crisis at a time. First, she would get a handle on what was where in Q4. Then she would try to figure out how much work still had to be done back here. After that, she could see about the other quadrants—
Copyright © 2019 by Timothy Zahn