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Two false starts, three complete restarts and way too freaking long later, it's finally done. I was going to hold off on posting for a while, but fuck it. Here's the story. I hope you like it, 'cause otherwise I'm going to chew my own face off. Om nom nom nom. --Mal

Kandor City, Luna
July 4, 2013

The light rail train slowed to a halt out in the middle of nowhere, halfway between the spaceport and where the city began. "This is the Korolev Local station," declared the prerecorded conductor. "Passengers must remember to take all belongings with them when they exit. Next stop, Old Town/Question Alley."

Sora Hasegawa stepped off the empty train and waited for it to close up and continue on its long route around the perimeter of Kandor City. The station she had arrived at barely existed, composed of simply a wide spot of concrete with inadequate shelter hastily erected over it. A lonely service road trailed off away from the station towards the crater's edge.

Sora looked at the road, then back out at the wide open space under the Kandor dome. She watched the mixture of gray and green for a few seconds, then with an almost imperceptible shrug she turned and began the long walk up the road to Korolev.

As she approached the base, it became obvious to Sora that whatever she had expected from the Soviet Air Force-In-Exile, Korolev Air Force Base wasn't it. From the outside, the base wasn't very exciting.

In fact, it was downright depressing.

The base was made up of six concrete blocks, each one a shade of gray that blended into the exposed regolith, clustered around a flagpole at the center of a patchy lawn that seemed to be more scrub brush than grass. Each building had windows covered with tinted lunar glass, adding a sinister intent to the brutalist architecture. A small greenhouse sat off alongside the road, overstuffed with plants. Behind the concrete buildings a huge prefabricated warehouse backed up to the crater rim. The rim itself loomed over the entire complex like a stone tsunami , a near-vertical wall two kilometers high. At the very top of the wall Sora could dimly make out the gleaming copper support for the Kandor dome.

Korolev AFB screamed of rampant, malignant mundanity. Only the front gate showed any real sign of fen character, a high wrought-aluminum monster with a crudely hand-painted sign reading "ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!!" tastefully hung at a cockeyed angle.

(Had Sora known at the time what that was a reference to, she might have had second thoughts about her interview. Thankfully, she didn't think to ask until it was much too late. But we digress, and too early in this tale to boot. Onward.)

Sora pushed the gate open; it moved easily and soundlessly. The base seemed to be deserted at first glance, there were no signs of life except the wind, no sounds other than the sullen snapping of the flag at the heart of the base. "This is a little spooky," she said to herself.

"Who's there?" called a sing-song voice from right behind her. Sora jumped and whirled towards the source. Behind her - where before there was just lunar rock and grass - a white oblong turret popped up, staring at Sora with an unblinking eye. "Who's there?" the turret called again.

"Um, hello?" Sora ventured hesitantly.

"Can I help you?" The turret's childish voice seemed to be tuned to just the right frequency as to be utterly unreassuring.

"Is.. is this the administration building?" Sora asked.

The turret swiveled slightly. "Next building," it said. "Building One, just ahead."

"Oh," said Sora. "Well, thank you."

"You're welcome. Nighty-night," sang the turret, and it vanished back into the ground.

Sora blinked. "Okay, more than a little spooky," she said. She turned and hurried along the road to the building the weird little turret had pointed out, feeling *very* aware that no matter how abandoned the base may have seemed, *somebody* was watching.

Reaching the door without further incident, Sora steeled herself for any more creepy weirdness and stepped inside. What she found was less openly foreboding than the base's exterior. The lobby's walls were mostly bare concrete, though somebody had take the time to decorate them with a combination of outlandish Soviet propaganda posters and photographs from all over the solar system. Sora looked at one on the far wall, recognizing a shot of Crystal Seattle looming out of the Venusian acid fog. The floor was carpeted, and tasteful-yet-inexpensive furniture was scattered about.

Aside from the choice of wall decorations, the interior looked just as mundane as the exterior. And to top it all off, once again the building seemed to be deserted. Sora took a few more steps into the lobby, looking around for a receptionist, a security guard or *somebody* whom she could ask directions.

"Hello?" she asked the empty air.

"Hello and welcome to Korolev Air Force Base," said a voice above her. Sora looked up and saw a speaker grilled set into the ceiling next to hemispherical security camera. "We hope that you had a pleasant trip on board the Kandor City Rail network and are now ready to begin the computer-aided testing. If you are not here for the computer-aided testing," continued the voice, "please sit sown in the relaxation cubicle while we prepare the forms needed for you to begin the computer-aided testing. An official induction team will be here shortly to escort you to the testing facility."

This wasn't the welcome she'd expected at all. "Excuse me?"

"The Soviet Air Force is pleased to note that the computer-aided testing is entirely safe and fun for the entire family."

"I'm not here for testing," protested Sora. "I've got an interview with Colonel Fnord."

"Any and all appointments with human resources will be taken care of after all testing procedures have been completed."


"The Soviet Air Force reminds you that android hell is a *real* place where you *will* be sent at the first sign of defiance," the voice said sternly.

Sora stared at the security monitor, flabbergasted. She hadn't been inside the building for more than a few minutes, and she was harassed by a defective answering machine! "Excellent," warbled the speaker. "Please assume the test subject escort position and wait quietly for the induction tea-"

"*GLADOS!*" A new voice snapped. Sora looked down and saw Mal Fnord standing in the far doorway, scowling at the speaker.

"(Uh-oh,)" muttered GLaDOS.

"Are you trying to shanghai people into your experiments again?" Mal said.

There was a faint crackle of static, then GLaDOS' voice came back. "There was going to be cake," she said sheepishly.

Mal wasn't convinced. "We've had this discussion before dammit," he growled.

GLaDOS synthesized a huge, world-weary sigh. "All right, all right," she said. "As part of a required base protocol, we can no longer lie to you. Any scientific testing done on the facilities strictly voluntary - for non-trespassers - and only lethal 60% of the time. Sign up sheets are available in the mail room. Thank you and have a pleasant day." The speaker chimed out, leaving behind an embarrassed Mal and a Sora who was trending between confused and slightly indignant.

Mal smiled weakly. "I'm very sorry that happened," he said. "Every so often she tries to recruit test subjects for her little projects. She means well, or at least she means *something.* Shouldn't happen again, though."

"Colonel," Sora started to say something pleasant, but her experiences of the past few minutes overrode her sense of decorum and she blurted out "what *was* that? And what was with the creepy little robot I met out front?"

"To answer the second question first," said Mal, "the creepy little robot was part of the security system. They're friendly enough if you're on the guest list. And GLaDOS is, well... she's GLaDOS. Easy enough to get along with as long as you compensate for her, um, foibles."

The speaker chimed. "You know I can hear everything you say," GLaDOS remarked. Mal made a rude gesture towards the camera. "And I saw that!"

Sora blinked. "I see." She gathered herself up and bowed deeply to Mal. "Forgive my behavior, Colonel. It was very unprofessional of me."

Mal waved off the apology. "No worries, Ms. Hasegawa. Coming from as staid an environment as Stellvia I'd expect a bit of culture shock. Besides, we're not particularly professional around the shop anyway. Now, if you'll follow me, we'll get this interview out of the way."

Mal turned and started walking off down the corridor, Sora following along. The pair walked down corridors covered with more propaganda posters, photographs and in one case a startling collection of graffiti. ("A duplicate of the Wall near Brandenburg Gate," Mal said cheerfully. Sora nodded, filing the unfamiliar reference for googling later.) Finally they reached Mal's office near the top of the building.

Mal took a seat behind his paper-covered desk and motioned for Sora to take the opposite seat. "Sir, I want to thank you for this opportunity," Sora said as she sat down.

"No thanks are necessary," said Mal. "Now, Ms. Hasegawa. I have your resume here-" he waved at the pile of paper "-as well as a stack of very impressive recommendation letters. You're more than qualified for any position that you'd care to have with our faction. So this is going to be a short interview. I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to tell me the truth."

Mal leaned forward. "Why do you want to join?"

Sora thought about it, running through and discarding half a dozen different platitudes. "Well," she said, "I *would* like to see something new. I've lived on Stellvia all my life, so going to a totally uncharted solar system sounds interesting."

"Among other things," agreed Mal. "I'm sensing a 'but' in there, though."

"But..." Sora hesitated, then seemed to sag a little. "But I really want to get away from things," she half-said, half-mumbled, carefully not look Mal in the eye. "Especially the war. I'm not cut out for war, Noah's in the thick of things and, well, I can't be there."

"So you thought to join the Legion, to forget?" Mal said dryly. Sora blushed, but didn't respond. "Considering that *I'm* going along on the expedition to avoid dealing with the war," he said, "I can hardly fault your motives. Now, you realize this is a long-term commitment, right? You're not just signing on for the Pavonis expedition, but for the long haul. At least two years, maybe more?"

Sora nodded. "I do, sir. I'm willing to stay with the Soviet Air Force indefinitely"

"I see. Well, we have several positions open for somebody with your skill set. Most of those are in X-COM, so we won't look at those."

"X-COM, sir?"

"New name for the shooty-bomby-hurty wing. We got to name it after the game since nobody else got there first. Every played it?"

"Um, no sir. I've never even heard of a game called X-COM before."

"Huh. Whippersnapper. Anyway, if you're curious we've got a couple copies floating around on the force intranet; you can give it try once we get you settled."

Sora's eyes widened. "Sir? Does this mean I've got the job?"

Mal shrugged. "Like I said, you're more than qualified on paper, and you told me the truth. That's all I need to make a decision. In fact, let's get the preliminaries over with GLaDOS!"

The webcam perched on Mal's computer swiveled. "Yes, O Lord and Master?"

Mal rolled his eyes. "GLaDOS, Ms. Hasegawa has officially joined the Revolution. Be a dear and forge my signature on the appropriate docs then tip them into the appropriate servers, would you kindly?"

"Of course. Nothing brings my life more joy. I'll also order those explosive barrels while I'm at it, just to liven things up around here." GLaDOS chimed out.

"Explosive barrels?" Sora asked.

"Long story," said Mal. "Anyway, while the paperwork gets processed, let's get the billets figured out. On the expedition there are two slots you're qualified best for. Now one of those will require a test before I can make a decision, and we might have to hold off on that for a day or so."

"Not one of GLaDOS' tests, right?"

"Of course not, no matter *how* happy it'd make her."

As if summoned, the PA chimed. "Attention all base personnel," GLaDOS intoned, "the flagship is now landing at Hangar One. The pilot's lounge will be serving Klatchian Habanero coffee in honor of Captain van Oorebeek's triumphant return. Level one biohazard gear will be available for the weak. That is all, the Soviet Air Force prevails."

Mal looked up, surprised. "Huh!" he said, "I thought she wouldn't be in until tonight! Well, *that* simplifies things a little." He eyed Sora, who looked back a little confused. "Come on, let's get this over with so we can get you some quarters." Mal stood and left the office, Sora scrambling to her feet behind him and following. They walked out the back of Building 1 and towards the warehouse.

Mal opened a person-sized door in the side of the warehouse and motioned towards the opening. Sora stepped inside, and saw... well, a warehouse. Crates, tanks and aircraft parts were stacked haphazardly around the perimeter, forming a lane between the stacks leading to a double door set into the far wall.

Sora took all this in. "Colonel?" she said. "Where exactly are we going?"

Mal turned to look at her. "Hangar One, of course."

"But I thought that this was Hangar One," she replied.

"What, this? Nah, 's just a warehouse. Storage for junk we get in from the spaceport. Besides, we're on the wrong side of the dome, yeah? Be kinda silly to put a hangar where we can't get to open space." Mal pointed at the doors. "The hangar's on the other side of those doors, in fact."

Sora considered this. "That does make more sense," she said.

When they reached the doors, Mal punched a sequence of numbers into a keypad set into the wall. The doors slid open, revealing a long, well-lit tunnel and a pair of electric golf carts. "And here's the access tunnel. It's a long-assed walk from here to the main entrance, so hop in."

The ride down the tunnel seemed to take forever. There were no real landmarks or even recognizable features to the tunnel, and it felt to Sora like she was speeding through an endless winding tube, almost like Stellvia had been before they'd started decorating.

The thought of Stellvia gave Sora's insides a little twist. No matter what, she was committed at this point. Her whirlwind "interview" with Col. Fnord was obviously mostly a setup. He'd said as much right at the beginning; he'd made a decision before she even got off the train that morning, and he had something specific in mind. Curiosity compelled her to stick around and find out what that was.

The alternative was going back to Stellvia, and she wasn't ready to do that. Not now, maybe not ever and hang her promises.

"Hanging in there?" Mal's question jolted Sora out of her introspection. She looked around; they were still driving through this tunnel which seemed to go on forever.

Sora nodded. "Yes sir. At least I think so. It's been... different from what I expected, though."

Mal chuckled. "A bit disconcerting coming from where you started, I take it?"

"Very much so. Though I'm curious. Is *everything* here so odd?"

"Odd? Everything? Honestly I don't think so. We're a pretty average operation out here, all things considered."

They turned a corner. A whip cracked and Sora saw four dozen miniature Dees dressed in sackcloth dragging a large equipment pallet down the tunnel in the opposite direction. On top of the pallet another mini-Dee dresses in a toga brandished a whip. "FASTER, DOGS!" the overseer-Dee cackled. "THE PHAROAH DEMANDS IT!"

Sora boggled. "Then again," said Mal, "You might just want to forget I ever said that." Sora nodded dumbly.

"Was... was that Dee?" she asked.

Mal nodded. "That was Dee. Or at least that was part of Dee. She multitasks, you know."

Sora didn't, but she filed that tidbit away. "Was she serious?"

"You know, I've honestly stopped trying to figure that out. She's Dee, that's all that I can say."

"So she's not... well, a slave?"

"You're worried about *that?* Oh, Xenu no, she's not a slave. *That* little display was because somebody who shall remain nameless introduced Dee to 'The Ten Commandments' last movie night." Mal shook his head. "And if you think that was weird, yesterday a team of them tried to part the hot tub. Thankfully we put a stop to that before they broke out the maneuvering thrusters."

Sora didn't really have any good reply to that.

The rest of the trip passed quickly and in a somewhat companionable silence. Soon enough they reached their destination, another pair of massive doors. Unlike the plain metal of the upper end, these doors were liberally decorated with warning signs: NONSTANDARD SPACETIME, LIVE ANTIMATTER, SITH FORBIDDEN PAST THIS POINT, ACTIVE NANODEVICES, DIAMONDOID SURFACES, SELF-EVOLVING SYSTEMS, AUTONOMOUS DEVICES. The crowning sign, though, was a single huge safety-orange triangle with a Greek omega in white reflective paint in the center.

Sora took in all these signs with no small amount of apprehension. "Colonel, are all these signs really necessary?"

Mal looked up at the doors. "Not really," he said, "I just wanted 'Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate' inscribed on the doors, but I was outvoted."

"Oh," said Sora, unenlightened.

Mal fiddled with a keypad set into the tunnel wall. "I should warn you," he said, "that when we had the hangar built, we kinda went overboard. So things might be a little weird at first."

"Weird?" asked Sora. "I didn't know hangars could be weird?"

Mal smiled mysteriously. "Oh ye of little faith." He finished tapping on the keypad and the doors opened with a clanging sound, swinging outward. "I'm serious about this being a little weird, so let me know if your getting overweirded, okay?" Sora nodded. "Okay then, as we like to say in the business," Mal drove the cart through the door. "Welcome to the Hole!"

Despite her sheltered upbringing, Sora Hasegawa like to consider herself a well-traveled person. She hadn't been to Earth very often, but she had traveled all over the solar system. She'd seen the fairy-towers of Helium and the labyrinth of docks and hotels in Port Phobos. She'd been to the Crystal Cities and Grover's Corners, and even as far as the Warsie base station at Mimas.

None of that prepared her for what was on the other side of the door.

Mal and Sora drove out onto a wide walkway suspended over the biggest hole in the ground Sora had ever seen. It was a perfect circular borehole, easily half a kilometer across. Sora's dormant agoraphobia leapt to life for a split second, screaming that *nothing* should be that much empty open air, before the rest of her mind grabbed it and stomped it down with hobnailed boots.

Mal caught Sora's momentary reaction out of the corner of his eye and stopped the cart. "You okay?" he asked.

She nodded. "Just surprised is all. Can we stop here for a second?" she asked.

Mad obligingly set the brakes. Sora climbed out of the cart and went to the walkway's edge. Looking down, she could see platforms anchored to the walls, each one the size of a regular hangar and more often than not covered with equipment and crates, like the warehouse on the other side of the crater rim. The platforms were connected by a maze of walkways, guidelines and supports circling and bridging the huge space. Stairways and and open freight elevators ran up and down the long wall.

Looking up, Sora saw something really startling. Above the walkway were the same sorts of platforms reaching up hundreds of meters, but instead of seeing bare metal or structural supports Sora saw stacks of crates and pallets dangling off the underside of the platforms like monstrous stalactites. As she watched, a tank-treaded robot flipped over the edge of the nearest platform, grabbed a crate from one of the underside stacks and hauled the crate back to the topside. It was just like watching any longshoreman working at Port Phobos, except the longshoreman was *upside-down.*

Sora tore her gaze away from the activity and looked at Mal. He watched her reaction, keeping his face carefully neutral. "It's amazing!" she exclaimed. "You built all this?"

Mal shook his head. "We drew up the plans, and we paid for it," he said, "but it was the guys who built the Watchtower who did all the heavy lifting. Like I said, we kinda went overboard."

"Amazing," Sora repeated. "How did you manage the platforms? I've never seen anything like that before."

"Sure you have. You grew up on one, if you think about it." Mal motioned towards the platforms. "This is all just basic space station engineering; figure out where you want 'down' to be and then set the gravity gradient We just set it up so we could get more use out each platform."

"I don't think *anybody's* done anything like this before. And on this *scale,* too. This is incredible!"

"It's pretty cool," agreed Mal, "but it has drawbacks. As an example, it's so freaking big that it's easy to get lost in, even though it's mostly open space."

Sora gave Mal a look. "Does that mean you don't know where you're going?"


Sora looked out at the hangar while Mal worked on a prevarication. Leaning over the railing to get a better look at the lower platforms, she felt something shift a little under her hands. She pulled back and looked closely at the railing, which seemed to have an odd decorative twist to it. She gave the twisted part an experimental tug, and what she'd initially taken as a carved flourish pulled cleanly away from the rail.

"What are you?" she mumbled as she examined her find. It was a metallic vine, exquisitely detailed with delicate silvery leaves sprouting along it at regular intervals.

"Something wrong?" Mal asked.

Sora held up the vine. "Just looking at this. It's not something I expected to find in an industrial environment"

"Oh, the metal creeper. Yeah, that's everywhere down here. On the rails, hanging off the platforms... in another couple of years it'll probably cover every unused inch of the wall."

"Is it alive?"

Mal shrugged. "We sent a sample to the Jason once, his results came back inconclusive. It's the wave, who the hell *knows* anymore?"

"Pretty, though."

"If you like that sort of thing, I suppose." Mal gestured to the cart. "Shall we away?"

"I thought you didn't know where we're going?" Sora said as she climbed back into the golf cart.

"Well, sort of," said Mal. "I know where we *need* to go, but I don't know where that is. So instead we're going to go find the one person who knows where everything is down in the Hole and ask *her.* Then we'll go where we need to and then we can knock off and go have lunch. Does that make sense?"

Sora ran the train of logic through her head. "Sort of," she replied.

"Oh. Huh. Well, it makes sense to *me,* and I'm the one driving. Onward!" Mal put the cart back into gear and sped off down the walkway.

A minute later, and a third of the way around the Hole from where they had started, Mal steered the cart onto one of the anchored platforms. A gleaming white DC-8 was parked there, the tail overhanging the edge. Work lights and other equipment surrounded the plane.

"Which ship is this?"

"The Xenu Express," said Mal. "Not quite our shiniest toy, but we love her all the same. We're in the middle of working out the bugs."

"So who are we looking for?"

"I told you; the one person who knows where everything is down here. Our ground chief, Anna, Cal's wife."

Sora's brow furrowed. "Anna? I don't think I ever met an Anna attached to the Soviets."

Mal grinned. "No reason you would've. Anna's one of our homebody contingent, doesn't travel much outside Kandor. Besides, you'd remember her if you'd met before. Anna is very distinctive in her own way."

"Distinctive? How?"

Mal's reply, if any, was cut off by a strong soprano voice cutting through the air. "HEY! WATCH WHERE YOU'RE GOING WITH THAT, MORON! THIS SHIT'S EXPENSIVE!"

Mal's grin didn't waver. "That's Anna," he said.

They drove up to the cluster of equipment around the Xenu Express and Sora saw the lights were focused on the port wing. Underneath the wing a collection of industrial robots were holding something that looked like a cross between a jet engine and a lightbulb up to the wing while a stout brown-haired woman directed the action, waving her hands and swearing up a blue streak. Mal whistled for attention, but the woman ignored him in favor of outlining the robots' ancestry, personal habits and political views in great detail. Mal scowled and dug under his seat. "Cover your ears," he whispered to Sora as he pulled out an air horn. Sora had just enough time to do it before Mal let off a long blaring note.

Anna stopped mid-rant and turned to face the source of the noise. Her face shifted from a half-annoyed look to a mocking grin when she saw Mal sitting there in the golf cart. "Bossman, hey!" she said. "Good to see you down here! You lost again?"

"I don't need you giving me shit about this, too," Mal grumbled. "It's too early in the goddamn day for it."

"Too?" Anna glanced over, noticing Sora sitting in the cart. "I see. So who's the jailbait?"

Sora went red. Mal sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Thank you, O Queen of Tact," he mumbled.

Anna just shrugged. "Calling 'em like I see 'em."

"The jailbait, as you oh-so-diplomatically said, is Sora Hasegawa. One of our new conscripts. So *please* be nice."

"Hasegawa? From Stellvia? I see." Anna turned her full attention on Sora, moving in close so she could loom properly. Sora squirmed a little under her gaze. "I need to know something, Sora Hasegawa from Stellvia," she said. "Are you now, or have you ever been, sexually attracted to short, bearded attorneys?"

Sora blinked, amazed. A small, unprofessional part of her wanted to demand exactly what the *hell* kind of question that was but the rest of her decided to humor the scary lady and figured the truth was the best answer. "Well..." she said, "I don't have anything against attorneys per se, but I prefer tall and slim men."

Anna held her gaze for a few seconds, then broke out a big smile. "Cool!" she said. "We're gonna be good friends, then!"

"Hey, where is the hobbit anyway?" Mal asked. "He wasn't in the office this morning, and GLaDOS wasn't fuming about lawyers glued to the ceiling again..."

("'Glued to the ceiling?' 'Again?'" Sora mouthed, getting a weird mental image.)

"Oh, he's downtown with the kids today. Hanging out at Question Alley for a bit, then maybe down to the lake to feed the ducks. They'll probably be out late; Jon wanted to stop and watch the fireworks the embassy's firing off tonight."

"Ah, okay. Skiving off for a good cause. Just had to check." Mal paused.

Anna's smile widened and got a little more malicious. "Okay, lost boy, what do you need?"

Mal rolled his eyes. "Where's B parked today?"

"Platform four, they've got the Series spread out over her usual parking spot today." Anna gave Sora another look. "You're gonna?" she asked.

Mal shrugged. "She's qualified, so it can't hurt to try." He looked up at the DC-8. "Big Xenu's coming along nicely, though," he said, giving the hull a once-over. "Although-" he pointed at three small bronze stars painted near the forward hatch, "isn't one of those new?"

Anna nodded. "Yep. Cal got the form yesterday. He sent you a copy, even put it on your desk so you'd notice."

Mal snorted. "Oh come on, you know I don't actually *read* anything on my desk. If I did that, I'd never get anything done."

"Yeah, yeah," Anna waved off the comment. "Whatever, man. Get back to your cradle-robbing, some of us have actual *work* to do."

"Oi! You're one to talk, you pervy hobbit-fondler!" Mal and Sora sped off, leaving Anna's snickering and obscene gestures behind. Anna watched them go for a second, then turned back to abusing her robot gang.

"Still hanging in there?" Mal asked as they drove down the walkway towards the nearest elevator.

"Yes sir," Sora replied, looking a little poleaxed but still game. "It's all a bit much, though."

"Yes, well, Anna is a personality that is best taken in small dosages until you've worked up a good tolerance."

Reaching the elevator, they pulled in and Mal again punched buttons from the driver's seat. With a lurch and a clanging sound the wire mesh elevator doors closed and the whole thing began to rise.

As the elevator climbed, Sora looked at the Hole, watching as the platforms and walkways crawled past. "Why?" she said suddenly.

"Why what?"

"Why all this?" Sora gestured at the expanse."

"Well, it's like I said. We went overboard."

"Obviously," she replied. "Still, this is going beyond *overboard.*"

"Hm. Well, let me put it as a thought experiment," he said. "Imagine that you, Yayoi, Yoriko, Kohran and Noah all lived on the Epsilon Blade 24/7 for most of a year before even *beginning* to build Stellvia. Aside from the occasional day trip or going out in a pressure suit, your entire universe is the habitable volume inside the Blade."

Sora thought about it. "Oh," she said. "I guess I can see why now. A little, anyway."

Mal chuckled. "Ptichka's a wonderful ship and we love her dearly, but nine months cooped up inside with all eight of us and it was either build *this* or start killing each other." The elevator lurched to a stop and the doors opened. "And speak of the devil, here we are."

Coming out of the elevator, just across from them, the familiar stubby delta shape of USSR Ptichka sat in the floodlights on the landing platform. Under the light, even the dingier tiles seemed to glow pearlescent white. Service robots clustered around Ptichka's tail section, busy with their post-flight duties.

Sora's eyes widened. This wasn't the first time she'd seen Ptichka, of course, she'd seen the Soviet flagship docked to Stellvia many times in her life. But this was the first time she'd seen the shuttle in it's own environment, so to speak. "She's *beautiful,*" Sora breathed, taking in all the lines, curves and small details brought out by the floodlamps.

Mal shot her an unreadable glance. "I'm glad you think so," he said.

Sora kept her eyes fixed on Ptichka as they drove up, her mind whirling with possibilities. She had no doubt that *this* was the something special Mal had in mind for her, and the thought of working with Ptichka - one of the most famous ships in Fenspace! - was almost overwhelming. She wondered what the "test" Mal had mentioned was. Did he want her to fix something on board, to show she had the necessary skill?

Sora was so focused on trying to figure out what was coming next that she didn't quite register Mal parking the cart and gently leading her up the gangway to the main hatch. She absently ducked through the hatch and came up short, realizing that she was inside.

Ptichka's interior looked exactly like it did in all the Soviet documentaries. The curved forward monitor with its gilded scrollwork edges at the front of the cabin, the red velvet lounge chairs arranged around the table, the blue-and-gold beta cloth wallpaper, the ladder to the flight deck and the bunkrooms, everything was right where it was supposed to be. The air was slightly warmer than outside in the hangar, and the gravity was a little higher.

Sora looked around, seeing dusty spots and places where the housekeeping had been lackluster at best. Overall, though, Ptichka felt like *home,* quite unlike the cold indifferent facade of Korolev or the topsy-turvy Hole.

She frowned and looked back towards the ladder. There was a sound coming from the flight deck, some sort of raucous music playing softly. Mal grinned. "Oh good, she's still here," he said. Then raising his voice a little, he called out "Hello the flight deck! Who's playing Dropkick Murphys on my nice clean sound system?"

The music cut off and a cheery voice called back "Hey, Mal! Good timing, I was just about done up here! C'mon up!"

Mal climbed up the ladder. Sora followed. They emerged onto Ptichka's flight deck, where a young woman with an impressive shock of white hair was flipping switches and bobbing along to a punk tune only she could hear. "Hey B," said Mal, "how was the flight?"

Elena "B" van Oorebeek half turned in her seat. "Flight's okay," she said, exchanging a high-five and a terrorist fist-jab with Mal. "Kinda boring, though. Okay, really gorram boring if you want the truth. I miss doing exciting shit like stomping on space Nazis."

"Well, hopefully there won't be any space Nazis at Delta Pavonis," replied Mal dryly. "Though it should still be more interesting than convoy duty between here and Ganymede."

Elena rolled her eyes. "God, I hope so." She looked over and saw Sora standing at Mal's side. "Oh, hey. Didn't see you there."

Mal made an expansive gesture. "B, Ptichka, this is Sora Hasegawa whom you've probably run into once or twice before-"

"Yeah, you could say that. Hi, Sora."

"And Sora, right there in the middle is our girl Ptichka." Ptichka warbled out a friendly hello. Sora smiled, leaned over the pilot's seat to touch the keyboard on the center console.

"Hello, Ptichka," she said, tapping out a quick greeting.

Ptichka made a soft clucking sound and trilled a response. >HELLO SORA< appeared on the navigation screen.

Sora started to type out a reply when she heard a choking sound coming from the commander's seat. Looking over, she saw Elena looking back at her, eyes wide as saucers. It suddenly occurred to Sora that maybe touching the controls uninvited was a mistake. "Uh," she started to say, but was cut off as Elena found her voice.

"Wu de ma!" she sputtered. "How? What? I mean.. guh! You, you, *how?!* That's gorram... gorram! *Gorram!*"

"I'm sorry!" Sora cried, jerking away from the controls. "I didn't mean to!"

"But you, and she, and...!" Elena said, eyes flicking back and forth between Sora and the console.

Sora whirled to face Mal, who was no standing in the rear of the compartment, face completely unreadable. "Colonel, I-" she stopped as Mal opened the hatch to the bunkroom and gestured to it.

"In here, please," he said. "Let's give B a chance to reboot in peace, yeah?"

Sora flushed and scrambled through the hatch as fast as she could. Mal stepped through behind her, closing the hatch behind them. "Colonel, I'm sorry I touched the controls without permission!" Sora blurted out as the hatch sealed. "It was unforgivably rude of me, I should have asked first. Please, *please* don't reconsider because I made a mistake!"

"Sora, calm down," said Mal. "Nobody's mad at you. If anybody's going to be mad, it'll be Elena, and she'll be mad at *me.*"

"You, sir?" asked Sora, not quite understanding.

Mal nodded. "What just happened was a calculated gamble on my part, and when B realizes that, she's going to make my life difficult for the rest of the week." He paused. "Or she'll tell Kat, and *she'll* make my life *hell* for the rest of the *month.*" Mal shrugged. "Such is my dharma."

"I don't understand, sir," Sora said, "all I did was touch the controls. Why would that get you in trouble?"

Mal looked pensive. "That's... hm. Yeah, you have the right to know." He dropped into a cheap deck chair stationed near the hatch. "Take a seat, Sora, and I'll tell you." Sora sat down on the nearest chair and waited attentively, eyes locked on Mal. Mal closed his eyes, visibly gathering his thoughts, then looked at Sora.

"What do you know about Ptichka's quirks?" he asked.

Sora considered. "Well, I know about-" she inclined her head towards the riot of color and gold surrounding them "-but everybody knows about that. Noah once said something about a shrine of some sort aboard, but he didn't say much more. Aside from that... I think that's everything," she finished somewhat lamely.

"That's about what most people know," he said. "We don't advertise Ptichka's quirks, but some of it's a bit difficult to hide. There is one quirk we've kept quiet about, though."


"Ptichka is... hm, how do I put it? She's very *particular* about who she lets sit in her cockpit."


"She objects to anybody who's not a specific list touching so much as a switch on the flight deck, and she makes her objections known with high voltage."

"Oh." Sora blinked. "Oh!"

"We had Commander Suzumiya onboard a couple of months ago for an inspection tour. She tried her I-am-queen-of-everything routine and grabbed the stick even when we warned her not to. Ptichka damn near blasted her into the cargo bay." Mal rolled his eyes and added, "and then we had to listen to her bitch about her frizzy hair for the rest of the tour." Sora valiantly controlled the urge to giggle at the thought of Haruhi Suzumiya wit Bride-of-Frankenstein hair. "What's more," said Mal, "Yayoi tried to touch the controls once, with me in the left-hand seat and everything under my control. She got bit too, not nearly as hard, but enough that she felt it."

"But I didn't feel anything," Sora noted.

"Exactly." Mal finished with an unmistakable note of triumph in his voice.

The realization hit Sora in a flash. "That was the test," she said. "You wanted to put us together and see what happened."

"I was expecting that she'd bite you," Mal explained, "not hard, just a little nip like she gave Yayoi. What happened though..."

"She didn't hurt me at all," said Sora in a wondering tone. "She *likes* me."

"More than that, she *trusts* you. Trusts you the same way that she trusts the eight of us who were aboard when we left Earth. That's a very exclusive list of people, Sora. We're going past the Limit into completely uncharted territory. To do that, I need an engineer who's not just capable, but somebody I can trust with my life. Somebody *Ptichka* trusts with her life. If this hadn't worked out, you'd be chief engineer on our newest ship while Dee was chief here. However..." Mal stuck a hand inside his coat pocket and pulled out a gold and turquoise shoulder patch. "I think that job's been filled. If you want it."

Sora stared at the patch. "Sir, Colonel, I... Yes. Absolutely. I wouldn't pass this up for the world!"

Mal grinned. "Welcome aboard, Lieutenant," he said. Just then a terrifying noise came from the flight deck.

"YOU GORRAM SONOFABITCH!" Elena burst through the hatch, loud and ready to hurt something. Sora eeped and scrambled for cover. "What the gorram *hell* were you thinking!? That girl could've been seriously hurt by your little mindgames! I ought to truss you up like a Christmas turkey and hand your scheming ass over to GLaDOS, you lun-"

"HEY!" Mal cut in. "Calm down dammit, you're scaring the children! Besides, it all worked out fine, didn't it?"

Elena's rant skidded to a halt. "You.. you're... ARGH!" she yelled. "That's it, I need a drink, it's too gorram early in the morning for this shit."

"GLaDOS is brewing your special blend in the pilot's lounge," Mal offered.

"Right, sweet. Yes, a gallon of that and a long gorram shower, that's what I need." Elena waved at Sora. "Congratulations, don't let Willy Wonka here play with your head too much, I'll talk to you later once I have enough caffeine in my system. Later." That said, she ducked out the hatch and vanished.

There was a brief awkward pause as Sora slowly got to her feet. "So," Mal said, "what do you think?"

"I, um. Every day isn't going to be like today, is it?"

Mal considered this. "Probably not," he said. Sora relaxed fractionally as he grinned wickedly and continued. "Today was pretty quiet. Wait until things *really* start happening!"

"Right..." Sora looked a little dubious, then shrugged it off. "I guess I'm curious to see what happens next."

"Next we go get some lunch and get you some quarters, and then we get started on your first big job." Mal waved Sora through the hatch. "We need to get Ptichka demilled and refit, which is going to be a bit of work. Here's how we'll start..."

* * *

*/ Explosions In the Sky
Your Hand In Mine
//The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place// /*

"First Impressions"
a Fenspace story
part of "Into the Great Wide Open"
(c)2008 Sean M. Breen

* * *

"One last thing, Colonel."


"Klatchian Habanero coffee?"

"That was a joke. Well, probably. GLaDOS did whip up a batch once on a whim, though."


"It was about what you'd expect. B declared it 'palatable,' and if that doesn't put the fear of Xenu into a body I don't know what would."
Mr. Fnord interdimensional man of mystery

FenWiki - Your One-Stop Shop for Fenspace Information

"I. Drink. Your. NERDRAGE!"
No worries, Fnord, that came out very well. A few typos here and there, but that's incredibly minor. Nicely crafted, with great characterization -- I got a
very solid sense of everyone. Kudos.
-- Bob
Then the horns kicked in...
...and my shoes began to squeak.
Definite giggles out of this Fnord, but damnit now I have to fight off all the ideas from Eddie and Leonard about upgrading the Forge. ARGH.
My little girl's all grown up...

Wonderful story, in every sense of the term.
Rob Kelk
"Governments have no right to question the loyalty of those who oppose
them. Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of
the same sovereign, servants of the same law."

- Michael Ignatieff, addressing Stanford University in 2012

Bob Schroeck Wrote:No worries, Fnord, that came out very well. A few typos here and there, but that's incredibly minor. Nicely crafted, with great characterization -- I got a very solid sense of everyone. Kudos

TYPOS!!!! *shakefist*

Ah well, those're the breaks, I guess. I'm glad you thought the characterization was good, 'cause I am totally fucking blind to that sort of thing. I can't tell if my characters are different or if they all sound exactly the same. So it's good to have to some outside feedback.

Cobalt Greywalker Wrote:Definite giggles out of this Fnord, but damnit now I have to fight off all the ideas from Eddie and Leonard about upgrading the Forge. ARGH.

Ah, wait until you see what else the VVS has hiding under the bed, or is planning on doing.

Here's a hint, and no spoiling in the forum: Dee is Aineko. Moo hoo ha ha ha.

robkelk Wrote:My little girl's all grown up...

And here I was worried that I'd get an irate email about how I'd ruined the character with my hackish portrayal. Wink

As a bonus, if you've never heard of Explosions in the Sky, the closing music is available http://www.explosionsinthesky.com/mp3s/ ... InMine.mp3]right here. Totally worth your time to listen to.
Mr. Fnord interdimensional man of mystery

FenWiki - Your One-Stop Shop for Fenspace Information

"I. Drink. Your. NERDRAGE!"
Quote:And here I was worried that I'd get an irate email about how I'd ruined the character with my hackish portrayal. Wink
Well, if you really want one, I could put something together... 8)

(Oh, yes: Sora's a working engineer. She's used to three-day-old coffee. She's likely to want to try Klatchian Habanero... once.)
Rob Kelk
"Governments have no right to question the loyalty of those who oppose
them. Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of
the same sovereign, servants of the same law."

- Michael Ignatieff, addressing Stanford University in 2012
Oh wow. That is pure awesome. The part about Dee trying to part the hot tub had me in fits. And the part about "lawyers glued to the ceiling again"
was just so out there that it shattered my brain. My hat's off to you, good sir! ^_^