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Travails With Momma, Episode 3

Written by John Ringo
Illustrated by Jennifer Miller


8: Love, Or At Least Chelo, Conquers All

One of the many oddities of the Heteran Central School was that there was no lunchroom. Instead, at spaced times, the children were permitted to go to the surface and buy food from vendors in kiosks.

Josh had just bought a chelo plate and was heading to an out-of-the-way spot to meet Doosam when he saw the pretty blonde girl from the bus sitting on a wall that circled one of the mounds. She was contemplating the inside of her lunch bag and frowning.

"Hi," Josh said nervously, holding the chelo in one hand and a choco-cola in the other. "Posh, Jime Arker . . ." He paused and cleared his throat. "I mean, Mime Posh Jarker . . ."

"You're Josh Parker," the girl said, smiling shyly.

"Yeah," Josh said. "That. Uhm . . . don't like your lunch?" he asked. "I've got chelo. We could trade. And a choco-cola . . ."

"Thanks," the girl said. "I accept. Want a seat?" She pointed at the one next to her.

"Sure!" Josh handed her the plate and bulb.

"I hate doing this to you," the girl said, setting the items down and handing over her lunch bag with a sigh of gratitude. "My mom thinks I like dorank sandwiches."

Josh contemplated the sandwich, which was spread with something purple, and then slipped it back in the bag as his stomach rumbled.

"I'm not all that hungry," he said, lightly. "So . . . what's your name?"

"Charli," the girl said, taking small bites of the chelo slice and following them with a bite of the steamed grains. "Charli Wright."

"That's a nice name," Josh said. "Uhm . . . I saw you on the bus . . ."


"And I noticed that you don't get dropped off at your house . . ."

"There are three kids that live on my street," Charli said softly. She had perfect, white teeth, Josh noticed as she nipped at the chelo. "The other two live on the east block but we all get dropped off on the corner. I only live a few houses up."

"I was . . . hmm . . . " Josh said, his voice suddenly cracking. "I was wondering if maybe you'd like somebody to walk you home?"

"Then you'd have to walk . . . well blocks home," the girl said, looking up at him shyly. And bright blue eyes. She had the brightest blue eyes Josh had ever seen in his life.

"That's . . . that's . . . that's . . ." Josh cleared his throat again and broke away from the hypnotic eye contact. "That's okay. I'll be fine."

"It's really cold out," Charli said dubiously. "I mean, it's just cold under the force-screen but it's really cold out there. The wind and all . . ."

"Not a problem," Josh said blithely. "By the way, why a force-screen?"

"Kidnapping," the girl replied in a scared little tone. "Some of the kids that go here, their parents are pretty rich. Or they're in the government and there are terrorists. So . . . force-screen. And armed guards."

"I've never noticed them," Josh said, his eyes goggling. "Are your parents . . . ?"

"No, silly," Charli said, smiling. And dimples. Just the cutest little dimples. "My mom's a systems engineer for Sclock-Buren. We're okay but we're not rich."

Just then there was a ping for the end of lunch and Josh stood up, holding out his hand.

"Thank you," Charli said, taking it as she stood up.

"You're welc . . ." Josh cleared his throat again. "You're welcome . . ."

* * *

The evil Nari terrorists had captured the painfully beautiful Charli . . . Charli Wright and were holding her to force secrets from her mother, the vital systems engineer for . . . some company.

But Josh Parker had figured out a way in through the air-ducts. Using his small size he was squeezing through the ducts and had just about gotten to the point where he could line up the evil Nari and blow them all away with his forty-watt plasma rifle, rescuing the bound and helpless Charli, when . . .

"Mister Parker!" Miss Hissberger snapped, slamming her meter stick on the desk with a sound like a plasma shot. "Vat are te factorsss of thisss eqvation?"

"I have no idea?" Josh said, trying not to cry. He used to like math.

* * *

Josh was sitting at the back of the bus when Charli boarded. He had run there from class and had already driven off one Nari with bared teeth.

"I saved you a seat," he said, waving at the center seat at the back as the bus took off.

"Okay," Charli said shyly. "But I usually sit where you're sitting. Would you mind?"

"No, not at all," Josh said, sliding over. As she slid past him her leg brushed his and he felt like the contact was liquid fire.

"Why do you sit there?" he asked curiously as the bus cleared the force-screen.

"Because this seat has a grab bar," Charli said quietly, reaching between her legs with both hands and wrapping them around the tube of metal. "And that one doesn't."

Josh felt himself lifting into the air and for a moment he hung there, perfectly balanced in zero gravity. That couldn't last, and it didn't, as the driver climbed upwards and Mr. Newton took over, slamming Josh into the floor of the bus at slightly more than one earth gravity.

He had the wind knocked out of him but his flailing arm wrapped around one of the legs for the seats and clung like a limpet, pulling him in to where he could wrap both arms around the anchor. Despite that his lower body was being flailed up and down and side to side, but it was better than flying through the air.

"This . . . isn't . . . oof . . . so . . . bad," Josh said, looking up at Charli. Nice legs, too. "Might just be the best seat . . . oof! on the bus."

"No," Charli said, her perfect brow wrinkling in perplexity. "This one is better. I'm not being flopped up and down on the floor."

"No," Josh admitted. "But . . . argh . . . I sort of . . . ooof . . . like it. Not . . . ow! . . . bad . . ."

When the bus grounded to drop off the first kid, Josh scrambled to his feet and regained his seat.

"Mind if I share your grab bar?" he asked. There was a curve of metal visible under her right thigh.

"Sure," Charli said, sliding over slightly.

He could just get two hands on the grab bar, his left wrist in contact with the outside of her leg. Again, his wrist seemed to be on fire. Which was weird since the bus was pretty cold.

They finally reached Charli's stop and he gestured courteously for her to lead, then followed her down the aisle.

"MOGROMP TOM TOW DAY!" the driver said angrily.

"I have no idea what you are gabbling about," Josh said, darting past an outstretched arm and jumping to the ground.

The driver gestured at him in a fashion Josh suspected was rude but the bus lifted into the air again. Josh thought about what his mother would say and checked his plant for her location. She was downtown, shopping, so he left a note to trigger when she got back, saying that he'd dropped by a friend's house around the corner and would be home right away.

The wind was bitterly cold and puddles were frozen on both sides of the street. There wasn't any traffic, though, so they walked down the street side by side.

"Are your hands cold?" Josh asked. His were freezing.

"Yes," Charli said holding one out.

When Josh took it, he knew what "freezing" really meant. Charli's tiny hands were so icy cold he was sure she was on the edge of frostbite.

"Christ," he said, worried. "Give me the other one."

"My house is just here," Charli replied, but she held out the other hand.

Josh wrapped both of them in his and they walked like that to the iris. Charli whistled at it and they both went into the entry foyer.

"Your hands are so cold," Josh said. "Are you okay?"

"Yes," Charli replied quietly.

"I'm worried about them," he said distractedly. "You should wear gloves, Charli." He held one of her hands in both of his, switching back and forth. The entry foyer was bitterly cold as well but at least it was out of the wind.

"I keep losing them," Charli said, her brow wrinkling again.

Josh suddenly untabbed his environment suit and thrust her right hand under his left armpit.

"There," he said. "I heard about this in a survival meme. It's the warmest place—" he suddenly stopped as he realized the motion had brought her exquisite face to within centimeters of his. Her eyes were wide and her lips parted. They stayed locked like that for just a moment and then Charli slid the other hand under his arm, inside his jacket, and pushed her lips up to his.

His nose was in the way and he twisted his head to one side. Charli twisted the same way and they bumped noses again with a muttered "'scuse me" from Josh. Twisted again, another nose bump. This was harder than it looked. Finally, Josh took her face in both hands, held it straight, turned to the side and kissed her.

The butterflies went berserk. While he'd been worrying about Charli's hands and where noses went they'd bunked off for a quick smoke but they were back and they'd brought lots of friends. His stomach dropped, his body went hot and then as cold as Charli's hands. The latter seemed to be warming up nicely and her arms were tracing a path of fire around his sides.

A delicate tongue flickered against his lips and he opened up his lips slightly. Her tongue pressed against his lightly and he suddenly was consumed by a need to explore the inside of her mouth in the most personal fashion possible. He wanted to know the inside of her mouth better than he knew the inside of his own.

He suddenly realized they were on the ground, grappling like a fight in the school yard, her arms and hands moving, his arms and hands moving, rubbing up and down each other's backs. Their tongues were having a fight, too, and Josh decided that something that he'd heard described one time was anything but gross. It was . . . unbelievable. More fun than . . . anything.

He couldn't tell how long the grappling, kissing, exploring, whatever it was, went on. They'd moved out of the entrance corridor and into a small fresher just off of it at one point. And both their coats had disappeared. But Charli suddenly broke away and frowned.

"My mom will be getting home soon," she warned, wiping her lips with the back of her hand.

He checked his plant and realized that they'd been out of school for an hour. If his mom was home she was going to be going nuts despite the note he'd sent. But there wasn't a message for him and she hadn't tooled him so he was probably okay. He stood up quickly, offering Charli his hand. Hers had gotten very warm. He could understand why; he still felt like he was on fire.

"Charli . . . uh . . ." he said.

"We'll . . . see each other again," she said, smiling shyly. "You're . . . really nice, Josh."

"Thanks," Josh said. The coats were in a small closet on the other side of the foyer. He got his and shrugged. "I don't suppose I could . . ."

"Mom won't let me have guests unless she's home," Charli said. "You'd better get out of here before she catches us."

"Oh!" Josh shrugged on his coat hurriedly. "I'll . . . see you tomorrow, Charli."

"Yeah," she said, tooling the iris and giving him a peck on the cheek. "Tomorrow."

Josh stepped down to the street whistling. The air was freezing, the clouds were a solid overcast, dust and trash filled the air. What a perfect day.


9: Of Tooleck and Men

"Josh, we're having company for dinner."

Josh opened his eyes and frowned. "Who?"

"Some people I've met through the Heteran Woman's Club and a Tooleck couple. The male is a friend of your father's."

"Okay," Josh said.

"Josh," Jala said uncomfortably. "Among certain groups there's a phrase that . . . children are seen but not heard. Don't . . . pester them, all right?"

"Of course, Mom," Josh said in exasperation.

"They'll be arriving at nine. Take a shower before then and change clothes. Good clothes, it's semi-formal."

"Yes, Mother," Josh sighed.

"And brush your hair," Jala finished as the iris closed.

He had two hours. If they weren't even getting here until nine, that meant they wouldn't eat for days. It was just not fair. He closed his eyes and brought the book up again. In an hour he could probably just about finish it . . .

* * *

"JOSH!" Jala shouted. "Are you ready yet?"

Josh checked his plant and blanched, jumping to his feet. It was a quarter till nine. Hopefully the guests would be, as Mom put it, fashionably late.

He hurried to the fresher and pulled off his clothes, carefully setting the shower to ensure he got water and not one of the fifteen other substances it was capable of spurting. He took a fast shower, threw his robe on and darted to his room just as the iris pinged.

Two minutes later, in a pair of dress shorts and a polo shirt, he was out in the foyer, greeting the guests.

The first couple to arrive were the Tooleck. His mom was just taking their inevitable rellas and setting them on the couch.

"Josh, this is Grobney and Anoj Sveldonas," Jala said.

"Greetings," Josh said, bowing and offering the top of his head.

"What a charmin' boyo," Anoj, the female, said, bowing her head and bouncing her eyes on Josh's hair. Anoj had a thick accent, something like Norky but with more clipped vowels.

"Hello, Josh," Grobney said, holding out his three-fingered right hand. Grobney's accent was pure Fordoss, very high-class Tooleck. "I met your father in Basadab and told him I'd drop by and keep an eye on you and your mother. Since I've got five, seemed easy enough," he finished, giving a whistle of amusement.

Tooleck didn't normally shake hands, it was a Terran custom, but Josh took it and shook it politely. It felt like holding a bundle of mobile sticks.

"Would you care for a drink?" Jala asked, leading the way to the bar. There wasn't a bot so Josh stepped up and prepared to mix.

"The boyo's your bartender!" Anoj said delightedly.

"He can handle . . . simple mixes," Jala replied. "I'll take a Re'as Tsoonor on the rocks, Josh. Anoj? Grobney?"

"Sounds good," Grobney said. "Got used to Re'as whiskey on Melshop, don't you know? Only thing around. No rocks for me, Josh, I'll take it straight. Just a drop of a thimblefull."

"Here," Anoj replied. "I'll mix my own. I was a bartender when I met Grobney. I still remember him in his commando patterning. What a delight! Such a gentleman! Not that he was as much of a gentleman once I got off work!"



Josh mixed the two Re'as whiskeys and then watched in bafflement as Anoj picked up a highball glass and began pouring in a mixture that could be used as rocket fuel.

"Cheers!" she said when she was finished. The glass was full to the brim with a complex series of layers. She clinked glasses with the other two and then downed the contents of the tall glass in a single gulp. "Ah! That's hit the spot!"

Grobney had also downed his and held the glass out for a refill.

"A bit more than a thimbleful if you please, Josh," he said, waving his eyestalks. "It's a figure of speech, not a measurement. More . . . more. That's it," he finished, handling the glass that was nearly full to the rim. "To new friends!"

Anoj had topped her glass back up with AldeBasadab brandy. It was called "brandy" only because "Oh, My God!" was already taken. It wasn't pure alcohol, since then it couldn't have included all the byproducts that made it so . . . refreshing.

Jala led her guests into the livingroom and sat down, holding her still half-full glass in front of her like a talisman.

"You were down in Basadab when you met Steve, I believe, Grobney?" she asked politely.

"Oh, yes," Grobney said, whistling a tune. "Grand fellow. Fine engineer. Not my line, you know, foundations and stuff. I'm a geologist by training, though, and a mining engineer by profession. At the moment. Done a bit of this and a bit of that."

"Mining?" Josh asked curiously. He'd gotten a choco-cola bulb and was sipping on it. "Basadab is on an alluvial plain. There's . . . not much mining in the area."

"Deposits, old salt," Grobney said, bringing all five eyes around to consider Josh carefully. "Washed down from the Zaborg mountains. All sorts of veins and bits around there. Even found a bit of gold, what? Mainly looking for thoramite, of course. Planet's lousy with the stuff."

"They do most of that mining in the Zaborg, don't they?" Jala asked. "Not my area, of course, but that's what Steve told me."

"And mucks of it has run off over the aeons," Grobney replied, waggling his fingers. "Gets all over the place. Problem is finding pockets that are worth setting up to mine; that's why I'm having a look all over. Find a good pocket of thoramite and the company's in isardi, aren't they? Could be a pocket right under Steve's project, ey? Wouldn't want that to happen! We'd be all day trying to figure out which was the better portion."

"Oh, yes," Jala said. "Of course, I suppose they could move the project . . ."

"Not after they'd put all that time and money in," Grobney said. "That's why I had to have a look at the area. I'll be back as they move the dirt, of course, got to keep making sure."

"Bit like an archaeologist is our Grobney," Anoj said, waggling her eyeballs. "He knows about all these sorts of things. He even worked on the hypermissile project during the war!"

"Just a bit, deary," Grobney said, patting her carapace. "Non-technical, of course, physics is a bit beyond me. Not worth mentioning. So you were in Papua, were you, Mrs. Parker?"

"Yes, before we moved back to Bowan . . ." Jala said as the door pinged again. "Oh, I'd better get that . . ."

"You're in . . . fifth grade, Josh?" Anoj asked.

"Yes," Josh said, making a face.

"Don't enjoy it, much, ey?" Grobney said, waving his eye-stalks.

"Most of it is okay," Josh said. "But some of it I've had before and some of it is a couple of years ahead of what I'd be taking on Terra. And my math teacher . . ."

"Miss Hissberger?" Grobney said. "Bit of a Zimbot, ey? Good for drilling quadratics into young minds, though. Can't just use a plant, gotta understand what you're doing on those, what?"

"You know her?" Josh gasped.

"Say rather I know about her," Grobney said, waggling his eyestalks as two humans came into the room.

"Grobney knows everybody," Anoj said, standing up.

"Dirdja, as I live and spicule," Grobney said, extending his hand.

"Grobney, you old crab," the male of the two replied, shaking the Tooleck's hand, "you do get around, don't you? But I don't think you've met my wife?"

"The most wondrous Siti," Grobney said, taking the slight woman's hand and bowing over it. "Your husband has told me of your many fine attributes . . ."

"I bet he has!" Siti said, laughing. "Randy old goat's probably told you more than you want to know!" Siti was a short blonde woman with a cheerful face and skin that had been darkened by the sun.

"Anoj," Grobney said, "I don't think you've met Dirdja Muharrem? And his lovely wife, Siti."

"No," Anoj said, bowing. "Please to meet you."

Dirdja was as tall as his wife was short, dark complected with black hair going gray. He bowed to Anoj and then took the drink that Jala handed him.

"A fine company of rascals," Grobney said, raising his drink. "And rascalettes, I'm sure."

"Dinner should be ready shortly," Jala said, sitting down. "A roast. It said it was beef, but in Nari . . ."

"Shit," Siti snapped, pronouncing it "sheeee-it." "Probably dhan. If it is, we'll be chewing the rest of the night. No offense, Jala, I know you're new here. They passed off dhan to me as a 'beef roast' right after I got here. Beef my ass, you couldn't cut it with a laser torch."

"There's a thing you can do with dhan," Grobney said, taking a sip of his drink. "You slice it really thin, then you get a dozer bot to run over it several times. Then you burn it. Then you find something edible." He whistled through his spicules as the group chuckled.

"I have to admit I don't even know what dhan is," Jala said unhappily.

"Those flying beasts you see towing aircars around," Dirdja said, nodding. "The Nari used them for transport before the Tooleck started bringing in advanced technology."

"Been outrun by that Ortulians there, old chap." Grobney sighed. "And the Haron. Both of them are shipping more aircars and trucks here than Tooleck ever has. Cheap things, don't run very long, but they sell them and that's the point."

"It's not the only thing they sell," Dirdja said darkly. "They're selling hyper technology as well."

"Well, yes," Jala said, frowning. "I mean, the plant that Steve is working on is to build hyper engines."

"Wouldn't care to ride on top of one myself," Grobney said, rolling his eyes. "Most of the Nari can't find their tails with both hands."

"I heard a rumor that they were selling more than engine tech," Dirdja said, frowning. "Hypermissiles," he whispered.

"Dirdj, old boy," Grobney replied, waving a hand, "the Ortulians don't have hypermissiles. After the pasting they got from you chaps at the end of the war, they renounced them, didn't they?"

"The Haron have them, though," Dirdja insisted. "And who's doing most of the hyper work on that plant? Haron."

"Dirdj, my friend." Grobney sighed. "You're seeing ghosts. It's a common problem of the Terrans. No, don't stop me," he said, holding up a hand to forestall the response. "Terrans have only been out on the starlanes for a couple of hundred years. We Tooleck were banging around the galaxy when you were still putting that gasoline stuff in your cars and driving them on the ground. Seen it, been there. Owned most of it once upon a time and not that long ago. We've had generations living among these people and we know them in a way you Terrans simply don't. The Haron are a very insular species and they don't just pass around goodies like they're at a noraz party. Certainly not a secret like hypermissiles. Put it out of your mind."

"And on that note," Jala said. "Let's see if the roast is edible."

It was dhan.

* * *

Josh lay awake after the guests had gone, looking at the ceiling and wondering about what had been said at the party.

Hypermissiles were an important secret that very few species had managed to pierce. Towards the end of the Orion War, the Terrans and Tooleck had faced a very unpalatable choice. The Jootan had surrendered but the Ortulians, who were fanatically determined to die to the last squid, still held out. The planet had been cut off and heavily bombed, but penetrating the system defenses would have been immensely costly. So the Terrans brought out a secret weapon they had been working on for most of the war: the hypermissile.

Unlike most hyperdrives, the hypermissile could penetrate right into the depths of a planet's gravity well. And since it was in hyper, it couldn't be intercepted. Furthermore, it retained relativistic speed right down to impact. The Terrans had only had to fire a half a dozen, gutting a half a dozen Ortulian megalopoli, before the Ortulian emperor forced his military advisors to sign a peace treaty.

Since then a few other species had managed to figure out how they worked or had stolen the information from the Terrans. The Naro, the Haron, the Vesiot and the Tooleck all had them. There were rumors that the Adoo had them, as well. But that was it. The club was closed. Anyone with hypermissiles had the capability to wipe out an enemy's planet. By the same token, their enemy could wipe them out in return. So . . . nobody used them.

But if the club was opened up, if everyone started having hypermissiles, especially species that . . . weren't all that . . . controlled . . .

The galaxy could dissolve in war.

That was a big thought for a little kid, but he kept going.

If the Nari got hypermissiles, they'd probably give them to the Alyt who would use them on the Adoo. The Adoo would either respond with their own, if they survived the first attack, or the Terrans would, since the Adoo were their allies. That might bring the Vesiot empire into the war, since they supported the Alyt, and the Vesiot had a big fleet that could wipe Terra clean. Of course, the Terrans would wipe the floor with the Vesiot, too, but the damage would be done.

But it got worse. The Alyt had lots of terror groups. They could use them as terrorist weapons. Nobody knew where a hypermissile came from. They could drop them from outside a system and then disappear without a trace. One hypermissile could take out most of Bowan and really make it hard for the weather computers to keep up.

Everything from large-scale terrorism to planets wiped clean of life was possible if the Nari had hypermissiles.

And Mr. Muharrem thought that his dad was working on a hypermissile plant.

Josh couldn't figure out what to do about that by the time he drifted off to sleep, but the last vision he had was of Charli being . . . really happy that he'd saved the galaxy by stopping the Nari hypermissile project. Really happy. And her hands were warm . . .


10: Never Wrestle A Trekkie

Josh was sitting with Charli on a relatively warm sunny day. He'd figured out how to eat with his left hand so that he could keep his right free to make sure hers didn't get cold.

He'd also discovered how fun it was to feed a girlfriend, but they had to try to keep out of sight because kids could be unmerciful.

So they were sitting on the lip of one the mounds, facing the force-screen with most of the young beings scattered around behind them, when Doosam rolled around the edge of the mound.

"This is where you've been hiding," the Tr'k'k'ikil said. "You never sit with me anymore!"

"I'm sorry, Doos," Josh said, letting go of Charli's hand quickly.

"Josh has got a girlfriend!" Doosam caroled loudly. "Josh has got a girlfriend!"

"Doos!" Josh said fiercely. "Cut it out!"

"Josh and Charli sitting in a nem," Doosam sang. "B-R-E-L-K-G-N . . ."

"Cut it out Doos!" Josh shouted, standing up.

"What? You don't want the whole world to know?" Doos said, rolling closer. "Are you breeding yet? I hear Terrys can start breeding early—"

Josh let out a roar and leapt on the rock.

That was when he learned an important fact: you just don't try to wrestle a Trekkie.

Doosam was not a rock; he was a complex structure involving silicon and carbon-nanotube modules in a flexible matrix. He could change shape to anything from a plant to a table and even make a fairly good impression of a human. A small one. But gray.

When Josh landed on him the surface flexed and Doosam let out a howl that sounded like pain. But Josh's right arm disappeared into the matrix almost immediately and he could feel something grinding on it.

He kept pounding on Doosam with his left fist, getting nothing more than bruises, then pulled back to knee the rock as hard as he could. He got more bruises but Doosam let out a grunt so he did it again. The whole time his right arm felt as if it was being chewed.

Doosam suddenly rolled over, trapping Josh's legs and starting to chew on his left thigh. Josh let out a yell and, with strength he didn't know he had, pushed the rock off his legs and ripped his arm free. Then he jumped in the air and landed on Doosam with both feet.

This produced another grunt from the rock but Doosam quickly rolled out from under him, dumping Josh on the ground. Then he just as quickly rolled onto the Terran's face.

Josh couldn't see or hear anything and he couldn't get enough purchase to roll the rock off. His nose was squashed flat and he couldn't breath.

"Say icky-icky-wop-ping-too-don-allll," Doosam growled. "Come on, say it . . ."

"Ugga-ugga . . ." Josh grunted. "Ugga . . . mugafugmug!"

"What?" Doos said, rolling aside.

"I said," Josh replied, "I can't remember what you wanted me to say and I can't say it with rock in my mouth. But 'uncle,' okay?" Josh stood up and brushed the dirt off his clothes as well as he could. Charli had disappeared. With her lunch. His was covered in dirt from the scuffle.

"If you made me lose my girlfriend I am going to figure out a way to turn you into pebbles," Josh growled, dusting some of the dirt off his chelo and biting it. The grit ground in his teeth.

"Sorry, Josh," Doosam said, sounding honestly contrite. "I just . . . I don't have a lot of kids to hang out with, you know?"

"Yeah," Josh admitted. "But all you had to do was say so! Charli wouldn't mind. As long as you didn't, you know, make fun of us."

"But you're so funny!" Doosam said. "Going around with a long face, looking for Charli all the time . . ."

"I guess you . . . guys don't have that sort of thing?" Josh asked.

"Oh, well, we do," Doosam admitted. "But . . . it's different. You see, someday, I mean in a long time, I'll probably have to find a mate. I don't know what happens that way, exactly. But if I'm right about the hints I sort of . . . absorb him and then I make a bunch of copies that are part him and part me . . ."

"Wait," Josh said, carefully. "You said . . . him."

"Well . . . yeah," Doosam said.

"Does that mean . . ." Josh said, gulping, "you're a her?"

"Uh, yes," Doosam replied. "Is that a problem?"

Josh looked at the gray lump for a moment and then shrugged.

"No," he admitted, "I guess not. But . . . do most people know that?"

"No," Doosam admitted. "We don't . . . we look pretty much the same."

"Good." Josh sighed. "Don't let on. Getting my butt kicked by a rock is bad enough. Worse, much worse, if everybody knew it was girl . . ."


11: Of Thoramite and Cruisers

Teams at dyup slowly shook down and Josh started getting picked earlier and earlier, especially if he could be on the same team as Doosam. Their "flying Terry" combination was hard to beat. He didn't always get the ball, but he got it often enough. Of course, quite often it shifted in midair and he found himself accelerated to the ground rather than lifted, but no bones broken. So far.

Occasionally, still, he walked Charli home. It was six and a half blocks from Charli's house to his and those were some cold blocks to walk. But he always started out . . . warm and there were shops along the main boulevard that he could stop in. One was a general grocery selling Tooleck and Naro foods. He read a couple of the Galacta labels on Naro foods and decided that his dad was right; he really hadn't wanted to know. But sometimes, rarely, there was Terran food as well. Always massively overpriced but if a kid had to pay a couple of credits worth or rayel for a candy bar that wasn't made from worms, it was worth it.

There were other shops. A butcher, all the meat carefully unlabeled and most of it probably dhan, a baker where for a couple of rayel he could buy a loaf of flat Nari bread, hot from the oven. There were three types: nadorg, which was thin as a few sheets of plascrip stacked on top of each other; jumash, which was slightly thicker with small air-pockets inside; and tanari, which was still flat but leavened and was something like a pita. Of them all he prefered the tanari. He often arrived home munching on a flat loaf and, as his mother put it, ruining his supper.

There was even a store that had new, at least new to him, Galacta books for download. He had to be careful there, he could easily spend all his allowance and more on books. He discovered a wonderful comic adventure series about an ancient Nalo warrior that held out against the Yemnor for many years through the use of a magic potion. It was hilariously funny, especially as his history teacher drummed in some of the details of the rise of the Yemnor empire and he started to get more and more of the jokes.

There was a jewelry store as well, that sold implant jewelry for the Nari. But it also had other pieces for Terrans and Nalo and Sjoglun. Most of it cost far too much for Josh to afford but one time he picked up a thin silver chain with the birdlike beast of the Nari king carved on a small amulet.

The day agreed upon by Tooleck, Terrans and Nalo as "Year End" for Nari was approaching with all the celebrations that would be anticipated. There would be more dinner parties and gifts exchanged on Year End day. The necklace was for Charli and he hoped she'd like it.


There was going to be a party at school as well, a dinner, concert and dance for the children that parents permitted to attend. A "formal" they called it. Some of the kids from his class would be going and he sweated wondering if he dared invite Charli. It wasn't just a question of whether she would say yes but whether their combined parents would let them. Ten and eleven were young for what was, essentially, a date.

He arrived home to find, unsurprisingly, that "Uncle" Grobney and "Aunt" Anoj were visiting. They hadn't moved in by any stretch of the imagination but they seemed to spend as many evenings at the Parker residence as at their own.

He took off his coat and hung it up and then wandered in the sitting room where Uncle Grobney was poring over data on a pad with the tridee playing in the background. The show that was on was one of the few that Josh liked, a historical adventure about an ancient Tooleck king. The character was half legendary but the show, unlike most, placed him in the time period from which the legend probably arose. Josh had several books about him and he knew that most of the stories that placed the king in the late medieval period were just . . . wrong. This one was placed in the period shortly after the fall of the Yemnor empire and was as close to "correct" for the period as a show could be. It was called "Torath, King of the Tooleck" and he caught every episode he could. This one, though, was repeat and he more or less ignored it.

"What are you working on?" Josh asked, looking at the pad upside down. It was scrolling text with some Nari figures shown digging in a video box.

"Thought there'd be some pockets of thoramite in the delta," Grobney said in a satisfied tone. "Found this one not far from your dad's project.

"I don't get what's the big deal about thoramite." Josh sighed. "If it wasn't for thoramite, Nari wouldn't have anything to export." And he'd be back on Terra. Of course, he'd probably be back in Miss Smith's primary school with no Charli, but, on the other hand, he wouldn't be taking his life in his hands every day on the bus. "Isn't there anything besides thoramite to use to create hyperdrive?"

"No, unfortunately," Grobney said, leaning back and focusing all five eyes on him. "Have you studied atomic physics in school yet, Josh?"

"No," Josh replied. "Why?"

"Because it's the only way to explain thoramite," Grobney replied, waving his eyestalks in what Josh had learned was something like a smile or a chuckle. "You know that atoms are not whole, yes?"

"No," Josh said. "They're not?"

"No. An atom is composed of, at minimum, one electron and one proton," Grobney said, pulling out a sheet of plascrip and a stylus, putting a circle in the middle and surrounding it with another. "There are also neutrons, but I'll skip them for now. When you split an atom, you get nuclear fission." He pronounced it new-clear. "And that releases a good bit of energy. Ole E equals MC, ey? Both the Tooleck and the Terrans used that at one time or another in their development. However, it leaves radioactive material behind, and that has its own problems and dangers. If you strip the atom off you have plasma. You've heard of plasma?"

"Like plasma guns?" Josh asked.

"There are other uses," Grobney said, whistling a laugh. "But, yes, plasma guns use a substance called deuterium to create a self-sustaining toroid, a circle, that travels out until it strikes a solid substance, such as a Jootan in my personal experience, and detonates. Transfers a good bit of energy to said Jootan, or a door or a wall or one of your mates, and blows just about anything to gratack. But the point is, with plasma, that you have only protons and neutrons, the electron has been stripped off. With me?"

"Yes," Josh said, partially understanding.

"In most cases, this doesn't matter. But with thoramite plasma, when there's enough thoramite plasma in a particular area, what is called its 'critical mass,' it degrades, that means breaks down, into a field of zero point particles. But it's those zip particles that cause gravity and inertia and I'm not even going to try to explain them. But with that field, which can be manipulated, you can accelerate much faster than with any other substance in the galaxy. Thoramite is pumped through tubes of a special material that permit the thoramite to react when the tubes get at a precisely aligned distance. This generates the zip field; the zip field is manipulated for acceleration and when the ship reaches the speed of light the zip field opens a stable wormhole to another location. In the process, however, the thoramite is consumed by the reaction. So you have to have thoramite to drive the ships. And that's why thoramite is so important and anyone who has it has an economic edge."

"When we were flying over we had a problem with the warp core," Josh said. "They pulled it out and I was watching when they took the top off. It glowed blue."

"That's thoramite," Grobney said, nodding human fashion. "When the degradation occurs it transfers a bit of charge to the thoramite around it and excites the electron shells which then collapse and release that blue glow. Similar effect to, oh, a chemical light or any sort of light source you'd care to name."

"One spot on it was glowing really bright?" Josh asked.

"Uncontrolled reaction," Grobney said, whistling. "Vibration can make the tubes get out of line. You know what a millimeter is?"

"Yes," Josh said, "of course."

"Know what a nanometer is?" Grobney asked, his eyestalks waving. "It's smaller than a bacteria. That's how much tolerance there is in those tubes; it's measured in nanometers. So what happened?"

"There was a Nari—it was a Nari Spacelines ship we were taking from Tooleck to here—there was a Nari that wanted to fix it with tape."

"Space tape," Grobney said, "thousand and one uses. Technically impossible to use it to fix an uncontrolled reaction. Doesn't mean it hasn't been done, I did it once. But not something for the untutored, you know. What happened?"

"Big argument, Nari won," Josh said, swallowing. "He blew up."

"One of several possible outcomes," Grobney said, whistling in humor. "I take it the Toolecks didn't want to do it?"

"Not the way it looked to me," Josh replied. "Why wouldn't the tape work?"

"Oh, I didn't say it won't work," Grobney replied. "Just not a method for the untutored and definitely not one to be applied in a spaceport to a civilian vessel in its regular commerce. Very much an emergency field repair, don't you know? With the emphasis on emergency as in 'our ship broke down and there's a Jootan squadron closing in on us and we have to get out of here now.' The problem is the rate of reaction, you see? Too much reaction and the thoramite detonates, as you saw. Too little and it won't sustain the hyper tunnel. And if you get a hot spot like that, microbubbles appear in the material and degrade the zip effect. And the material that the released particles pass through have an effect. You have to get the reaction back to the normal mode and the only way to do that is either send the core back to the factory or figure out a way to mitigate the hot spot. Space tape actually increases the reaction rate, not decreases it. Slap it right on the hot spot and, well . . . boom."

"Is that what happened to you?" Josh asked.

"Close enough," Grobney said, waving his eyestalks. "Not something I can talk about, youngster. Not even in this day and age. Some secrets have to lie fallow for a long time."

"Like hypermissiles?" Josh asked. "Anoj said you worked on the hypermissile project?"

"A bit," Grobney admitted. "Early in the war I was an officer on a cruiser. That's where I got this," he added, rolling his carapace around and pointing to his back. "See the black spots?"

"Yeah," Josh said curiously. "And something that looks like a crack."

"Crack came later," Grobney admitted. "Cruiser was escorting a merchant convoy and we got jumped by a group of Jootan fast raiders. Came out of hyper right on top of us, must have gotten our course from a stealth ship. Battle alarms had barely sounded when we were hit with their missiles. One of the cores blew up and I caught a bit of shrapnel." He paused and his eyestalks seemed to extend as if looking at something a long way away.

"Mate of mine, Oyeke, we'd both joined the cruiser at the same time as subalterns. Saw him crawling up a tunnel. Power was out, plasma gushing, place was a madhouse, everybody scrambling to get out before the negamissiles went off. Oyeke was moving from hand-hold to hand-hold, working his way towards the lifeboats. Had both his legs gone right at the center joint. Vac-suit had sealed over them, but he was still blasting fluids into the vacuum. Plasma arc between me and him, nothing I could do. Then he let go of the hand-hold, got caught in the air that was being sucked out and drifted into the plasma . . ."

Grobney paused and then his eyestalks started moving again and three of them rotated to face Josh. "Anyway, I made it to the lifeboats and another cruiser picked us up a few days later."

"Gosh," Josh said. "Dad was just an engineer working on a camp."

"Oh, your father did a bit more than that," Grobney said, whistling in humor. "Bit more."

"What happened after that?" Josh asked. "To you, I mean."

"Well, punctured carapace takes a bit to heal," Grobney said, leaning back. "Was in the hospital a fair time. I'd taken my fifth year in physics before the war and my records showed that and that I had a . . . rather high intelligence score. Came a Terry to visit me, old chap, colonel but old even for that rank. Had some tests he wanted me to take. Well, I've always been good at tests and these were for memory, which I'm particularly good at. Took the tests, heard nothing more of it. Did some work running clerks, sort of thing I could do while the old carapace healed. Got asked to lunch by the same old duffer. Asked me a number of questions. I hadn't grown up on Tooleck, I'm from one of the colony worlds. Grew up with a drive rifle in my hand, you know, running around in the jungle and what-not. Seemed he knew all about that. Seemed he knew just about everything worth knowing about me, you know, the time I failed math in primary for example. Had a teacher a bit like your Miss Hissberger that time so I know how you feel. Finally asked me if I'd consider a posting that meant I'd probably get killed, but rarely get bored." Grobney paused and his spinctures whistled until he choked.

"Lord, but I was young. Thought I'd live forever whatever this old duffer had to say. Most of the time I was on the cruiser was nothing but boredom. Go across the Rift escorting a convoy of merchants, hoping to avoid the raiders, go back. Over and over. Very boring except when you're getting blown up. So I said yes. Dumbest one thing I'd ever done. He was right. Damned near killed me more than once, but I was rarely bored. Angry, unhappy, wet, cold, miserable, terrified, but rarely bored. If you're ever in the military, lad, there's a saying: Never volunteer for anything. It's important, remember it and heed it."

"What was it?" Josh asked. "What were you doing?"

"Well, maybe we'll talk about that another time," Grobney said, keying his pad. "We've both got homework to do, what?"


12: If You're Not Going to Like the Answer . . .

Josh stumbled off the bus and turned to face the driver.

The problem was that while the driver didn't speak Galacta, over the years of driving he had learned most of the major curse-words. And you could get in a lot of trouble for cursing at the driver.

The point was, though, that he could easily catch individual curse words. But, after much thought, Josh had come to the conclusion that if you spoke really fast he wouldn't catch it.

So he'd practiced. In available free time. He'd written down every curse word he knew, in three languages at this point, left out the Nari, and recited them. To the point that he could get out a string that was about twenty syllables long in under a second and a half. He'd timed it.

He pulled out a scrap of paper, cleared his throat and spoke.


When he was done he nodded at the driver, who was waggling his feelers in puzzlement, and turned around to go in the tunnel.

That felt better. It didn't make up for five months' worth of bruises, but it helped.

He decided to keep the scrap of paper. It might come in handy again.

* * *

As Josh stepped into the surface tunnel his nose was assaulted by a strong stench of sulphur, something like rotten eggs but if so a whole air-truck must have crashed.

"Did the kunerac overflow?" he muttered, whistling the iris for the Parker apartment and holding his nose.

As he stepped in his home tunnel the stench got worse and increased as he descended the ramp.

Coming around the last bend he saw several Nari rubbing their tails on the wall and Dr. Reenig standing by, watching them.

"Hello, Dr. Reenig," Josh said, releasing his nose and trying not to gag. He realized the smell was coming from the wall which looked . . . wet.

"Hello, Josh," their landord said. If he had any problems with the smell it wasn't evident.

"Can I ask what's going on?" Josh said.

"The lining on the tunnel needed touching up," Dr. Reenig replied. "So I called in a crew to work on it."

As he was saying that, one of the Nari stopped smoothing the wall and leaned back. The esophagal opening under his labial extension opened and he gobbered up a chunk of what looked like purple plaster that hit the wall with a wet "smack." The smell intensified as the Nari flipped a tail up and started smoothing the material into the wall.

"Oh," Josh said, clapping a hand over his mouth and hurrying to the apartment iris. "Gotta go," he added in a muffled tone.

"Have a good day, Josh," Dr. Reenig replied, turning back to watch the workmen.

* * *

Josh leaned back from the fresher and spit out the mouthful of water, then spit again.

"Joosshh?" his mother called from the foyer. "Are you all right?"

"Fine, mom," Josh replied. "Must have been something I ate." He paused and thought about it for a second. "Mom?"


"Don't go out of the house for a while. Dr. Reenig is having some work done. It's . . . not safe."

"Okay," Jala answered. "You're sure you're okay?"

"Fine," Josh said. "Just fine. But, I have got to learn to stop asking questions . . ." he added in a whisper. Then he pulled out his scrap of paper again.

* * *

John Ringo is the author of many novels, as well as a writer of short stories.

To read more work by John Ringo, visit the Baen Free Library at:


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