K’Tepolu lay ahead of us. It wasn’t a planet. It was a collection of asteroids connected by tubes. As statements go, that was an understatement. Two huge asteroids, one following another, lay in the middle, connected to each other by round, gray structures wide enough for spaceships to fly inside. That was the only attempt at a pattern that I could see in the construction. The rest of the asteroids stuck out from the main ones with no rhyme or reason, sometimes with a tube to another asteroid, sometimes isolated.
Even more disturbing from an engineering perspective, there were multiple levels. While some asteroids had a tube to only one asteroid, many of them had six tubes (four to asteroids on their level, one pointing up and the other down). Most had more than six tubes and they were almost always diagonal instead of straight.
It wasn’t even possible to come up with an overall shape for the conglomeration of parts. Few of the asteroids pointed in the same direction, some stuck out from the main group—with another two or three attached to the end and additional tubes that led deep into the mass of asteroids.
Jaclyn summarized my thoughts in a sentence. “What a mess.”
Marcus laughed. “And here I was thinking that it was cool. I mean, that says space. You can’t build stuff like that on Earth. It’d be crushed under its own weight. Plus, look at all the spaceships.”
It was hard not to see them. We’d seen a lot near the jump gate—which had rings several times larger than the last jump gate we’d been through and that one in turn had been several times larger than Earth’s. It had flashed white and a stream of ships of all sizes had come out. When it was over, it had flashed again and several more had come through.
K’Tepolu, for lack of a better cliche, reminded me of a beehive. Spaceships, small and large, flew between the asteroids, dodging the connecting pieces and landing inside the open bays.
Something dinged inside my head. The words “K’Tepolu Station” appeared along with it. I mentally agreed to take the call.
“Xiniti ship… Beeblebrox?” The perfect, androgynous voice didn’t quite seem to know what to make of the name. It didn’t sound like a Xiniti ship.
“That’s us,” I said.
“Since this is your first trip here, we’re giving you a berth on one of the outside asteroids. We’ve sent your ship the berth number as well as your approach route. If you choose to manually control your ship, please follow our directions precisely. If you don’t believe you can do it, let your ship’s computer do it. Timing is essential. Imprecise approaches risk collisions.”
I don’t know if I would have tried it without the implant, but with the implant it wasn’t bad. They weren’t kidding either. Ships crossed my path both before and behind me. With as many ships as I’d seen, it made sense, but I wondered if they might be overdoing the coordination.
On a whim, I started the song “Major Tom” playing.
As we approached our landing spot, Cassie watched our destination asteroid grow bigger as the ships behind us branched off, decelerating as they aimed for their own landing bays.
“Did you notice that there are landing spots on every asteroid? It’s like they added them to each new piece instead of designating one starport.”
My implant volunteered that that was exactly what they’d done. I opened my mouth to tell Cassie, but she shook her head, saying, “I know.”
When I brought the ship inside, the directions said to turn off the maneuver jets. I did, and the gravity panels on the floor and ceiling moved us along.
As we floated down through the hangar, ships stacked on shelves on both sides of us, I asked Lee, “What kind of place is this?”
Lee leaned back in his chair. “Ask your implant… I’ll give you a hint though. It’s from that movie. The one with spaceships?”
Everyone looked at him.
“You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” he said, and then he grinned.
Marcus shook his head, “Star Wars? How long has it been since you watched a movie?”
Lee shrugged. “Not important, but before I go, I should tell you a couple things. First off, you’ve probably got an effectively unlimited expense account. You’ll have to check your implant. They might be less generous with young Xiniti who have to prove themselves. It’ll cover docking fees and food at the very least. If yours is unlimited, don’t abuse it. It won’t look good. You don’t want to fail this test that way.
“Second, most people will leave you alone. Humans are scary because of being the Abominators’ soldiers. Humans who are part of the Xiniti nation are doubly scary because everyone knows how you become part of the Xiniti, but… There are some people who will see it as an invitation. Watch out for them.”
The ship floated upward, landing in a row next to several other similarly sized ships. The row was only five deep, but there were rows on either side as far as I could see.
We stopped moving. Lee said, “Well, that’s it. I’m going to leave. I’ll see you when I’m done. If you’re done first, don’t wait for me, but do leave a message for me. The Xiniti implant has a name that will find me. Any questions before I go?”
I checked my implant, knew Lee’s alias as well as the name of the Xiniti we’d be taking on, the ship and colonists that we’d be guarding… It seemed complete. “I’ve got one question. If we could bring relatives, could I have brought Rachel too?”
Lee stood up from his chair, letting the restraints fall to its side. “Sure, but it would make things complicated. Her intangibility means more than you think and we don’t have time to sort that out right now. Let’s just say she’d have connections to more than just the Xiniti, and we don’t need that.”
“Okay,” I said.
Then, taking the form of a Xiniti, he stepped through the nearest hatch, stopping for a moment. “One more thing. If you go back without me, don’t go through the system with the battle.”