We spent the next hour talking about jump, blink, and near-space physics and how they related to drive design. As we talked, it became obvious that she didn’t just know more than I did, but that her knowledge eclipsed mine. At the same time, she never talked down to me. It felt like the better sort of independent study. She asked questions and I answered, but from my answers she somehow noticed knowledge that I was missing and explained it to me.
The longer we kept talking, the more faster than light drives made sense. It felt like talking to my grandfather, Dr. Nation, or anyone who could talk about technical issues at exactly the level I needed to understand them. My mind burned as connection after connection fell into place.
She sent papers for me to read later to my implant and by the second hour we were working on the parts. They were common parts even if Grandpa’s modifications to the drive weren’t typical. Even there she had observations on things that might need to be changed.
We’d set up a simulation of the drive based on the schematics I had, Grandpa’s maintenance documentation, and a couple remote connections to the ship.
“What you need,” she said, “based on your usage isn’t simply parts for a larger ship, but parts with increased durability, so dedicated blink drive, or even jump gate parts if they fit. What materials were you planning to use for the drive’s field radiators?”
I named what Grandpa had used and then added, “But some of the alloys you showed me might work. The ones the Hrrnna ships use could handle it, I think.”
She smiled. “That’s a good idea. The Hrrnna made their fortunes in mining colonies. Many of the best FTL engineers come from their shipyards.”
Four hours later, the machines were fabricating parts based on Hrrnna designs and materials, altered for my ship’s specific design oddities. As for myself, I understood how the reviews could describe it as a social movement as much as a business. The FTL drive parts weren’t cheap, but five hours is an awfully long time to spend with a customer. Marcus came back three times while we were talking, going back to the art store the first two times and on the third asked, “I’m going to get lunch. Do you want anything?”
I hadn’t been thinking about it, but when I did I became aware that I was desperate for food. “Yes, but does anyplace around here even serve food we can eat?”
Then I thought, and how weird is it going to be?
My face must have showed a little of that last thought because Marcus grinned. “Their network says there’s a restaurant serving human food a little further down the street. I’ll have them make yours bland.”
Then he stepped outside. I had a moment’s worry about his safety, but it went away as I reminded myself that he was wearing one of my new self-repairing costumes that now doubled as a space suit.
“He’s thoughtful,” Kee said.
“Yeah,” I said, realizing that I hadn’t noticed.
“There’s something I need to ask you,” she said, “and I don’t know if I should. The two of you seem safe but this is a big thing.”
She looked me over as if she could see inside me. Then she asked, “Who is it?”
I said the first thing that came into my head. “Huh?”
Her mouth turned into a thin line and in the background machines hummed, followed by solid clicking noises. At the same time, the sound of the room took on a dead quality. A glance at the window made me think that it was thicker than it had been—if that was even possible.
“I think you know what I’m talking about,” she said. When she’d been talking about FTL drive physics, her voice had risen and fallen to emphasize points and she’d laughed easily. Now she kept her voice low.
“If you’re like me,” she said, “you know that telling the wrong person invites the destruction of everyone you’ve ever cared about.”
I felt sure I knew exactly what she meant by that, but I didn’t say anything. Lee had told me what to do if I met another one of his kind—ignore it and keep on walking. At close range, they’d be able to tell that I’d been associating with one of them and I might be able to recognize them in the same way I could now recognize Lee in whatever shape he chose to wear.
Pretending not to notice them meant that they might conclude that I’d spent time with one of their kind unknowingly. It wasn’t a good chance, but it was better than talking.
He’d never told me how to handle a human associate of one of his kind who’d recognized that I was one too. Leaving would have been the best idea, but if all that humming didn’t mean that the doors were shut, I’d be surprised.
She watched me for a reaction. I don’t know if I gave her one, but I tried not to.
Taking a breath, she said, “You’ve trusted me enough to let me look at your experimental drive, hear me out and I’ll let you go whatever you say.”
Nodding, I said, “Sure.”
“If I’m right, you were told a story like this… A long time ago, one of the first (or maybe the first) species broke apart. One group wanted to teach the younger races. The other wanted to destroy them, but couldn’t destroy them all directly. So the group that wanted to destroy the younger races seeded the galaxy with traps for the younger races, but they also tried to destroy those in the Live faction. They’re still hunting them down. So, the Live faction survives by hiding.”
She looked at me again. “Which one is it? There aren’t many of them left.”