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Another day. Another asteroid. Another attempt by Ido and Rick to determine which one of them was crazier than the other when it came to damn stupid stunts.

Tapping his cigar analog, Grayman sighed, content. As always, Ido’s predictions had been spot on. The ore load was enough to cover this job and keep everyone in good health for the next three months. Hell, if the grade checked out, they’d have enough to get Claire some actual chocolate! Wouldn’t that be a damn fine birthday present for his daughter?

Meh. She’d probably want the new augmented reality gear, Grayman figured.

Shrugging, Grayman metaphorically tossed the budding birthday plan onto the back burner. This dig might be through, but the job itself wasn’t done.

“Oi, Clair.” At his daughter’s peppy affirmative, Grayman requested, “Get our so-called boss on the line.”

“Roger, papa!”

A half second later and not only had Fa-Loser successfully pulled an armless, legless Rick in, Clair had successfully secured communications with Earth Command.

“Yo, boss,” Grayman cheekily saluted.

Karla’s bright laughter filled the bridge. “Really, Grayman, given everything, that’s too much!”

Clair stifled a giggle in her cardigan’s sleeve.

“Hey! Better get used to it. You’re the one who hired us, after all.”

“That is true,” Karla chuckled. “So. I take it recovery was successful?”

“Of course!” Grayman puffed in exaggerated pride. “No problems whatsoever!”

“Rick lost his limbs,” Clair gossiped shamelessly.

“So no more problems then usual, hum?” Karla laughed.

“More or less,” Grayman concurred. “Once we get the last of the clean up done, we’ll head for the rendezvous. Should be there in about — four hours?”

“Un!” Clair confirmed with a chipper nod.

“Hold off on the rendezvous for now.”

“Oh?” Grayman flicked his cigar analog, interest piqued. Karla had a look like he hadn’t seen since the Wandering Planet mess.

...which might not be a good thing, come to think of it. That mess had ended better on the whole, but damn if it hadn’t been like experiencing a mythical Level 7 storm.

Data shot over to them; map data, of a small cluster of asteroids in the Deneb system. Cosmogeological data came over next outlining the potential for a low risk excavation with high yield returns. Almost looked too damn good to be true, except...

“Maya?” Grayman guessed.

“It’s her dissertation,” Karla confirmed.

“We’ll take the job.”

Turning back to look at Ido — damn would be ninja and his stealthy entrances — Grayman pointed to the estimated yield values. “Figures are way too high for this kind of rock.”

“But they’re Maya’s figures,” Ido countered. Grayman could almost mistake him for serene; over five years working with the man twigged Grayman to the fact Ido was downright giddy. Looking right at Karla’s on screen image, Ido repeated, “We’ll take the job.”

Karla rested her chin in her hand. “As I thought you would. Clair? I’m forwarding over the Jump coordinate codes now.”

“Codes received!” Clair confirmed.

“Happy hunting.” Karla waved with her free hand. Looking far too chipper and smug, she closed the communique.

“Ma-ah,” Grayman sighed. Giving Ido a stink eye, Grayman demanded, “What is it with your big brother complex, huh?”

“Idiot papa,” Clair chastised.

“Eh?”

“This is Maya’s dissertation! It’s the last step before she graduates the Academy! Of course Ido is going to want to offer his full support to a budding fellow genius.” Clair turned around to give Grayman a well honed look. “And she’s family! Don’t you want to lend family a hand?”

“Of course I do!” Grayman shot back. “I just want to know why we’re going a good two star systems out of our way to run a dissertation down when the Academy already has procedures in place for this sorta thing!”

“It’s because of the professor in charge.”

Grayman froze, doing a rapid double check of what ordinance they had on hand. From the tone of Ido’s voice they were going to be testing out Amanza’s new surplus military toy in the near future.

Ido softened his frosty look as he focused on their navigator. “Clair. Check the additional data packet.”

“Right!”

A second later and the packet in question’s contents were spilled across the screens. Karla had sent over everything they’d need, all right, and in standard briefing format. But what was it that had set Ido off?

Clair gasped; sputtered, and pointed to the mugshot of the academic leading this upcoming three ring circus. Didn’t look like anything special.

“Isn’t that the guy who tried to murder Maya?!” Clair demanded.

Grayman took a second look at the academic, this time running a detailed cross reference against his memories.

...well shit.

“Briefing in Augmented Reality in ten, people!”


 

Dear Ido the Idiot.

No, that wasn’t right. Deleting it, she started again.

Dear Ido Who Won’t Respond to My Letters.

Ugh! No, that was even worse! Maybe a third time would —

Dear Everyone Whom I Miss So Very Much.

Better, but not right. There was probably a good reason no one had replied to her letters since last year. Maybe they’d thought since she’d been so panicky about her final year at the Academy, it’d be best to let her have some space? ...no, that reasoning rang near as hollow as her letter’s opening sentence. Try again; one more time, now.

Dear

“Ms. Mikuri!”

Maya Mikuri saved and shut down her mail program as fast as flailing limbs and thought would allow. It was harder than it sounded given her quarters were in a zero-g zone; if not for the chair buckle, Maya would have gone spinning through the tiny room’s space.

“Y-Y-Yes?” Maya managed to chitter.

The speaker overhead continued, “We’ve arrived, Ms. Mikuri.”

“Oh. Oh!” Maya slapped at the chair buckle. “I - I’m on my way to Observation —!”

“Professor Kinsman wants us in I-Machines for the field work.”

“We’re... We’re not setting up by remote?”

“The Professor wants us to have hands-on knowledge of how to drill. Exciting, isn’t it?”

“Not... particularly,” Maya murmured.

“Come again?”

Maya succeeded in freeing herself. “I’m on my way to the MT chamber,” Maya confirmed.

The Freshman on comms chirped, “Roger!” Then the line went dead without a click.

Stay calm, Maya. Stay calm, Maya tried. Naturally, the chant failed within the first sixty seconds. Haven’t been in an I-Machine in two years; it will be just like riding a bike! Nothing will go wrong. The systems are triple redundant and it’ll all be... fine...?

All of the MT System pods were full excluding two. Professor Kinsberg was standing in one, clearly waiting.

“Come along now, Maya,” the professor censored none too gently. “It’s rude to leave your classmates and shipmates waiting like this.”

“M-My apologies!” Maya stammered. She bit down the words — the excuse — But I only got told about the change of plans now. Another professor might have listened... but not Professor Kinsberg.

I hope Karla got my last letter. There’s just something that... that doesn’t feel right about how the professor...

Maya sighed as she confirmed the pre use check had been completed. It had and all safeties were green.

Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I prove my dissertation and graduate and then — then I...

The Mind Trance System activated. The system confirmed the backup data was secure. And the split second blank between Mind Out and Mind In cut away her worried thoughts.

“Oooh...” Wanting to wince — except she couldn’t emote inside the I-Machine; she felt so off kilter and wrong — Maya checked her readings. After adjusting for standard height and re-calibrating senses to baseline level one, Maya felt confident enough to walk free of the dock. Those first few minutes inside the I-Machine always gave her such a headache. Though, this time the headache seemed worse as –

Tripping on vacuum Maya flailed for balance.

“Seriously?”

Maya scrunched tight, trying to keep her movements at a minimum. Just think of it like wearing a space suit, Karla had told her all that time ago. Check thrust and ease of rotation and orient on fixed point.

“Well. Now that Ms. Mikuri has deigned to join us, class, let us begin,” Professor Kinsberg harrumphed.

The two Freshmen in matching peach I-Machine’s tittered at one another. The Sophomore who was the professor’s assistant — Nick? Richard? — turned his nose up at her antics. Or at least that was how his gray and dark red I-Machine registered his emote.

“Professor!” The pilot of their transport sent out a burst signal for attention across all frequencies.

Maya jumped as an alarm flared across her HUD. The action sent her spinning into the side of their ship’s hatch, and sent the two Freshmen into peals of fresh laughter at her expense.

If it weren’t for the fact Maya was terrible with I-Machines and knew it, she would be blaming this on the gunmetal brown Machine she had been assigned. Her old yellow one had been comforting — of a sorts — but it was long gone now. Maya hadn’t the funds to keep it up.

Now that I think about it, the last time I saw it was —

“Oh-ho! Hello there Academy people!”

Maya yanked her arms in out of habit as a blur of red and white shot across her field of vision. A second of trying to track the blur left Maya dizzy; all turned around from trying to track an object too fast for the I-Machine’s sensor networks to lock on. There was a tap on her right shoulder. Spinning, Maya tried to face whatever it was – and got knocked off stationary again.

Arms that were somehow familiar steadied her. “Maya? That you?”

That voice...!

Resetting her optic input, Maya felt like crying. It was! It impossibly was!

“Rick!” Maya laughed, for once not caring what others would think. Looking at Rick — even at looking how her HUD put up static for his ID picture — was like looking at a memory of... home.

“Little lady!” Rick yanked Maya into a hug; a hug Maya tried to return. Silly slow reaction time; Rick had her yanked back before Maya could touch his shoulder. “Girl! What is a pretty thing like you doing in a piece of junk like this?”

“Ah... that is... Academy budget...”

“Phooey!” Keeping one hand on her shoulder, Rick towed Maya away from the professor and her fellow students. Maya didn’t bother to sigh, instead just shutting off the navigation errors as they sounded. “Ido! Ido, get over here! It’s a travesty! A tra-vest-y!”

“Ido?” Maya jerked back out of shock and got a burst of pain in her shoulder as a consequence. The pain was an absent side note to her shock of what Rick was saying. “Ido’s here? With you?”

“But of course!” Rick confirmed. In the next signal burst he was effectively shouting, “Oi, oi, Ido! Ido!”

“Enough, Rick.”

“Ms. Amanza!” Maya jumped.

Sure, Clair had told her via letter that Ms. Amanza had retired from the Alliance Forces to join up with the Excavators. It was still something else to see her again, especially as she was in an I-Machine so clearly modified from civilian norm. It was an almost identical match for Ms. Amanza’s old military issue unit, save for the softer rounded head and a bright pinstripe of red traced white along chest, arms, and legs. There was a tag on its shoulder identifying the I-Machine as an Excavate GP field unit. Even if it hadn’t looked like her old unit, there wasn’t anyone else Maya knew who could hold a laser rifle with such calm assurance.

“But pumpkin, it’s Maya!” Rick whined.

“P-Pumpkin?” Maya stuttered. Ms. Amanza? And Rick? It made her brain hurt...

Ms. Amanza gave a simple nod in acknowledgment before turning on Rick. “There is no need to embarrass her with your excessive zeal.”

“Embarrassing!” Rick scoffed, “I’m not embarrassing, I’m Rick Ayer! Excessive is what I do! I’m not embarrassing you, right, Maya?”

Maya fidgeted in a nervous tick. Rick was as always so open and expressive that it felt like kicking a puppy when Maya admitted honestly, “Just a little too.. over the top... a bit...?”

“Aw,” Rick pouted. “Sorry, Maya. I’m just so happy to see you!” Another faster than light hug which sent Maya spinning. Rick slowed down their spin so that they were neutral again. “You never call, you never write.”

“I have too written! Lots of times all year long!” Maya blurted.

“Wha...? But we never got any mail!” Rick turned to Ms. Amanza for confirmation. “Right, pumpkin?”

The professor cleared his throat, cutting off Ms. Amanza’s answer.

“And you people are?”

“Oh, we’re the babysitters,” Rick waved the professor off like he were nothing.

“Eh-heh,” Maya whimpered.

On the one hand, Maya approved of Rick being so dismissive of the professor who had done his best to make Maya’s academic life in specific, and life in general, into one massive slog of dodging insults and standing up for her own innocents. Clair had called it: Professor Kinsberg had used his not unsubstantial influence to make Maya out to be the guilty party, and himself the naive fool who had fallen for so sweet a trick.

On the other hand, Rick antagonizing the professor wasn’t going to win Maya any boons.

The professor got as far as saying, “I beg your – “

And then Ms. Amanza cut him off with a military crisp declaration: “Professor Attomy Kinsberg. As a condition of being allowed to resume academic duties you are required to be under observation by a licensed drilling contractor during all potential mining operations irregardless of estimated yield or theorized risks. Excavate GP has accepted the contract for this dig.”

“Like I said,” Rick chirped, “we’re the babysitters.”

“You will be required to confirm all actions with us before beginning any operations, including setup of materials,” Ms. Amanza continued. Rick nodded noisily whenever Ms. Amanza paused. “If at any point we believe your actions beyond an acceptable margin of error, we will take over this operation. You are to treat all members of Excavate GP as akin to Observers preforming an Alliance inspection. Is this clear?”

“I was under the impression the Earthsphere Group had accepted this contract,” the professor noted.

“They were required by Alliance inspectors to withdraw their contract due to suspicions of illegal bidding.” I-Machine’s couldn’t glare. Ms. Amanza was a good enough operator to make her Machine’s look feel like a glare.

“I see.” The professor sounded unruffled. “May I see a copy of your contract?”

“Transmitting.”

The professor rubbed at his chin. “Hum... I see. Everything is in order. Well,” the professor flicked his wrist, closing an AR window, “I believe you have already met the acquaintance of Maya Mikuri. All of the procedures we will be following were set by her.”

“Incorrect,” Ms. Amanza stated, ice cube cold. “The procedures as outlined in Maya Mikuri’s dissertation state set up is to occur via remote drones.”

“True,” the professor conceded. “I deemed it a more enriching academic opportunity to do the set up by I-Machine. If we are to be proper cosmogeologists, it’s important to know how those who use our data actually work. Practical knowledge is just as critical as theoretical.”

“A majority of mining companies set up via drone. A limited number of highly specialized organizations do set up via I-Machine.”

“Specialized such as yourselves?”

“Excavator GP exclusively mines Orichalt. Given the mineral’s nature, our standard procedure is compact.”

Ms. Amanza sure had picked up a way of tactfully dancing around the truth. Compact was one way to say, Throw the drill at the target, work really fast, and then run like hell.

“I see. So then, may I presume your company has approved Maya Mikuri’s controversial dissertation as accurate?”

“Damn straight we do.”

If Rick hadn’t steadied her, Maya would have gone floating off into a spin. “Grayman!”

“Yo, little lady.” Grayman gave her a two handed salute. Then, he was all business as he faced down Professor Kinsberg. “I’m the CEO of Excavate General Partnership. People call me Grayman. My people have gone over Maya’s dissertation, and find the math to be accurate in theory. But like you said, Kinsberg, practical is just as valuable as theoretical. So. We’re gonna test Maya’s dissertation. Fairly. And impartially.”

“Of course. Would you like us to Mind Out, then?”

Grayman snorted, “No. You wanna get practical experience? You’re gonna get practical experience. You two!”

The Freshman jumped, huddling in with one another in shock. “Y-Yes?” Managed the one on Maya’s left.

“Names!”

“Fuki Matsuda!” yelped the one on Maya’s left. The one on her right yelped, “Miki Matsuda!”

“You have something to say, you say it on open coms! Whispering like that gets miners dead.”

“S-Sorry!” They both bowed, visibly apologetic.

“Well?” When the Freshmen mumbled a query, Grayman snapped, “Spit it out! What are you talking about?”

“U-Um... T-That is...” Fuki sputtered, looking at Miki. Miki looked at Fuki and blurted, “Are you... the Rick Ayer? T-The Asteroid Speed Racer?”

“Fans!” Rick beamed. “Yes ma’ams, that’s me! Rick Ayer, number one fastest Asteroid Speed Racer! Also now number one fastest Orichalt miner in the universe!”

“W-Why are you a miner?” timidly asked Miki.

“Maa,” Rick nodded sagely, crossing one leg over the other as though sitting in a chair, “that’s a smart question. I could be doing all sorts of safer jobs with my kind of publicity background. But!” Rick bounced, floating up two meters. “None of those would be half as fun! Mining in a Level 4 Miguel Storm is just as risky and exciting as the Asteroid Races.”

Maya sighed. Such a statement was proof Rick had never been sane even before becoming an Evertrancer.

“Maya?”

Rick gently nudged Maya so she was back at neutral and facing the right direction. The right direction in this case was facing... Ido...

“Um...” Self conscious, Maya looked at her elbow. “H-Hi, Ido.”

Ido moved forward in a controlled drift. “That I-Machine is twenty years old.”

Erk. “W-W-Well,” Maya sputtered.

Ido reached out a steadying hand. Unable not to, Maya met Ido’s optics. There was such concern for her in his look, Maya had to look away again.

Ido was asking, “How are the controls? No issues with response time? Height and senses metrics match numerical norms?”

“E-Everything checked green,” Maya hedged.

“She’s been practicing her pirouettes. More so than usual, I mean,” Rick reported.

Ido frowned; and how he could frown when I-Machines had no mouth was something to marvel at. And be jealous of. Ido was so open, even when he put up an aloof air of distance between himself and others. Maya had lost count of how many times she wished she could match even half Ido’s courage.

“Hold out your right arm,” Ido ordered. Maya complied – and nearly spun again. “Left.” Again, Maya nearly spun. “Touch the tip of your nose.” A little less spin this time, though that might have been from using both hands.

“Che,” Ido clicked his metaphoric tongue. “Grayman, we still have –?”

“The spare?” Grayman guessed Ido’s question. “Damn straight.”

“I-It’s alright, Ido!” Maya protested meekly. “I don’t... want to be a bother... And we need to get started on setting up or we’ll go over budget!”

Maya got the feeling Ido was pressing his lips into a fine concerned line. There was twenty seconds of silence.

“Buddy system,” Ido declared. “One miner to each student.”

“And which group will I be in?” the professor inquired.

“Mine,” Ms. Amanza stated pointedly at once. “You as well.” She jerked her weapon butt first towards the professor’s aid. “Name.”

The professor’s assistant stood taller, almost but not quite pulling off a superior air. “Richard.” There was no shake in his voice as he stated, “Richard Reed the Third.”

“Ooh, a big wig,” Rick chuckled.

“In space, fancy pedigrees are junk. Remember that, Reed.”

Reed shot a look from the corner of his eye/optic to the professor. When he saw the professor act unconcerned, Reed did his best to copy him.

“Guess that leaves us with the cute twins, eh, boss?” Rick mused.

“Ah.” Grayman crossed his two primary arms and sized up the Freshman.

“It seems highly unorthodox for the CEO to partner with a Freshman student.” That Professor Kinsberg sent a digital look over at Maya without breaking visual contact with Grayman did not go unnoticed.

“Survival lesson number one, class.” Grayman pulled out his cigar analog with his uppermost right hand; tapped it once. “Know your limits. I’m a fair miner or I wouldn’t be CEO of this rig. But, I know when my people know more than me, and I know when to listen to ‘em. When it comes to mining, there is no one better skilled than Ido. That is why he’s going to be calling the shots with the little lady.”

Ido nodded in acknowledgment. Then, Ido was all business as he gently took Maya’s hand and began to tow her.

“Tell me if anything hurts,” Ido demanded quietly. He waited a bare second for Maya to respond affirmative. In that time, they went floating past the professor. Louder now, Ido stated, “I want to go over set up procedure. There are different protocols for using I-Machines than for using remote drones.”

“Very well,” the professor allowed. But... the way he glared at Ido and she... It sent a chill down Maya’s spine.

Ido opened an AR screen for them, and Maya had to set her concerns aside to focus on the job.


 

Two hours into set up, and Ido’s suspicion turned into a solid conviction: Attomy Kinsberg was a threat.

At first glance, the professor making the rounds of the four set up sites made logistical sense. As the professor in charge it was his responsibility to insure his students were learning safety along with the lesson. Amanza was military professional to her core: While staying in grabbing distance of her assigned student, Amanza kept a laser tag on the professor at all times, giving all of them an appropriate warning before the man arrived to inspect his students’ work.

But it was how he performed that inspection that tripped Ido’s alarms.

Grayman sent a text confirming it: For the Freshman, the professor was charm itself. Kinsberg offered assurances that his youngest students were doing well for being able to handle such a complicated set up on their own. (Ido could all but hear Grayman scoff via text, “Complicated, hell. If Maya had rigged this to be any easier a blind space rat could put this thing together.”)

For the professor’s assistant, the man was understandably more critical, pointing out flaws and asking more difficult questions. But Kinsberg had nothing but praise for Reed when the boy explained why he had deviated from Maya’s drilling instructions. (Amanza checked with Rick first before grudgingly admitting Reed had a valid reason for changing the drill depth and angle.)

But Kinsberg made a point to be sure there was always a student — and by extension, a member of Excavate GP — with him whenever he floated over to Maya’s set up area. And then the man would, politely and in such a way Ido could do no more than glower at him, shred Maya’s hard work.

Ido would admit the man’s criticisms at first blush made sense. But the way Kinsberg administered those criticisms over even the smallest perceived error made Maya look to be an idiot before her peers. At least twice the man had physically broken portions of Maya’s set to try and “correct” errors. Each time the man came by, whatever student he brought with him would leave looking smug and Maya would —

The communication network to the Stulti snapped open.

“Everyone!” Clair’s voice chimed across the network. “Alert from Fa-Loser! Possible start of a Level One Miguel Storm in section One-Delta. Please take the usual precautions not to get caught!”

Assorted pings of acknowledgment from the miners lit up communications for five seconds.

Possible Level One the code phrase. Ido shifted his focus to Maya, keeping most of his senses on the area around them. Fa-Loser picked up Maya’s body. If Kinsberg is dumping her body now, he’s going to make his move. Soon.

Whatever storm Kinsberg had set in motion, Ido knew only this: He would protect Maya. No matter what.

“And then,” Maya muttered to herself, reaching for a particular part. The I-Machine spasmed and Maya audibly hissed in pain; the part Maya had been reaching for was sent tumbling out of range. Before Maya could extend herself, Ido whipped out one of his wired daggers. A gentle throw let it catch a loop of wire around the lost part, and a slight tug brought the part back.

“Maya,” Ido began, locking the dagger back in place.

“I – I’m fine, Ido!” Maya yelped.

“Honestly, Maya. Your rudeness continues to show no bounds.”

Ido glared at the man who had done his damnedest to ruin Maya’s life. The rich snot nosed kid next to him radiated smugness. Amanza, for her part, looked cucumber cool, as if only the weight of her weapon kept her from using it on the two idiots.

Kinsberg continued, “Your calculations have proven, time and again, incorrect. None of your predictions appear to have taken into account the iron oxide content, nor the steel –“

“They have!” Maya attempted to defend herself. “It’s why we’re not using standard explosive charges but instead –“

“And,” Kinsberg rolled right over Maya, “you continually put this kind gentleman in harm’s way by failing to be considerate. I fail to understand how the Academy allows you to continue your scholarship when you cannot preform even the simplest of tasks properly. Yes... Yes, I believe I’m going to have to put in a word with he Scholarship Committee.”

Maya recoiled, joints locking tight. There was a noticeable shake throughout her whole frame.

Given Kinsberg had just threatened her life, Maya’s reaction was rather understated.

“You should know better than to blame someone for the failings of another,” Ido stated without preamble. “This I-Machine you assigned –“

“I assigned no one anything when it came to their I-Machines. That Maya Mikuri chose to select an inferior model rather than augment the budget with her own personal funds, as myself and my students have, was her own choice.” Professor Kinsberg nodded as though reaching a conclusion. “Let that be a lesson, Richard. One should never settle for inferior parts or personnel. Doing so costs lives.”

Oh. Ido had had enough of this man.

“Maya. Mind Out. We’re putting you in a proper I-Machine.”

“B-But...!”

“Little lady,” Grayman snapped over communications, “that’s an order. I can count ten times where that Machine has sabotaged you and that’s without even trying hard.”

“Ninety seven,” Ido corrected. “Including minor motor control errors, and possible consciousness data integration errors.”

Maya visibly wilted. “Y-Yes sirs.”

Optics shut down. The Machine went lax.

And then spasmed as though all it’s systems were in overload. Maya’s scream cut across the communication net.

“Maya!”

Rick and Grayman and Amanza and Clair and Ido’s own voice mixed together over the network.

“I can’t – I can’t Mind Out!” The I-Machine clutched at its head as Maya screamed, "My body! W-Where is my body?!"

Maya-body safe! On Stulti! Clair says MT thingy work like should! Fa-Loser transmitted.

"Maya. Maya!" Ido grabbed the girl by her shoulders and shook, just hard enough to get her attention. From the way Maya screamed, such little pressure was registering at five times normal. Either that or panic well and truly had her pinned.

"Ido...?"

Ido felt panic try to grip him; shut down the emotion with a will. The lost note in Maya's voice did not bode --

"I c-can't Mind Out, I-Ido." Maya clutched Ido with all the strength this stupid Machine had. "I can't find my body. I c-can't find... me... I... Who am I...?"

I am going to kill Kinsberg, Ido decided then and there.

"Maya. Maya Mikuri. Calm down." Ido wrapped the girl in as tender a hug as possible. "You're Maya Mikuri. You're going to be okay."

The I-Machine sparked as its optics died again. Twenty seconds later and they reignited on Maya's panicked scream, "I can't find me!"

No other way around it, Ido knew. Grabbing a network cable, Ido braced himself. Diving into an occupied I-Machine on the fritz was not going to be pleasant.

"Ew. What is he, her boyfriend or something?" one of the Freshman muttered.

"No!" Maya tried to turn in Ido's arms as though to face an attacker. "Ido... Ido is... Ido is my beloved colleague and grandfather!"

"G-Grandpa?!" one of the students sputtered. Ido reset his visuals as surprised by the deceleration as everyone else.

"Ha! Grandpa Ido!" Rick snickered.

"That is... I mean..." Maya curled in on herself even as another energy surge wracked her Machine.

"Beloved colleague and grandfather, hum?" Ido mused aloud. "Well. As your grandfather, Maya, I promise. You're going to be okay." Ido connected the link cable to the I-Machine's mind unit. "Trust me."

"Grandpa," Maya whimpered.

"Repeat after me. You are Maya Mikuri. You are going to be okay."

A stuttered pause, then, "I'm Maya Mikuri. I'm going to be okay."

"Mind Out."

Consciousness shift. Blue lit white surrounded Ido's perceptions as he monitored Maya's consciousness data. For the first nineteen seconds the shift proceeded normally. Then a blast of red error data corrupted the consciousness stream. Reading through the data swiftly, Ido traced the errors. Here, here, and – damn.

There's a virus in the Brain Unit.

A very specific, very horrific virus. Tracing the damage it had already done left Ido feeling ill. The thing was – ugh. It was eating away at Maya's consciousness data one ID digit at a time. Maya must have been in excruciating pain since the virus triggered. And when had it triggered? Never mind, they could determine when it had triggered la--

Another Mind Out attempt? One not triggered by Maya or himself. Following the data commands, Ido found the virus itself had triggered the Mind Out attempt. Horrified, Ido watched another digit of Maya's consciousness data become consumed.

This hunk of trash doesn't have the proper protocols or processing power to scrub this virus. No other way around it.

Mind In.

Consciousness data check. This data was Ido. Active and aware and in command of the I-Machine. This data was Maya. In pain and under assault and in danger from the virus which had followed her data in to this I-Machine.

Ah. The virus does latch on to ID data to begin its assault. Let's see how it handles an ID of zero.

Not very well. Thwarted from wreaking fresh havoc, the virus neatly folded in on itself to double down its assault on consciousness data with an ID number.

Now now. None of that.

A shift of personal data and activation of firewalls prevented the virus from forcing a Mind Out. Consciousness data bled over from Maya Mikuri into Ido – or perhaps the other way around – but the bleed over was minuscule. No more or less than what had occurred when the two had worked this I-Machine in Joined Mode.

Anti-virus software initiated. Proceeding to purge data in five-- four-- Fa-Loser, get ready to catch her! -- two -- one -- purging now! Mind Out!

Maya's consciousness data slipped free of the virus. Scrubbed clean, Maya's mind fled across the networks to safety. To home. As for the virus…

Having lost its prey, the virus attempted to attack Ido's consciousness; however, without an ID number for it to latch on to, the virus could do no more than attempt to cause Ido's body to malfunction. Its attempts to cause damage were pathetic, and thwarted with laughable ease. After all, this body had been created by the mastermind behind the Mind Trance System; a certified, certifiable genius unparalleled in any field. No mere virus, no matter how malicious, stood a chance.

Virus purge complete.

Ido yanked the network cable.

"Nobody touch this body," Ido ordered. "Clair, disconnect two ship drones from the network, put them on a bike, and send them to me."

There was no way to completely isolate an I-Machine from a network; too many of their safety features were dependent on constant network connectivity. The network connection redundancies had redundancies, even in a model as old as this. Still, Ido could and did pull the majority of the primary network connections. So long as no one made direct contact, the virus should remain contained within this hunk of junk.

"I take it, then, there was indeed an issue with that Machine." Kinsberg had the gall to sound concerned. The professor nodded his head, the picture of disappointment. "Once again, Maya Mikuri's ineptitude has caused others undue harm. If she had taken the proper time and energy to maintain her I-Machine, there would have been no issues. As the person in charge I must truly apologize on her behalf."

"If there's an issue with the Machine, shouldn't it be destroyed?" Reed suggested. "At this point its just garbage."

"Its evidence," Ido countered.

"Oh?" The shear politeness of the monosyllable made Ido want to punch the bastard right here and now.

Death will be too kind for you, Attomy Kinsberg. No. I will make sure you suffer for your sins.

Keeping a tight leash on his emotions, Ido gestured to the now offline Machine. "This I-Machine was sabotaged. Per Alliance regulations, and per our contract, Excavate GP is required to bring the Machine in for analysis by forensic specialists."

"Ido. So, then, there's no mistake," Grayman hummed.

"Ah, Grayman," Ido confirmed. "Someone just tried to murder Maya."


 

Proceeding to purge data in five-- four-- Fa-Loser, get ready to catch her! -- two -- one -- purging now! Mind Out!

"Fa fa fa la!"

"Ow!" Maya yelped, hands going to her head. "Ow ow ow ow."

"Fa~ah," Fa-Loser inquired, gently butting up against Maya's chin.

"I'm okay. I think." Consciousness data check. Minor damage detected in ID data. Damage repaired using backup data from MT System. Consciousness transferred to I-Machine number M-Y-20149, registered to – Excavate GP?! Previous owner of record Maya Mikuri -- oh!

Oh those crazy stupid miners. What they had done was sweet enough Maya wanted to cry.

They bought my old I-Machine.

Maya had suspected she'd been paid better than market price for her old Machine. And now she knew why.

"Faaa," Fa-Loser purred, arching into Maya's absentminded scratch. "Fa fa!"

"Huh?"

"Fa!" Fa-Loser pointed towards an area near the back of the maintenance bay.

"Oh! An MT System outside of an atmosphere area --eek!" Maya jumped a half meter in shock as something critical registered. "That's my body!"

"Fa fa," Fa-Loser confirmed.

"So that's why my consciousness data didn't go back to my body. The MT System's security settings don't allow consciousness transfer if there's no atmosphere for a human body to exit in to upon system shutdown. In the event of an emergency Mind Out, the system routes the consciousness data to the first assigned backup I-Machine if one's available, or otherwise keeps the consciousness data in priority storage. But then…" Maya looked between her body and Fa-Loser. "This is the Stulti, right? How did my body get here?"

"Fa-Loser brought your body here."

Maya lit up in what felt like a grin. "Clair! Its been a while!"

"Too long," Clair concurred, giggling. "You alright? Everyone was pretty scared when you couldn't Mind Out."

"Yes, I'm alright! There was some minor damage to my consciousness data, but the backups patched it. I feel a lot better now. Did you tune up my old I-Machine?"

"Just a bit. Papa and Ido both insisted we keep your Machine in good working order for after you graduate." Clair giggled in a conspirator's whisper, "Don't tell papa I told you, but Excavate GP has a great full time job opening up after you graduate. The pay range is just right for the Academy genius at the top of her class."

Maya blushed shyly. "I missed you, too, Clair." Shaking herself of her embarrassment, Maya demanded, "But how did my body get to the Stulti? Did Fa-Loser sneak aboard the Academy ship or...?" With a sinking feeling, Maya looked at Fa-Loser's too perky bounce. "...this is just like last time, isn't it?"

"Fa!" Fa-Loser confirmed.

"Afraid so!" Clair laughed brightly.

Maya sighed. Here they went again.

“Just a second. Ido is calling for a bike. Would you mind taking one out to him with Fa-Loser?”

“Of course.” Pushing away from dock, Maya stumbled a little. “Did you adjust my I-Machine’s height?”

“By quarter of a meter!” Clair confirmed. “Needed to, in order to install the specialized sensors.”

Resetting to adjust to the added height, Maya bounced off the floor. Fa-Loser chirped at her in encouragement, floating ahead to collect a supply case for the bike. As Maya got a firm grip on the bike’s handle, she asked, “Sensors? What kind of sensors?”

“The fun kind,” Clair teased. “Fa-Loser?”

“Fa?” Fa-Loser connected the supply case to the bike.

“Put Maya through a sense check, please! We don’t want to give her Grampa Ido any more to worry about.”

Maya flinched in an embarrassed squeak. Fa-Loser spun around, laughing at her reaction, even while he reached out to take Maya’s wrist. “I thought – I didn’t – I couldn’t – not out loud!” Maya groaned.

“You could, you did, and definitely out loud.” Clair giggled at Maya sighing. “Relax. Ido didn’t seem to mind being called grandpa. He’s certainly old enough!” Clair laughed brightly at Maya whining about being teased; Fa-Loser likewise giggled while tapping Maya’s head. “Fa-Loser says you check out normal. At least as normal as you ever are. Ready for me to patch you into the communications network?”

“Ido is going to want to kill me,” Maya groaned.

“Fa~ fa.” Fa-Loser gave Maya a comforting pat to the shoulder that was less comforting than it was teasing.

Maya sighed. Steeling herself as Fa-Loser helped her start the bike, Maya requested, “Go ahead, Clair.”

There was a faint crackle on the communications line as Clair patched her in. Lifting off, Maya took a breath to announce her intent to return to her assigned set up site.

“Ido.” Grayman’s voice was no-nonsense; harsh in a way Maya had never heard. “So, then, there's no mistake.”

"Ah, Grayman," Ido confirmed, voice as cold as the void. "Someone just tried to murder Maya."

“Eh? Eh~!” Maya yelped.

“Little lady!” Rick hopped onto the communications network with an audible bounce. “You alright?”

“Wha – What do you mean someone tried to – to murder me, Ido?” Maya demanded.

“Maya. Calm down,” Ido ordered.

“Calm down? Calm down?!  Ido, you – you idiot! You can’t expect me to be calm when you’re saying someone tried to – to –!”

“Fa-Loser,” Ido requested.

“Fa!”

Maya gave a little, “Oomph!” when Fa-Loser bodily pushed between Maya and the bike’s controls. Still too rocked by Ido’s words, Maya scooted back so that Fa-Loser had full control without further protest. Besides, not driving let Maya focus on the important things. Like almost having been murdered.

“How?” Maya asked, shaking. “How could someone use an I-Machine to commit murder?”

“I don’t have the full details,” Ido told her almost gently. “We are taking possession of the I-Machine in order to conduct a full investigation. When you arrive, do not touch it.”

“Y-Yes sir.” Rocked though she was Maya could at least obey that much. “But...”

“Are you alright to continue with the dig, Ms. Mikuri.”

Maya would be lying to herself if she did not admit she was sorely tempted to run back to the Stulti, lock herself on the bridge with Clair, and never come out again. Something about the way Professor Kinsberg was asking set all the hairs on the back of her neck straight up.

“Y-Yes. I’m fine now. Excavate GP maintains exceptional I-Machines. Even their spares are above average. I… I’m fine to continue the dig,” Maya managed.

“Fa fa,” Fa-Loser concurred.

“Very well. Yours is the only station pending completion. I trust you will be able to finish this task without further distraction.”

Only the professor could make getting murdered sound like a minor inconvenience.

“Of course, professor,” Maya managed without too much of a shake in her voice.

Ido, Maya saw as she arrived back on site, was furious.

If looks were as sharp as Ido’s energy blades, Professor Kinsberg’s I-Machine would have been a smoldering pile of debris. Not only was Ido a silent still form of contained fury, but Ms. Amanza had her finger on her weapon’s trigger, Rick was glaring daggers, and Grayman had put away his cigar analog.

“What’s that?” One of the Freshman – Fuki, according to the ID data Maya’s HUD displayed – broke the tension by pointing to Fa-Loser.

“Fa fa la!” Fa-Loser crowed, somersaulting over the bike’s handlebars. Maya scrambled for a second to regain the controls and bring the bike in for a (somewhat) smooth park next Ido and… And the… thing… that had tried to murder her.

“This is our Fa-Loser,” Grayman offhandedly introduced as though Fa-Loser were no more interesting than the average astronomical body. “Ido?”

“Ah.” Loosening fractionally, Ido drifted to the bike. “As best as can be determined, a scientist working with Mind Trance technology overstepped ethical guidelines and placed an endangered alien species into a specialized I-Machine.”

“We think they wanted to find out if Fa-Loser’s species was sapient or not,” Grayman added.

Ido snapped open the supply case Fa-Loser had loaded. “Irregardless, the process was fatal. The MT System only works on human minds. Alien minds are beyond its current capabilities.”

“Its an Evertrancer?” The other Freshman – Maya’s HUD ID’d her as Miki – yanked back her hand before she could make contact with Fa-Loser.

“Being an Evertrancer beats being dead,” Rick noted with an easy laugh.

“Fa!” Fa-Loser concurred, purring under the petting.

Grayman clapped his hands for attention. “Two more safety tips for you, class. One: Treat your I-Machine like its your only body. There are some weird damn things in this crazy cosmos that can prevent you from preforming Mind Out under hostile conditions. Two: Always have at least one scout for every twenty thousand kilometers you plan to mine. Better yet, have two: One on the mother ship, one on the field.”

“Fa-Loser acts as our field scout.” Ms. Amanza took her finger off the trigger so as to pet Fa-Loser. “Overall, Fa-Loser does an adequate job.”

“Fa~,” Fa-Loser preened, coming to sit at parade rest at Ms. Amanza’s side.

“Fa-Loser,” Ido called.

Fa-Loser bounced to attention with a bright, “Fa!”

Oh! While the others had been watching Fa-Loser’s antics, Ido had been rigging the… um… murder device… to the bike. Two ship maintenance drones were connected to the… device… reinforcing the straps Ido had used to secure it to the bike.

“Don’t scan it. Don’t touch it. Do not network to it,” Ido ordered.

Fa-Loser saluted, “Fa-lo!” and cautiously started fiddling with the bike’s controls. Backwards. That was one way to put additional space between himself and the… er… body.

“You sure your okay, little lady?” Rick asked softly. Maya did not jump – at least not more than a quarter of a meter. When had – how had…? Oh, never mind. Rick was at her shoulder, ready to brace her if Maya needed him. Which was… very sweet. Maya was not going to cry over how touched she felt.

“Yes, Rick, I’m okay. Really,” Maya added at Rick’s piercing look.

Rick nodded, for the moment solemn. Then utterly lost it to give Maya a double thumbs up. “You go prove that windbag wrong, little lady!”

For all she should have been deathly embarrassed, Maya couldn’t help smiling. At least a touch.


 

Observing from a relative distance of fifteen hundred kilometers above Alpha point, Rick tried to pin down the source of his bad feeling. Something was making him feel twitchy – and it wasn’t just how close they’d come to loosing Maya a scant hour ago.

Boss has both girls in hand.

Literally in Miki’s case; the girl kept wanting to scoot away from Fa-Loser as if he were some kind of plague carrier. All Fa-Loser wanted was a bit of attention which Fuki seemed happy to provide. Even so, Rick knew Fa-Loser was keeping his senses pealed for any more problems.

Ido has Maya under observation. Heh. More like Ido has himself Velcroed to Maya. Sheesh. Guy gets called grandpa and he goes all goopey! Who’d’ve thought?

Then again, this was Maya they were talking about. Clair might be the shining violet of Excavate, the darling daughter of the boss, and sweetest kid Rick could ever remember meeting. But Maya – Maya was a sunflower. She’d taken to Ido’s crazy like a duck to water; hell, she’d done one better. She’d kept up with Ido! Not physically; little lady needed a minimum of fifty thousand hours in I-Machine to even register on Ido’s level in that regard. But mentally? Ho-yeah. Maya had matched Ido crazy idea for crazy idea, scientific gobbledygook to scientific gobbledygook.

We all look up to Ido because Ido’s a mad crazy cosmogeologist ninja. He’s awesome and we know it. But I think… I think Maya’s the first person to ever look up to Ido as Ido, mad science and all.

Hell. It was the same reason Rick would never abandon Boss. Grayman had been the first person to take Rick in, not because of who Rick had been in the past, but because of who Rick wanted to be.

Maya’s Ido’s sunflower. Heh. Make that Maya’s Ido’s unofficial granddaughter. God help whoever messes with her, ‘cause Ido is gonna kill ‘em dead. Damn, and I thought Clair was going to have issues finding a boyfriend who could survive Boss. Wonder if Ido’s working on a way to make the whole grandfather thing official? ...wait, can an Evertrancer even –

Funny. The Academy ship was drifting a bit further out than it should… be…

Oh. Uh-oh.

Grayman could chastise him about using private lines later. Rick needed to know, now, “Pumpkin, sweetest?”

Amanza’s response transmission was a terse, no nonsense blast of text demanding what the hell Rick was thinking breaking protocol in front of the kids.

“Where’s the psycho professor?”

Amanza went tense, sensors flaring wide as she pinged for the laser tag she’d stuck on the son of a. Rick didn’t have to see Amanza adjust her grip on her weapon to know the laser tag had gone silent. As Amanza was physically grabbing the madman’s assistant, Rick was blasting off to find the nut.

“Problem?” Boss asked over coms.

“Professor Kinsberg has gone off the reservation,” Amanza reported bluntly.

A priority locator on the Excavate only network activated on Maya’s physical location not a second after Amanza made her report. Ido’s handiwork no doubt.

“M-Maybe he just went back to the ship?” Maya tentatively offered. “He – He’s well aware this portion of the procedure is tricky since --”

Rick screeched to a halt, Maya’s words washing over him in a background hum. He’d found Kinsburg’s I-Machine out cold in Mind Out shutdown. It was what was next to the man’s I-Machine that had Rick sweating rivets. This was… Oh, man, this was not good.

“Ah… Maya? Ido?” When both of them confirmed they were paying attention, Rick asked, “What would happen if a thirty ton explosive were to trigger, oh, say, right about where I’m located?”

“Run!” Maya yelped. Hot on her heels was Ido ordering, “Evacuate back to the Stulti. Now!”

“To your ship? We should evacuate to the transport!” Egomaniac the Third attempted to countermand.

“Well, kid, considering the transport in question just hit their thrusters,” Boss noted, serine for all he was hauling can with the rest of them.

What?!” from Reed.

“But our bodies are on that ship!” cute little Miki cried out in horror.

“Bets he’s doing another dump and run?” Rick jokingly asked. He was already scanning for – “Cancel that! Its a sucker’s bet. Found the kids’ bodies, Boss!”

“I’ve got a bike and am on my way to help. Work on getting them clear of this entire field by a minimum of fifty thousand kilometers,” Ido ordered.

“Wait! You said – thirty tons?” Maya asked.

Rick shot a look over his shoulder, snapped a photo of the bomb, the I-Machine near it for size comparison, and as tight a close up on the bomb’s display as he could get. T minus three hundred fourteen seconds. Reporting, “Hey, I’m no Karla, but from what I can see thirty tons is a conservative guess,” he shot the metrics over to their eggheads.

“Shit.”

Rick poured on as much speed as possible via racer mode before shifting to normal to catch one MT System per hand and the edge of one with his right foot. If it had been possible to do so without loosing one of the Academy kids, he would have continued to use boosters to increase his velocity. Right now he’d just have to pray his current velocity minus thrust lost due to dodging meteorites would get them all clear in time.

Given the fact it had been Ido who had cursed, Rick had a sinking suspicion he wasn’t going to make it.

“Rick! Do you still keep Orichalt on you for Short Jumps?” Maya demanded.

“You mean miners using Short Jumps isn’t an old wife’s tale?” Fuki bubbled. Kid sounded about one piece of bad news short of panicking from the way she latched onto Maya’s comment.

“Yeah, I got a chunk,” Rick confirmed. “But you know as well as anyone you can’t take an active MT System through the Miguel Line without --”

“Never mind that! Toss it!”

“Wha?”

“Toss it now!” Maya snapped.

Pushing one pod ahead, Rick fished out his handy Orichalt chunk. “Tossing now,” Rick confirmed.

Maya’s signal vanished off the network. But before Rick could panic about that, two things happened: He got back a hold of the pod he’d pushed ahead. And his little chunk of Orichalt reacted to a Miguel Out.

It took Rick a second to register exactly what he was seeing. Ido on a bike, Rick expected. Maya on the bike, looking as tensely determined as Rick had ever seen her – yeah. That, Rick hadn’t seen coming.

“Shit, girl, are you nuts?” Rick blurted.

“Estimated yield is three hundred tons!” Maya blurted.

“Shit, yes, you are nuts,” Rick answered his own question, kicking the MT System snagged on his foot towards the bike. Ido grabbed it and secured it to the lock usually reserved for a supply case. “Seriously, Ido, this brat? Totally your granddaughter. Adopt her. Like, yesterday. ‘kay?”

“R-Rick!”

“Aw~! Anyone ever tell you you’ve got the cutest blush? Ido, buddy, you are gonna have to help Maya beat off boys with a stick when she gets that age,” Rick shamelessly teased as he secured the second MT System.

“Rick,” Ido warned.

Rick handed the third system to Maya for her to hold on to, then grabbed the bike’s rear bar while Ido hit the accelerator to maximum. “Relax, gramps. Only teasing.”

“G-Gramps!” Maya really was too cute when she was flustered. “I mean – that is – um...”

“Rick. Stop teasing my granddaughter,” Ido ordered. Without turning back to look at the sputtering Maya, Ido stated, “We can work out the particulars later.”

The big boom far too close to their rears stopped Maya from answering. And the next sixty seconds after that were…

Chaotic. Put mildly.

When the world finally stopped frizzing around the edges, Rick had to wonder if he was dead. ‘xcept he couldn’t be dead. Dead people didn’t get very persistent, near panicky demands for coms to be answered goddammit.

“I’m okay, pumpkin! I think.” Checking that his limbs were intact, or at least mostly intact, Rick tried to get himself oriented. Step one: Quit spinning like a kid’s gyroscope plaything. Step two: Find the closest friendly signal relative to his location and home in on it. Step three: Make sure the closest friendly signal was alright, too, because the closest signal was the tag Ido had slipped onto Maya.

“Oh...” Maya whimpered.

Great, Rick mentally braced himself. Incoming screaming about how she’s gonna be sick, how she’s so sorry she ever got into this mess, or some combination of crazy in three – two –

“Congratulations.”

Er… Ido sounds smug, Rick realized. Which, really, Ido would sound annoyed rather than smug if…

Finally facing the right direction, Rick quit thinking.

The field behind them was still present, but at its center was a familiar warm red glow. Bits of asteroids were flying into the glow in a similar way to matter being sucked into a black hole. Sparkles of red glittered and danced over the rock’s surface. More familiar bolts of energy mixed with gravitational waves in the familiar start of a Level Two Storm.

Whistling over the network Rick noted, “Damn. That… looks kinda pretty.”

“I was right!” Maya’s squeaky shout of joy bounced into Rick. No, wait, that was actually Maya herself grabbing Rick around his middle. “I was right I was right! My theory was right!”

“Theory?” Rick asked.

“The Rajeev-Orichalt Theory.” Ido swung by to collect both Maya and Rick; all three Academy kids’ bodies were accounted for. “You recall how the Rajeev was able to change its matter from solid to base particles then back into a solid.”

“The crazy space dust?”

“Yes!” Maya gushed. “I theorized that the Rajeev was able to do so because of a heretofore unknown property of Orichalt. That – that if provided the right stimuli, in this case a minor explosion accelerated via trace minerals of iron, silicate, and a few other minor impurities, that otherwise noncollectable traces of Oricalt would be able to coalesces themselves into a mineable substance! Given the size of the brewing Miguel Storm I estimate the total yield will be C-Class!”

“The Storm is increasing to Level 3. If your theory holds, Maya, we should be able to collect a nice chunk of B-Class.” Ido was turning them towards the approaching Stulti.

“If my math is accurate,” Maya started. Paused and amended, “I need to rerun the figures! My initial hypothesis used only four tons of explosive. Using three hundred, and in that location, completely throws off my predictions!” And then Maya was gone in la-la land with words barely recognizable as speech peppering her communication line at random intervals.

Matching velocity with the bike so that Rick’s head was even with Ido’s, Rick asked, “Do I even want a translation for what she’s muttering about now?”

“High level astro physics equations in conjunction with complicated cosmogeology data,” Ido provided the layman’s version.

“So basically... Math stuff that would make my head explode if I tried it.”

“Pretty much.”

Rick would have made a pithy quip at that, but Maya had apparently finished her math Olympics session. “Captain! Once we get everyone aboard, the Stulti needs to be pulled back one AU!”

“A whole light year? Little lady,” Grayman started to protest.

“Half a light year would suffice,” Ido tempered Grayman’s understandable frustration at being ordered around. “However, we’re dealing with a never before tested equation. While overkill, the more distance between ourselves and the forming Orichalt mass, the safer.”

“I predict the Miguel Storm Level will rise to a low Level 5 at its peak before dying back down to a Level 2,” Maya explained. “There is a strong possibility of a Level 5 Storm Blast occurring at the Miguel Storm’s peak before the Storm recedes to levels equivalent of the resulting constituted ore. If the correct amount of explosive had been used, the maximum Storm Level would have been Level 3, with a Storm Blast not exceeding the lowest level limits of a Level 4 Storm Blast.”

“Maya’s equations are sound, Grayman,” Ido promised.

“Crazy bunch of eggheads… Like grandfather, like granddaughter, huh?” Grayman sighed. “Clair, prep the Miguel Jump. One AU distance any direction you feel like.”

“Right, Captain!” Clair confirmed.

Ooh. Clair was pulling out all the formal stops today. Hee. Having guests aboard was going to be interesting. ...not to mention freakin’ annoying. If the cute Ms. Miki was freaking out about Fa-Loser being an Evertrancer, Rick could just bet what her reaction was going to be to the rest of the crew.

Grayman answered Rick’s question with his next broadcast: “Academy students. Your bodies have been put into our Mind Trance System room. Once everyone is aboard, you are to Mind Out, exit the MT System, and follow Amanza’s instructions. I’m putting you all on General Quarters until the entirety of this mess is resolved. A briefing room has been set up in the Stulti’s Augmented Reality so you can congregate with your peers, observe, and analyze the data we’ll be collecting. And speaking of that data.

“Rick, get your I-Machine patched and back out there. I want you to back up Fa-Loser in dropping recording drones before we pull back to maximum safe distance. Maya, this is your scientific rodeo. I want you on the bridge assisting with data collection and processing. Ido, you as well.”

“And you, Grayman?” Ido inquired.

“Me? I gotta go put in a call to Alliance Command. Somebody’s gotta report in one attempted murder by I-Machine, and a dozen attempted murders by mad scientist setting off bombs where they shouldn’t be. As captain of the Stulti, the buck falls on me.”

“Bet that’s going to be an interesting conversation,” Rick quipped.

Grayman muttered something uncomplimentary regarding Rick’s parentage which sent Rick guffawing, Maya and Clair sputtering, Fa-Loser chittering – and even got a snort out of Amanza and Ido.

All in all, not a bad day. Not a bad day at all.


 

Dusty. Distorted. Fog obscured lower left and right fields of vision. Ahead a towering edifice erected in the pursuit of knowledge.

Maya Mikuri. Your signal information was classified into B3224. You are accepted into the cosmogeoloical facility of the Alliance Academy.”

Relief tingled with lingering tension as the field of vision shifts; the viewer stands in acknowledgment. Speaking in a soft voice they ask, “Thank you. But about the support...”

As one of the conditions of the facility, the Academy will support not only your study expenses but also your living expenses.”

Relief so heady as to leave one disoriented. The words, “What a relief,” seem redundant against what is felt.

For someone who has lost their parents prematurely this system is critical. But do you really like cosmogeology?”

Confusion muddles the relief. “Well, that is, for my life and for my independence...”

You need the money.”

Well, I need to survive.” Embarrassment muddles confusion and dissipates relief.

So its okay with you to go with the flow to be able to survive.”

Well...”

Yellow level system alert.

 

Stunned by the sudden shock of wakefulness, Ido blinked. Twice.

A dream…? Resting the tips of his fingers against his forehead, Ido realized, No. Yellow level system alert. A memory, then.

Ever since the Rajeev incident, old memories had been drifting up from his lower level consciousness data. Most of them had been fragments; nothing more than minor events in the life of the closest stranger to him. A few had been coherent enough to make sense – and to make Ido deeply grateful for the life he lived now. That man was dead. He had done horrible things in his life. Horrible, wonderful things. But no one deserved the – the terror some of that man’s lost memories depicted.

Curiosity won out over lingering disorientation. Ido glanced through the alert data, tracing where the memory had originated from within his consciousness data--

That… wasn’t my memory.

Point zero two percent of his consciousness data had been – compromised? Corrupted? – by consciousness data belonging to Maya Mikuri.

If my consciousness data was – It didn’t feel like a contamination or corruption; the fraction of consciousness data felt too warm. Regardless – If my data was affected, what about Maya’s? Accessing ship network. Connecting to MT System records.

Ah. The system had detected minor corruption in Maya’s consciousness data; however, the errors had been patched via the backup data stored within the MT System. As best as Ido could determine, Maya was unaffected.

I should purge her memories from my consciousness data, Ido realized. It would be a gross violation of Maya’s privacy to hold on to those memories, few though they were. However…

But do you really like cosmogeology?”

Offhand, Ido would call the echoing ghost of a question absurd. Of course Maya liked cosmogeology. No one could be as good as Maya without a love for their work. But given the emotions Ido recalled in the memory…

Now it makes sense. Why she would use the last air she had to say… that…

The memory surged inside him, unbidden. The memory of Maya gasping for breath as her life support system reached termination. The fear, the confusion, all the emotions he felt then rushed back to Ido now, carrying with them words: “I didn’t – have a place where I belonged... It was so hard… Even when the captain picked me up – it was the worst… But its strange… Even though – I’m in such a terrible situation, I think – it may be – nice...

Pushing away from the berth, Ido let himself drift neutral, off center of the hallway.

“Not having a place to belong… huh? Che.”

Without thought, Ido checked the Stulti’s network. The Academy students had all been clustered together for convenience's sake. For the purpose of impartiality, even though Maya was family, she had been given temporary quarters in the same area block as the students. Three out of four rooms in that area block showed their occupants dead asleep. The fourth…

Ido tapped the ship’s internal communications, routing his voice directly to the room he wanted: “Maya? You asleep?”

“Ido?” The reply was too swift, betraying the fact Maya had indeed been anything but resting. “Why are you up? Grayman said everyone was supposed to get some rest until the Storm Blast occurs. Did – Did the monitoring drones trigger?”

“No,” Ido assured her gently, keenly aware of the rising hope in her voice. “The Storm Blast has not occurred yet.” He waited for Maya to pout before stating, “I need to speak with you. Alone.”

“O-Oh… About the… whole grandfather thing…? Listen, really, it was n-nothing, please don’t take it seriously, that is, I --”

“AR or outside the ship,” Ido asked.

“Eh?”

“Would you prefer to meet me in Augmented Reality or outside the ship? Either way we would have privacy. The Academy students are all asleep, and none of our family is in AR right now.”

Silence for a lengthy sixteen seconds; long enough Ido had to fight down the urge to turn on the security camera in her room and check on Maya.

“Augmented Space… would be okay,” Maya quietly confirmed.

“See you in a moment.”

Ido drifted back into dock, made sure his I-Machine was secured, and then shifted his awareness to within the Stulti’s Augmented Reality system. The place was a formless void of blue and green hues.

Soft. Gentle. Something with –

Huh. This must have been one of Rick’s background data packets. A bar with soft neon lighting. Gentle music played in the background to form less a distraction and more ambiance. The system pinged Maya’s entry – and so Ido just went with it. They could always change it to a different background if needed.

Ido set his seat on one side of the table, and manipulated the data so that the empty chair was on the other side. Turning towards the entrance, he watched Maya’s avatar enter the room. In the years since they had last met, her avatar had not changed much save in clothing: A yellow and peach frilly sundress.

Maya froze at the entrance. “H-Hello.” Her bow was skittish and – frankly – somewhat foolish. That she held the bow for an extra five seconds did little but add to the awkwardness. When she rose, Ido gestured to the chair across from him in silent request for her to sit. Once she did take a seat, Maya put her hands in her lap and resolutely looked at the background data rather than at Ido.

The silence that followed was… difficult.

“How are you feeling?” Ido asked. And felt like an idiot as soon as he said it.

“Fine!” Maya jumped. “Fine! Just… just fine… all things considered… H-How are you?”

“Fine,” Ido answered, more or less truthfully.

“That… That’s good,” Maya murmured.

More echoing silence.

“In regards to what happened today --”

“I apologize.”

Ido reset his video and audio feed, startled.

“I should never have called you grandfather. Its just...” Maya fidgeted in her seat. “I’ve always thought of you as very… kind. You taught me so much about more than just cosmogeology. I… I’m jealous… and envious. Of how brave you are. Up against everything you… You never gave up. I wished so hard I could have even a little of your courage, and… just...”

“It’d be my honor.”

Maya jumped in her seat.

Holding down nervousness with a practiced will – really, this was not as difficult as facing down a Level Five Storm for all it felt like it – Ido forced himself to continue: “There is only one fact I have been able to find constant throughout the cosmos. Family is more than flesh and blood. Blood, rather, is optional. What makes family, is in here,” Ido tapped his chest, over where a human body would have a heart. “When I was lost within the Orichalt...”

“Ido...”

“You were the one who brought me back.”

Maya’s hands went to her mouth to smother a gasp of shock.

“You were right. I had every intention of leaving my consciousness within the Orichalt; with Jennifer and Alice. I am not that man – but that man was my past, and I wanted to be responsible. No. I felt I had to be responsible. But you kept calling for me. You did not give up… on Excavator Ido. On me. That – that is what made the difference between my death… and my life.”

Maya sniffled. The word might have been his name.

“I am curious,” Ido attempted to change the subject. “Why grandfather?”

Maya blinked back what were probably tears. “Oh, w-well… What’s a grandfather, anyway? Just an old man whose wise, and kind, and...” a faint blush colored her cheeks, “looks after you.”

“Old?” Ido echoed.

“You’re over sixty!” Maya meekly defended herself.

“I suppose to an infant of fifteen, sixty would seem old.”

“I’m not an infant! And I’m sixteen, not fifteen!”

“Not yet you’re not.” Ido flicked open a window, pulling up the data he was after. “Your ID data says you’ll be sixteen in two months. Do you have a birthday wish?”

“To graduate the Academy on time!”

“And then?”

“Then…?”

“What do you want to do after the Academy?”

There was a sinking feeling in the hollow of his chest as Ido watched Maya fidget with the frills of her sun dress. “I don’t… really know,” Maya admitted meekly. “Part of it… Part of it is that I’ve been so wrapped up in my dissertation, I haven’t thought about anything else. That is… I haven’t wanted to think about anything else...”

Ido tapped his index finger against the table data. “Maya… Do you...” Ido braced himself. “Do you not enjoy cosmogeology?”

“Eh?” Maya startled, rearing back like Fa-Loser having been startled from a sound sleep. “Wh-What would make you ask t-that?”

“The emergency Mind Out procedure I used – no. Its not right to call a hunch a procedure.” Ido tapped his index finger again. “Well. No matter what you call it, it left a point zero two percent copy of your consciousness data inside my Brain Unit. I was unaware of its presence until just recently when a memory file played during sleep.”

“You saw… one of my memories…?” Maya wondered. In horror or fascination, it was too soon to tell. Abruptly, Maya shook her head clear. “Ido, that’s terrible! Even as little as point two percent could cause you serious problems! It could corrode your consciousness data! And you – with you being an Evertrancer, you don’t have a backup to patch in repairs from! Oh, this is bad…!”

Ido sighed. Reaching out, he tapped the crown of Maya’s head. The effect was more immediate than attempting to tell her to calm down.

“A fragment as small as point zero two percent might be enough to bog down most Brain Units if undetected over the course of years. Given what this entire I-Machine was exclusively built to do, to say my Brain Unit is… unique… is something of an understatement. It would require additional consciousness data above fifty percent before the Brain Unit began to suffer negative effects. Furthermore,” Ido gently cut off Maya’s attempt to sputter, “the point zero two percent of your consciousness data inside my Brain Unit is one hundred times less scrambled than my own consciousness data memory archives. I can have it scrubbed and deleted within four hours.”

“O-Oh,” Maya murmured, calming. “But – wait… What does that have to do with…?”

“During your final entrance interview, you were asked if you liked cosmogeology.”

Maya’s eyes went wide. An embarrassed blush colored her cheeks and she focused her attention at any place other than Ido himself. “I… I see...”

“Back then, you said you needed the money to survive.” Ido tapped the table again; it was his own way of fidgeting, he supposed.

“Its… Its true. I only got into cosmogeology because the Academy offered a full ride scholarship which included living expenses. If any other field had offered the same, I would have gone for it. Just to survive. But…” Maya fidgeted a bit. “But looking back on it, now… I’m… I’m glad. If I hadn’t gotten into cosmogeology, I would have never crossed paths with Excavate GP. Or with,” she blushed brightly, “or with you.”

“Or with you, grandfather.”

“...eh?” Maya blinked. Fidgeted, and blinked again. “You’re… serious…?”

“What is a grandfather anyway, but an old man who looks after a child,” Ido paraphrased.

Maya’s smile outshone A-Rank Orichalt for pure dazzle.

An alarm fizzled through Augmented Reality. Grayman’s voice followed hot on its heels: “Rise and shine, people! Probes just picked up a Storm Blast equivalent of a low Level 5! Its time to go, go, go!

Ido and Maya looked at one another.

“Meet you in the hanger!”

It was only after Ido had logged out that he realized both he and Maya had spoken simultaneously.

“Preparing for Miguel Jump,” Clair announced.

“Oi, Ido, Maya. You two eggheads alright if we Short Jump half an AU closer, pick up whatever data the probes are missing, then Short Jump into the field?” Grayman inquired.

“Of course!” Maya chirped. The Stulti network had her three quarters of the way to the MT System room. “With the Storm Blast having past, it should be safe to Jump straight there!”

“Well in that case,” Grayman snickered. “Clair! Head straight for Maya’s project!”

“Eh?! G-Grayman, just because it should be safe doesn’t mean --” Maya whimpered. Ido got the feeling the only reason her signal continued moving forward was because she was on the elevator exiting the gravity area of the ship.

“Experimental math, Grayman,” Ido reminded the boss, pushing himself off a bulkhead to float up to Maya’s waiting I-Machine. A moment of panic hit; a quick check dismissed the concern as moot. Yes, they had made sure the MT System registered her yellow Machine as her primary Machine. Maya’s consciousness was not going to wind up in the murder Machine again.

“Yeah. Experimental math you checked over, Ido,” Grayman jovially shot back. “Clair!”

“Jumping!” Clair chirped.

Maya’s I-Machine’s optics lit, and it immediately slumped as Maya predicted, “This is going to go so wrong.”

Ido pat the top of her head the way he had seen Grayman’s avatar pat Clair those times Grayman’s daughter had needed contact. “Come,” Ido ordered, pushing off the floor. “We need to get Mattsun ready to launch.”

“Sir,” Maya sighed, floating after him.

There wasn’t much needed to prepare Mattsun for launch given Excavate’s usual modus operandi called upon launching the drill at any given second. Still, running through the checks gave Maya something to fidget with aside from her own rising nervousness. For a girl facing academic life or death, Maya was remarkably calm. ...when taking into account Maya’s usual Maya-ness.

Che. And Maya thinks she has no courage?

“Miguel Out complete!” Clair announced. “Now opening hanger two for Mattsun launch!”

“Dibs on the bike!” Rick crowed.

Grayman announced, “Amanza, you’re in charge. I’m taking my I-Machine and Mattsun Two. Academy kids – you included, Reed! – get in Augmented Space and analyze the data we send back. And pay attention. You’re about to see real Orichalt miners at work!”

“Why is Maya Mikuri going with you?” Reed demanded.

“Its my dissertation, so its my responsibility to see it through to its conclusion!”

Pride tugged at Ido’s heart. There hadn’t even been a fraction of hesitation before Maya had spoken.

“Exactly so!” Grayman crowed. “We’re putting a hell of a lot of materials on the line, here. Damn straight the person who came up with this crazy should be right out there risking it with the rest of us! You still got a problem with that, Reed?”

“...no, Captain Grayman,” came back reluctantly.

Watch that one, Ido transmitted to Amanza via text.

His physical body is on lock-down in quarters, and I’m keeping a constant analysis on his data, Amanza confirmed via text. Unlike his professor, this one will not slip past me.

There was a wordless giggle of awe from Clair across the open line. “Maya! Maya, look! It looks just like a Galaxy Cream Puff!”

“Eh?” from Rick.

Ido privately echoed Rick’s confusion. The asteroid field had condensed into an a-symmetrical mass roughly ten thousand kilometers in diameter. At fractal points across the mass’s surface rose thin spires of what looked like melted metal ore coated with sedimentary rock. Crackles of a Level Two Storm slipped through uneven crevasses across its surface giving it a pale pinkish-red glow. The shape overall did look a bit like a galaxy spiral – if one unfocused their optic feed and applied a liberal coating of imagination.

“The ore color and the spiral,” Clair pressed on in bright giggles. “It looks just like –“

“A strawberry chocolate center Galaxy Cream Puff. Oh...” Maya swallowed out of habit. The longing in her tone as she murmured, “I haven’t had one in years...” was confusing.

Clair sputtered, “Eh?! Years?! But that fancy Academy scholarship covers your living expenses, right? Sure you probably have to watch your budget, but – but a plain Galaxy Cream Puff costs less than twenty!”

Maya audibly flinched. “Well – you see – living expenses rose due to inflation – and the Acadamy budge was tight – and there weren’t any part time jobs I could take that wouldn't interfere with studying a-and…!”

“Damn. No wonder you sold your old I-Machine. You’re flat broke!” Rick whistled.

Maya slumping in shame was an answer more poignant than words.

“Che,” Grayman cut across the chatter. “Little lady. If this works out the way your math says it does, I’ll buy you a whole damn box of the things. Strawberry chocolate your favorite?”

“Well, yes, but, I mean,” Maya sputtered.

“Banana chocolate for me, papa!” Clair requested.

“Birthday requests received,” Grayman acknowledged, barely jokingly. “Now let’s mine this thing! Maya!”

“S-Sir!”

“If you were to mine this thing, how would you do it? And asking Ido how he’d do it is not an acceptable answer!”

“W-Well, that is...” Maya shot a look over to Ido. Paused. Took a deep breath to center herself. “A-According to the probe data the Miguel Storm Level is within the lower level limits of a Level Two Storm. Further, given the speed of rotation, the estimated density of the ore, and likely composition post Storm Blast fusion of elementary particles --”

“Use smaller words for us pea-brain miners!” Rick teasingly demanded.

An estimated diagram of the astronomical body pinged across the network. Two dots were highlighted in yellow and red. A further breakdown of estimated required drill depth and possible Orichalt load extended from the two dots.

“I predict the highest possibility of hitting raw Orichalt ore to be at these two locations. G-Give or take a couple of percentage points,” Maya admitted.

“Why two points?” Ido inquired.

“W-Well, we have two drills, so…”

“Hedging bets?” Rick ribbed.

“Yes, basically,” Maya sighed.

“Eggheads of the Academy! You’re looking at the same data Maya is. What’s your consensus on your colleague’s opinion?” Grayman demanded.

There was silence filled with the sound of scientific industry. Mutters and mumbles came from the Academy students as they worked through the problem. While the students worked, Ido slowed the Mattsun’s relative velocity, changing their orbit so that they could easily land on either of Maya’s selected drill points.

“Answering that truthfully would first require accepting Maya Mikuri’s dissertation, which flies in the face of all accepted cosmogeological knowledge, as plausible,” Reed began with a haughty air. The ego deflated somewhat as he admitted, “Given what we are currently witnessing, and given Excavate GP has no logical reason to tamper with the data even if you have a personal vested familial interest in Maya Mikuri herself… We have no choice but to accept the Rajeev-Orichalt Theory has proven itself as a theory and cannot be classified as a hypothesis. Which leads to your question, Captain Grayman. Based on the probe data, and presuming the entirety of the Rajeev-Orichalt Theory holds sound despite… unforeseen environmental factors.”

“In spite of nearly being blown up, he means,” Rick translated. Fa-Loser chimed a concurring, “Fa fa.”

Reed pressed on, “Then it is our consensus that the drill points as suggested by Maya Mikuri are theoretically accurate predictions.”

“Ido?” Grayman inquired.

“Maya and myself will take Red Point.” Setting actions to words, Ido corrected orbit for landing.

“Ah. Rick, with me on Yellow Point. Fa-Loser, keep a weather eye out, huh? Alliance should be here in the next couple of hours.” Grayman waited for affirmatives before asking, “How many samples you want, Maya?”

“S-Samples?”

“Yeah, samples. Of the dig sites.”

“Oh! Um… H-How many can we take?”

“Ha!” Grayman laughed. “That many, huh?”

“Five ounces of each strata the drill cuts through should suffice given the advanced analytical equipment the Academy boasts of,” Ido noted.

“Ah, y-yes,” Maya confirmed, blushing.

“Alright then! More than enough room for five ounces of each strata,” Grayman confirmed with a chuckle.

“Ido! Last one to hit Orichalt buys the winning team lunch!” Rick joked.

“Given Red Point has the higher probability, I’ll take that bet.” The shocked sputter from Rick and Maya was enough to get Ido to crack a smile.

“Stow the small talk, you two. Let’s get to work!” Grayman ordered.

Roger!


 

Mattsun was... slowing down?

The change in vibration might as well have been a shout. Pulled from her analysis of the ore samples – yes, five ounces was plenty, but the big drill kicked up so much and the sensors they’d installed in her Machine were so nice Maya couldn’t resist analyzing some of the kickoff debris right then and there – Maya looked across to where Ido had the controls. His movements were smooth and steady as the rock beneath them.

...then again, Ido could and did look steady even in a Level Five Storm. So.

The drill came to a complete stop. Then, and only then, did Ido look up from the controls.

“We hit cream filling.”

Maya sporfled, shocked by the absurdity of the statement. Something like that she’s expect from Rick. But from Ido? Echoing snickers of laughter came across the communications network, matching Maya’s sentiments.

“What’s the Orichalt grade?” Grayman asked. Rick was too busy laughing to quip.

“Unknown. It set up as pocket type,” Ido reported.

“Pocket type?” Maya wondered. She was already matching Ido’s ascent up to Mattsun’s top. The minor miner’s entrance, Rick had jokingly called it once. “I thought, given the explosive force, it would all be mixed with the sediments and such.”

“Too little data,” Ido hummed, unconcerned by the break in Maya’s prediction. He triggered the hatch to open and floated in first. For the record Ido announced, “Entering drill shaft.”

The trip inside was short as the shaft itself was only a kilometer deep. Drilling had taken longer due to the metallic mixture of iron, magnesium, cobalt trace elements, and... and...

“...wow,” Maya barely breathed.

The pocket holding the Orichalt was beautiful. The main Orichalt structure had formed in a roughly oval shape. Given it’s visible sparkle, it couldn’t be higher than B-Class. But around the egg/oval of Orichalt were glimmers and sparkles of Orichalt speckled into the metallic ore walls. Some of the speckles has converged into solid ore masses which stood out from the cavern walls like small spotlights aimed at the main mass.

“It really is a strawberry chocolate Galaxy Cream Puff,” Clair giggled.

Taking a second look around, Maya giggled, “A stale one!”

“One so old all the cream turned into a strawberry pit!” Clair laughingly concurred.

“If you’re calling an iron oxide an acceptable stand in for chocolate, Clair, then maybe I shouldn’t,” Grayman started.

“Stale chocolate!” Clair corrected hastily.

“Seventy year old chocolate,” Maya concurred.

“Try seventy hundred,” Clair amended.

“Girls,” Grayman jokingly warned.

“Grayman. You’ll need to adjust drilling angle by twenty percent Northwest with Mattsun One as North. Mattsun Two’s drill bit is on track to hit a mixed A-Class Orichalt.”

“Gotcha, Ido,” Grayman acknowledged.

“Why don’t we stop drilling here and go widen Mattsun One’s entry point?” Rick suggested.

“Too much mixed ore in the rock and iron strata,” Ido reported. “Getting it all out and clear with only one tunnel would take months. As it is, proceeding with extraction of what formed in the cavern walls will take a week.” Ido paused to eye the main chunk of Orichalt and amended, “A slow week.”

“Oh,” Rick pouted, “one of those kinda digs.”

“Unless you want to outrace another explosion,” Ido quipped.

“Not for another week, thanks!” Rick chuckled.

“It... might take longer than a week,” Maya cautiously corrected. When Ido did no more than gesture for Maya to go on, Maya noted, “The Miguel Storm.”

“Hum. An excellent point,” Ido concurred.

“Here they go skipping words on us again,” Rick sighed in an audible aside.

“Have you ever wondered why a Storm Blast always occurs when Orichalt is removed from an astronomical body, Rick?” Ido asked.

“Not really?” Rick admitted. “There’s always fireworks whenever I cross a finish line.”

“A Miguel Storm is similar to a lightning storm. The Orichalt which creates the Storm is like an electrical circuit regulating the current. Remove the Orichalt from the circuit, and there’s no regulation of the electricity,” Maya explained.

“So... boom?”

“That’s the current prevailing theory,” added Reed on behalf of the Academy.

“There’s no Storm activity within the cavern, therefore the Miguel Storm is not being generated by the largest setting of Orichalt,” Ido continued.

“Which means the Storm is being caused by the Orichalt in the astronomical body itself,” Maya theorized.

“Thus if we’re not cautions on removing the Orichalt within the asteroid’s physical body and break the circuit regulating the Storm,” Ido resumed.

“Storm - frzt. Us - big boom?” Rick guessed.

“Exactly!” Maya chirped brightly.

“Ah, my lovely pumpkin. We’re going to be stuck out here for months. Just you, and me, and this bunch of tag alongs,” Rick sighed.

“Romantic,” Amanza quipped, voice bone dry.

“I tr—iii- hey! Gravitational wave detected!”

“Confirmed! Gravitational wave detected!” Clair was silent a half minute before announcing, “ID Code check. It’s an Observer ship!”

“An Observer ship?” Grayman echoed.

Bad feeling in hand, Ido suggested, “Suspend drilling operations for the time being?”

“Not much of a choice,” Grayman concurred. “You and the little lady stay there, Ido. Get me a how-to for removing the maximum amount of Orichalt without triggering Storm Blast. Have the Academy kiddos check your figures.”

“Roger.”

Ido sounds like he just got asked to suck on a lemon, Maya privately wondered.

Well. At this point, what the Observers wanted didn’t matter. Whatever it was Maya was certain Grayman could handle it. The immediate challenge of proving her dissertation was complete, but proving its worthiness was still ahead.

Graduation in six weeks or bust!