The exostation is large by space station standards, but smaller than a ground-based city, on par with the size of Hyperion. The Umojan Protectorate is much smaller than Dominion space, and the lawless gap between the two is occupied by unruly worlds such as Dead Man’s Rock and others of its ilk. This facility serves the dual purposes of repair station for ships not desperate enough to set down on any of those and of gateway to the pristine planets of the protectorate. What permanent population the station has, a thousand people at most, is devoted to those two services. Given the stringent environmental requirements of the Umojan Protectorate, there is significant overlap.
The exostation does not look to be in great repair itself. While there is definitely a single core to it, there are many cobbled-on additions, ships that never got their acts together well enough to leave again. With a vulture bike welded to her side, Saffron fits right in. On the approach, Lilly sees a couple other ships headed to the exostation, while a few better-kept vessels fly straight down to Umoja. The landing bay she arbitrarily picks is not kept terribly clean, but Lilly manages to put her lopsided vessel down smoothly among all the junk. Lilly takes a look at the sensors and notes that the atmosphere registers as breathable but, like the floor, not super clean. Pretty normal for Dominion space, but certainly not good enough for Umoja. The bay contains only a couple other ships, one of which is a repurposed shuttle with guns mounted on it but no military insignia stenciled on. The model looks a few decades old, and the ship could just as likely be stolen or salvaged. A vessel like that is not very durable, but it does give the freedom of travel between systems. It would need frequent repairs just to keep it spaceworthy, though, and indeed its crew is currently working on just that.
It occurs to Lilly that somebody could make decent money shuttling people down to Umoja from here. “Do you want to take Saffron to the planet?” she asks Imogen. “We could probably get a ride.”
Imogen shrugs. “Depends how expensive it is. I want to know what all our options are first, whether that be fine-tuning or forgery.” She takes a step toward the foyer and notes Snowball has come out of Lilly’s room and is fixing to do the same. “Snowball stays on the ship, though,” Imogen adds. She snatches up his crayons and paper. “Snowball, it’s your job to patrol Lilly’s room,” she reminds the zerg, even though he does not seem to understand very much of what they say. On the paper, she sketches a larva and draws arrows back and forth to remind him of the patrols he did in that form. Then she draws a blob and adds similar arrows. Now that Snowball can pass as terran, he would be able to stay in the central hub to guard the ship without fear of exposure, but Imogen does not seriously think Snowball is capable of guarding anything. Limiting the patrol to Lilly’s quarters seems like it would be a believable request from his perspective, so that is what Imogen asks of him.
Snowball, it seems, does understand the drawing. But he has learned how to shake his head no, and he demonstrates that skill now as he points to the hatch out of the ship. Taking the crayons himself, he draws a picture of a really tall stick figure, a shorter one, and one of medium height, all clearly outside Saffron.
“No, Snowball,” Lilly says matter-of-factly, “you’re going to stay here and guard.” It is obvious that Imogen wants to keep him on the ship for some reason, and Lilly figures he might take the news better coming from her. However, Snowball just claps her on the back jovially, clearly not reading any tone of authority in her voice.
Imogen has one last idea to try. She doubts they can find the same brand of sweet tea here that Li June drinks, but there must be something equivalently sweet and yet not as foul-smelling as the Tang solution. She picks up the empty container and taps it. Snowball takes it from her and looks in it despondently, clearly sad that it is empty. “We’re going to go try to find more of this, and you can have it when we get back, but you have to stay here,” Imogen says.
“Yeah, we’ll get you something good,” Lilly assures the changeling.
Imogen runs a tiny bit of water into the container and sloshes it around, handing it to Snowball so he can try to extract the last faint hints of sweet tea. He licks it dry and then takes up a guard position in front of the empty canister in Lilly’s quarters.
* * *
Once out on the ramp, Lilly begins locking up the ship. Standing next to her, Imogen says quietly but intently, “I know you’ve got a soft spot for him, but he is a spy for the queen, and I cannot have him seeing anything about this place. They’ve never been here.”
“Okay then. Let’s see if we can find this Remí.” Imogen glances around the hangar. There is a sign pointing the way to the Umojan Consulate but no business directory. Imogen decides to see whether the other crew in the large room has any useful information to share. She steps up to the woman who seems to be overseeing the repairs. “Is there anyone you recommend for getting a ship in shape? Looks like you might be already going through the process we’re about to start. How’s it going for you so far? Have you had a smooth time of it, or is the consulate office in a bad mood?”
“The consulate? No, I don’t want to bother with that. To bring my ship up to spec wouldn’t be worth it at all,” the woman with pale skin and close-cropped black hair grinds out.
Imogen hears no trace of an Umojan accent in her voice. “What about your visa, then?”
The laugh that comes in response has a bit of a guilty ring to it, but Imogen is not surprised there would be underworld dealings in a place like this. The woman looks closely at Imogen and then asks a question of her own. “You sound Umojan, actually. Who did you say you were?”
“My name’s Imogen. What’s yours?”
“Lizelle. Been around a bit myself, but what brings you—back home, I take it?”
This is more curiosity than Imogen is in the mood for. “I don’t care about your business, and there’s no need for you to care about mine.”
“I understand, I understand.” Lizelle puts up her hands in a calming gesture. Behind her, her crew finishes hauling out a spent fuel canister and starts loading a new one in. “You’re looking to get your environmental certification? I might know a guy. I might be able to introduce you…”
“But you’re not headed down to the planet yourself.”
“No, nothing for me there.”
Imogen looks pointedly around the filthy landing bay. “You must be pretty desperate if this is where you’re setting into for repairs.” As far as Imogen knows, no pirates operate in the protectorate, but anything goes in the space between it and the Dominion.
“When you need repairs, you usually don’t have a lot of options about where to go. That’s the nature of repairs. If you did, you would have kept your ship in good working order in the first place.” Lizelle’s eyes drift to the vulture bike stuck to the side of Saffron.
“Well, enjoy your repairs,” Imogen says, ending the conversation. If all this woman can give her is a single name, well, Imogen has already got one of those.