The strangest thing, Two-Claps-Show-Palm decided, was the sofa. Everything had seemed dreamlike since the spinning alien ship appeared, only a few hundred clicks Y-axis starboard of Two-Claps’s rig. The whiteness of it had cut against the sky, and it had answered their hails with strange, sing-song sounds.
Two-Claps and his crew readily accepted the invitation to board the ship, still in their suits to guard against the poisonous air. He had been fascinated by the way the ship’s spinning torus offered the illusion of gravity as strong as one of the larger moons. He had talked with the tall, willowy entities aboard the ship, with their fur topped heads and skin that was an unending scream of sepia shades. He’d gone along with it as easily as he would have gone along with a dream.
But the sofa, the huge white curve of cushions upholstered in ordinary white animal hide, well, Two-Claps-Show-Palm wouldn’t have been surprised to see it in a home on Blue. He and his crew had sat on it, and even in their suits, it was pretty comfortable. The normality of it freaked him out.
“It’s amazing isn’t it?” signed Flat-Hands-Open beside him.
“The sofa?” Two-Claps asked.
“What? No. The view!” Flat-Hands-Open signed, pointing up to the window.
The view was of Queen, which Two-Claps had seen a hundred times before, but he had to admit he’d never seen it like this. He was used to viewing it at an angle, craning his neck to get a glimpse of it through portals the size of a Pieces board. Here the window was the size of a swimming pool, the ever-swirling weather systems of Queen sliding along beneath them in alternating rows of amber clouds and whirling storms.
Two-Claps felt a shudder of confusion.
“If we’re spinning around, why does the window look like it’s staying still?” he asked.
“It’s not a window,” signed Flat-Hands-Open. “It looks like a kind of advanced cinematic projection. I think it runs on their counting machines. The ones they have because they can’t do the sums in their heads.”
“I suppose,” Two-Claps signed, mildly annoyed. Apiary work was widely agreed to be the quickest way into space provided you weren’t too fussed about coming back. Mostly that was good. It meant you only got candidates who truly cared about the Work. But sometimes it meant you got the technophiles and the backroom boys, the ones who didn’t even care about bees but just wanted to play with all the equipment. Two-Claps had a strong suspicion Flat-Hands-Open was one of these people.
“We shouldn’t have come here,” signed Click-Fingers-Jazz-Hands. It was the first time he had spoken since they boarded the ship. “This is the sort of game you’d find the boys out in Archipelago playing. We don’t have any business here.”
“We’re not here for fun,” Two-Claps signed. “These things, whatever they are, are our best chance to get our people back.”
“Then why do they need us?” Click-Fingers-Jazz-Hands asked. “Why not just get their own fuel rather than bartering with us?”
“Because nobody knows bees like us,” Two-Claps signed, and this at least earned a satisfied sign from Click-Fingers-Jazz-Hands.
There was so little you could count on in this universe, but Two-Claps and his crew knew bees better than anyone. That was a certainty you could hang lesser truths from.
“Yeah, sure. But just once, just for a second, could we think about something other than bees?” signed Fingers-Thumb-Hoops. “Is nobody going to consider the wider ramifications here?”
Nobody answered Fingers-Thumb-Hoop, although Click-Fingers-Jazz-Hands might have quietly gestured “fucking Archipelago boys” out of Finger-Thumb-Hoop’s line-of-sight. It was system law that every ship have an assurance clerk on board. You needed somebody to make sure trade agreements were adhered to and that Revenue got their cut when the ship made port. Somebody who’d talked their way onto an apiary ship without a true passion for the craft was regarded with suspicion. Assurance clerks were regarded with outright hostility. A smart one knew to take some good books to read and be happy that being ignored for the whole trip meant nobody complained when they took more than their fair share of rations. Fingers-Thumb-Hoop was not one of the smart ones.
He ignored the pointed stillness and continued, “We’ve encountered an alien civilisation. This changes everything. I move to declare this a Revenue operation under Code line hexagon triangle, placing myself in command as the duly appointed representative of Revenue, our government and our species.”
“Line hexagon triangle applies in the event of piracy,” Click-Fingers-Jazz-Hands signed, jerking an upper thumb over his shoulder. “Funny looking lot of pirates.”
“We’re just here for our people,” Two-Claps signed. “The bees serve the hive and the hive serves the bees, right?”
The old motto was long past being a cliché. It was the sort of thing noobs said on their first trip out and you would mock them for it until the crew silently, unanimously decided that they were “in”. It was a joke that you’d hear when it was your turn to buy a round in port or if you’d landed extra latrine duty. But here in this strange room on this strange ship on this far-too-ordinary sofa, Two-Claps grasped for it like an old friend. Nobody mocked him for it.