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By´╝ÜJennifer Foehner Wells

He sighed, his right hand going to the back of his neck. He hoped she was okay. This whole jumping through wormholes business seemed to be taxing her to the reaches of her endurance, and yet they pushed on relentlessly. It had been almost seventy years since the Squid was stranded in their solar system. What harm would it do for her to rest a few days? But no one wanted Alan’s opinion on that subject.

Bergen frowned as he stared at the neat arrangement of components in front of him, willing his subconscious to come up with something…anything for this device. But unfortunately all he could think of was spaghetti and meatballs. That was probably his stomach’s fault. He wondered absently how long it had been since his last bland meal. It was easy to lose track of meals and sleep without light cues or other people around to prod him.

He had all the data Jane had sent to Earth with the Speroancora shuttle. He studied it for a few hours each night before bed, reconciling the principles it outlined with the hardware he was physically in contact with every day. So far, he’d had a few really great eureka moments—those were the best. One of the things holding him back was his limited understanding of Mensententia. So he studied, observed, and took data. It was all coming together that way—a deeper understanding. It was pretty freaking awesome.

There were definitely multiple layers of command and control integral in every system he studied that had something to do with Ei’Brai. The neural-electric pathways that ran throughout the ship were connected to the aquatic beast cybernetically and the Squid had implants inside his body that communicated directly with the ship. It gave Bergen the eerie feeling that the ship was an extension of the Squid. That he was always watching them. Add that to his telepathic feats, and Alan just wasn’t a big fan of their host.

It wasn’t the difficulty involved with understanding. He’d never shied away from a challenge. Rather it was a pervasive feeling he couldn’t shake that the Squid obfuscated everything on purpose somehow, to keep him from understanding. He had no evidence to that effect, but he wouldn’t put it past the Squid to do such a thing, not after everything they’d been through.

Jane would say he was being ridiculous, but he felt that a healthy dose of skepticism whenever the Squid was involved was warranted. He just didn’t trust him. He was in the minority there, too.

He recorded his data, made the necessary notations in his laptop, checked to be sure the data had uploaded from the Viking to his laptop properly, slid that compartment closed, and moved on to the next one. This one was larger, wider—probably three meters wide. He remembered this compartment from when he went through the entire deck doing spectral and thermal analysis. This segment was very different from many of the other ones. There was a round drum inside. The drum took a specialized tool to open—a tool he hadn’t yet found anywhere on board, though he’d found many other tools. It was on his list of items to manufacture with the 3-D printer.

He took a step closer. Hold on. Something was different this time. All around the drum, amber lights were glowing. He narrowed his eyes. There was a definite low hum coming from this device. He tentatively put his hand on the outside. There was the slightest vibration. Something inside the thing was spinning or rotating in some way. What might they use that would require a centrifugal setup?

He knelt down so he could give it a full 180-degree sweep with the Viking. He was up to his armpit in the device when a sudden sound behind him made him jump, banging his elbow in just the right spot to trigger his funny bone. He almost dropped the instrument—which would have been disastrous since he only had one.

Pulling himself from the guts of the device, he staggered backward and upright until he bumped into the wall, cursing a blue streak as he swung his head around to see what had startled him. Some part of him was almost certain that one of these days a nepatrox was going to come up behind him and take a bite out of his ass.

It was Jane. He hadn’t even heard her coming.

That was kind of weird, because even though he consciously worked most of the time to exclude Ei’Brai from his thoughts—which was freaking exhausting—there was still always an element of supra-cognitive awareness. He didn’t have a clue what it was about, but he’d come to realize that he was just sort of aware whenever one of the other humans was nearby, especially if they intended to speak with him. He’d been taking notes on it for a while, which he intended to pass on to someone at some point. No idea who.

He set the Viking down on the nearest flat surface and straightened, shaking his arm, which had gone painful, numb, and tingly.