In the place of the tiny water drops filling the air above the farm, noise crammed in around the three Mooses from all sides. It was not a loud noise, just a pervasive collection of many smaller sounds coming in from all directions at once. The identical twin of their starting platform hung in the exact center of a huge spherical room, suspended in a network of flying walkways that reached out all over the inner surface of the sphere. Somehow, no matter which way they looked, the platform shifted so they were never looking up or down, just over, without twisting the walk ways or any sensation of motion.
“Wow, I knew this ship had some impressive gravity generating system when we were in the farm, but this is truly amazing,” Miltin said, his eyes trying to look everywhere at once. Covering the entire inner surface of the sphere were variations on the theme of table and chairs to suit a truly vast array of body shapes and sizes. “We have found people to talk to, where do you want to start?”
At first, the noise level in the room—as the occupants on all sides talked, ate, laughed, and played—made it feel crowded, but as they got used to it, the mooses realized less than half the tables had occupants, and very few if these were full.
“At the moment, one way is as good as another,” Captain Milty decided. He set off across the platform, aiming for a walkway halfway between Miltin and Monroe.
From the platform, the walkways looked like long, spider-silk threads spanning the great gap, but once all three Mooses stepped from their arrival point onto the thread itself, the walkways felt firm as rock with guide rails at a comfortable height for any of them to use, all at the same time. The crossing from center to surface took far less time than they expected, and even though they could detect no bend or curve as they traveled, the walkway met the floor, at only the slightest of slopes, suitable for any form of locomotion.
Among the tables on the sphere’s interior, the sound of voices shrank to include just those in the immediate vicinity. The intrepid trio of explorers had to concentrate a bit to see the floating platform, the walkways, or the curving surface. The Mess Deck of that ship tried very hard to look like an ordinary, if large space.
“Oh I say; where did you three come from?” A dog faced gentleman in a frock coat suddenly asked from a nearby table, literally dog-faced. He had a long nose, floppy ears and everything. Even his thick, blunt fingered put one in mind more of paws.
“They came from the platform in the room’s center, darling. I told you that this place is a lot more complicated than it looks. Please pay attention to your surroundings,” his long, lithe, feline companion answered before any Moose could. She wore the same sort of coat with shiny buttons and tri-cornered hat as Captain Milty, but short in front, long in back, and closely tailored to her frame so the overall effect looked incredibly sleek and ready to spring into motion at any moment.
“I wonder what that coat is made of,” Captain Milty said, mostly to himself. “If I wore my broadcloth that tight I would not be able to lift my arms.”
The kitty in her Captain’s coat preened, just a little under her moosely counterpart’s obvious admiration but before they could get to comparing notes of a sartorial nature, the most noticeable of the other figures at the table joined the conversation. He had great sail-like ears and a long, flexible nose. In fact, he was almost as much a humanoid elephant as the first two companions were cat and dog, including his larger size except for the long, thick coat of yellow fur that covered every inch of his skin, only turning softer, downier, and paler fur inside his ears. He wore only a knee length kilt supported by a heavy leather belt that had so many straps and loops and rings studding the length designed to support who knows what assortment of tools and containers that, without its attachments it resembled the cross between a very busy, very abstract piece of art and the gutted ruin of its former usefulness.
“Are you three new arrivals, or fellow travelers we have yet to encounter? The way this ship tosses us about from deck to deck without warning muddles things a bit, but it does tend to keep conversational groups intact. I am called Sofo, because Sir Oliphant the Fluffy one is much too big a mouthful for many people. The unobservant one goes by Delbert and the lovely lady he does not deserve is called Amelia and a ship’s captain, to boot.” Sofo paused and waved his trunk at the fourth and final person sitting at the long table with seats f0r many more. “And this is Ralf. Do not be surprised if she starts echoing or mimicking everything you say or do. We are fairly certain it is just her way of trying to understand new people.” Ralf was the physically most interesting of the bunch. She had brown fur, much the same deep brown shade as Monroe. Ralf had two, very dexterous looking arms on the one side and one heavily muscled power arm on the other set in a hulking shoulder that ran right up into her head. On the two armed side she had one great bat-like ear, with no corresponding structure on the other side.
The mooses politely introduced themselves and accepted an invitation to sit. “How is it that we have no trouble understanding what the other says?” Captain Milty asked after they had all settled. “I imagine we are all fairly well travelled and I know we three are comfortable in several languages, but I do not recall meeting any of your people’s before.”
“You noticed that faster than any other I have spoken with since finding myself on this ship,” Ralf said, her voice and accent such a close match to Delbert’s tones that her companions looked his way first before turning her way “I have attempted three-hundred and fifty-two different patterns of communication since finding myself aboard this craft, and other than slight variations in accent, timbre, or dialect, I have not managed more than two words before my audience once again understood me. The effort seems to even apply to more specialized or esoteric terms.”
“Some sort of perception filter or translator field do you think?” Miltin asked, looking up at the unsymmetrical being with curiosity and fascination lighting up his eyes. Such a tool would be very handy when he and his friends went walking, though maybe not as much fun for some.
“I have no idea as to the mechanism. I merely observed and explored the effect when attempting to understand the peoples I have found myself among” Ralf said. Miltin did not mind the dismissal. He had other friends who could help him explore the idea if he needed help.
“So, are you three new here?” Sofo asked again, since the conversation had wandered off before the Mooses could answer the first time. “I was sucked up quite some while ago. Ralf has been around a couple weeks, judging merely by how many times the ship has put us to bed. Amelia and Delbert joined the merry bands wandering these halls voluntarily, being encountered on apparently abandoned and derelict ship of strange design while wandering among the stars on business of their own.”
“Only now we cannot seem to find the hatch through which we entered the ship,” Amelia put in with a hint of a snarl in her otherwise cool and commanding tones.
“It looked such a small, unthreatening, and entirely abandoned vessel,” Delbert said and something about the way he said the words made it clear that it was not the first time he said them. Amelia just nodded.
“All the scanners said it was cold, empty, and completely unarmed,” Delbert went on, unwilling or unable to let it drop. Sofo rolled his eyes and turned his attention to a console set within the table top, prodding buttons at random. Each combination seemed to produce a different food or drink, ranging from strange to disgusting, to droolingly delicious, depending upon your species’ tastes and dietary requirements.
Ralf stood up and stepped away from the table, out of Delbert’s immediate line of sight and started saying his lines with him, mimicking every move and gesture. Amelia gave him another mute nod, crossing her arms across her chest and refusing to look at him.
Delbert started saying, “You double checked and said…” then he forced himself to stop before pushing the conversation to its usual explosive climax. He barely glanced at Ralf when she ran another couple words after he managed to halt the conversation, instead Delbert focused on the three Mooses politely looking the other direction and quietly talking among themselves rather than blatantly eavesdrop on the developing family drama.
“Sorry,” Delbert said with drooping ears then he forced himself to perk up and change the subject. “We did not give you a chance to answer. Are you new here?” He did not give them a chance to answer this time either, except with the beginning of a nod before he went on. “You came from the platform, one of the places that are hard to see. Even those of us who can see the platform,” he nodded at Amelia who was making an effort to catch up with his jumped conversational track. “Have never been able to find where any of the walkways near the deck.” He visibly cut himself off and waited for an answer. Anyone with eyes to see could see that an idea had occurred to the man, but he needed more information in support before he could bear to let his hopes rise.
“Oh yes, we are new arrivals,” Monroe said, glancing at Miltin and the captain, wondering how much they should say.
Captain Milty hesitated only a moment before giving a sharp nod as he made his decision. “We came along the ways people have been disappearing to rescue the rest of our crew and see about getting the rest of the crews back to their original ships.” Captain Amelia sat up straight and turned to give all three moose searching looks. She did not seem to notice that her hand stretched out to grip Delbert’s tightly across the table.
Sofo however, lifted his trunk in one of the most impressive sneers of derision any of the others had ever seen, “And you think you can do that, do you?” he asked. As one of the longest stuck occupants of the great ship, no one held his skepticism against the great, kilted elephant man. Though, it did rather surprise Monroe. Mooses did not often deal with adults out among the worlds who did not know the antlered ones well enough to believe.
“So, I imagine you appeared here on the central platform,” Sofo said disparagingly.
“No, we started on the farm deck,” Miltin said with a slow shake of his antlers.
“Huh, I have not seen that one,” Sofo admitted grudgingly, but then he went back on the attack. “Then you suddenly found yourself shifted to this deck without warning.”
Monroe tilted his chin slightly to one side and studied Sofo before answering. “No, we walked to the transport platform and hitched a ride on the internal network once we decided that the mess deck would be the best place to find information. Then we walked from the platform for this deck to here, deciding that this direction was as good as any to start with.”
“You came across one of the walkways.” Sofo said, waving one big, yellow, blunt fingered hand up at the platform where it hung in its spider web of improbably fine threads.
“Well yes,” Monroe responded, a little surprised.
“Where is it then?” Sofo demanded with his fists planted on his hips.
All three Mooses immediately pointed in the same direction, but no amount of peering by the other four could bring the railed ramp into focus. Ralf and Sofo could not see the ramp at all, and whenever Delbert or Amelia’s eyes started to lock onto the right area, something would draw their eyes away. When they tried to look back, it was always in a slightly different place.
“Show me,” Sofo demanded, eventually. He surged to his feet and gestured for the Mooses to lead.
The walkway was not far, but it proved more difficult to read, than mere distance could account for. Though Delbert, Amelia, Ralf, and Sofo did their best to follow, like their eyes, their feet got deflected in different directions, somehow not even noticing the loss of their guides as the four spread out in different directions. Eventually, the Mooses had to lead their new friends with eyes tight shut by the hand to stand on the ramp’s end before they could all seven see the great, spherical room the same way.
Sofo turned to look back at their table with the collection of dishes he produced while playing with the controls. The near side could not be more than ten long steps away if he stretched his thick legs, and they, more importantly he could not see it. Sofo started to curse in a long, steady, non-repeating stream, but out of consideration for his company, he did it under his breath, and a step or two away from the others.
“He has been stuck here a long time, and he was on his way to something important,” Ralf half-apologized/half-explained to the rest.
While Sofo vented and tried to regain control of himself, the others carried on the conversation without him. “So, do you think that the ship you found was this ship, or just one of the many overlapping hulls whose crew have been decanted into it?” Captain Milty asked Delbert and Amelia, for the sort of answer he might give in her place.
“It was this ship, the BotoFlacheru, though what we could see and scan turned out to be little more than the main bridge, and quarters for some of the officers,” Amelia said confidently, and when he saw Monroe and Miltin exchange glances trying to decide who should ask, she answered what was in all three Moosey minds. “We had a long conversation with the ship’s computer before things devolved. Something about the way the decks layer upon each other in space went a bit wrong and it got stuck. After all the efforts of the crew and experts from home could not budge her, the crew and thousands of others living on board abandoned her, transferring to a newer hull to continue their journey.”
“I shall think they set the BotoFlacheru to self-destruct before abandoning her, but the computer, being more than a little more than a little more alive and self-aware than they thought, found a way to shut it down.” Delbert said stubbornly. Amelia shrugged, unwilling to argue the point.
“So is it the BotoFlascheru stuck bleeding over that is trapping the other ships, or is it something more deliberate?” Miltin asked. He started pacing thoughtfully up the ramp, by common, silent consent the others kept pace with him. It took only one step to every ten of his for some of the longer pairs of legs.
“Oh, it is entirely deliberate. She was very forthright. I do not think she has learned how to lie yet. She is very lonely with all her passengers and crew gone. I think, at first she was looking for someone who could get her home, but after all this time she is content not to be alone anymore,” Amelia said flatly. She could not be entirely unsympathetic to the great ship with the mind of an abandoned child, but Amelia and Delbert had other worries preying on them.
“Do you think you could get us back to the bridge? It is long past the time we were expected back aboard our ship,” Delbert asked, trying for off hand, but anxiety could be read in the way he and Amelia’s paths converged until they walked almost shoulder to shoulder.
“That sounds like a good next step. I think it is about time we spoke to the ship’s computer,” captain Milty decided firmly. He politely stepped past Miltin and got their little troupe moving a bit faster, using a bounding stride that covered the distance as easily as Ralf, Amelia, or Delbert might. Monroe stretched his legs and the rest of his anatomy to match their strides and neatly scooped up Miltin to ride in Monroe’s antlers and carry on with this cogitation without having to divert energy for locomotion. Sofo had either run out of swears or cursed himself calm. He brought up their rear.
For this trip on the platform, Monroe had to do a little puzzle work to get everyone in adjacent squares with all the unantlered ones in a square of appropriate size with at least one side adjacent to a Moose square so that they could all take advantage of the transport system without knowing how it worked.