The Ceridwen’s Cauldron, airlock
If Rhiannon had known how much time she’d spend in her ship’s airlock, she might have decorated. As it was, the place was small and bare aside from the bright spacesuits of its current occupants. Grey metal covered the walls and the un-adorned floors. A spoked wheel—in the same grey metal—blended into the door that would open the ship to the outside.
The vestibule barely had enough space for her Hive to cram inside.
Would the wheel be hot or cold to the touch? Rhiannon would never know, only coming here when she was already kitted up. Hands slick in her spacesuit’s recycled air.
The staging room where she’d donned her red crackle-painted suit—I still wish I knew whether the paint was supposed to look like this—was barely better. Banks of grey metal lockers held full-body suits that might protect a wearer from the void.
For the moment, she left off her hood-like helmet. If someone asks, I’ll say it’s to save oxygen. Her nose would itch the second she couldn’t touch it, made worse by the sweat-scent of everyone who’d ever worn the red gear. Her fingers and toes were already clammy in their rubber casings. She’d spritzed the inside with perfume to combat the rankness, and she hoped to find herself ensconced in a cocoon that was still human-humid, yes, but also vital with amber notes, like a thick waft from a nightclub. This next outing would prove the idea’s worth.
All five of her Devoted readied themselves beside her. Gavin flexed his knees to check his black suit’s range of motion. Luciano had chosen the bright yellow rubber that made him look like a deformed chicken, not that she’d tell him that. Victor wore a grey suit that matched the rest of his clothes, and Alan poked at his pad with a blue-coated finger.
Mel, of course, had chosen to go au natural—aside from his regular vest—since his metal body held up well in vacuum. He wouldn’t have been able to fit all his limbs into a human-shaped spacesuit anyway.
Rhiannon had to try one more time: “Mel, could you ping the station for me again please?”
After weeks in transit, Rhiannon and her Hive had reached Yin He Yuan (“Silver River Garden”), the station in Mandarin space, where her own Alan would be giving a presentation about his near-miraculous engine. As soon as they’d arrived in communications range, the station had provided a docking location for the Ceridwen’s Cauldron and promised a local guide to answer further questions. They’d seemed accommodating.
Since then, however, they’d been silent. Whenever Rhiannon reached out to Yin He’s station authorities—to confirm a docking time or ask for an oxygen top-up or check whether she’d have leave to return to her ship on her own schedule—she got the same recorded message in English.
Mel played it again now through his own speaker, wry head tilt showing exactly what he thought of the sounds coming from his mouth area. “Thank you for contacting Garden Station. Please leave all weaponry and subversive materials behind before entering the airlock. We hope you enjoy your stay.”
Not that they’d added an information packet about what “subversive materials” might be.
It was up to Rhiannon now. They’d suited up while they waited on information from the station and extended their docking accordion. I didn’t even get to ask whether their airlock is compatible with the Cauldron’s accordion bridge.
Without knowing whether they’d be allowed to travel back and forth during Alan’s conference, the entire Hive had prepared to go across. Which meant they were leaving the ship alone. Unguarded. Open to attack and plunder.
Back on the American station, from whence they’d most recently come, local authorities had cut them off from their ship. While they’d settled into their accommodations on John Wayne in good faith, the administration ransacked the Cauldron and stole Alan’s experimental tensor jet.
Oh, they’d got the jet back, but they hadn’t made any friends doing it. And they’d left behind Rhiannon’s best friend in the process. Separated forever.
Rhiannon shivered and contemplated ordering Alan to retract the docking accordion. They didn’t have to visit Garden Station (or “Silver River Station” or whatever they wanted to call it) and Alan’s conference. They could find another place to purchase supplies, another group ready to laud Alan’s achievements, and maybe even a school where her young Hive members could train in their specialties.
But that would mean crushing Alan’s excitement. She couldn’t do that. She was Queen, with all the responsibilities to her Devoted that entailed. She needed to be smarter and bolder than her potential enemies.
“I could set some proximity alarms,” Mel suggested, knowing exactly what Rhiannon was afraid of. Of course he did. He’d been there on John Wayne. “They’re the kind I used to have on my own ship. They’ll let me know if anyone tries to breach the Cauldron.” His fingers tapped against his vest with a plinking noise.
Then again, Mel’s ship was taken by the Americans—his own people—so how good were those alarms? No, that’s not fair. Mel had abandoned his ship in order to join her Hive and avoid a mob. It hadn’t been stolen during his watch. Like Alan’s tensor jet had been during hers.
Gavin cleared his throat. “I might have set traps for anyone who opens the outer airlock without me.”
Alan waved his arms, tight blue sleeves flying in and out of her field of vision. “Nice of you to warn us before we tried to leave the ship.”
Gavin sneered. “I just did.”
Victor pointed a sharp finger in Alan’s direction. “I don’t see you protecting our home, even though it was your thing that got stolen last time.”
Alan went still, face and arms unmoving.
Luciano sighed. “You’ve all got salt in the pumpkin, all right? Let’s just be pleased we can make sure any unauthorized visitors are both noted and possibly deterred.”
He’s coming back to us. In the weeks they’d traveled, Luciano had spent ever more time with his Hive mates and his Queen. Penitent, perhaps, after his near-defection on John Wayne. She still surprised a frown on his face whenever he looked away, however, usually during some druidic moment like a prayer to the gods for safe passage.
Alan and Gavin grumbled at his peacemaking effort, but they smiled at each other all the same. Crisis averted.
“Thank you,” Rhiannon said. “Let’s not trust these strangers too much.” The last time she’d been in this position, the strangers had saved her life and offered her full run of their home… right before they’d sundered her privacy, stolen her ability to leave, and chased her Hive out of town.
Gavin hummed in agreement. “‘Trust but verify,’” he quoted. Yes! I knew that one!
“Lock it down,” she ordered.
It was the work of moments, Mel and Gavin both hunched over their pads, before they reported their success at setting traps. With that, the entire Hive slipped on their hood-helmets and out the exterior door.
Inside the accordion, Alan tapped at the airlock controls that sealed the edges. Too late to change her mind now. Not that she would. This was Alan’s moment, his turn to show off his inventions and learn from other experts in his field. She couldn’t deny him.
She still planned to be cautious.
He waved his arms and shook his hips like he was dancing, but… That’s less coordinated than his dancing at Victor’s birthday party two weeks ago. The mystery bewildered her until he pried his pad from his waist clip, an impressive feat in a spacesuit whose gloved fingers were covered with half a centimeter of material.
Rhiannon’s suit had done its duty so far, as had everyone else’s. This was especially noteworthy for a crew who had yet to learn what maintenance their cold-space equipment required.
The six Hive mates were almost to the station’s door when a staticky voice said. “You will declare any sicknesses, animals, or plant matter before coming across.” Well, that was an untimely notice. Rhiannon was practically to Yin He now and wouldn’t have turned around for a mere cold.
Her heart slowed and fever-hot sweat cooled on her skin. Calm. The station’s lack of foresight probably meant they’d be terrible at stealing anything off her ship. Too disorganized to break in. Or salvage it for parts. Or hold her hostage to against docking fees.
Her heart sped once more as she listed possible dangers in the silence of her suit. How did they broadcast that message? I knew these suits had speakers. If only I could figure out how they worked…
She drifted towards the station door, willing momentum to work faster. Three body lengths away from her destination, her stomach swooped. She could see stars. She shouldn’t be able to see stars. That was the whole point of the docking tube: safety from the elements plus freedom from tethers. But here was a two-foot gap between the entrance and her accordion. More bad planning?
Her breath picked up, shallow in her chest and making the carbon dioxide scrubbers work overtime. Her skin warmed and eyes tunnel-focused on the exterior view. Well, at least we’re not dead yet.
Mel gripped her arm, a welcome bulwark against space’s infinite ocean. She smiled at him, hopefully visible through her faceplate, and saw that he held on to all the others with his remaining three arms as well. All the others except Alan who had already flown ahead.
She forced her breathing to slow. Mel wouldn’t let anyone get lost. She could trust her Devoted.
Alan tapped again, on his own pad this time instead of the airlock controls, and the door slid open. At the head of her Hive, Rhiannon entered the Mandarin station’s airlock.
Digital image screens covered the airless safety chamber, except for the blank wall directly ahead. The screens were pinned into boxy basket frames made of painted white metal.
Most screens showed close-ups of chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemums! Here, seven orange petals bled dark at the center and edges to nearly yellow in between. There, a pink maw unfurled tongues to reveal a black hole. A white-and-yellow bunch could have been a wedding bouquet, except that Rhiannon had read white was a death color in Chinese culture.
She fancied she could smell them through their screens and her hood, sweet and floral and rich, but that was probably the perfume she’d sprayed into her suit.
Across three screens sprawled a blooming triptych—a scraggling plum branch that bowed with tiny buds all shades of pink. A riot of pink.
The opposite wall remained bare of flowery imagery. A flat sheet of burnished steel stretched from all corners into an impenetrable surface. It was intimidating. It was lifeless. It couldn’t be the exit because, being made of one sheet, it had no door.
Rhiannon looked right and left and back the way she’d come, but the other directions had no apparent doors either, except the return to the boarding accordion (which had probably retracted by this point).
A light flashed overhead. Once, twice.
The chrysanthemum images inverted color. Once, twice.
And then the blank wall raised itself completely into the ceiling. Rhiannon watched it go up, her suit making disturbing snapping noises with her movement. It was a door after all.
With the door-wall thing gone, the airlock was open onto the station. She removed her helmet, reveling in the sweet, cold air.
Now revealed, another wall stood just behind where the airlock wall had once been. No more thick grey steel, this wall was made of plaster with a cutout doorway, which couldn’t be closed, framed in wood by a stone and tile border. Off to the right, bamboo plants rose high—almost like a miniature grove—with some branches bearing chrysanthemum bulbs peeking through the shoots at eye height. Tracking backwards, the branches came through a square window with carved poles in an intricate lace pattern. The “window” didn’t have any way to shut either.
Gavin pulled off his helmet and cleared his throat. “This displays a shocking lack of vacuum safety.”
Then again, so did their spacesuits.
He added, “But it’s very pretty.”
At this point, they really should have taken off their spacesuits. The bulky things were hot. Rhiannon opted to continue wearing her suit, just in case, and to hold the helmet under her arm. With all the cold and the lack of doors, well, it was better to be prepared for an emergency. Even if it did mean that her feet squished in their own sweat and the fine hairs between her crown and her crown—haha!—stuck to her forehead, where they didn’t frizz like crazy. Her cheeks flushed, and she was glad of the breeze.
“Whoa,” Victor said, breath misting white with the exhalation.
Inspired by her choice to stay suit-clad, the rest of her Hive (less Mel, of course) did the same.
To the right of the doorway, the bamboo mini-grove grew around a grooved and cavernous rock taller than Rhiannon herself. Spikey vines climbed the wall and infiltrated the window. From the left-hand side of the doorway, ferns peeked in as if to beckon visitors into the station proper. Was that a pebbled path leading off at an angle?
Rhiannon wanted to touch the maybe-banana-leaves at the very edge of the frame, to feel their connection to the life running through all the residents. All these plants! All this nature! She and her Hive were going to fit better here than they had on John Wayne Station. Maybe it would be as good as home. Even if the plants themselves were different.
“Gwyn would have loved this,” Rhiannon said. She kept forgetting to call her old friend Lois, but at least the other woman wasn’t here to hear the slip. With Gwyn’s affinity for plants, she’d stayed behind to be an expert for the Americans.
Victor shrunk back against a digital chrysanthemum—twice the size of his head—at the mention of his ex-girlfriend’s name. His hands flattened against his thighs, pressing as far away from the sound as he could. Rhiannon tapped a rubber-coated finger to her lips, and the smooth material caught on them. Victor needs to talk about Gwyn-Lois eventually. Maybe they could remember her together, do some of the things she used to love. Victor may have lost a girlfriend, but Rhiannon had lost her best friend in the same Hive change.
Sometimes it hurt to think that Gwyn left Rhiannon behind. Other times it was a comfort to remember the things Gwyn had loved. And this airlock entry… this would have thrilled her. Whoever had thought of putting so many plants on a space station in such an eye-catching arrangement?
Luciano came up beside her and tentatively poked Rhiannon’s shoulder. “Why is it cold?”
Mel’s vest slapped against his chest with a quiet ring. Rhiannon was sure that if she hadn’t knotted her hair into a braid-like weave to fit beneath her low crown, she’d have frizz flying everywhere.
Alan took her other side. “It says something over the door. What does it say? I can’t read that!”
As though I can. The inscription was carved into stone, which hung on the plaster wall over the doorway, and it certainly wasn’t in English or Cymraeg. “Clearly it says, ‘Welcome, friends. Enter here!’”
Alan’s arms waved over his head, as best his spacesuit would let them, and his mouth opened in a half gape and half sneer that showed off a few top teeth. “Where does it say that? How did you read that? I’m not prepared enough for this.”
Rhiannon walked forwards to pass the doorway and the little gate stones, her limbs loose. A devious smirk formed on her lips, though nobody could see it—specifically Alan—since she’d strode to the front. Somehow, mock-tormenting her most excitable Devoted made her feel more like a part of her Hive. And with his attention focused on refuting her words, he wouldn’t have the energy to worry about his upcoming presentation or his inability to read the local language. “Didn’t you study the language packet that Mel made for us?”
There had been no such language packet.
Mel made a throat clearing noise from the rear of their caravan. “Ah, my lady?” he asked in that impossibly smooth voice he’d affected.
Rhiannon waved a dismissive hand, letting Mel know he didn’t need to vocalize his objection.
Gavin, playing peacemaker, made the obvious observation. “Oh, my,” he said. “Look at all these chrysanthemums.”
For there were chrysanthemums everywhere along the winding path. Real this time, not digital. The station air tickled her nose with a peppery green scent, and she rubbed the tip with her gloved hand.
A few feet ahead, another wall loomed with a flower-shaped door of four petals—or a circle gently pinched in four places—coming up on the right. In front of the wall sat a bench, a potted yellow chrysanthemum upon it. To the left, a bushel of ferny trees added a touch of green near a lacquered brown screen. And, of course, chrysanthemums had been interwoven with the ferns.
It was a colorful wonderland of leaves and petals, stems and wood. If she shimmied out of her suit, she could stroke the folded florets. Yellow and orange, blue and white, all had healthy leaves. They’d be dewy against her skin, perfectly maintained.
How did they do that? It looks like a chrysanthemum tree. A beast which, of course, did not exist.
Alan scoffed. “They’re so fake,” he said. “I don’t like them.”
On the rightmost wall, closer to the blossom-shaped gate, a set of wooden panels opened to reveal a closet of hanging jackets. Rather than investigate the cunning chrysanthemum trees, she went for the practical and pulled a jacket out.
It was bright purple, plastic, and looked far too big for her. Was it intended for the gardeners, perhaps, who would need to water the plants but might get too cold out here so close to space? Because it would make sense to keep the far reaches of a space station cooled by the exterior weather, and let circulation temper the inner areas.
She hung up the large jacket and pulled out another. It appeared exactly the same—bright purple, plastic, too big for her. “Are we supposed to do something with these, do you think?” she mused.
Mel made a throat-clearing noise. How she loved the way he displayed some human peculiarities and skipped over others. “There’s an inscription between the lockers and the gate.” He translated:
The silver river inspires awe, shaded by mountain and misty rain
The plants hide and bloom again in their warm houses
“The first line is an homage—or plagiarism, depending on your opinion, that plays on the station name—to a famous poem by Su Shi,” he added.
Which didn’t help Rhiannon to interpret the inscription at all. Still: poetry. And where were these shading mountains?
Victor sighed happily. “I could get to like this place.”
They all could. It had so much in common with home.
Alan’s pad trilled, cutting into their appreciation, and the physicist looked down at his screen in surprise. “A new message from Professor Cantor,” he said. Like an excuse and a divulgence at once. “Do you remember him, my lady?”
“Well i mi go—” Sometimes, talking with Alan, her one Cymraeg-first Devoted, made her drop into her other native tongue. “Yes, I think I do. Is it anything important?”
Alan tapped a few times before tucking his pad into the helmet under his arm. He leaned away from the helmet as though it might attack if he moved wrong. “No, no.” His normally deep voice flew nearly into Gavin’s baritone range. “I’ll read it in more depth later.”
She let him close the conversation down. She’d revisit it if he didn’t bring it up with her in a few days. Her duty was to care for her Devoted, to look out for their well-being, to shield them even against old friends and mentors. Not to force them into uncomfortable situations.
A young man strode through the blossom gate, arms open to the sides. Oh. He reminded her of Cinna on John Wayne Station in that they both dressed to accentuate their features and displayed confidence of both body and attitude. But, unlike the American woman, Rhiannon couldn’t look away from this newcomer.
He was about Alan’s height—taller than Rhiannon but shorter than Victor or Gavin—and twig-thin. He was dressed all in blue. Unlike the spacesuits her Hive still sported, though, this was no single-piece jumpsuit. He wore a cable-knit sweater with a silk collar peeking out the top and a wool tie flapping in the station’s wind. His trousers were leather or vinyl and short enough to display argyle socks under snakeskin booties.
It was at once more sedate and more outlandish than any outfit Rhiannon had ever seen.
“Hello, honored guests. Welcome to Yin He Yuan. You may call it Garden Station.”
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