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The Spaces in Between
(A Clumsy Handful of Stars #2)

F/F, Science Fiction
[Coming April 18, 2024 / 10,000 Words]


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When it comes to her crew, Captain Jamila Warwick strives to maintain strict separation between the personal and the professional. Commanding a deep space science vessel does not allow for anything in between. But where comms specialist Aida de Luca is concerned, those lines have begun to blur.

An impossible ship, abandoned in an empty asteroid field, should be the discovery of a lifetime. The vessel is like nothing Warwick's team has ever encountered. But when their investigation puts Aida at risk and raises an unforeseen moral dilemma, Warwick faces a decision that could end her career.


Series: A Clumsy Handful of Stars
A Proof of Possibility The Spaces in Between


Excerpt

The ship they've discovered is even stranger on the inside.

Jamila Warwick has been captaining science vessels for well over a decade—nearly as long as she spent in her previous life as a chemist confined to lab work—but the handful of times she's wondered if perhaps she's seen everything, the universe has challenged her hubris by throwing dizzying new mysteries in her path. She navigates uncanny corridors now, still disconcerting even after having traversed the entire ship from stem to stern. It will be a relief when it's finally time to turn her footsteps back toward the place her own ship is docked against the outer hull.

Apart from her own people, the ship they've discovered is empty. Warwick's footsteps carry her along a path she does not need to think about, leaving her mind free to take in the odd contours of the corridor.

If she tried very, very hard—and if she didn't touch anything—she might be able to pretend she's walking through a claustrophobic cave, and not a living system of muscle and mass. A glow of bioluminescence runs along the rounded edges of the corridor, sometimes near the smooth ground, sometimes embedded within the rougher texture directly overhead, bright and steady enough to illuminate Warwick's stride. The gravity, the mechanism for which her team has yet to figure out, holds her down at slightly less than Mars standard. Even the air smells clean, if heavier and more humid than anything Warwick is accustomed to.

But the ship is alive. Someone built—grew?—created a spacefaring vessel out of biological impulses and living matter. The ship is alive, and complicated, and so wildly unfamiliar that it took the Obershaw's entire onboard contingent of scientists nearly fourteen hours to resolve that it was a ship. Then another six to find a way to dock with the mystery vessel, two more to board following rigorous safety protocols, and a full day to confirm that the inner chambers contain an atmosphere safe for humans to breathe.

Since then, Warwick has grudgingly and cautiously given her crew full run of the place, to gather and analyze every scrap of confusing information. They will eventually need to find a way to transport this biological innovation back to settled space for further study. So far, after four days orbiting an asteroid with their impossible find, the Obershaw and her crew have already made discoveries that will keep biologists and shipwrights busy for decades.

It's enough to make Warwick wish, if only fleetingly, that she hadn't allowed herself to be shunted away from pure science and into command. She's intimately familiar with the wistful tug of wishing she were coordinating a research team's deep dive into a new puzzle, or even better, studying the lab results herself.

But no discovery has ever made her feel that longing regret quite as acutely as this.

Yes, she has access to research data from every single department. She oversees every aspect of the Obershaw's operation, coordinates every mission, compiles and sends the reports back to headquarters. But those are broad strokes. Big picture. It's not the same as being able to immerse herself in the minutia of research, so focused that the rest of the universe falls away.

These thoughts fold grudgingly aside when she nears her destination. She slips back into the present moment as she approaches the end of the corridor, and she finds herself taken aback all over again by the way living flesh has been cultivated into something so clearly intended to accommodate travel between worlds. The interior walls look nothing like the smooth exterior of the ship. A shingled pattern covers walls and ceiling alike, uneven and unpredictable, like shards of dark shale overlapping along every surface except the ground. The edges look sharp, but Warwick knows better—and when she reaches out to touch it, the soft, spongy material gives way beneath her fingers—only to expand back into its original shape when she withdraws.

She takes one more step forward, but even knowing precisely what she's looking for, the hatch is nearly invisible. The line where the two sides meet hides easily amid the rough shadows and textures of the wall.

After a moment, the seam splits automatically open, musculature within the walls contracting to offer up a portal for entry into the room beyond. The gap is big enough that Jamila Warwick, with her broad shoulders and intimidating height, can pass comfortably through without having to duck beneath the edge of the aperture.

"You don't need me for this, Aida." Doctor Gima Natsuki's words sound almost like a shout, and Warwick wonders why the head of her science team is raising her voice, for precisely the length of time it takes her to realize the room's other occupant is buried beneath a rounded protrusion that rises and extends into the center of the open space. It could be a console, or an engine component, or hell, even a dining table for all that Warwick can tell looking at the shape. It seems to have grown directly up from the floor, out from the wall, despite possessing the smoothness of membrane rather than the rough texture of the walls themselves.

"Of course I need you." Aida de Luca's voice comes muffled from her hiding place, but she still manages to sound indignant. All Warwick can see of her are a pair of scuffed gray boots and the rolled-up cuffs of a set of standard-issue coveralls.

None of the crew, save the captain herself, has bothered with the crisp uniform of their station. On a mission like this, the trappings of rank matter far less than comfort and practicality.

"There's not room for both of us down there," Doctor Gima points out placidly, from her perch on a nearby bench formed of the same disconcerting material as the console.

"Come on, Natsuki." Aida's boots dig into the soft floor as she pushes just a little further forward. "Your expertise is invaluable."

"My expertise has better things to do than watch you crawl around under something that may or may not be a nav console."

Still standing unnoticed in the open portal, Warwick feels her chest warm with a familiar contradiction of possessive fondness and wry exasperation. Her comms chief has been aboard this vessel for less than an hour, and already the woman is pushing her luck. Aida de Luca is persistent to a fault. Warwick absolutely should not want to indulge her stubbornness. Even more, she should not respond to this familiar show of impatience with a dangerous pulse in the vicinity of her heart.

With the skill of long practice, Warwick tucks the inconvenient affection away, and steps fully across the threshold, putting a little extra space between herself and the corridor.


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The Spaces in Between
Cover design by Yolande Kleinn
ISBN 978-1-946316-43-1
 
 
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