When Orpicea had been in the mining business, the jargon for gas-harvesters like these was ‘canaries’, drowning as they did in their mother jovian’s atmosphere, and the general feeling was that they were an inspired career choice if you never wanted anyone to find your body.
Petrichor in particular had no patience for half-measures: not only had its founders picked a gas giant at an ambitious remove from civilised space, it orbited suicidally close to the atmosphere’s phase transition. The profits from the fuel yield at that depth would have been tremendous if it weren't for the towering repair schedule and perpetual mental health crisis. As they’d descended, Orpicea would later brag, the rising pitter-patter on their transport’s hull had not been precipitation but a rain of melted gas. The station swam in pressures severe enough to liquify hydrogen.
She discovered almost immediately that nobody used the station’s official name. ‘“The boat”?’ Orpicea repeated.
The deckhand rapped on the transport’s hull with the butt of his rivet gun and listened to the sad sound it made. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘The girl’s a submersible, not a satellite. Good thing you took the bubble down, your pod barely made it as is.’
Orpicea glanced at Pardoux, who scratched his salt-and-pepper beard and grimaced an I-told-you-so in return. ‘Her name’s Stepping Stone,’ he said, ‘and this is a transport you’re fixing. Not a pod.’
‘I don't see any nameplate,’ the deckhand began, but shouts turned his head. Crew scattered at the far end of the hangar where spiderlike supports had viced the skeleton of a gas transport. Some whining tool arced a sinuous white trail on Orpicea’s retinas as it tumbled to the floor. Its impact sounded like a gunshot; sparks skidded out. It bucked on its wire, yellow jumpsuits scrambling as the plating beneath it began to glow an angry orange.
The deckhand they’d cornered rushed to help. ‘The storm stripped the paint off!’ Pardoux called after him.
A modulated voice trilled: ‘Making friends already?’
Orpicea and Pardoux looked up to see a service drone, technically their commanding officer, step out of the ruined transport. 'We'll have to bargain carefully for repairs,' Orpicea, said, looking back at the deckhands powering down the arc tool. 'They know we're stuck without them and they probably want the transport for scrap.'
‘We will fine—‘ his eyes flickered as he stammered ‘—find a way back to her regardless.’
Her meant the ship, which had taken to calling itself Kelly. It had also taken to spying on them, repurposing maintenance bots to remodel her own internal layout, and most recently threatening to self destruct if they did not find her more fuel.
With a sigh, Orpicea pointed to herself and said, ‘Alright. Here’s step one. I'm going to find the quartermaster, or whatever, and buy some damn fuel. Step two is we leave forever. As much as I hate that ship, a six month contract on one of these was more than anyone needs and I'm not waiting around for those repairs if they try to pull a fast one. This thing isn’t a canary, it’s a lump of chocolate in a fucking fondue.’
As she marched off, Pardoux gave the drone a meaningful look. ‘What's canaries got to do with it?’