You’re standing on the promenade above the main concourse on Unity’s hab-ring. Below, humans, Jellies, and Caretakers move about their business. A hum of good-natured conversation fills the air, and there’s a sense of optimism and industry to the activities below. The place feels like it’s busy growing, and you think maybe that’s the point.

A swift clacking causes you to turn your head. “There you are,” you say, as Kvarau walks up. “I was starting to think you weren’t going to come.”

Kvarau shakes its head. It’s beginning to pick up some basic human gestures. “An unexpected communication needed answering.”

You nod. “All good?”

The alien leans on the patterned railing in front of you. “Yes. All is good. The great and mighty Lphet has hunted down the last of the traitors in our Arms, and they will not be allowed to use the Nest of Transference in order to perpetuate their scattering. You will not have to worry about them again, human.”

“Echo. Call me Echo. Enough with this human business.”

Kvarau licks its pointed teeth, as if tasting your name. Then it says, “Echo.”

“See? There you go.”

“What of your own scenting, Echo?”

You scratch at your neck. Normally you wouldn’t be sharing details with anyone outside of Rohyamar and your contacts in the UMCI, but strange times made for strange bedfellows. “Turns out that logo—the fist and DNA—belongs to a group that calls itself the Schism. Their motto is Humanity First, if that tells you anything.”

Kvarau cocks its head. “Yes, that is what we heard from the traitors in our own shoals.”

“Yeah, so looks like a collection of military personnel, politicians, and various corporate interests. We’re still rooting out their network, but they know we’re on to them, so it hasn’t been easy.” You lean on the railing as well. “I can’t put my finger on it, but feels like there’s more to it. I don’t know. Maybe there’s a ship mind involved.”

“That would be concerning.”

“You’re telling me. If anything else pops up, I’ll let you know so you can warn Lphet.”

“We are grateful for your help, Echo.”

You shrug. “Doing what I can.” Then you eye the Jelly. “You saved my life, Kvarau—more than once. If you were human, I’d buy you food and drink as thanks. Thing is, I don’t know if you can digest our food.”

“That is not necessary. I do not need food to do my duty.”

“Of course not. It’s just . . . it’s my way of saying, hey, I’m glad you saved my life. Can you understand that?”

A flash of nictating membranes on Kvarau’s dark eyes. “I understand.”

“Good! Now, can you digest our food?”

“This form has been equipped with enzymes and anti-toxins appropriate for your biology.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. I’m guessing you’ve had plenty of seafood in your life, so that rules out sushi, but . . . there’s a new place some of the civvies have opened up on the other side of the concourse. How do you feel about a giant steak, cooked to perfection?”

Kvarau cocks its head. “What is this steak?”

You laugh and take Kvarau by the arm and lead it away from the railing. “Steak is great. You’ll love it. Trust me.”

Together, the two of you walk down from the promenade and across the concourse to the small restaurant you’d spotted the other day. It sits in an overhang under what looks like a giant tree, and there’s a stream trickling down the metal wall next to it, and tiny, harmless insects dart about the laughing water.

You sit with Kvarau at one of the round tables outside the restaurant. And you talk and eat and laugh with your friend the alien while the passersby look at you with expressions of surprise and wonderment.

The End