The jerk and swooping vertigo as the ship veered sideways was a bit too familiar. The Wendy Bird had had problems with her propulsion system for as long as Mulan had served on her.
She caught her hand against the corridor wall, fumbling for her comm with the other hand. It lit up with an incoming call as her fingers closed around it.
"Sir," Mulan answered.
She lost Captain Li's first words as the ship lurched again, getting the comm back to her face to hear, "... the flight deck. I'm on a long-range call with Central that I can't break." He sounded harried.
"On it, sir."
The ship lurched one more time on her way to the flight deck. She was trying not to visibly limp from a twisted ankle as she came through the door.
The Wendy Bird's pilot was halfway inside her console. "Bucket fiddling candlesticks," Mulan heard her mutter. Ariel was a refugee from the Pisces Confederation, and she'd picked up some odd things to use as curse words when she was first learning the United System's language and culture.
Naveen laughed. He was sitting on the arm of her empty chair, leaning forward to see over her shoulder.
"What's the likelihood we're going to fall out of the sky?" Mulan called.
Naveen lifted his head, grinning at her. "Your girlfriend must emerge from her rooms and recalibrate the thrusters, I am told."
Despite herself, Mulan felt her cheeks heat. "She doesn't – I don't really know her any better than –" She straightened her back. "Are we about to fall into a tailspin?"
She didn't even know what the communications officer was doing on the flight deck. Naveen was like a cat, though: he got everywhere, and was interested in everybody's work but his own.
Ariel made a triumphant sound and wriggled back out, dropping to her heels.
"You know I can steer through these stars like a fish in water," she said. She looked a bit wild-eyed, but she was smiling. "I've switched the starboard shifters to a tight-leash manual program, which should stop our course slipping further, but we're still going in the wrong direction, and I won't be able to fix that till the rest of the propulsion is back online. I tried to get Belle, but there was no response."
"She probably hasn't even noticed the slips," Mulan said, something helplessly revealing in her tone. She bit her tongue, throwing a quelling hand up in Naveen's direction. He closed his mouth, his eyes crinkling. "I'll go find her," she said.
"Tell her she needs to take better care of my baby," Ariel called after her.
Belle would be in her workshop, absorbed in one of her projects. Mulan strode down the corridor towards the crew's quarters, trying to shake the tenderness out of her ankle.
Belle had joined the ship in a little backwater planet in the Villeneuve Belt. The Wendy Bird's engineer had run to escape a gambling debt, and Belle had been the first name that Shang's enquiries produced. She was a decent flight engineer, but it had soon become clear that she'd taken the post purely to get offworld, away from her provincial little planet. Her passion was for gadgets of her own invention: extraordinary and peculiar things inspired by books or travellers' stories. Lately she was fascinated by robots.
Belle's workshop was part of her quarters. Mulan touched the handpad by the door, hearing the low chime sound within. When there was no response she rapped on the door with her knuckles, then tried the handle. It opened, and she stepped into the brightly lit workspace. There were some tinkering sounds coming from the open door that connected to Belle's bedroom.
"No, wait –" she heard as she closed the door behind her.
A moment later a small robot sped out through the connecting door. Mulan watched in bemusement as it skidded to a stop about five feet from her, whirring. Then it extended a sleek little stunner. "Hostile intruder!" it announced excitedly.
Mulan swore, unholstering her gun.
"Wait, no, wait, don't shoot!" Belle cried, hopping and untangling a cord from her foot as she followed the robot into the workshop. "Chip, it's all right, she's the ship's security officer. She's a friend."
The robot whirred again, rescanning Mulan, but didn't back down. "Friendship of intruder not proven," it chirped.
Mulan slid her eyes to Belle, keeping her gun trained on the robot. "What will happen if I shoot it? Will it blow up?"
"No, but I do hope you won't." Belle fixed clear, earnest brown eyes on Mulan. "I'm trying to develop a companion-guardbot. I read about one in a story about - wait, that's not important, is it. But I swear as soon as I've fixed this paranoia problem it's going to be a darling." She bit her lip. "If you drop your weapon I'm positive it will stand down."
Mulan eyed the guardbot. If it decided to shoot her she would be unconscious for hours, and when she woke she would have singed nerves, nausea and a ferocious headache long into tomorrow.
She was almost sure she trusted Belle to know how to handle one of her creations.
She bent down, slowly, keeping her eyes on the bot, and laid her gun on the floor.
The bot advanced another foot. "Four minutes have elapsed without a gesture of friendship towards or from the intruder." A judgemental note entered the electronic voice. "Friendliness of intruder is doubtful." It levelled the stunner.
"Oh, for –" Belle said. She darted forward, pressed up against Mulan and caught Mulan's cheeks in her hands. Then she leaned in and kissed her.
Mulan froze, her eyes flying wide.
Belle's mouth was warm and insistent on hers. Mulan's knees felt weak. She lifted her hands to cup Belle's elbows, her mouth softening against Belle's. Belle made a pleased sound and pressed closer, her mouth parting, teeth closing gently on Mulan's lower lip. Mulan gave a choked gasp.
Belle pulled back, searching Mulan's face. "Did I hurt you?" Her eyes were huge and very dark.
"What?" Mulan managed. "No – I – not hurt." She cleared her throat.
Belle turned around, pushing a hand through the heavy fall of her hair. "It looks like we convinced Chip," she said. The little robot was retreating back into Belle's bedroom. Belle looked back at Mulan, her eyes bright.
"I –" Mulan cleared her throat again, palming the back of her neck. "That was the only friendly gesture you could think of?"
Colour stole into Belle's cheeks. "Well, it was the first one. I suppose because I – I've thought about it before."
Mulan had been distracted by Belle's mouth. Now her gaze flew to her eyes.
"You – oh," she said. A smile started to tug at her mouth. She took a few steps forward, crowding Belle up against the wall. "Oh, well then."
Belle caught her breath, her eyes dark.
Mulan leaned in. "I like your robot," she admitted. She stopped Belle's laugh with her mouth.
A moment later The Wendy Bird lurched, violently, and Belle yelped as Mulan bit her tongue. Mulan pushed back from her, her eyes wide.
"Oh!" she said. "They need you in the engine room urgently to do something to the thrusters!"
Belle blinked at her. "What – I didn't –" The ship lurched again, and her face flooded with guilt. "I did notice that before, but I was working on such a fiddly – oh hell, I have to get there!"
She threw the door open and dashed up the hall, her feet flashing.
Mulan leaned against the wall, watching her go. Her ankle didn't hurt anymore, and she couldn't stop smiling.