Charmaine and her two fathers, Johan and Silas, live on Astrin, a space station in the Andromeda Galaxy; while Char feels like taking out the trash every time her classmate Starlee speaks to her, it’s her Dads who really do that sort of work. They’re a Mid Level family. And that means little extra to go around, even if Charmaine wishes otherwise. But the trash haul can hide interesting secrets. Secrets the top level on Astrin would really like to know about. Secrets that Charmaine and her two best friends — Kevaiah and Omar — would really like to be in on.

*

To say that they – Charmaine, Omar, and Kevaiah – were not welcome on C-3 deck was to put it mildly.

“Feed her some of the haul,” is what Charmaine thought she heard her father say as she was bruskly picked up by her other father.

With Omar, it was even worse. “Your fathers won’t ever let me work with them. Chaaaar….” His brown eyes pleaded.

“Whatever,” Charmaine said to Omar as he was whisked out of the lift by his mother.

“Ouch,” Kevaiah said, breaking her quiet next to her glowering uncle, catching the thunk of Omar’s mother’s hand swatting his shoulder.

Charmaine’s face softened and she attempted to lean back when Johan cleared his throat. Softly. In that way that made her skin prickle.

Kevaiah gave her a desultory wave as her uncle led her out with a strong grip on her left arm.

Her father was still staring at her as she straightened up fully.

Just freeze us out in an air lock. They were all in so much trouble.

Maybe she would be eating trash for dinner after all.

*

Trash for dinner didn’t happen; her father successfully worked a machine his husband usually worked.

“It’s been updated so often since we got married,” Johan grumbled during the process, punching another incorrect sequence into the food re-atomizer.

It squawked.

“Dad, you have to….”

He didn’t listen.

As usual.

But, then, “Aha!  I found the manual!”

And one hour of grumbling belly later, intermixed with weepy apologies about what had happened earlier on C-3, Charmaine ate a very satisfactory dinner.

And then spent an hour-and-a-half cleaning up the dishes after Johan turned off the cleaning mechanism as punishment.

*

So to now.

*

“I didn’t even know you could turn that part of the re-atomizer off,” Charmaine complains on her badly-patched-yet-still-somehow-working receiver.

“My dad’s done it to me before,” Omar says, disconsolate.

“It should be illegal.”

Groan.

Charmaine wishes she could poke Omar and make him laugh.  “Whaaaat?

“I wish us using that lift had been illegal. Do you think Silas will forgive me?”

Charmaine stares hard at the receiver. Maybe if Omar spent time talking about her and not her father…. He’d freeze himself out of her life first, it seemed.

“Sure, just study up,” she clips.

“Okay. Did he get home yet?”

“Yeah, but he and Dad are talking. They made me go to my room.”

“Kevaiah overheard her mom.”

Speaking of people Charmaine wanted to impress.

“What’d she say?”

“It’s totally a new species. They’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“I was afraid it was robotic.”

“No, for real. It’s organic.”

“If I go out there, they’ll kill me.”

“Or make you wash more dishes.”

“About the same.”

“So, just ask over breakfast.”

*

“Charmaine!”

Silas’ voice thunders through the room, shocking Charmaine

awake. She and Omar had stayed up all hours talking. She blurrily looks around the room and groans. Had she even slept?

“Charmaine!”

“I’m up, Dad,” she mumbles.

“Doesn’t sound like it.” The door rattles. “I need your door open.”

Charmaine rolls out of the bed with a grumble and slumps towards the door. He’s just going to keep rattling.

When the door opens, Silas nods, pleased. “You overslept, but I’ve got breakfast ready.”

“Okay,” Charmaine yawns, running a hand through her tussled hair. “Be there in a second.”

She manages not to slump back on the bed. ‘Door open’ rule is definitely needed today.

*

“So, what is it, then?”

“It’s an adaptive organism,” Silas tells her, spooning some sweetener on to his breakfast — Ternalian porridge, his personal favorite.

Charmaine was already on her second banana, an unheard of luxury. Commander Sigil had given Silas a bunch of them.

“From what we saw yesterday, it can mimic not only the form, but the function, of almost any metaloid structure.”

“Same size only?”

“Not exactly, but the experts aren’t certain yet.  We’re hoping to find more.”

*

“And they’re hoping to find more,” Charmaine says to Kevaiah.

“More of those things?!” Starlee practically snarls from behind her shoulder. “My father says we have to be careful! They may be here to attack.”

Kevaiah turns. Slowly. And gives Starlee a very careful look. “You do realize my mother, the leading zoobiologist on board Astrin, not to mention Commander Sigil himself, are really excited about this discovery. Right?”

Starlee glowers, then stammers, “But my father….”

“Has spent too much time in the artillery,” Omar says, grinning.

“And not enough time hunting through the trash,” Charmaine adds, low enough to be heard.

Starlee straightens up with a huff. Her face turns fuchsia. Then, she turns on her heel and stalks off, leaving the three friends laughing.

*

It’s not Omar who rings Charmaine’s receiver after dinner. It’s Starlee.

“What do you want?”

“I wanted to talk about earlier,” Starlee says.

Charmaine lays back on her bed and says, “Yeah. Okay.”

“Don’t you think there might be trouble?”

Charmaine sighs. Loudly. “No, not really. Why are you so set on it?”

“My father, of course.”

“It’s a new organism, Starlee. You approach with trust first unless attacked, and even then there may be a cause.”

“But it was within the ship itself!”

Starlee sounds, as usual, intractable. Maybe life on Upper Level made one that way.

Charmaine flips over on her belly. “So, we picked it up somehow….”

“Or it decided to get here for some reason!”

“Astrin is strategic, I’ll give you that. But, still, you’d think there would be a hint of attack already.”

“Maybe,” Starlee says. “But maybe not. Maybe this…organism wants more information first.”

Charmaine is quiet.

Then: “Well, there’s no way of knowing until the scientists are done with their research.”

Starlee is quiet on the other end.

“Maybe we could do our own research,” she says, finally. “What time do your fathers work the haul on Upper Two?”

Charmaine pauses. “How did you find out where they found the organism?”

“I know how to listen, Charmaine,” Starlee says.

What could be the harm of it? Plenty. More time with friendly re-atomizer, if nothing else. Still….

“Okay, I’m interested.”

“You’re not freezing me?”

“No, not at all. We’ll just log in that we’re doing a project together. I’ll make it sound good. The teacher loves both of us anyway.”

“Of course we’ll get approved!”

“Definitely.” Charmaine smiles. Were they actually getting along?

“So…what time tomorrow?”

“Meet at school first. Sometimes schedule changes happen in the morning. I’ll keep my ears open over breakfast.”

A gulp on the other end of the line. “Yeah, let’s not run into one of your Dads….”

They chat a bit more, the first time they’ve ever really exchanged polite comments. Then, Starlee hangs up.

Charmaine rings Omar instantly. He’s not available. Neither’s Kevaiah.

She’ll just have to wait to give them the jaw-dropping news. Starlee might actually be human.

 

     In “Blinded, Part 3,” Charmaine and Starlee dig up the truth. Literally. What is this new species really doing on Astrin?