The Ekaterina’s Pride returns to the rendezvous point with the tanker Rucker, dropping out of FTL to find the fuel ship waiting as expected.

Sharpes calls up from engineering via intercom: “Hey, dogface. It occurs to me the Vannies might have some eggheads around to examine that moss. Maybe Captain Lee can get you in touch with the Zheng He.”

“That’s an interesting thought,” Vechkov replies, but he shrugs. “Our priority is making the claim on Mintaka. Then we can ask around about scientists to check out your pet moss.”

“Setting course for the Rucker then, for now,” the Pyracani says, entering the coordinates before sending ship into FTL and sits back, leaning back into the pilot’s seat after that’s done. “ETA is two hours. Any ideas on how you want to get a mining outfit out here?”

The Ungstiri ponders, scratching his right cheek. “I know some people.” A chuckle, then, “Maybe they’re tired of drilling on dead rock back home.”

“Guess so,” Sionnach replies with a thoughtful nod, “You think they’ll let you fuel up a mining bark at the Rucker?”

“Don’t know,” Prague says. “But I don’t see why not. Gotta talk it over with Captain Lee, I expect.”

“Would think so,” the Pyracani says with a quick nod. “Mind if I grab a quick power nap while I’m locked out of the helm?”

“Not at all,” Prague replies. “I’ll keep an eye on things.”

A couple hours later, the Pride is docked aboard the Rucker. Prague makes his way down to the airlock, where he finds Sharpers waiting. She says, “We’ve got a burnt out circuit in the generator matrix below the Faraday construct.”

Vechkov grunts, eyeing her from under the brim of his fedora. “Expensive to fix?”

Sharpers shrugs. “Depends on supply, demand, and human greed. I’ll see what Captain Lee’s got in stock.”

The Ungstiri nods, then says, “Thanks. Send me the bill.”

The engineer opens the airlock and descends the ramp toward the hangar bay.

Sionnach climbs down after the engineer has left. “Anything to do while we wait, boss?” he asks Veckov, pausing to lean on the ladder.

“You want to ask around about that moss sample?” Prague inquires.

“Couldn’t hurt,” the Pyracani replies with a quick nod, pulling open the storage compartment in which the sample was stored. “How much time we got?” he asks, rummaging in the bin.

The captain shrugs, plucking a cigarette from the crumpled pack in his trenchcoat pocket. “A while. I’m transmitting the Mintaka claim report to Earth now that we’re here. Once we’ve got clearance to proceed with resource development, we may head back to Ungstir to hire the right folks for the job of ramping up operations. So I’d say we’re here for at least a couple of days.”

“Fair enough,” the pilot says, pulling the sample jar out of the bin, “I’ll see what I can find. Don’t leave without me.” He grins as wide as a caninoid can before stepping through the airlock and onto the Rucker.

Captain Miranda Lee nods to Sionnach as he arrives. She says: “Welcome back. Productive trip, I hope.”

“Seems like it,” the Pyracani replies with a toothy smile, “I was wondering, though, if you have anyone who might like to look at a biological sample we picked up.”

The captain arches an eyebrow. “Sample. From your alien world? It’ll need to go through quarantine first. And your ship and crew are under lockdown until that sample is cleared.” She sighs. “Come on, I’ll take you to Fremont’s lab. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to figure out if you’ve killed us all.”

“Well, nothing has happened yet,” the Pyracani says with a sheepish grin, his flattened ears convincing no one. He does, however, follow the captain to wherever she leads.

A short while later, the duo arrives at an office adjacent to the docking bay, where the Rucker’s quartermaster – Alloy Fremont – reviews the latest incoming freight manifests. The captain informs him: “We’ve got an alien sample that needs a quarantine review. Priority, since, y’know, protocols.” She glances toward Sionnach and says, “So you know, you’re the first explorer to come back with something to show for it. Watch it be some kind of death spore from hell.”

Fremont, a white-haired skinny man, blanches at the captain’s lackadaisical attitude. “Don’t even joke,” he mutters. He slides a pair of white plastic gloves onto his hands and reaches out toward the Pyracani. “Let’s see it.”

The pilot almost considers tossing the container to Fremont, mostly to give the quartermaster a heart attack, but he thinks better of it, not entirely confident the man will make the catch. He instead hands the sample carefully over. “Let us hope it is nothing bad,” he says.

Fremont accepts the container, then carries it toward a hatch in the back of his chamber. The hatch bears a scary-looking red and yellow biohazard symbol. He sets the tube on a shelf beside the hatch. He climbs into a blue hazardous materials suit. Then he opens the hatch, takes the tube, steps inside, and closes the hatch with a THUNK.

Sionnach watches this operation with a certain level of fascination. “So anyone run into any trouble, yet?” he asks of the captain while waiting.

“Trouble?” The captain shakes her head. “A few refuel issues and mechanical failures that required rescue. Although there’s one ship, the Martinette, that’s late reporting back from Beta Ophiuchi. Vanguard should be checking that out.”

The hatch opens. Fremont emerges, yanking the mask off his suit, and offers the tube of moss back to Sionnach. “Non-hazardous. Mostly protein. In fact, it’s an excellent food source.” He looks toward Captain Lee. “If you want to supplement our rations, you could do a lot worse than this plant.”

Sionnach wrinkles his snout in disgust, shaking his head. “You folks want to hold onto it?” he asks, “I’ll have to ask the boss, but I don’t think he’ll mind overmuch.”

Fremont looks flabbergasted. Captain Lee chuckles at his dismay, then she says to Sionnach: “If there’s a lot of this material on the world you found, and if it’s a renewable resource, it may earn your boss a hell of a lot more than a mineral claim in the long run. You may have discovered a nutritional supplement useful to thousands, if not millions, of potential colonists.”

The Pyracani seems incredulous of this but he nods politely. “Alright, well… thanks. I better get back and tell him, then.” He takes the container, looking in at it as if it contained a deadly spider. He nods to the two officers once again and bids them farewell, heading back to the Ekaterina’s Pride.

“Next time, use a hazmat container,” the quartermaster complains at Sionnach’s back.

Captain Lee gives Fremont a cutting look. “Well, now they definitely won’t cut us in on their big payday.”

The pilot returns to the exploration ship, ducking into the airlock. “Still aboard, boss?” he calls out as he cycles the hatch closed.

“Yeah, sure,” Prague answers through the intercom. “Just heard back from my friends on Ungstir. They think it might be cost prohibitive to ramp up a mining facility for something as mundane as iron.”

“About that,” Sionnach replies, tossing the sample container in the air and catching it, “Apparently this stuff’s worth more than we thought.

“Really?” The captain grunts. “Come on in. Let’s talk next steps.”

The Pyracani steps into Prague’s cramped bunkroom and holds up the container, “Apparently, this is edible. Captain Lee thinks it might be worth a fortune if it can be farmed.”

The Ungstiri blinks in surprise. “I came all this way to make my fortune…and it’s gonna be farming moss?”

Sionnach tosses the container to Vechkov with a toothy grin. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” he says with a chuckle.