The walls of the corridor leading from the hangar to the outpost’s central dome are covered in an incredibly overgrown mass of vines. The vegetation is so thick that soon the pilots come to a place where the vines have blocked the path ahead entirely.
“You know,” Potts quips, tugging ineffectively at one of the larger vines, “I wasn’t expecting to do any gardening today.”
“Well, Sarge, no one’s been here to prune these grapes in at least seven years… just be glad Wyndi ‘borrowed’ us something that can handle them.” Major Ioane pulls out the laser saw with a laugh and sets to work clearing a path through the vines.
Wyndi chimes in from Potts’ shoulder with an especially pleased series of little squeaks. Their tail swishes with enough matching emotion to brush against and tickle his ear.
“Now, don’t you get smug on me, Mirawynd. You had no way of knowing we’d have a use for that.” Potts pats the kitten’s head anyway with an affectionate chuckle and looks back to the Major. “Do you think the rest of the complex is going to be this bad?”
“Oh, I doubt it.” Major Ioane pauses for a moment, looking around the corridor. “I don’t remember grapes on these walls the last time I was here, of course—but that was before I joined the Fleet.”
“And that was how long ago, Major?” Potts grins.
“Oh, ten, maybe twelve years—but who’s counting?” She laughs, plucking a grape and tossing it at him.
Wyndi snatches the grape out of the air with a cheerful squeak right before it can hit Potts in the forehead.
“Good catch, Wyndi! I thought for sure I’d get him that time.”
Potts rolls his eyes. The Major has been playing that particular game with his little counterpart for so long that he doesn’t even flinch anymore when she does it. He doesn’t even remember now how it all started. “I’d wish you better luck next time, Major,” he says dryly, “but I’m better off betting on Wyndi.”
While the Major is giggling at that, Wyndi sniffs at the small purple-black fruit they’re holding between their upper pair of hands. Once they’ve thoroughly inspected it, they pat Potts on the cheek with one of their grape-less lower hands.
“Yes, Wyndi,” Potts replies, “grapes are safe for you, and these look ripe enough to eat. Knowing you, you’re probably hungry, too.” He shakes his head lightly. “Of course, you would have gotten a proper lunch by now if you’d stayed with Rudy like you were supposed to.”
The quasi-parental edge on his tone elicits a small squeak of acknowledgement from Wyndi, along with a light drooping of their ears and tail.
“And the two of us would have been in a different place entirely if they had,” Major Ioane interjects. She slices off a good-sized bunch of grapes and offers it to the kitten. “Here you go, sweetheart. Sarge is just grumpy because he knows Rudy’s going to lecture him instead of you now when we get home.”
Wyndi squeaks happily as they accept the gift, any momentary feelings of guilt for having been disobedient clearly forgotten. They break off one of the grapes from the stem and hold it out to Potts with a questioning flick of their ears.
Potts takes the grape with a nod and sighs dramatically. “We’re both going to get an earful, I’m sure—and not just from him.” He pops the grape into his mouth and pats the kitten’s head reassuringly. “But the Major’s right, Wyndi. There’s no need to worry about all of that at the moment.”
Wyndi nuzzles his hand briefly, then contents themself with sitting on his shoulder and nibbling away at their grapes while he and Major Ioane deal with the vines.
Almost an hour later, the pilots finally cut through the last of the vines and emerge from the grape-filled corridor.
The large open space on the other side of the tangled vegetation is unexpectedly humid and just as overgrown. Plants of all sorts climb up the walls and across the ceilings of the atrium’s lower encircling levels towards the central polyglass dome above. Years of fallen leaves and detritus have formed enough of a layer across the floor that new vines have begun to take root there. Many of the plants are in full bloom, while others bear a myriad of ripe fruits. The smell of flowers hangs thick in the air.
“Now that’s what I’d call a jungle,” Potts quips.
Wyndi, now riding on top of his head, makes a series of fascinated squeaks of agreement.
“It is at that…” Major Ioane shakes her head in amazement. “Mayview used to be called the ‘Babylon of the Outer Belt’ for the gardens here. I doubt the designers ever planned for everything to be left alone like this for so long, though. It’s incredible just how much the plants have taken over.”
“Well, at least we know the hydroponic systems are still working,” says Potts, still marveling at the sight. “Maybe toowell.”
“Maybe—but that means we’ve got fresh air and most likely decent water around here! Considering how everything else has gone today, I’ll count that as a point in our favor.”
A swarm of tiny buzzing things flits towards the pilots on a path between the squash blossoms covering the lower walls on either side of them. Potts freezes as they fly past.
“Pollen-bots, Sarge.” Major Ioane calmly sets a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure they took all of the bees along when they evacuated.”
Potts nods, relaxing. The Major is one of the few people in the galaxy aware enough of his little issue with insects to even notice him flinch. Around just about anyone else, he’d now be doing his best to appear as if nothing had bothered him in the first place. There’s not much point doing that with Major Ioane—the two of them met in part because he was trying to get away from a bee.
One more pollen-bot zips past him. This one comes close enough to catch the attention of the Florivan kitten sitting on his head.
Before Potts can do anything to stop them, Wyndi leaps from their perch with a flourish of their long tufted tail. They land in the vines and scamper off as a streak of silver bouncing through the foliage.
“Mirawynd!” Potts calls, “Come back here! Leave those poor pollen-bots alone!”
Major Ioane laughs, giving him a pat on the shoulder. “You know, Sarge? I’m starting to see why they’re not allowed in Surnia’s hydroponics bay unsupervised.”
Potts lets out a dramatic sigh. “Someday, Wyndi is going to be old enough to be embarrassed about things like this…”
“You’re looking forward to that, aren’t you?”
“Oh… maybe a little.” Potts smirks and makes his way out into the vast room, whistling loudly as he always does when he’s trying to call his ward back from one of their little escapades.
The silver streak finally reappears several minutes later, leaping now from the vines which stretch down from the highest point of the great polyglass-domed ceiling’s interior supports. Wyndi lets out a triumphant squeak as they capture the pollen-bot they’ve been chasing in mid-air—only to land with a splash into a large, lotus-covered pond in the center of the atrium a moment later.
Potts rushes over and splashes into the middle of the pond himself to scoop the flailing kitten out of the water.
“There you are! Easy, I’ve got you, it’s okay. You really need to learn to look where you’re jumping, Mirawynd,” he tells them in a tone halfway between exasperated concern and amusement.
Wyndi continues coughing and spluttering, but clings tightly to his hands in a way that Potts takes as a sign that he got to them in time. He holds the soggy kitten close to his chest as he wades back out of the past-waist-deep pool. The cold water has already filled his boots, and he hardly wants to risk dropping them into it again.
“Granted, I didn’t see this pond either under all the lily-pads—why’s there even a pond here, Major? I thought you said this was the main hub of the complex.”
“It is! That’s why the designers got creative with the aquaponics setup.” Leaning on the back of a bench next to the pond, Major Ioane gestures towards some rather large koi swimming nearby. “Far as I can remember, they’ve always kept decorative fish in this one to show off for visitors.”
“You hear that, Wyndi? You might’ve been gobbled up by a fancy fish.” Potts chuckles at the absurdity of it as he clambers back out of the pond.
Wyndi is still too busy clinging to him and coughing up the last of the water they’ve inhaled to respond. Once they can breathe comfortably again, they squeak softly and stare up sheepishly at him with all three golden eyes.
“Are they okay, Sarge?”
“Yeah.” Potts breathes a small sigh of relief. “Just a bit wet—and I doubt they’ll run off again for at least an hour. Right, Wyndi?”
“…Stay?” Wyndi climbs up to their usual spot on his shoulder.
“I’d appreciate it if you did, for once.” Potts reaches up and gives them a bit of a reassuring scratch behind their soggy ears. “Next time the fish might get to you first.”
Wyndi gives his cheek a damp nuzzle, then takes the opportunity to shake all the wetness they can out of their fur, spraying droplets of water all over the place. Seemingly satisfied, they drape themself over Potts’ shoulder to let the rest dry.
Potts can’t help laughing—he’s too relieved that they’re okay to scold them this time.
“I can’t take the two of you anywhere without you finding trouble to get into, now, can I?” Major Ioane brushes the water off of her jacket with a chuckle. “Let’s try to resist the call of the water for the rest of the day, okay?”
“Yes ma’am.” Potts sits down on the bench and pulls his boots off, pouring the water out of each one in turn. “Don’t suppose you remember where a washroom is in this place, Major? I wasn’t exactly planning on going swimming today myself.”
She looks around, then gestures towards a kiwi-vine draped archway on the far side of the domed space. “The public one’s down there. Depending on how all the door codes were set up during the evacuation, though, I may be able to get us into my Dad’s old suite if that’s not enough for you.”
“Public should be fine.” Potts wrings the water out of his socks. “Mind watching Wyndi for a bit while I go dry off?”
“Sure.” Major Ioane takes a seat on the bench beside him. She pulls a handkerchief out of one of the inner pockets of her flight jacket and then gently plucks Wyndi off of his shoulder. “Come on, sweetheart, let’s see if I can’t get your fur fluffed back up a bit while we wait for him.”
Wyndi doesn’t protest, although they make a small questioning squeak in Potts’ direction.
“I’ll be back in a bit,” he promises, reaching over to ruffle his ward’s damp ears briefly. “I’d take you with me, but I knowhow you feel about the sound speed-dryers make.”
“Shout if you run into anything weird.” Major Ioane is already busy lightly rubbing the kitten’s damp silver fur with the corner of her handkerchief. Wyndi seems more than happy to allow themself to be groomed, contentedly purring and stretching out their various small limbs to provide her with easier access to their more soggy parts.
“Weird, Major?” Potts laughs, slinging his boots and wrung-out socks over his shoulder and starting barefoot towards the washroom. “I’m not sure I even know what that is anymore.”