Chapter 25
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Our little group walked in silence, the only sound the cold whirring of the air handlers overhead and the steady stomp of boots on the deckplaces. We were in it - we’d revealed ourselves, opening that line of communication between us and the disabled ship. There was no turning back. We could still run, of course, but they’d know we were here. If this was a trap, there would be no way they’d let us go.

For the time being, it would just be us few - Idjim, Saro, and I. The other survivors could help, once we knew what the situation was, but none of them seemed to have the stomach for a prolonged, drawn-out fight should it turn into one. Better for them to stay where they were, ready and waiting to get us the hell out of there if things went south.

An’air had stayed behind, clutching his console like a life raft as he glared at us. He hadn’t wanted to stop at all. I couldn’t fault him for being a sore loser about things, and in truth, it probably was best that someone halfway responsible stay behind and watch the ship. Kess had hesitated, casting a look our way, but only murmured to call for her if there were wounded. She didn’t offer to come, and we didn’t ask.

We just slipped from the room, making our way to the port that would take us through the black of space to our newfound neighbors.

The weight of the pistol strapped to my leg was enough to make me glance down. It was comforting, yes, and yet…”Should we disarm?” I said quietly, glancing over at my companions. Saro and Idjim were both pressed in close, mutely leading the way.

Idjim opened his mouth to reply, but Saro spoke first. “No. Keep your gun,” he said, glancing up to me. “We don’t know anything about them.”

“It might spook them worse,” Idjim said, his voice low.

Saro shook his head, his ears flopping with the motion. “It might. But they might be waiting to fill us with holes as soon as we set foot on their ship. Let’s not be stupid, here.”

“Do you...I mean, you don’t have anything,” I said, my eyes dropping down to him for a single moment. He was empty-handed. “Should we stop? There’s a locker nearby, I think.”

“Don’t need it,” he said with a chuckle, stretching his arms out. One after another, he cracked his fingers, loudly and pointedly.

Despite the tension of the moment, I smiled. “Fair enough.”

The tube was ahead as we turned the corner - already locked in place and pressurising, according to the sensors churning in the back of my mind. “We’re good,” I said softly, reaching for the door.

Saro’s hand landed on my elbow a moment later. “Sam.”

It was the second time he’d abandoned any pretenses of my fake name. That and the low tone of his voice told me he was being serious. I froze, looking down. He was staring back up at me, his unreadable eyes fixed on mine.

“What is it?” I said slowly.

“I know that it’s going to be tempting, but I don’t think you should immerse yourself in their ship,” he said at last, pressing his lips into a thin line as he finished.

The handle to the door was cool under my fingers. I held it fast, still staring down at Saro. “I...wasn’t really planning on it. It wouldn’t be a good idea for me to be in the fetal position in the corner. Might raise some questions.”

“Good. Don’t be an idiot.”

My cheeks flushed with color. “I’m not being an idiot. I wasn’t planning on doing anything like that.”

He grinned, leering up at me. “Just can’t tell, y’know. And...if you can, I think you should stay attached to our ship. At least have that connection open.”

Idjim was growing more impatient by the second. His fingers twitched towards the door handle, but I was in the way, and I wasn’t about to move so that he could bypass us. “Are you expecting trouble?” the normally-eager alien said, all but bouncing on his heels.

Saro half-turned, fixing an irritated glare on him. “Always. Your luck hasn’t been any better than ours, has it? How long were you in that cell?”

Idjim’s antennae drooped, the whole alien seeming to crumple ever so slightly. “I-I mean, just because we’ve been unfortunate in the past, it doesn’t mean you have to distrust everyone.”

“Right. Well, you keep doing that, and let me know how it works for you,” Saro said, his tone scathing. “Sam, just be watchful.”

“I will,” I said, tearing my eyes off Idjim. He was already straightening again, bouncing back from Saro’s biting words. The alien was relentless. “Anything else?”

“Yeah,” Saro said, rolling his eyes. “Don’t let anyone see your collars. Idjim, zip your damn shipsuit. They’d be talking about thatforever. And...let me see your sleeve, Sam.”

I blinked, taking a step back reflexively, but Saro was already there, his hands grabbing at where my arm should have been. I’d done what I could, but, well, there was no getting around reality. There just wasn’t anything for the sleeve of my suit to wrap around, no flesh or bone to give it shape. And with one arm, it was difficult for me to so much as get the damn thing on, let alone do anything more proper with the slack, empty fabric.

Murmuring darkly under his breath, Saro folded the sleeve up against my arm, trying to bind it back. “A one-armed Aeth is going to draw...questions,” he muttered, his nose wrinkling more with every second the suit fought him. “No getting around that. But it’ll be a deal with.”

“Let me,” Idjim said with a pointed sigh, stepping in front of the Palinon. Saro was trying his best, but there was just no way his rounded, too-large fingers could handle a delicate task like that. My friend just stepped back, making a face and pulling his own shipsuit higher to hide his collar from sight.

“No, no, no.” Idjim had no sooner laid a hand on me when a voice rang out across the hallway - bright, cheerful, and at the same time soaked through with disappointment. We looked up as one. A blue-skinned, snake-haired alien strode down the hall towards us, a tall-necked undershirt already thrown on under her suit.

“Tiix,” I said, nodding towards the girl. I hadn’t seen much of her, not since we’d decided our destination, but she’d flitted here and there among the crew, soothing and comforting. “What’s up? Did An’air send you?”

“An’air? He’s too focused on his own worries to think of anyone but himself,” she said, flashing me a grin. Sliding her elbow between Idjim and I, she pushed him aside just as easily as he’d pushed away Saro. Her every motion was practiced and precise. Within moments, she’d pulled straps from deeper inside the suit, binding the sleeve back.

“Well...Thanks for the help with the suit, but I think you should-”

“There. That’ll keep it from flapping, and it’s sealed up properly. Those things are segmented. They’ll hold,” she said, patting the line of rubber one last time and glancing back up to me. “And I’m coming.”

“Oh...thank you,” I murmured, flexing my half-arm and watching the way the fabric moved with me. “I mean, no. It’s too dangerous. We don’t know what they’re going to-”

“I’m originally from the Empire, you know,” she murmured, her eyes fixed on my faceplate. “Whoever’s on the other side, they’ll be less surprised to see me than all of you.” A smile tugged at her lips again. “And you guys aren’t exactly...comforting to see.”

I winced, opening my mouth to retort, but a quick scan of the group showed that she wasn’t exactly wrong. Besides for the whole matter of our being a cluster of outsiders, we didn’t really have the ‘friendly’ thing going for us. Idjim looked like a giant bug, and the fact he had a habit of ignoring personal bubbles didn’t help. I was an Aeth, supposedly renowned for being standoffish. And I only had one arm - even better. Saro was...Saro. Tiix was the only one among us that looked halfway approachable.

“Fine,” I said, throwing my hand up helplessly. “If you’re sure. Just be careful, all right?”

“I will,” she said, her smile growing.

Inwardly I groaned. But having her along would be pleasant enough, too. Twisting the handle and pulling hard, I eased the door to the tube open.

The lurch of zero-gravity was as disconcerting as ever. I waited just beyond the door as Idjim sealed it up, watching Saro bound towards the far side. The little alien was like a white-skinned missile, hurtling through our thinly-claimed airspace with ominous force.

I moved to follow him, but Tiix was faster. Where Saro had thrown himself in the general direction of the other ship, occasionally careening off the handles mounted into the sidewalls of the passage, Tiix floated. Her hair came to life as she sailed through the tunnel, spreading behind her like a halo as she danced across to the other side.

Wonderful. Following her wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind, but I didn’t have much choice. Swallowing my curses, I kicked off hard, trying to keep my arm up and not to bounce off the walls too badly.

The hatch waited on the far end as we straightened ourselves, folding our shirtcollars higher to mask the steel bands that gleamed even in the half-light. The design of the door was entirely different from our scrapper - the metal was rough-hewn, and clearly battered from years of use, but it seemed sturdy in a way that ours never had.

“Ready?” Saro said, glancing up at us.

I took a deep breath, glancing back from the corner of my eye to stare towards our ship. The network waited in the back of my mind, buzzing with life and energy. I latched onto its comforting presence. Not everything was alien. It was still there.

And then I turned back to the hatch, nodding along with the rest of my companions.

Idjim had the hatch release in hand a moment later, twisting hard and pulling the door free. It gave way with a surge of foul-smelling air, stinking of sulfur and smoke and exhaust. Everyone winced, me included. There were controls in my suit - basic, yes, but there. I chinned the first, sealing the vents closed with a smirk. This thing was miserable and annoying, but Ididn’t have to suffer the stink of the ship.

Saro just glared up at me reproachfully. From the look on his face, he’d heard the quiet hiss of the suit closing up. I chuckled down at him. He could be jealous all he wanted, I didn’t care. Idjim pushed in, scarcely seeming to notice at all.

With one last look to Tiix, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder, I followed her and Saro in.

The ship was dark. From what I’d seen, that wasn’t all that unusual. Lights took energy, and there was no need to be wasteful. But where the scrapper we’d commandeered just felt empty at times, this ship felt... abandoned. Damaged.

“Do they even have life support online?” Idjim whispered, casting a mournful look at the equipment strung along the ceiling of our little walkway. It was everywhere. Tubes hung from the roof. Valves were welded into the walls, jabbing out here and there for a careless elbow to slam into.

Tiix and I glanced up in perfect sync. Idjim was right. There were vents here and there, no doubt leading to whatever air scrubbers the mining ship had - but they were still and quiet. “I don’t know,” I murmured. “Should...should I-”

“What did I tell you?” Saro snapped, looking back over his shoulder. “Come on. We’re-” His words trailed off. I didn’t have to wonder why.

The hallway we were following was straight and narrow, leading directly from the airlock we’d hooked on to into the ship proper. Silently, I had to marvel at how fast my mind was getting used to all this - wandering between ships, jumping in zero-gravity, venturing into unknown territory. There was something wrong with me. There was no other reason I should be so numb to all of these changes.

But as straightforward as our path had been, it widened out just a few steps ahead, guiding us down a narrow set of stairs into what looked like the ship’s main deck. And there were people there. Five.

I froze, feeling Tiix and Idjim do the same. The aliens were...big. The thought swam across my mind in bemused, befuddled clarity. They loomed, towering like hunks of rough-hewn rock over the worn, dusty consoles pressed against the outer hull. And they had guns, rifles clutched in their hands and pointed straight at us.

“Doggrynte,” I heard Saro said, his voice little more than a murmur. And then he sighed. “Stubborn rock-for-brains.”

“Don’t- Don’t come any closer!” one of them called. I eyed him with more than a passing interest. His skin was the dark, nearly-perfect black of obsidian, but I could see the pores of it from where I stood. His hands trembled as he held the heavy rifle up, and I didn’t get the feeling it was from exhaustion. The alien was clearly terrified. “Who are you? What do you-”

“We’re here to help,” Idjim said, holding his hands up placatingly. We stayed right where we were, waiting despite the nervous energy flooding our system.

“Targan, give it a rest,” another muttered, their voice like the slow rumble of a train. “You’ve got guns, outsiders. Why?” His voice was more level, but there was enough fear in it to go around all the same. “You won’t find us sleeping.”

“You can’t really blame us, can you?” Saro said, his voice rising to carry down to the miners. The deck - and then the stairs - rumbled underfoot as he strode past Idjim, completely ignoring my hissed pleas. Taking the railing in his massive, pudgy hands, he glared down at them. “If you thought we were going to hurt you, why exactly did you let us on your damn ship?”

I paused, eyeing the Doggrynte. They were...hesitating. They stared at Saro, taking one slow, painful blink after another.

“What is...what is a Palinon doing maurading with-”

“You’re about to accuse my crew of being raiders, aren’t you?” Saro said, his voice just a hair shy of a snap. “That would be rude. Reconsider.”

The aliens stiffened. Their skin and faces looked like just so much stone, making it damned impossible to read their reactions, but I could only hope it was chagrin I was looking at. “W-We would not give insult, of course. But...all the same.” The one who seemed to be their leader, or at least the most coherent among them, inched forward. They weren’t putting down their rifles. “We simply cannot allow you to walk our ship with weapons in hand, waiting for your chance to shoot us in the backs.”

“Then we’ll go,” Saro said. “We’re not about to let you do the same to us.” The skin across his knuckles rippled as he slowly tightened his grip, the muscles springing to life. The railing creaked dangerously, beginning to bend.

I laid a hand on his shoulder, trying to swallow my fear. I was supposed to be Aeth - aloof, disconnected, unconcerned. And yet, Saro walking around bending and breaking their ship as he damn well pleased was going to get us shot at. We weren’t hereto intimidate them. Saro was normally a bit...blunt, but this was going a bit far even for him. And I didn’t miss the derisive glances he shot towards the Doggrynte. Just what we needed - some sort of stupid rivalry.

The two Doggrynte who stood out front glanced at each other. I could see the uncertainty in every line of their frames, even if they were aliens. They knew that when we left, the whole thing was back to the start. Suddenly, they didn’t seem so steadfast about us leaving. And they didn’treturn my friend’s glares.

Saro stepped away from the railing, leaving a definite, noticeable handprint in the metal. I winced. Idjim cast one last, regretful glance down at the miners, but drifted back a pace. I offered him a thin smile before realizing he’d never be able to see it behind my faceplate. “Sorry,” I murmured instead, just loud enough for him to hear. He shrugged, his multifaceted eyes downcast.

“Now, really, are we stopping here? Over something like that?”

I flinched, glancing back towards the stairs. Tiix had pushed past Saro before I even realized what she was doing, her chin raised stubbornly and her dark eyes fixed on the miners. “Do you lot want to die?”

A low, irritated rumbling began from where they waited down below. I licked my suddenly-dry lips, stepping closer. They still had guns, dammit. She couldn’t wind up shot over this. I was more than a little taken aback to see someone I’d always taken as soft and gentle behaving so...aggressively, but she flashed me a quick grin, her cheeks flushed dark.

The two leaders paused. “You’re-”

“I’m from the Hubward Belt - not all that far from Doggran. We’re not enemies, for the love of Raist. If you don’t believe them, will you believe me?” she snapped.

The word she used didn’t translate, but in the back of my mind, I could feel religious files I must have downloaded somewhere along the line start unpacking. I quashed them, shaking my head to clear the data-surge, and returned my eyes to the aliens just in time to see them shift. Suddenly, they didn’t look so confident.

One of them was whispering. I glanced to the walls around me, momentarily trying to reach for a network that wasn’t there, before sighing. My suit had audio feeds built in. They’d have to do. I keyed them us as loud as they’d go from the panel on my hip, praying my friends kept their quiet for a few moments. The quiet voices of An’air and Kess whispered in the back of my mind. I pushed them aside, straining my ears to pick up a few scraps of conversation from in front of me.

“...if it doesn’t change. I don’t know how much longer I can-”

“Don’t be stupid, Targan. If they’re here to kill us, then-”

“If those coils blow, then we’re all dead just as surely. Be reasonable, Mossim.”

I turned the volume back down, swallowing. Well, then. I didn’t quite know what ‘coils’ they were talking about, but from what I’d seen of the ship so far, it didn’t bode well. “We should hurry. Seriously,” I murmured to my companions, trying not to fidget. I stretched out a mental finger, trying to slide myself into the computer around me. Saro had said not to get myself immersed - that was fine and dandy, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t peek in. I needed to know exactly how fucked the ship we stood on was, before we got ourselves blown up.

It was no good. My thoughts slid off a smooth, blank wall, just like they had with the scavenger ship. Given time and proper effort, I could probably find a way in, just like I had before. But not without behaving oddly enough to well and truly stand out. I just glanced at the woman beside me instead, jerking my chin imperceptibly.

“Goodbye!” Tiix said, throwing her hands up in a jaunty wave as she spun on her heel. “So sorry that we couldn’t-”

“Wait.” Mossim had a hand pressed to his face, his more flighty companion still bouncing from foot to foot like an avalanche. Their fellows stirred behind them, clearly uncomfortable but keeping their quiet. “We can’t...your people are honest. Do you promise you-”

“We’re here to help,” Tiix said, folding her arms across her chest and beaming down at the miners. Saro trundled up alongside her. He didn’t say a word. He just nodded along, slowly easing his hands back onto the railing. The metal groaned again. He grinned. When he stepped away a moment later, it was a little straighter than it had been before. I heard Tiix sigh, casting a scornful look down at him. “None of us have time to sit around posturing, friends. What do you say you let us do what we came here to do?”

“Fine,” Mossim snapped. “But they go nowhere without an escort.

“Fine! Fine, fine,” Idjim said, scurrying down the stairs before anyone could stop him. “Now - what’s the issue?” The situation was dire, but he couldn’t fool me - I saw the sparkle in his eyes, the bounce in his step. He was excited. Actually excited. I couldn’t tell if it was for the meeting-new-people kick, or the fixing-broken-ship kick. Either way, his exuberance just exhausted me.

My hand itched, feeling the gun lurking just inches below my fingers. I wasn’t left-handed. When push came to shove, could I be useful? Would I be ready, if they turned the rifles they carried on us? I prayed it wouldn’t be needed, but Saro was right.

Our track record was so beyond being hopeful that it was a joke. I didn’t dare entertain the thought that this would go any differently than things had been for the last three years.

No one else was waiting for me to come to terms with the matter. Tiix was following after Idjim, her smooth, rounded face lit up by the smile stretching from ear to ear. Saro was a pace behind, seeming entirely satisfied with himself.

Forcing my fears and doubts down, I grabbed the railing and started down the stairs after them - and prayed that we weren’t getting in over our heads.