Emia stood at the edge of the field and pretended she wasn’t shaking. It only worked because no one was there to see her. It was obscene. All of this. The fear. The anger. The dread. It had been an accident, a mistake. The sort of thing that could always happen when you tried to train a creature like Dilyku, no matter how careful you were and how many precautions you took.
A twinge of pain shot down her arm. Phantom pain, it had to be. The healer had promised that her wounds were all fully knitted back together. But the healer was only trained in treating the body, and Emia suspected her injuries ran deeper.
The easiest thing to do would be to turn around and walk away. The safest thing would be to pack her few belongings and begin the long trek back to her village, her family, her friends. She wouldn’t be the first. She wouldn’t be the last. It took almost as much luck as it did skill to complete the training, and no one expected her to stay. Better to accept failure and live than to try and try until she died in the attempt.
What if one more try was all it took? They had been so close, she’d felt it. She’d met Dilyku’s golden hawklike gaze and held it, held him, connected with him, and he had let her. He had bent his neck, and she had run her hands down the soft, long feathers, had traced the curve of his beak with her fingers. And then—
Then, disaster. Or so they told her; her own mind still refused to release those memories to the rest of her, though they bled through in her dreams. Too much noise, too much panic. A flurry of wings, claws, feathers. A gryphon’s fear takes on a deadly shape. Though, why Dilyku was afraid they couldn’t say.
Yet she had survived. And she had healed. And there was nothing in the world to stop her from trying again, save perhaps a nascent sense of self preservation. Because there was no reason to believe she would be so lucky if it happened again. And neither was there any certainty that it wouldn’t happen again.
And so she stood at the edge of the field, the one that stretched between her and Dilyku’s cave, and she trembled. A minute passed. Or ten. Or twenty.
The question rattled in the back of her mind.
Why are you doing this?
Her own thoughts stood in accusation. There were so many she’d left behind to come here, so many who were waiting for her to return. So many who would tell her she had tried hard enough, more than hard enough. So many who would welcome her back with open arms.
So many to whom she owed so much.
That was almost what decided her. Her life was not her own– not just her own. If the only thing driving her back across that field was her own pride, her own stubborn will, then that was not enough. It would never be enough. It never could be.
Yet even then she couldn’t just turn and walk away, because that would have been terrible, too. Maybe it was Dilyku’s claws and beak that had come so close to ripping her away from this would and flinging her into the next. That was just one, terrible thing, and there were other moments. So many other moments. Enough that she could never just leave, not without trying one last time.
She lifted her fingers to her lips and whistled, three long, clear notes. It was a request, she realized. A petition for Dilyku to grant her passage into his realm. He had only ever granted it with some amount of grudging impatience, a clacked beak, a thrash of his lion’s tail, as if he had better things to do with his time but couldn’t be bothered to drive her off.
And so when his call, shrill and fierce as any bird of prey’s, warm and friendly as the response of an old companion echoed back across the field, it was the last thing she expected. And when Dilyku himself leaped from the mouth of his cave and into the warm sunlight to look for her, she hardly expected that either. And she knew. For at least a little while longer, she had to stay. Because she had already left this other friend alone too long.
For a moment she was a ghost: cold, half-numb, and detached. Then the fog broke, the ice cracked, and she remembered who she was. Where she was.Her chest tightened. A voice, artificial tones familiar yet not quite comforting, gave an announcements, instructions, warnings. Things she needed to know. Things that couldn’t be that urgent, because the lights of Coldbay 1 were a low and steady blue and and nothing was flashing red, and only one or two were amber. Things that could wait until she extricated herself from the coldpod and replaced this pink and paper-thin gown with something more substantial. Things that the Twins, one bay over, were just as capable of taking care of too.
She grunted as her bare feet hit the panel floor and an aching panic jolted through her legs, her hips, her back as the muscles remembered how to work. Or maybe it was just the effect of cold metal on unprotected skin.
In the background, the artificial voice garbled on.
“… can be found in the shelving…
… you or any member of your team are…
… Earth mean date and time is calculated at…”
There were other noises, too. She hadn’t noticed them at first but they were there, and they were comforting. Low hums. Rhythmic thrumming. All the sounds a ship should make, an electric, mechanical heartbeat against a backdrop of complete and perfect silence.
And the silence beyond was perfect. Or at least it was complete.
Clarity returned in fits and starts, bringing more of memory with it. Her chest tightened again. It wasn’t that she had forgotten: not any of it. Not the ship. Not the mission. Not how irrevocably vast the distance was that they had traveled. It was just that her brain, fogged with coldsleep and a thousand clamoring physical needs, had neglected to remember. It remembered now.
Strange how remembering brought both relief and renewed dread. Relief that the nanites had worked, that she was here, alive, awake. She’d never gone under cold before, and the primal fear that raged in the back of the brain could only be quieted so much by the knowledge of all the thousands who had done it an lived.
Dread of… everything else.
It would probably be better if she didn’t give herself the time to think. Not until the Twins were up and around and chattering on the comms.
A tension she wished she could ignore screwed her shoulders to her ears. A chill not entirely the fault of the cold air and her bare skin whispered down her spine. The ship’s systems should have triggered the wakeup for the Twins the same time it sent hers; the fact that she couldn’t already hear them laughing through the bulkheads—
—might not mean a thing. The Twins could be just as awake as she was, and their uncharacteristic quiet could be a symptom of the post-freeze lag.
That was the logical response. But there was logic, and there was her gut. And when the two came back with different answers, it only ever meant that logic was working with old information.
She swore, softly and to herself, and forced her tingling legs to carry her across the room to the big medscanner. If something had gone wrong, panic wouldn’t fix it. She would. Carefully and in the correct order. That meant taking care of herself first. And the first step for that was making sure coldsleep hadn’t left her any ticking time-bombs. Complications were rare, the docs had assured her, and easily fixed if caught early. The scanner would do both.
It was too bad that knowledge didn’t make the crawling minutes pass any faster. Or make the white and sterile bed feel any less exposed beneath the scanner’s probing lights.
And when the great, impersonal thing finally finished its work and spat its results onto the nearby screen with a quiet ping, it couldn’t offer her any comfort as she read them.
<Circulatory function… GOOD>
<Respiratory function… GOOD>
<Neurological function… GOOD>
<Nanite interface… ABNORMAL… SEE REPORT FOR FURTHER DETAILS>
The words didn’t even display frantic red. Just amber. Nagging amber. Stubborn amber. The color of mild concern, but she was the only one there to feel it.
Despite herself, her best intentions, her years of careful discipline, she lost control. Her blood drummed at her ears. Her pores leaked sweat, and the chilly room grew chillier still. And then she breathed. In, out. One deep breath. And another. And then a third, coaxing focus back. Bribing her pulse down from its fluttering heights.
Because panic wouldn’t fix it.
She retrieved her uniform and pulled it on before she opened the report. Perhaps it was a concession to her frail humanity, but that was alright. It was alright to take what comfort she could find, even if that comfort was just the weight of the fabric on her shoulders and the familiar contours of the well-worn, well-loved boots on her feet. If it helped, who was she to argue?
Then, because there was nothing else to do, because the only way past was through, she tapped the amber words with the tip of a finger and opened herself to the worst. And found it anticlimactic. There was no cascading failure. There was no spreading corruption. There was only an error message, all but useless in its lack of specific information.
>>> Nanite interface ABNORMAL…
Communication failure… attempting reboot in 30 minutes…
Coldsleep NOT advised
She should have felt relieved, or at least warily hopeful. It could have been so much worse. The nanites coursing through her veins, a new type—or they were when they had injected them ten years ago—could have met with every kind of failure. Instead, they were just… glitching a little. Probably. Maybe.
She should have felt relieved, she told herself, but all she really felt was the weight of silence. Because the coldpod would have registered that error before it brought her out, and the only reason it had done so anyway was because they had removed that particular failsafe.
Because she had told them to. Because she’d said she was willing to take the risk. Because the mission was more important. Because she’d thought a few days, weeks, months of terrible isolation was a price she was willing to pay if it meant their colony had a lifeline back to Earth.
The mission psychs had disagreed. Some more vehemently than others. It had taken months of argument to secure their agreement, and then only with caveats. Three of them had to be woken, and she and the Twins had volunteered. And they had to be able to go back into coldsleep after a few days. Hence the new tech.
The new tech that, despite extensive testing and spotless results, was now malfunctioning.
The thrumming of the ship seemed small and pitiful now, standing against a fathomless void and loneliness. It was all in her head, she told herself. That was where all the worst monsters lived, she replied.
For a split second something teetered at the edge of her mind, goaded by a thousand ifs. If the Twins’ nanites had malfunctioned. If the reset didn’t work. If she couldn’t fall back into coldsleep.
She might have screamed. She might have stood, paralyzed and silent. She didn’t know. She didn’t care. She wasn’t sure it mattered.
She wasn’t even sure what finally got her moving once again. Habit, maybe. Or her old friends, duty and discipline, reasserting themselves. All she knew was that she found herself, minutes later, standing in Coldbay 2 and finding that her fears were confirmed. The computer had attempted to wake the Twins. And it had failed.
And she was alone here after all, floating in this void between the stars. The certainty should have clawed away her remaining sanity. It would eventually, she was sure. But for now, it was a strange relief. Hope, whatever shreds of it remained, was far enough away that she could ignore it. And while she could move, she had work to do.
It was a scent in the air, blowing in off the hayfields hidden behind the trees. It was the harmony of birdsong and insect chatter, all chorusing together. It was the way the wind brushed her skin; in all the years she’d been gone, in all the places she had traveled, she had never felt a breeze like the ones here.
And now she was back. Almost. The main road had taken her as close as it could. The last leg would take her down the narrow path that appeared now, branching away into the woods.
She touched the reins. Her horse stopped. A thought grew from some crack in the darkest corners of her mind: it wasn’t too late. She could turn around and ride away. No one needed to know how close she had come to returning home. No one needed to know she wasn’t just one of the nameless missing.
A soft laugh broke loose from somewhere deep inside, a sound that she knew to be frantic and desperate and a truer window to the state of her soul than she would have admitted to anyone but her own self. She should feel like a hero. That was what everyone had said. The comrades-in-arms whose lives she had saved. The commander who had presented her with the ornate and beautiful sword that hung, even now, from the scabbard at her left hip. Even the king when he had offered her a place at his side.
Perhaps she should have accepted it. Perhaps her polite refusal, born of the lurking, rotting feeling that she did not, could not belong in such circles, was not so based in reality as she had made herself believe. It could hardly have made her feel any more alien and uncomfortable than she did now, standing here at the edge of what should have been the most familiar place in all the worlds.
She hadn’t felt this way through all the long journey back. Not as the small group of those she had traveled with split off in ones and twos and threes as they each reached their own homes. Not as the mountains shrank into the distances and the hills grew softer and greener and ever more gentle. Not even as some of the others had, in the quiet and thoughtful moments that gathered around their campfire in the dark, wondered if they would recognize the places they returned to, and if those places in turn would recognize them.
They weren’t the sort of questions that had wanted answers.
She had been grateful, in her own quiet arrogance, that these were not the thoughts that plagued her own mind when it was meant to be at rest. Perhaps she had just been better than her companions at avoiding the silence that allowed them to grow. Until now.
And so, here she was. Caught alone with the things that prowled in the darkest, emptiest corners of her own soul. Listening as they whispered, reminding her that all could never be just as it was.
Her horse whickered and shifted his weight from leg to leg. Impatient. She reached down and patted his neck, offering this poor substitute for a stall and good hay to buy a few more moments to indulge her own fears. He accepted the bribe.
It was strange. She couldn’t say what it was she was afraid of. It wasn’t that she didn’t know; would that it were so easy. Would that she couldn’t tell that the answer was there, buried carefully and hidden away with all the other things she couldn’t bring herself to examine—like why she had been so quick to leave in the first place.
A thirst for adventure. That was the most flattering way to explain it. The most acceptable, to herself, to her family, to those she met along the way. And yet it would have been just as accurate, or even more so, to use a different phrase instead. A fear of the mundane.
She snorted, despite herself. A sudden sound, startling both to her and her horse; he grunted and threw his head up high, tossing his mane and taking a few steps further down the path. She touched the reins again and whispered soothing words to buy herself a few minutes more.
For all the good it would do.
She cursed, once, a single word hissed under her breath. Temptation welled up in her chest, urging her to keep to the main road, to travel on and bow to the deceptive simplicity of that choice. All she had to do was touch her heels to her horse’s sides. She didn’t know what would happen after that. She didn’t know, and that was the allure.
Strange, that she could say the same of what would happen if instead she turned her horse’s head down that familiar, narrow road. Strange how much easier it was to face the untouched and unfamiliar than it was to return to what might have changed. Strange how she had thought, until that moment, that she had known what courage was.
So she waited. She breathed. She felt the beating of her heart and the thrumming of the world. And when her horse next pawed the ground in his grumpy, fitful way, she made her choice.
Something a little different– this was my entry for the NYC Midnight 250-word Microfiction contest. I ended up receiving an Honorable Mention in my category (the piece had to be drama, show people eating seafood, and contain the word “rest”), which wasn’t enough to advance me to the next round, but was a solid showing regardless. Here it is in its entirety!
Kathryn’s fork pierced the salmon and clicked against the plate, but she didn’t bring the food to her mouth. It would have no taste, and the fish was too good to waste on an unappreciative palate. The woman sitting opposite her had no such trouble; she was already chewing a piece of shrimp and pasta. But Afton had never been able to resist seafood.
It had been so many years. More than it should have been. Enough that writing the email and sending it to an address she hoped was current was almost too much. Yet she had done it. And a week later she’d gotten the reply: three impersonal lines. But she agreed to meet.
And now they sat together in heavy silence. No words exchanged since the mandatory greetings. Kathryn said more to the waiter than to Afton. Afton barely met her eyes. Instead they hid beneath the quiet restaurant hum.
The quiet, restless voice in the back of her mind whispered that this was a mistake. A sleeping dog she should have let lie. A can of worms she shouldn’t have opened. A burned bridge that wasn’t worth rebuilding. All the excuses that let the years pile up. All the excuses that rang hollow now more than ever.
She forced herself to take the bite. She chewed it. She swallowed it. She took a sip of water, just to buy another moment.
When we discovered Redfall Gap, hope and excitement ran high, and while most paid lip service to caution and cold wisdom, it was hard to lend too much focus to the dangers and unknowns. And when the probes sent back their first readings, confirming that this glittering, undulating anomaly was just as much a passage to another galaxy as we had imagined, wariness seemed like an unnecessary precaution.
We knew better, of course. Every one of us had seen enough things go wrong when they should have gone right that thoroughness and triple checking were worked into our bones. And we also knew that no matter how much care you put into anything, there’s no such thing as a guarantee. Not really.
So when my best friend volunteered to pilot the ship for the first manned expedition, I met the announcement with mingled envy and dread as well as giddy exultation. If I couldn’t go myself, this was at least the next best thing.
And she deserved it. She, who’d been a pilot longer than I’d been a scientist. She, who’d dreamed of taking the best ships to the strangest places since we were both kids. She, who knew the risks and laughed at them while I followed a more careful path.
If anyone had the skills and experience to be prepared for this, it was her. And her handpicked crew of three.
Preparations took a month. More tests. More readings. More specialized equipment for the Distant Horizon, the vessel that would take them through. More training. More time for this mad venture to become normal. More time to deafen us to the nervous mutterings in the backs of all our minds.
Launch Day came. The Horizon detached from its dock on Platform One, our tiny station home. She brought up power and glided towards the Gap and all the unknown beyond it. Away from us.
And then they entered and were gone.
We received one message, reporting safe passage and transmitting their initial scans from the other side. We received a second six hours later, and a third six hours after that.
The next scheduled check-in passed in silence. And the one after that. And every one following.
Our optimism faded like a dream, replaced by sickened knots in the pits of our stomachs. I told myself that she knew what she was doing, that there were a thousand ultimately harmless reasons they might have missed their check-ins. We checked our arrays and our systems. We tested our sensors and our communications rigs.
We geared up another probe and sent it through the Gap, just in case. It went through safe and sound, its connection never faltered. But it found no trace of the Horizon.
Some talked about outfitting a second ship, though we knew it would never happen. You don’t throw good money after bad. You don’t send a second ship when you don’t know what silenced the first. So all we could do was to find some way to make it safe enough to try again.
But that was easier said than done. We’d done everything we could think of before we sent the Horizon through—now we had to find new things, new holes, new possibilities when we had already exhausted every obvious avenue. And we had to do it with grief hanging over us instead of thrilled excitement.
We tried. Hard. But the exploration corps that funded our project lost interest once the Horizon vanished. After three weeks, they informed us apologetically that they were not in a position to continue paying for a dormant expedition. We were welcome to keep the platform and the equipment; it was ours. They just couldn’t justify the cost of additional supplies and living stipends.
After that, everything shut down. The support staff left. The techs left. Physicists, astronomers, engineers—everyone went in a steady stream that turned into a flood, until finally only four of us remained. We crept around the emptied platform like ghosts, stretching our rations, funding ourselves out of our own savings, scraping all we could from what we had and dragging it out until there was nothing left.
Then we gave up too, with nothing gained for all our begged and borrowed time.
We’d boosted all our sensors, all our comms, cobbling them together from bits and pieces we stole from things we counted less important. We accomplished technological feats. Our station’s eyes and ears reached farther then they ever had before with fewer needs. Maybe it wasn’t an elegant system or the most resilient, but the vast distances its signals crossed was something we could be proud of.
For all the good it did. We found nothing. No stray transmissions. No sensor ghosts. No drifting hulls. Nothing that gave us the slightest indication that the Horizon was there at all, or ever had been. If we hadn’t had the logs from those three precious check-ins, we might have convinced ourselves that they’d never happened at all. And I might have found some other way to explain the loss of my best friend.
After that, we abandoned the station too, out of hope and out of ideas, sixteen weeks, four days, and three hours from the time the Horizon went missing. We left a comm buoy behind on the far side of the Gap, programmed to broadcast its message on repeat: Platform One to research vessel Distant Horizon, all attempts to contact you have failed. We have run out of supplies and are forced to abandon station. We haven’t forgotten about you. We’ll be back in one year to come looking for you again. Message recorded 2619.04.13.14.30. End of recording.
And that was that. The best we could do, useless as it was. And no matter how I tried to avoid it, I knew our project had collapsed with a sigh and a whimper. I knew my best friend was gone forever.
We loaded the few supplies we still had on the one remaining jumpship. We checked the sensors one last time, more out of habit than hope. Then, finding nothing, we left.
Afterwards, we didn’t stay in contact. Or I didn’t. The others might have, but I, in my sorrow, kept to myself. I found some job on some station and used it to feed myself and put a bed beneath my bones. I made acquaintances, never friends. I let my pain grow dull. Numb. I forced myself to heal, or maybe just to scar. Either way the bleeding stopped.
And all the while I kept track of the days, the weeks, the months.
The year passed. I shook myself from my fog of unmanaged grief long enough to hire a jumpship and to contact the others. One I couldn’t find. Another couldn’t take the time to make the trip. The third promised to meet me at the same station we had all set out from together so long ago, and we could go the final leg together.
In the end, we reached the silent, abandoned station two days before the time we’d promised. But that was alright. We could wait. And while we waited, we took comfort in each other’s presence. We barely spoke; there was nothing to say. Instead, we spent the time restarting all the platform’s systems. To our mild surprise, only the link to the probe had gone down, battered by some stray asteroid and unnoticed by the cannibalized systems. It took less than a day to complete the handful of repairs.
I was the one to bring them back online. My hand hesitated above the command-board, wavering as buried emotions came hurtling back, ripping through the cloud I’d wrapped myself in. For a moment, my fears spun all around me. I knew better than to hope. This was more for closure than for rescue. More for us than them.
Something like shame washed over me. We’d spent all this time and all these resources on something that couldn’t be. It was idiotic.
But we’d promised.
And so my hand keyed the commands and started all the systems. They came up, one by one, humming, chirping, reaching out to see the universe. And there it was, the probe we’d left behind with our message for the Horizon. Now the message was for us.
Distant Horizon to Platform One: we ran into a little trouble, but we’re alright. Took some damage and had to find a place to land. Found a way to get your message from the ground. Coordinates are 152.777.459 from point of entry. Watch that gravity well a few hours in. That’s what got us. Looking forward to coming home. Message recorded 2619.07.21.19.37. End of recording.
I sat for a second, stunned. My cheeks went numb. My hands tingled. My heart beat faster than it should have, and I couldn’t breathe. But only for a moment. Then I ran for my companion. We had work to do.
SHIP LOG >> 23126.96.36.199.43.15 entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)
We found the derelict exactly where Crand told us to look for it. Always nice when the client is telling the truth. I’m sending Wolfe and Perez in to do the initial sweep, and we’ll go in for the real work tomorrow. It’s a big ship, but we should be able to clear it out of anything worthwhile in two, three days at the most. Add in four days to get back to Epsilon, and that comes out to a week before we pull in the best haul we’ve had in years. Assuming Crand holds up his end of the bargain. But what the hey. I’m feeling optimistic. Might as well enjoy the feeling until someone proves me wrong.
SHIP LOG >> 2348.10.26.06.18.40 entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)
Early start today. Initial sweep found the cargo bays intact, and it looks like the ship itself is in decent shape. No bodies, but it looks like a few of their escape pods were launched. Don’t know who would have picked them up this far out, but that’s not our problem. I’m just glad we don’t have to worry about the gore. Plus, with everything they left behind, this is a really good haul. Even if Crand tries to hold out on us, we’re going home rich from this one. Our biggest problem is going to be how we fit it all in our own hold.
ADDENDUM >> 23188.8.131.52.37.46
Haul is going well. The six of us have been doing this long enough that we’re nothing if not efficient. But we’ve also been doing this long enough that we’ve heard every ghost story out there, and they’re all set on a ship exactly like this one. The crew is hiding it, but I know they’re jumpy. Hopefully the feeling wears off with time. Because it looks like it’s going to take us the full three days.
ADDENDUM >> 23184.108.40.206.22.32
There was… an incident. Wolfe was in the hold prepping the salvage. She was working alone, so we’ve only got her word on what happened. Problem is, she’s saying there was a ghost. Not in so many words. The woman is too steady-minded for that. But she may as well have spelled it straight out for the affect it’s had on the rest of the crew. And on me, though I have to hide it. Because if Wolfe thought she saw a ghost, my first instinct is to believe that she saw a ghost.
What she actually said was that she thinks there’s still some crew onboard, because someone jumped her in the hold. And we can’t really argue with that, because she’s got the bruises to prove it. Apparently it happened when she started prying open one of the secure boxes to see if it was worth our time. She said the temperature dropped by ten degrees and someone came out of nowhere to clock her across the back of the skull. By the time she got back up she was alone, and the box had slammed back shut.
Avery tried to suggest that it was just a malfunction in the ventilation system, but he couldn’t get the words out. Not with Wolfe sitting there with a bleeding head wound. I sent them both back to the Hyena to get her patched up while the rest of us shut things down for the night. I’d been planning on working later, but I didn’t need to get my crew any more spooked than they already were. We’ll get an early start tomorrow to make up for lost time.
SHIP LOG >> 2348.10.27.07.44.11 entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)
Wolfe said she isn’t going back to the ship. She said she’d coordinate things from the Hyena, but she won’t step foot on the derelict again. She never said so, but I could tell the woman was terrified, which worried me more than anything else. With the new day I’d convinced myself that the “ghost” was the product of a dark hold and a quiet, unfamiliar ship. It was harder to stick to that story when I could see the fear in Wolfe’s eyes. I’d never known her to be scared of anything.
I told her she could stay behind.
CREW LOG >> 2348.10.27.08.13.01 entry by WOLFE, REBEKKAH
I didn’t think she was going to let me stay on the Hyena. I know they don’t believe me, and I don’t blame them. But I know we scanned for biological signatures when we arrived and didn’t find any. And I saw the logs from the derelict. The last one was dated more than five years ago. There’s no survivors on that ship, and I don’t like where that leaves us. And if Avery tries to tell me it was the ventilation system going wonky, I’ll show him wonky. Idiot. At least he knows how to patch someone up.
Captain says it’ll take us two more days to finish up here, and she’s usually right about that sort of thing. I wish she wasn’t. It’s going to be a tough two days. I could make it go faster if I joined them over there again, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Maybe tomorrow. If nothing happens today.
ADDENDUM >> 23220.127.116.11.01.18
I hate being this jumpy. I hate being scared. Eight years in the black and nothing’s ever made me wild like this before. It’s been hours since I’ve heard from the rest of them, and my mind is bent on supplying me with mental images of all the worst scenarios. Sudden, catastrophic life support failure. Toxic miasma inside some compartment we hadn’t opened yet. Undetected hull breach. Ghosts.
At least I’m not worried about getting jumped by something here on the Hyena. Small blessings. I’d comm them and check, but I don’t need them thinking I’m more anxious than they already do. It’s only been a couple of hours. They’re not even overdue. It’s just that I’ve run out of ways to organize the hold to make sure we can fit everything.
ADDENDUM >> 2318.104.22.168.14.51
Still nothing from the others. I tried comming them ten minutes ago but the system spat out a connection error, which means that either their comms are off or the signal’s blocked by something. The latter makes sense if they’re somewhere deep in the ship. That’s probably what it is. No need to panic.
ADDENDUM >> 2322.214.171.124.52.14
It’s been six and a half hours since I’ve heard from the others. I’m trying their comms every ten minutes now, and nothing’s going through. I can’t even get a connection. The Captain said she’d check in by 1700 at the latest. That’s eight minutes away. I can hope, but I already know it’s not going to happen. I don’t know why they haven’t checked in. I’m worried.
ADDENDUM >> 23126.96.36.199.31.03
They’re officially half an hour overdue. Something happened. I still can’t get through. I think I need to go looking for them.
ADDENDUM >> 23188.8.131.52.12.30
I can’t do this. I got as far as the airlock and I froze up. Couldn’t get myself to put one foot in front of the other. Because as soon as I tried the wound on the back of my skull screamed and throbbed and my mouth went dry and my hands tingled. No feeling but blind terror. If my legs had worked I would have run, but my knees were so weak I just stumbled away. If they need help it’s going to have to come from someone other than me.
ADDENDUM >> 23184.108.40.206.04.55
They’re still not back. I still haven’t gotten the comms to go through. Right after I froze up I went up to the cockpit and did a scan for bio signs. The good news was that they all showed up, Our scanners aren’t good enough to do any kind of pinpoint work, but at least I know they’re alive. That’s good enough, right?
ADDENDUM >> 23220.127.116.11.13.21
I have to go find them. I have to try. I don’t know if I can, but it’s not going to happen if I stay here sitting on my butt. Time to suck it up.
SHIP LOG >> 2318.104.22.168.00.00 entry by AUTOMATED
SHIP NOT PLACED IN STANDBY MODE: DEFAULTING TO AUTOMATED LOGS>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON BOARD>> ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL>> SIX BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON LINKED SHIP>> LINKED SHIP LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM OPERATIONAL, ALL OTHER SYSTEMS IN FAILURE
SHIP LOG>> 2322.214.171.124.00.00 entry by AUTOMATED
SHIP NOT PLACED IN STANDBY MODE: DEFAULTING TO AUTOMATED LOGS>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON BOARD>> ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL>> EIGHT BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON LINKED SHIP>> LINKED SHIP LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM OPERATIONAL, ALL OTHER SYSTEMS IN FAILURE
SHIP LOG>> 23126.96.36.199.00.00 entry by AUTOMATED
SHIP NOT PLACED IN STANDBY MODE: DEFAULTING TO AUTOMATED LOGS>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON BOARD>> ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON LINKED SHIP>> ALL LINKED SHIP SYSTEMS IN FAILURE
SHIP LOG>> 23188.8.131.52.52.13 entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)
Never again. I don’t know how we got out. Wolfe came in after us when we didn’t come back, but she’s not the one who got us out, because she was just as stuck as the rest of us. The doors just opened up again and we ran for it. Don’t know why. Don’t care why. And I don’t care how much Crand is paying, it’s not worth dying on some cursed ghost ship. He’ll have to make do with what we already grabbed. I gave the order to blow the derelict. No one else needs to deal with that thing. Hopefully the client doesn’t mind too. Too bad if he does.
The whisper of my breath filled my helmet. Its odor mixed with the smell of my sweat and complete exhaustion. The faint fog of it clung to the inside of the face shield, dimming my view, though not so much that I could pretend that the scorched control panel in front of me would ever function again. I stared at it anyway and delayed making the comm back to the ship. Maybe if I didn’t say anything it would stop being true.
My comm chirped in my ear anyway, and I sighed. So much for that idea. “Go ahead,” I answered.
My husband’s voice came crackling over the connection. “What’s the bad news, Alice?”
“The gate’s shot,” I said. “Doesn’t look like we’re making it home for dinner.”
Or ever. But we both knew that.
“Copy,” he said, and then went quiet.
And we mourned.
We’d known it would happen, that it was the only likely outcome. We’d run the scenarios. We’d looked at every other possibility when the wormhole opened, anything that could save our galaxy without stranding us in this one. We’d tried a dozen different things, only to have them fail one way or another— because the theory wasn’t sound, because the tech just couldn’t handle it, because time ran out. The fact that the radiation from the other side was harmless until it reacted with the radiation from our own galaxy didn’t mean a thing. It was a quirk of nature, but deadly all the same. And in the end, this was our only option: fly through ourselves and set things right.
Close the gate. Save the galaxy.
Get back through if you can. But that’s not the primary objective.
I closed my eyes and let myself hang there, floating in the vacuum at the end of my tether while the greater part of myself insisted that there must be a way out, if only we kept on looking. It offered up all the cliches: we’d come so far, we’d done so much, it couldn’t end this way.
But that’s only true in a certain kind of story.
My comm chirped again, and I opened my eyes. The control panel was still there, still destroyed. The gate pylon was still inert, still damaged far beyond our means to repair. The expanse of a foreign galaxy still stretched out infinitely in every direction, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at it.
I shook my head, as if that was enough to clear it. It worked well enough. “I’m here.”
“I’m ready to bring you back inside. Whenever you’re ready.”
“Copy that. I’m ready now.” A pause, and then I added my quiet thanks.
It didn’t take long to haul me in at the end of the tether. The fastenings on the belt of my suit pulled taut and the pylon sank away and out of reach. I watched it and only it until my feet touched down on the airlock floor; the strange stars would cause me too much pain.
Gray, my husband, pulled open the door and met me as soon as the airlock finished cycling. I leaned into his chest, let his arms wrap around me, let him hold me. I breathed in his scent, the last remnants of his deodorant and his sweat and the unique smell that only belonged to him.
“I don’t want to be stuck here,” I whispered, though the words hardly made it past the knot that had grown in my throat. “I don’t want this to be the end.”
“It’s not,” he murmured, his lips pressed against my hair. “It’s not.”
It was a platitude. An empty, hopeless platitude. A flash of rage passed through my brain, all violence and panic and gut-deep wrath. I stiffened, chewing on the words of a dozen different diatribes that rose up from my chest. Only the simplest came out.
“It is. It is.” I pushed away. “The pylon’s dead. The control is dead. Our galaxy is ten million light years away, and even if our ship could cross that distance, we’d be eons dead before it brought us home. And so would everyone we’ve ever loved. We knew it when we volunteered. We knew it and we came anyway.”
“So we find another way,” said Gray.
“There is no other way!” I choked out the words and hissed them past my teeth. “That’s why we said goodbye.”
We both retreated to our own ends of our little ship, our fifty yard prison, me to the engine room, him to the bridge. I drowned myself in a dozen mindless repairs, all the little things that wear apart with everyday use, all the things our mission had stressed to a breaking point. The work was simple, and my hands knew their tasks. Each problem was the sort of thing I’d solved a thousand times before. Each thing fixed was a salve to my thrashing mind, though only when I kept my fears at bay. I didn’t worry how Gray spent his hours.
A day passed. Another followed. We came together at meals— sometimes— but didn’t speak. We slept in the same room, but not with each other. He wanted us to talk, but I had no words to say anything that mattered.
We stayed at the pylon longer than we needed to, until I’d fixed everything on the ship that I could possibly fix and a few more things besides. We might have never moved, but while the ship’s stores were well-stocked, they would not last forever. Better we move on now, while the choice was ours to make and not desperation’s.
Find a planet. Refill our stocks of food and water and medicine and fuel, whatever we could find. Keep floating on.
I saved the location of the pylon into the computer before we left. I wasn’t sure why. The thing hadn’t shown any indication that it would or could return to life. But it seemed the thing to do.
Or maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to let it slip away forever.
In a week, the worst of my grief dulled to a different, deeper sort of pain. A resignation. Or a sort of healing, if a twisted, tender scar is healing. But I began to speak again, and chose to forgive or forget my husband’s well-meant hope and optimism. It hardly seemed important now, as the pylon fell farther and farther behind, and our daily life revolved more and more around survival and less and less around thoughts of getting home.
We found planets and moons and asteroids that held what we needed. Sometimes it was just scraps, the barest bits to keep us going. Sometimes it was more, or almost everything. Sometimes when we sat together on the bridge and the scan came back with its promises of life and riches we would exchange a look.
“We could stay,” I might say. “Scuttle the ship, make a home.”
And Gray might think, might ponder, might muse. “Maybe the next planet. The sunlight here is wrong.”
And so we wouldn’t. We would land and fill our stores, and then we’d leave and fly back to the endless stars. And we’d whispers to each other that we still might find some way back to our other home, safe in the knowledge that it could never happen.
Until it did, on a rocky moon that should have only offered us a little fuel, but showed us an ancient, alien colony instead. A colony like the one we’d found in our first galaxy. A colony that held the tech that we’d been studying when the wormhole opened and the whole of creation began to crumble.
We stared down at it through the viewport, as if our naked eyes could see the empty buildings. Three years had passed. A thousand days. Grief and terror had faded and given way to mere exhaustion and routine. And then somewhere, somehow, exhaustion had yielded to curiosity and the giddiness that came with the knowledge that an entire galaxy was at our fingertips, all full of things no one had ever seen. And there was nothing at all to stand between us and a million new discoveries but our own decisions.
“You were right,” I said. “There is a way.”
Gray remained quiet for a long, long while. “I guess there is,” he said. “But we said goodbye.”
And so we left the ruins to themselves, staying only long enough to refill our stores of fuel and choose our next coordinates. By habit, I almost saved the location of the tiny moon to the computer before we left, but a thought stopped my hand. Gray saw me and shook his head, and I let the void swallow the coordinates instead. The galaxy was bigger without them.
We knew Trevor Cossak was going to catch up with us eventually. We knew it, but I had been hoping it would be somewhere other than in this remote and utterly godforsaken corner of the Badlands. At least there was cover. I gripped my pistol and twisted just enough to look over the top of the massive boulder Tanner and I were both currently hiding behind.
I swore and slammed back down. Lafayette wasn’t missing much by way of his aim. And I still wasn’t sure exactly where he was.
“Okay, now what?” I hissed the words, exchanging a glance with my brother. I was all out of ideas this time around.
Tanner just shook his head. So much for that.
The sky above was clear and blue. The world around us was silent—ominously so. If I popped my head up again there would be another rifle shot, and I had the impression that Cossak wasn’t firing warning shots. If he got a clear bead on us, it was game over. And seeing as half-second stolen glances weren’t giving us any idea where he was actually hiding, they weren’t worth the risk.
“Well, we can’t just sit here and wait,” I said.
“We can’t really do anything else,” said Tanner. “Unless you’re trying to make his job easier.”
His job, because in one sense, the man was just trying to fulfill an obligation. Cut out the part about that obligation being handed to him by a certain colony mob boss, and you almost sympathized with him.
“His job’s going to be plenty easy if we just sit here and wait for him to work out how to get closer,” I said. But while that was true, I knew Tanner had a point. Which meant we needed another option.
I turned and looked at our surroundings for the eighth time. And for the eighth time, I came away with the same impression: this particular little pocket in the canyon wall, situated as it was behind a decently sized boulder, provided both lovely cover and no way out. There was at least a couple dozen yards of open ground surrounding us, which would give Cossak some trouble getting closer to us, but that was only the thinnest of silver linings.
At least it wasn’t going to get that much worse.
That was the last thought I had before I heard a clatter of rocks on the steep slope above us and looked up just in time to see a couple of armed gangmen taking aim at us from above.
We both turned and fired, and both gangmen came tumbling down with his own mortal wound opened up in his chest. But the damage was done. The seconds we spent dealing with them were enough for Cossak himself to break from his own hiding place and cross the precious yards of no-man’s land we had hoped would protect us.
By the time we turned back around he had already flanked us. I fired three shots, each one hitting dead on. Each one falling short against a personal shield device that I had, up until this point, thought was mostly fantasy. Tanner shot him too, but the only effect the rifle shot had was that it caused the shield to flicker. Slightly.
“Don’t suppose you’re going to let us surrender, are you?”
There’s nothing fun about looking for a new roommate. The whole process can go wrong more ways than it can go right, and the stakes for it going right are higher than most. You’re looking for someone to live with, after all—it would be nice to get along, nice to tolerate each other’s company, if not enjoy it. Yet all too often you have to consider yourself lucky to just not mind sharing space.
And all it takes is one bad experience to make you twitchy about the whole thing. Sure, the statistics say you’re unlikely to ever run into someone truly dangerous. And even if you do, you want to believe you’d notice that something was off before you invite them in to live between the same four walls as you. Problem is, statistics aren’t guarantees. And once you lose that gamble once, you’re bound to make extra sure about anyone responding to your craigslist ad.
Which was how Amanda found herself sitting at the corner table of a coffee shop a few blocks from her apartment, waiting for who she hoped would turn out to be as good a roommate in reality as she was on paper. She’d gotten there early, more by accident than design, though she hoped it would give her a chance to collect her thoughts and relax. It hadn’t worked; mostly, it had given her time to remember how optimistic she’d been about Lilith when she moved in.
It had been fine at first. Lilith was nice, if a little odd. She’d was a little pale, but she’d also only gone out after dark. She seemed to eat blood sausage with every meal, but everyone had their dietary quirks. That colony of bats had moved into the walls about a week after she had moved in, but that could hardly have been her fault. Just coincidence.
Until the Incident, everything weird was easy enough to explain away. But when your roommate tries to bite your neck and only fails because you happened to have the presence of mind to fling the jar of powdered garlic at her, you end up feeling a bit paranoid.
Amanda shuddered and tried not to think about it. She also touched her hand to the small silver cross at her neck, just to reassure her subconscious that it was still there. Fortunately, any further recollections were preempted by the arrival of her potential new roommate.
She was a small woman—barely five feet tall and slight of stature—with red hair in a pixie cut and pale grey eyes. She approached the table and greeted Amanda with the most musical voice she had ever heard.
“I’m so glad you had time to meet! It’s Amanda, right?”
Amanda smiled and nodded. “And you’re Morgana.”
“I am!” said Morgana, and she laughed.
After that, the two of them just talked for a while, asking all the simple, silly questions anyone does when trying to find the first pieces of common ground on which to build an acquaintance. It went well. So well, in fact, that Amanda found herself thinking and hoping that she had found that rare gem of a person who could be both friend and roommate.
Of course, she had hoped that of Lilith, too, and not without reason.
And maybe it was extenuating circumstances that had nixed that dream, but it’s once bitten, twice shy, and Amanda had no desire to get bitten a second time. Granted, the fact that they were meeting in the daylight was a good sign, but she’d be happier if she could confirm those results with a couple of other subtle tests.
“So, what about cooking? Do you like fiddling around in the kitchen?”
Morgana’s eyes lit up for at least the twentieth time. “I love cooking! And baking. And experimenting. All of it! Do you?”
Amanda grinned back. “Absolutely. I’ve got a few go-to recipes that I stick with for the most part, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that garlic makes almost everything better.”
“Ha! Me too,” said Morgana. “If this works out, we should absolutely cook dinner together every now and then. I always like it better when I get to cook for someone else.”
Test number two, passed with flying colors. Amanda felt some of her tension bleed out of her shoulders, and she allowed herself to feel almost hopeful. It seemed unlikely that Morgana was going to be the sort of roommate who might be tempted to suck her blood.
Just to be sure, of course, there were a few more questions, a few more tests. Amanda turned the conversation to their favorite books, and was pleased to see that her mention of Dracula left Morgana unfazed. Morgana complimented her necklace and touched it without flinching when Amanda held it out to her, apparently unworried by the fact that it was both silver and a cross. Casual mentions of both wolves and bats got no response. In fact, nothing gave Amanda any cause for concern, and she felt a little silly when she arranged for a small mirror to tumble from her bag in such a way that it allowed her to check for a reflection. It was there, of course.
After that, even her most paranoid instincts were content that Morgana was likely to be a top notch roommate. She would move in at the end of the month, and they would likely be in constant contact even before that. When they went their separate ways that afternoon after enjoying almost an hour more of friendly conversation, Amanda felt more relaxed than she had in months.
“Oh!” Morgana turned back a moment after she left the table. “Before I forget, I should let you know. I have the worst reaction to anything made of pure iron. I just touch the stuff and it makes me go cold and numb all over. Just so you know!”
It wasn’t until after Morgana signed the lease and moved in that Amanda remembered that an aversion to cold iron was a known characteristic of the fae folk. And when she did, a sharp thrill of panic ran down her spine. But only the one. She’d rather live with a fairy than a vampire any day.
“What do you mean you haven’t found her? It’s not a big ship! What did she do, step out the airlock or something?!” The captain was snarling now, with the spittle flying from his mouth and that crazed twitch in the corner of his right eye. Ruby had served on the little pirate crew long enough to know what happened next: he would keep screaming until his voice cracked from the exertion. His face, already red, would turn purple. His vocabulary would expand to contain every known form of profanity, and several new ones besides.
It was hardly the first time it had happened. It wouldn’t be the last—assuming, of course, that this wasn’t the rant that finally sent him apoplectic.
The best thing to do was to just stay out of the way; not that poor Tomms had that luxury. It couldn’t be helped. He’d learn fast enough. She had. And sure, she liked the kid, but that didn’t mean she was going to stick her neck out for him when the captain was on the warpath. That would just be—
“Get back down there and look again!” She winced as the captain whirled on her. “And you too! Maybe together you’ll be better than useless!”
So much for that. Ruby scrambled to her feet with a hasty “yessir” and made for the door. Tomms gave her a pained and panicked look and bolted after her. Neither one said a thing until they were well beyond the bridge and out of the captain’s earshot. Neither one bothered to pull out their blasters even then. If they needed them, they could unholster them fast enough.
“I’m so sorry, Ruby,” hissed Tomms, tentatively, as if he expected her to use it as an excuse to treat him the same way the rest of the crew did.
Poor kid. Like she’d stoop that low.
She twitched a wry smile his way and shook her head. “Not your fault, Tomms. Let’s just get this over with.”
That was, of course, easier said than done. For such a small ship, it was carrying a whole lot of cargo. And instead of all being packed together in one huge conglomeration in the center of the hold, dozens of containers were all separated out in various stacks. No doubt, it was all part of some grand system of organization. The fact that they created a veritable maze was just a side effect.
“There’s a million places to hide in here,” said Tomm. His voice wasn’t quite a whimper.
“And that’s just counting between those cargo containers. You can double that if this is a smuggling ship.”
He did whimper at that. It was the only sensible response.
“She can’t just hide forever.” The tremor in his voice added in the unspoken “can she?”
“No,” said Ruby, with entirely more conviction than she felt. Because this was her home turf, not theirs. And while the cargo hold might look like a bloody labyrinth to them, she probably knew it like the back of her hand.
And then there was the whole question of why she had so carefully put her ship in orbit around the nearest moon instead of going for a hard burn when she’d noticed the pirate ship closing in. It was an unconventional response to say the least. One that had Ruby wondering what their target had hiding up her sleeve. Sure, scans had shown she was the only one on board, but that just meant that Ruby had more questions, not less. Even the most hubristic explorers of the void knew better than to try their luck entirely on their own.
And this particular star sailor had not seemed to be the hubristic sort.
“Tomms. Watch yourself.”
Ruby made a face. “Be careful. I’m not sure what she’s up to.” Whatever it was, it was probably more than hiding like a scared rabbit.
Tomms grimaced. “Why are we doing this, Ruby? It’s her ship.”
“We’re doing this because if we don’t, the captain’s going to start using us for target practice.”
After ten minutes of searching the hold, though, and turning up absolutely nothing at all, Ruby was starting to wonder. She stopped on her prowl down one of the narrow pathways between crates to groan softly and glare up at the ceiling. Over to one side, the dark side of the moon could still be seen through one of the small portholes that lined the top of the hold. An odd structural choice, though there was something to be said for a little natural light when loading the ship, she supposed.
After ten more minutes, she started wondering if the rightful owner of this particular little ship hadn’t actually found some way off. Because it was starting to seem highly unlikely that she was actually still on board. That, or Ruby and Tomms both were going to have to ask some hard questions about their ability to search a vessel. There was also the question of what their current employment said about them as people, but that was less specific to the situation. And while Ruby wasn’t looking forward to finding the answer at all, it would be slightly easier to handle when their boss wasn’t raging and pirating about one deck up.
He wasn’t going to be happy about the lack of results. Frankly, Ruby was surprised she and Tomm had been able to search undisturbed for twenty minutes. It couldn’t last.
“Tomms?” Her voice echoed through the hold, bouncing between the stacked cargo containers. “Anything?”
Silly question. She knew he hadn’t. He would have told her if he had.
Ruby frowned. “Tomms?”
Still nothing. A distinct chill went wandering up Ruby’s spine. Her hand slipped down to her holster, and she grabbed her blaster. And she kept moving forward, glancing side to side. Nothing, nothing, and more nothing.
And then, something. She wasn’t sure what made her stop and turn, but stop and turn she did, and caught the tail end of someone’s heel disappearing around the corner.
“Hey! Stop, you!”
Unsurprisingly, they didn’t. With an eloquent command like the one she had just given, Ruby would have, quite frankly, been more surprised if they had stopped. But it was something—more than something! She broke into a run.
And tripped right over Tomms’ body as she rounded the corner. Her heart jumped up her throat and started hammering at twice its normal speed, and it didn’t even start to slow down until her fingers found his pulse. Just unconscious.
A sudden clatter of footsteps on the ramp leading to the rest of the ship pulled snapped her away, and she jumped to her feet again and started running after the noise. She barely made it ten feet before she heard a faint click and a half a dozen cargo boxes tipped over in her path.
“Stop following me! Go see to your friend!”
The voice came from up the ramp, where the ship’s owner had paused just long enough to shout the command back. Even if Ruby had wanted to shoot at her, she didn’t have a clear shot.
“I—what?!” Of all the things she’d ever had people yell at her while she chased them, this was a new one.
But the ship’s owner was already gone. And as she was running up the ramp towards the rest of the ship, it seemed unlikely that the other more bloodthirsty members of their crew were going to need their help to catch her. Going back and checking on Tomms seemed like a good idea after all.
As much as she had made quiet fun of the portholes all along the top edge of the cargo hold, the sudden influx of bright moonlight as the ship’s orbit took them around to the light side of the moon provided all the light she needed to check Tomms over for injury. Which made it that much easier to see the big goose-egg bump that had sprouted from the back of his head. Ruby got the sudden impression that maybe, just maybe, they had underestimated their opponent.
For a fleeting second, she wondered if this scrappy little star sailor might be able to get the jump on the captain and their other two crewmates. If maybe the pirates would get sent scurrying. If perhaps she might have a use for a couple of crewmembers herself: even a ship this small was easier to run with a couple pairs of extra hands.
The three-to-one odds she was facing weren’t going to make that easy. Ruby glanced down at Tomms. The poor kid was out cold. Stable, but definitely unconscious. She paused. This was a terrible idea. The sort of idea you didn’t survive. The sort of idea that would get you used as an object lesson every time a certain pirate captain hired on untested hands for years to come.
The sort of idea that might be worth it anyway, just for the tiny chance that it might work.
Ruby squeezed her eyes shut. She took a deep breath. And then she checked Tomms one last time before starting off up the ramp on what was probably a complete fool’s quest.
She didn’t get far: no more than three steps. Because before she could take step number four, a terrible howl ran through the whole ship. A bone rattling, ship shaking, void piercing howl. And all Ruby’s new-minted resolve crumbled.
And then the ship went dark.
The next minutes were horrifying. The howl gave way to shouts and blaster fire and the occasional low rumble that sounded awfully like a growl. Ruby found herself cowered against the far side of the ramp, trying to think past the terrified mob of thoughts that ran wild through her head.
What was on the ship?
What had the captain unleashed?
Was this one of those deep space terrors that wasn’t supposed to exist?
Had their erstwhile quarry run straight into something even worse than pirates? That stirred something beyond panic. If the little ship’s captain had needed help before, she needed it more now. And she wasn’t going to get it from anyone else. Not with Tomms out cold and the rest of their crew being what it was.
Ruby’s throat was dry. Time to keep moving, then.
Somehow, she couldn’t manage it until a more pragmatic corner of her brain pointed out that hiding wasn’t going to fix anything, and would probably just mean that Whatever It Was would find her anyway when there was no one else to help. If she was going to survive this herself, going now was her best chance.
So she went. It disgusted her that she needed such selfish logic to motivate her, but motivate her it did. And she might as well make the most of it.
Halfway up the ramp, the ship went silent too. Ruby’s mouth was dry, but she tried to swallow anyway. It didn’t help. She still felt as terrified as ever, which was perhaps why it took her a few moments to realize that the sudden silence had not, in fact, been preceded by screams of agony. Which was a good sign. She hoped.
Somehow, she kept moving. Despite her best efforts, every step sounded like a gong on the metal ramp. A soft, muffled gong, but to her ears, a gong nonetheless. The blaster in her hand seemed like it wasn’t going to be much in the way of protection, should it come down to it. But just reholstering would have been worse, so she kept holding it in her cold, sweaty hand.
Halfway up the ramp, she got the feeling that someone—something was watching her, and her heart jumped, impossibly, even farther up her throat. She stopped. The ship creaked around her. The ship’s systems beeped and hummed, distantly.
This was ridiculous. She kept going.
At the top of the ramp, the feeling became certainty. She heard someone. Something. Breathing. Ahead of her. Above her, in the dark.
She should turn around. Going forward was insane. Going forward would get her killed. Or worse. Or—
Before she had a chance to go forward or turn back around, something came down on her head and dropped her like a sack of stones. But it didn’t knock her into unconsciousness. That would have been a mercy. Instead, stunned, she felt impossibly huge, impossibly hairy hands (or were those claws?) close around her ankles and drag her towards the bridge. She heard someone kick her blaster and send it skittering away, well out of reach. She saw, as they came out of the dark corridor and onto the moonlit bridge, three still forms lain out in a row next to each other. And she became the fourth.
That touched some primal mote of terror deep inside. So much for pretending to be unconscious and hoping for the best. She yelped and flailed and made to break away. She stopped as soon as her captor stepped into the moonlight.
It was huge. Eight feet tall, at least, and that was standing hunched. It was hairy. Wolf-shaped. Wolf-toothed. And its eyes reflected the moonlight and seemed to glow with evil intent. Ruby’s yelp became a whimper.
And the thing stopped. It bent down, bringing its muzzle within inches of Ruby’s own nose. It smelled like a sweaty dog, and its breath was terrible. Ruby flinched. She didn’t mean to. She just couldn’t help it. But the thing just watched her for three long seconds. Four. Five. And then it gave a low growl.
Ruby closed her eyes and shook.
And she stayed that way for half an hour.
It was only when someone (someone! Not something!) touched her shoulder that she dared open them. And there, staring down at her with a look of mixed wariness and vague amusement, was the little ship’s captain.
“You’re alright!” Ruby’s voice came out as a croak, but the other woman seemed to understand it well enough.
“Of course I did. I thought I told you not to follow me.”
“I wasn’t going to—but the howl, the growling, the other pirates… I thought you might need help.”
The other woman laughed. It was a barking, gleeful sound. And that was when Ruby noticed that her teeth seemed somewhat longer and sharper than those of most humans. And there was a certain wildness to her eyes. And…
“Oh. Oh no. Oh no.”
Ruby jumped away as the woman—the werewolf—brought her hand down on Ruby’s shoulder.
“What, you didn’t think it strange that I was out here in the black all by myself?”
Ruby managed a nod.
The woman grinned, showing those too-sharp teeth again. “The name’s Captain Marie Lupine. I knew you looked smarter than the rest of these idiots.” She gestured at the three pirates that lay to the side, and Ruby noticed for the first time that they were all tied up. And also all still breathing, though a few sported a few new, long scratches.
“Where’s Tomms?” Ruby’s voice was still entirely too dry for her liking.
“Your friend in the cargo bay? Still down there. I think I rang his bell pretty good. He should be alright, though.”
Captain Lupine dropped down into a crouch and looked her up and down. “So, the way I see it, we have a couple of options here. One, I turn you and Tomms in to the authorities with the rest of these numbskulls.”
Ruby shook her head as violently as she dared. Captain Lupine grinned again.
“That’s what I thought. Or, two, I let you and him take that ship you jumped me with, and you get to keep pirating around. Problem for you is, of course, that the ship would be tagged as a pirate vessel, and I don’t much fancy your chances of survival for very long.”
Ruby looked uncomfortable.
“Or, three.” Captain Lupine eyed Ruby. “You and Tomms stay here on my crew. I turn in these three and the ship to the authorities, and I say that you’re both crew I picked up at the last space station. I write you up proper contracts of employment and you don’t have to attack innocent passers-by or watch your blood pressure spike when you get within hailing range of law enforcement anymore.”
Captain Lupine grinned one last time. “It’s your choice.”
And that was how Ruby and Tomms started working for a werewolf running cargo runs in the deep black. All in all, it was probably the best choice either of them had ever made.