It was cold beyond the dome. Frozen and white, a plain of sheer ice. A cold wasteland of austere and simplistic beauty that curved away at the horizon, yielding to the blackness of space as it did. Upon that endless canvas glittered countless stars.
The feline boy knelt in the soft soil, his homework forgotten as he gazed through the thick hexagonal panels of transparent plastic into the night sky. With neither the domineering Saturn nor the brilliant sun above the horizon, a rare occasion, his wide green eyes could marvel freely.
He came here often, just to watch the galaxy go by. Whether it was the iridescent stars, the rare cryo-volcano hurling untold masses of water-ice into the thin atmosphere, or a ship streaking by, leaving a glowing trail, it was mesmerizing to him. A calm but intricate dance of lights, bodies in space.
But right now, the only ship he could see was remaining in orbit, glimmering gently by the light reflected from the icy moon. Silently drifting, like a lost star.
It was a warship up there. He knew that. But everyone had told him not to worry. So he didn’t.
Humming, the boy rubbed at the thin black fur on his exposed knees, brushing the wet soil from them, idly fidgeting as he watched the sky. The synthetic, fur-hugging fabric of his short-sleeved, short-legged jumpsuit warm enough for him, despite being a scant few meters from the habitat’s dome; the only thing between him and the frigid desert beyond.
One day, he wanted to be on a ship like that. Streaking across the black. Leaving his icy home for adventure or science, to see the solar system in a way that, for most of history, had been only a wild, wild dream.
How much longer until they would conquer the stars themselves? What would that be like?
Only by putting aside pointless homework and meditating under the grand expanse could he think on that, and set his imagination free to dream of that hopeful future. So, like with every night, that’s what he did.
Time faded into insignificance as he dreamed, but, in truth, time awaits no one. And it was only some seconds after the small bolt of light from the orbiting spacecraft began hurtling towards the surface that the boy saw it.
It clearly came from the winking speck that was the spacecraft, a point of bluish-white light plummeting in what seemed to be the direction of the colony itself.
Curious, the feline boy staggered to his feet, jaw dropping. Was it a drop-pod?
But as it got closer and closer to the surface of the tiny moon, his eyes only got wider and wider. Whatever it was, it wasn’t slowing down. It wasn’t...
And that was when the world shattered.
A vast explosion. Like a cryo-volcano had erupted mere kilometers from the colony dome. The harsh flash would have blinded the boy and all watching if the dome’s electro-chromic dimming hadn’t engaged. Tons untold of vapor and fragmented ice were blasted thousands of meters high in just a second.
The boy fell backwards, a cry escaped his throat unbidden.
The ground roared, and a sudden tremor struck the dome. Knocking him to the backside and cracking the hexagonal panel just meters in front of him. As the rumbling continued, it was joined by a harsh siren and a rush of venting atmosphere.
The sudden winds pulled him forward, but the shattered panels were in seconds shut over by dilating bulkheads – scarcely a few centimeters thick, last lines of defense from the deadly near-vacuum beyond.
Boiling condensation and smashed rock coalesced into a brilliant cloud in the sky in a giant plume, at the center was a pinprick of intense heat that burned like a tiny sun. A wave of that same ejecta crashed against the weakened dome while it creaked in protest, raining down tons of water and debris that blinded the occupants to the destruction outside. The sirens continued to howl, screams pierced the air, and the ground itself continued to tremble.
The boy watched, helpless on his hands and knees, as his world literally came crashing down around him.
At this point, he couldn’t understand what just happened. He didn’t know why. He wasn’t sure what had been lost.
All he could do was watch as his life as he knew it ended it in one swift moment.
All he could do was watch, and hopelessly ask, ‘why?’
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I could feel it. Deep in my belly. In my ears. My whole body vibrated along with the comforting thrum. The bass rumble of the idling reactor and engines. I spent most of my time off duty like this, wrapped in my scratchy gray blanket and dozing off with my head against the metal. A lullaby I could hear with my ear against the metal surface of the gantry.
It was relaxing.
I always knew that was strange. The ship was hurtling through the void like a dart, a thin shell of boron and carbon the only thing between us and the nothing outside. Nothing but radiation and cold, lonely death out there for us if that shell cracked. Every space-rat understands this, but it’s really all we know. I know what life is here on ship, it’s solid ground that scares me more. I get more scared in the open now.
Especially outside the ship. Out there, you can’t help but see the huge, cold, black. And you can’t hear the rumbling. Can’t hear anything. There isn’t anything.
A sour voice pierced through my comforting drone. “Where’s the fuckin’ rat?” Dorian, the cargo-master. Great.
“Usual place.” I wasn’t sure who responded, but I sighed and sat up. Obviously, Dorian was coming to tear me a new one.
I’m not actually a rat. My name’s Mikael. Mikael Connal. I’m a felid. A cat. A pointy-eared, black furred cat, the not so lucky kind. But I’m a space rat all the same.
When the Terrans came to Enceladus, my home, to put down the revolt, they blasted the mines from orbit before they even came down to talk to the unions – and when they did, they talked with guns and bombs. My dad worked in the mines, he was a geologist. He wasn’t even a part of the revolt. But nukes launched from orbit don’t care for specifics.
Mom disappeared in the fighting afterwards. Pretty sure she’s dead. My life fell to pieces in just a few days. Our own people turned on one another. Looters took everything from my home and then the Terrans burned it to the ground. Rebels hid in my school, so they burned that down too, then shot most of the teachers.
Did you know they said it was an accident? In the Terran news media? I heard. Apparently most Terrans don’t even know what happened on Enceladus. But we got the message.
I was little when that happened, about two-hundred megasecs, something like seven Terran years if you still use those for some reason. My colony was shattered and nobody could look after me, so I almost died like lots of others did. Until someone ‘asked’ me to join a ship crew.
I really didn’t have a choice, like hundreds or thousands of other kids in the outer system – though I thought it’d never happen to me. I became a space rat, an expendable tool small enough to squeeze through and work in the cramped spaces of civilian ships without taking up much food or mass.
Rats were usually fed almost nothing, just enough to keep us moving. They wanted us small, skinny. It definitely worked. I was about three-eighty megasecs now – about twelve Terran years – but normal felid boys my age that I see surfaceside are usually a full head taller than me. And much thicker. We had to squeeze into tight spaces, and besides, in space? ‘Every gram counts.’
Get too much fat on your ass as a spacer and you could lose your job. Or, in a bad situation out in the black, you might become an ‘independent satellite’ yourself.
“Mika, where the fuck are you?” Dorian grumbled, lurching into the quiet part of the cargo bay I called my quarters. When his eyes settled on me, the crabby fox scowled. “Fuck’ve I said about touching my tools?”
“I didn’t,” I said calmly.
“Where’s my socket wr-”
I cut him off. “It’s under your fuckin’ clipboard in the bridge!”
“The fuck were you doin’ in the bridge?” Dorian fumed. I just couldn’t win with this guy. “I told you before, your clumsy ass hits one button and we’re on our way to the fuckin’ sun!”
“Jin-Wei had me fixin’ the chairs!”
“Using my wrench, huh?”
“No, I used a ‘driver! I don’t touch your stuff, Do’, I swear!”
“Fine.” The fox shook his head. “Now get down to life support and help Dane, we’re getting to Titan orbit in ten hours. Always lyin’ around in here. You’re not worth the delta to carry your ass.” With that, he turned and stalked right back out of the cargo bay.
I threw the blanket aside and grabbed my tool-belt. Talking back was one thing, but if I refused to do something, even if I was supposed to be off duty, I’d get whacked until I did it. Probably by nearly the entire crew. That was just how it was done.
I wasn’t exactly dressed for hard work. The adults didn’t really see much reason for that. The craft was kept at a decent temperature for us all, and I get they didn’t need me to look pretty. Baggy, dull-gray cargo pants two sizes too big kept me from skinning my knees, some aramid gloves, and an olive tank-top that barely fit me anymore was my entire wardrobe. I was meant to have boots, but I outgrew the last pair and nobody got me new ones.
Instead they decided to cut back my rations a bit more so it didn’t happen again.
When I was in my school’s advanced science program way back then, I never thought the ‘science’ I’d be doing would be tightening screws in a stuffy craft.
Hopping and leaping the cables and wires and various obstacles in the cramped corridors, my bare paws slapping the aluminium floor soundlessly, I made my way to the ‘spine’ of the ship, to descend the ladder towards the source of the gentle rumbles.
I’d been on the Oberon a long time. I did a short stint on another ship first, then was sold to Captain Jin-Wei, and I haven’t been on another ship since. Jin-Wei wasn’t a bad guy, but most of the credits and capital we earned had to go into maintaining the Oberon. Of course, rats didn’t get paid, but I did get fed a little. And the truth was, I absolutely loved spacecraft.
The Oberon was a thirty kiloton freighter. A long, thin ship made of barely-held-together components of boron, carbon-carbon and aluminium, lashed together by sturdy struts and hexagonal girders. Half its mass was in radiators that glowed angry red against the black, and a millimetre coating of boron nitride gave much of its outside a brassy sheen, while the rest was a reflective whitish-grey. No windows, but I’d seen the ship from the shuttles when we made landfall.
Jin-Wei had told me everything, seeing how excited I was to be on such a powerful ship. A sixty megawatt nuke reactor gave us light and heat, and we used it to power our fusion drive when we needed moderate thrust. But the Oberon was capable of interplanetary burns, easily, with its primary drive.
Water salted with uranium dust is blasted into a chamber and goes critical, releasing a constant nuclear detonation through the back of the engine. We could make it to Terra in no time at all, maybe only weeks! It was what let us truly conquer the solar system to begin with. If there was one good thing about working on the Oberon, it was finally being able to see one of those drives in action!
Well. Not really see. The reactor and drive were behind the thick shadow-shield and enclosed in the bottom of the ship. Nobody went back there. If they did, they wouldn’t come back. And most of the time, we never ran the drive at full-clip. But it was amazing just to know that we were streaking through space, a tremendous, blinding flare exploding us onward at a decent fraction of a gee.
Life-support was, of course, the bottom part of the crew containment chamber, and the closest to the reactor’s deadly radiation. I never got the logic to that.
I inverted on the ladder and reached down to crack open the bulkhead hatch to LS. “Dane?” I called, dropping down to come to a gentle landing some feet down. “What’s up?” I peered around the dimly lit, cramped chamber.
With a grunt, the dingo rolled out from under a console. “Mika!” he greeted, grinning at me. His gloves and face were smeared with the black dust endemic to the bottom of the ship, and the main reason I spent so much time cleaning the damn filters, while his sweat-drenched shirt and pants were mysteriously clean. “It’s not much, we just need to change a few fuses.”
“The algae lamps.” Dane pulled himself upright, dusting his gloves. He nodded to the small array of vertically stacked glass tubes along the far wall, all filled with vibrant green goo. Dead lamps hung above them. “They popped sometime during last watch. Have to get on top of that or we’re gonna lose our mushy green buddies.”
“Well, what were you doin’ under there?”
“Uh, I dropped Dorian’s wrench back there. That’s something else you can help me with.”
“Really?” I raised a paw incredulously. “He was just bitching at me as if I took it!”
“He left it in the bridge, I needed a wrench.” Dane laughed. “He doesn’t give you a break, does he? Move his gear once and he blames you for everything.”
“Asshole,” I muttered, squeezing past Dane to the console.
“He just doesn’t like kids.”
“Like me, don’t like me,” I grumbled some more, “he’s delusional. I don’t touch his stuff anywhere near as much as you do.”
Another cheery laugh, and Dane reached out to ruffle my headfur. I smiled at the touch, before getting onto my belly and crawling under the console.
Dane was... We were close. At around twice my age now, he was the third highest ranking engineer on the craft – though we did only have three engineers. He wasn’t worried about promotions; if something went wrong beyond the shadow-shield, it was the ranking engineer who had to go on that one way trip.
Dane shared his bunk with me, if we both were off-duty. He wasn’t like most of the other guys on board, he wasn’t too interested in chicks and girls. Me? I guess I wasn’t picky. I cared a lot more if they were nice and funny and smart. Like Dane was.
As I squeezed further under the console and stretched my arm out to grab the red-handled socket wrench, I thought about how silly that was. Back in my colony at least, people made a big deal out of stuff like that – I’d heard of older furs being with a younger fur, but it did raise eyebrows. But out in space, where females rarely went and little rats like me were everywhere, it was a fact of life.
Jin-Wei had a rule. Anyone who forced anyone would find themselves in the air-lock. But not all captains were like him. I was lucky, I’d heard some stories. Sometimes, a rat just had to put up with the attention they got. Again, it was a fact of life.
But luckiest of all was meeting Dane. He changed everything for me.
“Got it,” I said, scooting out from the console. “Here.” I stood and handed the tool to him.
“Right, let’s go.”
I huffed aloud. The whirring machinery, heatlamps, and proximity to the reactor made this section far hotter than the rest of the ship – and we had a faulty radiator down this part to make it that much worse. “Why does the stupid mush need more heat anyway, it’s boiling in here.”
Hydroponic algae was what passed for food out in the black. They also converted CO2 into oxygen, and waste water into clean water. Our reactor walls were probably covered in radiation-eating, oxygen creating gray algae too. The slimy, gross ooze was everywhere on every craft. And our lives depended on it.
“This species needs a lot of heat. The others aren’t so bad.”
I nodded and wiped my already sweaty forehead with the bottom of my tank-top.
Dane smirked at me. “Take it off if you don’t want to soak in your own juices like me.”
Without hesitating I tore my tank-top off my head and dropped it on the console. Baring my black-furred torso made very little difference, but it was something.
Dane whistled at me and turned to the algae tank. A few moments of fumbling later, he grunted again. “Yep, the lamp itself is fine. Look, I’ll see if I can squeeze these guys under another lamp in case we can’t get it working. The panel’s in the wall near the top, know where it is?”
“Yeah.” I clambered onto a small bench and hopped up to grab a hand-hold on the roof. I was glad we were at about half a gee. Full-grav made this stuff much harder and no-grav made me sick. “Gimme the wrench.”
Without looking, Dane held up the socket wrench and I grabbed it with my bare feet-paws, clutching it with my toes and holding it up for my free hand. Spend your life in low or no gravity, you get good with your feet.
The hatch popped open once I unscrewed the closure bolt. Immediately I detected the acrid stink of a popped fuse. “Egh, yeah these ain’t the right ones, Dane!” I called, hanging there.
“That’s why they popped. They’re the blue ones, low rate.”
“Who the fuck did that?” Dane’s voice was thoroughly confused.
“An idiot. Betcha one of the guys that got on at Tethys.” Transferring the wrench back to my toes, I flipped the toggle and pulled the dead fuses out one by one, tossing them to the ground by the ladder. “Where’s the new ones?
“Great. Mika, we have a moron on board. What next, the oxy-pump?” He held a box of fuses up to me.
“Ain’t nobody that dumb,” I assured him, starting to replace the fuses one by one.
Dane watched me work, silent for a few seconds. A smile on his face now. “How come I can see those ribs under that fur, huh?”
I snorted, hitting the safety toggle. “Give me your rations if you don’t like it.”
“Never said that. Hurry up, kid, that’s a tempting target.” I felt the dingo’s fingers brush my concave stomach as I dangled from the hand-hold.
“T-tsch!” I twitched involuntarily. “Don’t you dare!”
“Sorry, what?” I felt those fingers again. This time lower down, brushing just under my navel before easily unbuttoning my pants. The oversized pants slipped down to my thighs almost immediately before I managed to stop them. “I don’t get why you even bother wearing those holey underpants, kid.”
“Dane, what the hell?” I laughed, struggling to get the socket wrench back up to my hand with my pants sagging. “You didn’t get any private time last shift?”
“Screw private time. Or I guess that’s the problem, you can’t screw private time.” Dane took the wrench from my toes and handed it up to me. “Come on, you got twenty seconds before I can’t help myself.”
“You wouldn’t!” I laughed and started fumbling with the panel. “Shit, come on!”
I was counting, and I knew I got the panel closed and secured in less than twenty seconds.
“Too slow!” Dane cried, reaching up and scrabbling at my armpits and sides. “Too bad, so sad!”
I squealed like a much younger boy and fell right into Dane’s arms. The sweaty canine pulled me to the ground easily and went to town everywhere he could. I couldn’t do much in these cases, he was literally three times my size, and my pants were now down around my ankles.
I laughed uncontrollably as the muscular engineer frisked me everywhere he could, even managing to catch and work over my bare feetpaws. Eventually, though, he settled down next to me, grinning stupidly.
“No more,” I panted, flat on my back looking up at him. “I give up.”
He stroked my chest and stomach with a paw. “I think you needed that.”
“You were looking a little pissed off when you came down here.”
“Do’ is just a dickhead, that’s all.”
“That he is. It’s his job though.” Dane lightly brushed my belly-button again, before boldly touching at the bump in my worn underpants. “Come on, let’s finish up here and tell Jin-Wei some idiot’s putting the wrong fuses in places.”
“If I go on the bridge, Dorian’s gonna whack me. He got that look.”
“Wait outside then.”
I grabbed his paw and pulled it to my chest. “You’re gonna leave me hanging?” I complained.
“I’m off duty in an hour.” Dane grinned. “I just wanted to let you know I had intentions.”
“Better shower first.”
“You too, punk.”
With that, he let me up. With the fuses replaced, the heatlamps came on at the press of a button, glowing bright red over the glass tubules. I got dressed again and we both headed up the ladder.
The bridge at the top of the craft was as cramped as any other section. Thin metal structures functioned as adjustable chairs, and the walls were obscured by humming computers, hot monitor screens, and well-worn keyboards on flimsy stands. Rather than climbing the ladder into the bridge bulkhead, I slipped into an alcove just below the hatchway, and let Dane go ahead.
“Jin!” he called, thumping his way up the ladder. “Got the lamps working, listen…”
I rolled onto my back, getting comfy in my alcove. I was supposed to be sleeping. “Fuck that fox,” I muttered to myself.
Jin-Wei was a red panda, born on Titan – our destination for this run. Much shorter than Dane, he nonetheless had a hell of a presence and acted more like he was ten meters tall. He ran the Oberon with a firm demand for obedience and respect for each other, and his reputation back on Enceladus was so high I’d heard of him even before the Terran Suppression. Despite the hard work and little food, I still liked him. Pretty sure any other captain would find a way to feed me even less.
It was the closest I had to a father, now. Not that I let myself think like that.
“Not now, Dane,” I heard Jin say softly. “We have a problem.”
Dane laughed. “Another one?”
“Not one for you this time. Niklas, you tell him.”
“We ain’t the only one moving into parking orbit over Titan.” Niklas was our astro-navigator and sensor specialist, a feline like me. He told me once he was a caracal, and I had no idea what that was. All I knew was he had funny ears. Like Dane, he was younger and had more energy, more levity, than the average grouchy spacer, and he’d been with the Oberon since I got here.
“So? Skies are busy.”
Niklas clucked. “It’s a two-kay-tee UTCS frigate. UTCS York.”
My heart skipped a bit just hearing that. The United Terran Central Systems... what they called their war-makers. In my years on the Oberon, we’d never encountered a Terran warship. Space was large like that.
I felt my paws curl into fists involuntarily. What were they doing here?
“Routine patrol? We’re not running anything are we?”
“No, but that might not matter.” Niklas lowered his voice. “You brought the rat, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. He’s just down below.”
“Think that’s a good idea?”
“Too late now, Nik. He’s not a little kid any more. Why are we worried about a baby-sized Terran warbird anyway?”
“It ain’t the size, greasemonkey. It’s the railguns that could cut our hull in two, or the pulse-laser that could punch a hole in our asses from the other side of Saturn.” Niklas tapped his console. “Or the nukes. Take your pick.”
Dane sighed. “But why do we care?”
“You mean, if they don’t just decide to fuck with an Enceladean ship for fun? We’re unplugged.”
“A salt drive like ours could wipe out a freakin’ planet if we burned in-atmo. Every ship with a drive like that has a remote-activated bomb, and if they act the fool near a pop-center, boom. Captain Jin-Wei didn’t like that arrangement, so he got rid of that bomb. Thought you knew.”
I swore. I’d heard this was a capital offense.
“It’s easy to get by in the outer systems, but Terrans are paranoid. Might be ‘cause we got reason enough to hate them. If they think we might be unplugged, they might just blow us to pieces ‘just in case’.”
“Great. So what do we do, flash our arse at them?”
“Can you think of a better way to make them suspicious? We turn and burn, they’ll come right after us. We don’t have the re-mass anyway, it’s Titan orbit or bust. Just keep calm and let Jin deal with them. They might give us less trouble if they speak to a Titanian captain. We’re probably fine.”
“Right.” Dane gave a soft huff – a sound I knew meant he wanted to say more, but thought better of it. “Look, I’m knocking off in a kilosec. Some ass put the wrong fuses in for the lamps. Try to not get us blown outta the black.”
“That’s the plan. You and the rat make sure you hit the gym before you bunk down, or I’ll tell the Doc and Snake you skipped two shifts.”
“Right. I won’t ask how you know that.” I heard Dane mount the ladder again. He stopped when he climbed down to where I was hiding. “Come on, let’s hit the bikes.”
“Mnh.” I nodded.
“You know this sort of shit happens a lot. We’ll be fine.”
“I get that.” I rubbed my nose. “Uh. You go first. I wanna think a little.”
“You’ll hog the weights.” I grinned unconvincingly. “I’ll see you soon.”
Exercising sucked, but every spacer had to do it. An hour on the bike or treadmill, and whatever strength-stuff we could do before we could get any sleep. Chin-ups, resistance machines, anything. Low-grav messed with you, even with all the shots they made us take every few weeks.
As I threw my clothes aside and stepped into the shower unit, I felt the ‘gravity’ increase slightly. The Oberon didn’t have any fancy spinning parts, our gravity was just the g’s from the engine-thrust. Cut the engines, cut the acceleration, and everything got real floaty, real fast. Most of the time, we accelerated non-stop to the middle of our trajectory, flipped over and burned the opposite direction, so we usually had some decent gravity. Still, we were supposed to exercise every thirty-five kilosecs anyway.
Pulling the lever, I flinched as the hot water mist suddenly filled the chamber from pressure spray nozzles in the wall and ceiling. I quickly rubbed myself down with the absorbent towel, removing as much as I could of the day’s sweat, grime, and dust. I only had forty-five seconds to make myself feel less gross, but practice yielded good results.
With a clank, the water stopped spraying and I waited to let it drip and drain slowly, running my paws down my body to get it all out of my fur. Stepping out, I stowed the washing towel in a nylon bag by the shower and started drying myself with the other. Paying almost no attention as I routinely rubbed down my skinny limbs. The more time spent here, the less I could spend in the bunk with Dane, and next watch didn’t sync up with his. My next rest would be against the cold steel gantry in the ‘bay, alone. Probably in zero-gee.
I picked up my clothes and threw them over my shoulder, only bothering to pull my underwear back on. It was pretty common to see guys trudging to their bunks undressed, and everyone had seen me buck naked before anyway. Thanks to Dorian.
I dodged a few pipes and cables and hauled myself up the ladder to get into the bunk chambers around mid-craft. The Oberon was a tall cylinder with little living space, so we didn’t have rooms like you would in a surface building or orbital station. The tall crew containers were separated by bulkheads and hatches into different levels, and if there were any partition-walls on a level, they were millimetres thick and were more for organization or storage than privacy or to really separate out a section of the craft.
We were lucky the eight bunks for the thirty-fur crew had those thin sheets to grant some measure of privacy. Every gram counts. But a good sleep counted for a lot too.
Dane was already on ‘his’ bunk, stretched out over the covers with a book in his paws, reading by the dull glow of the wall-lamp. Wearing nothing but a pair of tight, black, boxer-briefs. He looked at me over the pages. “You ready?”
“Yeah.” I dropped my clothes to the side of the bunk. “Do’ had me workin’ for six hours.”
“Two watches in a row? Why did he tell you to come down to me then?”
“I told him I didn’t have his stupid wrench and he got embarrassed, he was looking for something for me to do.”
“Probably right. Hop in. I gave him back his stupid wrench, if you care.”
“I don’t.” I crawled onto the bed, right on top of Dane, and let myself drop onto his much bigger frame. “Mhm.”
His big paws rubbed and stroked my back as he held me to him. “I sleep much better with you,” he told me. I rubbed my cheek against the bare tawny fur of his chest, and ground against him with my hips, pressing firmly into the muscular wall of his stomach. Eager. Eager for relaxing bliss after hours of lonely work.
We forwent the sheets, seeking warmth in each other’s embrace. Wrapping and entwining limbs, and I nuzzled into the crook of his neck. I love how he smelled, how it felt to be held against him, enclosed in his arms, how it all reminded me I wasn’t alone. It was more than just comforting. I felt safe as he held me close and we fumbled about atop the bunk, knowing we had the privacy and time to do so at last.
It reminded me that someone cared about me. That for a time I could let everything go, and my older, smarter partner would take care of me. Not like my father, no. Something else. As comforting as my dad’s hugs had been back then, things were definitely different between Dane and I...
But, well, one thing they did share was their ability to fall asleep at any time. And that’s what happens when you take your time, I suppose. It didn’t take long for him to fall into a deep sleep, holding me to him like a frustrated comfort blanket.
That was okay, though. I was tired too. And there was always those precious minutes between waking and having to leave the warm embrace of our sheets, or one another. Where we would both be wound tight and desperate for just... touch. And the release of that pent up need. We were only guys after all.
And, well, I’ll spare you the details of that. You didn’t really want to know anyway, did you?
I stopped what I was doing and looked up. I was on the bridge again, this time replacing the dead floor mounted lights. Sometimes I thought the Captain wanted to give me excuses to be up here – anyone could change the burned out LEDs, it didn’t even take long. I wasn’t even sure we needed all the lights, half the time, half of them were turned off. “Yeah?”
Niklas was lounging at his station, but was watching the monitor with intense focus. I could see from where I was kneeling that he was inspecting the UTCS ship using one of our long-range optics. “You seen it yet?”
I stood and wandered over, wiping my face on my top. “Not really.”
He thought for a moment, reaching up to rub at his long pointed ear. “Mm. You kept looking over here.”
“Is that the kind that blasted the mines?” I kept my voice steady as I could. On screen, I could see a long, tapered candle-like object, shining alabaster-white from the distant sunlight, with searing red radiators extended out like glowing wings. The stenciled image of Earth’s continents in black, the UTCS rondel, was visible on the side facing us. The picture was sharp for something still thousands of clicks away. I could see the little tubes and projections, antennas and weapons.
Nik nodded. “Sure is. Redfield-class strategic missile frigate.” He swore quietly. “You can see the launch bay on the side there.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. It looked so… boring. Just another craft, shining against the black, probably a fourth the mass of our own. It wasn’t even under thrust, it was just floating along. Was hard to believe what it could do.
“It wasn’t there. This one is a new ship, launched two years ago. Never fired its weapons in anger.” Niklas tapped the screen with a lazy paw. “But those nukes aren’t so good in space are they.”
I swallowed. Back when this stuff wasn’t so real, I thought it was cool. A nuke in space was a flash and a blast of x-rays. In-atmo was a different, spectacular story. Lethal either way, but they weren’t as suited to space combat. They were for hitting surface installations and colonies.
“It’s okay,” I murmured. “I’m used to it.” I had no idea how to say what I felt.
Niklas eyed me passively. “I guess you would be.”
“You lost people too, didn’t you?” I looked away from the screen. My bare feet-paws were more interesting suddenly. I looked really hard at my toes. “Everyone did. I’m not special. Don’t worry ‘bout me.”
“I got ya.” He reached out and whacked my shoulder. “Go on, get done. Terrans or not, we’ll be floating around Titan pretty soon.”
I shrugged and got back to work. Orbit or not didn’t mean much to me. I’d have to deal with zero-grav while the others went surfaceside, but otherwise it was all routine. I just hoped Dorian would go with them down to the colony and get off my back.
I heard the clanking of someone climbing the ladder but didn’t bother to look over until the hatch to the bridge popped. The captain pulled himself up on deck without even looking my way. “Nik. Mika.” He had a melodic, choppy accent. I hadn’t heard a Titanian accent until I was on the Oberon.
Took me some time to get used to it.
“Sir,” I said, still focused on the fiddly stupid light fittings embedded in the floor. By now I had quit kneeling and had sat firmly on my ass, legs splayed around the housing.
The ladder clanked some more. Our chief engineer climbed onto the bridge, followed by Dane, then, because I have all the luck, Dorian, the cantankerous cargo-master himself. I tried to remain unnoticed, not wanting to be sent off the bridge for some other task.
Captain Jin slipped into his chair and scanned his station’s screen. “Burn in eight-sixty k-secs, confirm?”
“Confirmed, the burn profile is on the network, take a look before I get clearance from Orbit Control. Should get us in the right inclination but it’s an expensive burn. You want to do the honor, Cap? Pressing that button is a real chore.”
“I pay you assholes to do it.” He chuckled. “Alright. I need you boys to come surfaceside with me. It’s time to hit the market.”
“We’re running low on re-mass for the thermal drive.” Chief folded his arms. He was a blunt-spoken canid, grey-furred and yellow-eyed, and almost never showed himself in anything except his old flight-suit. Not an ass, but definitely not the most fun guy. “This burn will take up most of what we have left.”
“I know, but I’m talking small things at the moment. We’ll get the fuel and general supplies sorted out while we’re down there – and don’t give me shit for calling it fuel. You know what I mean. They can send that up to us.” Jin-Wei typed away on his keyboard, and I caught a glimpse of the inventory interface flashing up on his monitor. It was mostly meaningless to me. “We got a chance to upgrade a few systems and get some entertainment for everyone. Pretty sure you guys have watched all the porn if nothing else.”
“Probably.” Dane shrugged, grinning like an idiot.
“What do you need with porn?” Niklas teased. I stared resolutely at my LEDs.
“If possible I want to sign on a life-support tech down there,” the captain continued. “To look after our little farm. No offense, but a specialist can’t hurt.”
“You don’t need a specialist to put the right fuses in the right holes.”
“That’s not my point. Tratskaya and Williams are leaving us here, so we got openings, I just want to make sure it’s someone worth their delta. Aside from that, we’re taking on a passenger and some cargo, which’ll dock with us after we get back.” The panda spun his chair around and reclined in it – probably glad I fixed it at last – and looked right at me. “There’s something else. Mika.”
I blinked. “Cap?”
“I want you to come down with us.”
Confused, I stared at him. “Me?” Even Chief looked puzzled.
“You’ve been stuck on-ship for nearly six hundred hours straight. That’s enough hiding away up here.”
I nodded, but looked around uneasily.
“Hey. We won’t leave you there.”
I hadn’t even considered that, and I wished it hadn’t come up. Abandoning a rat wasn’t unheard of at all, the busier port-colonies, either floating in the black or on solid ground, were full of drifters and furs with nowhere to go. The worst of them had hundreds of abandoned rats, apparently, all begging and promising and pleading just for a chance to slave away on another ship, and the competition was tough.
But I didn’t think the guys would do that to me. I’d been on the Oberon for years now. That wasn’t the problem.
“No, I just... I hate the pod-ride, that’s all.” I rubbed my head. “I just like staying here more.”
“You’ll be fine. You’re gonna go funny in the head if you don’t get out and see the ‘verse a bit. Besides, maybe you can keep Dane out of trouble.”
“I doubt it.”
“I am counting on you. So go get your shit together, you’ve got a few hours.”
I sighed and quickly secured the last LED before crawling to the hatch. Instead of getting my privacy or rest, I was being dragged to the surface of the vomit-yellow Saturnian moon.
My excursion suit, the vivid orange, body-fitting, lightweight suit, barely fit me. A last line of defense against depressurization, it was supposed to be fur-tight, but Dorian had overdone it when he got in this one for me. I felt like my entire body was being squeezed in every direction – and my junk really didn’t appreciate it. Nor did my trapped tail, squashed against my left thigh. I was floating near the airlock, waiting for the order to make ready. Idly fingering the bottom of my helmet, one orange-covered footpaw resting through a ‘hand’-hold to keep me there. The engines were cut in orbit, so we had no grav at all.
I hated everything about this. I hated wearing the stupid suit, crushing my nuts. I hated hitting atmo in a pod and getting my brains scrambled. I hated knowing that I had some thin carbon-carbon and a skin-tight cheap joke of a suit with a two-kilo helmet between me and the black itself.
There was a dull beep, and I heard Captain Jin-Wei’s voice over the intercom. “Attention everyone. ETA till pod dock… twenty-two minutes. Get ready, people.”
“Yo, Mika!” Dane called, climbing down the ladder. With a soft ‘whoop!’ he pushed away and settled to the floor. He was clad in his own suit, a much better fit – and a much better color, too. His was red with black trim. Still high-vis, but not nearly as painful to look at. “You ready?”
“Raring to go,” I muttered sourly.
“Look, think of it this way. You’ll finally get something to eat that isn’t green and doesn’t taste like congealed farts.” Dane let his helmet float while he checked his pockets. “Mm. Hey, word of advice.”
I cocked my head at him. “Yeah?”
“We love ya the way you are, but tone down the sarcasm when we’re down there. Titanians don’t have a sense of humor in general, but the ones where we’re going are the worst.” He gave me a wry smile. “And don’t pick fights. We might have the bigger balls, but they’ve got the brawn.”
That was definitely true. All the time cooped up at low gravity took its toll. I probably wasn’t really much stronger now than I was when I first got on a ship. “I know.”
“And stick close.” His expression became grave. “Just in case. I got the feeling this isn’t a regular stop-over to do some shopping, got it?”
“Mhn.” I nodded.
The pod was cramped, of course. Once it came up and docked with us, the Titanians got us strapped into the landing rigs. Reclining seat-like frames with cushioned edges and an elastic hamper-like material that we were strapped to, for helping us not get smashed around like dried beans in a can during landing.
One by one, the efficient, silent Titanians – a pair of expressionless leopards – got us into the rigs and restrained us there. Another reason I hated surface drops. I hated being tied up by furs I didn’t even know. Even if it was supposed to stop me breaking my own teeth in the descent.
Only twenty furs at a time could fit in the pod, but that was usually enough. The rigs were around the circular walls of the carbon-fiber sardine can, stacked two high. When everyone was secured, I heard one Titanian mutter something to his partner, but I already had my eyes shut tightly.
“I haaate this!” I whined aloud, hoping nobody would hear me.
“It gets easier!” I heard one of the comms-guys tell me. I just nodded furiously.
Within two minutes of that, we had detached from the Oberon’s dock. The drop-pod shivered for a minute as it fired a few small rockets after before it all fell silent. That was it. We were heading down to the thick, soupy Titanian atmo.
“How long till atmo?” I managed to ask. Everyone else was silent, some had headphones on and were probably deaf to everything.
The Titanian called back to me from the other side of the pod. “Hour. Roughly.”
I exhaled and started to count. I wanted to know if he was right for some reason.
As we descended, the others started to chat and joke. I focused on my counting. If nothing else it stopped me noticing the pressure on my nuts or the fact I was plummeting towards a moon in a tin can.
Around about eighty-two minutes later, I started to feel it. The hull started to tremble and rattle as the atmosphere got thicker. In seconds, what had started as a gentle rumble started to become a loud rush, and I knew the outside of the pod was probably sheathed in blazing plasma.
“Here we goooo!” I heard someone call. “Good luck everyone!”
The rush became near deafening as it vibrated the pod’s hull with amazing intensity. I closed my eyes tight and clutched at the rig I was strapped down too helplessly – though that didn’t matter. If anything went wrong here, I’d be helpless if I was strapped down or not.
Fuck do I hate drops!
I was only scarcely aware that my breathing had picked up and that I was muttering something to myself – I didn’t even know what.
But then something else caught my attention. Something in my guts. My eyes jacked open and tried to sit up, but the crushing g-force and the restraints stopped me cold.
“Oh shit...” I moaned. “Not now. Oh – mmhng!- Oh fuck you!” The pod itself was seemingly howling by now. “Oh shiii-uh!”
And then my stomach turned upside down.
The cold water felt amazing on my face. I drank it. I splashed it over my entire head, soaking my headfur. It had been awhile since I could just turn a tap and get this much water to steadily flow.
There was a knock behind me. “Mika! Time to move, are you alright?”
I turned around slowly, daubing at the neck of my ex-suit with the rag a helpful technician with a knowing smirk had let me use. “Fine. It came right out.”
“Yeah it does.” Dane shot me a sympathetic half-smile. “Alright. Come on, everyone’s been through decon already except us.”
I put the rag in the sink and picked up my still wet helmet. “Right. Uh.”
I shuffled towards him with as much enthusiasm as I could, my aramid-clad feet barely leaving the floor.
The pod had landed right where it was supposed to. A sub-orbital bullseye.
Another thing I thought was cool until I had to live it, surface-to-ship pods used to impress me a lot. Launched into orbit through a bunch of different methods, they’d meet with orbiting ships and take on passengers. Plunging into atmos thick and thin, handling the massive thermal shock with heat-shields and magnetic fields, before either landing under rockets or floating down under massive parachutes. With Titan, we probably deployed a big ‘chute, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was feeling sorry for myself.
Decontamination was nothing new. Sprayed by some foul-smelling mist, inspected for a few minutes by some guys behind a screen with a big lens and a bunch of computers. The cramped metal corridors and sheets of folded reflective aluminium were mostly the same wherever we dropped.
The others waited for me in the chambers beyond. Usually, landing sites were connected to pressurized colony-habs by tunnels through the ground or tubes over it, while the landing site itself was a surface installation for processing new arrivals. I tried to guess what this would be: a tunnel or tube place.
When the airlock door released bolts and cracked open, I got my answer. Perhaps ten meters high and wide, the tube of black plastic sheeting stretched into the distance and curved away, hiding its eventual end from sight. It was probably made of metal or reinforced carbon, and the sheeting was just internal covering. Or it could just be exactly that: a long passageway of fragile lightweight plastic sheeting. On the smaller colonies, that wasn’t unheard of. I wasn’t curious enough to inspect.
Only the Captain, Niklas, Chief and Dane were waiting for me. The others had made their way to the habitat already, likely eager to get to bars, shops, or food markets. Thankfully, Do’ had gone his own way too.
“Feeling better?” Niklas prompted, smirking.
I glared at my helmet. “Fuck.”
“We’ve literally all done it, kid.” The Captain was messing around on his PDC, poking the small rectangular device’s screen with one gloved finger. “Let’s a get a move on.”
In minutes we’d walked the whole length of the tube and were facing yet another airlock. Thick and imposing, giant red letters spelled out its purpose. Some words were in a language I didn’t get, but the largest were in plain Old Anglic.
‘CAUTION!’ it read. ‘HABITAT AIRLOCK. CAUTION!’
Jin-Wei smacked a button by its side. There was a buzz. “cui. Last of the Oberon.”
After a second, the door creaked and the hydraulic bolts around it slowly withdrew, before the thick metal plates started to whir and inch into their recesses.
My breath caught instantly when I saw what lay beyond.
The habitat’s roof itself was transparent, reinforced hexagonal panels of plastic or glass with metal frames, I couldn’t be sure which, stretched out in a dome over what had to be at least the entirety of this section. Thick silvery metal struts arced upwards to meet at dome’s top, and thick aluminium pipes were lashed alongside them, likely the output vents from the atmo-generator.
I shrank back.
“Hrm?” Dane put his paw on my shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
“I hate these kinda habs.”
“You’re doin’ a lot of hating recently. What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s the...” I whispered. The dull orange nitrogen atmosphere swirled and surged above the colony, seemingly as thick as liquid dye. “I don’t like the sky.”
Niklas raised an eyebrow at me. “You live in a craft in the black, and seeing the sky freaks you out?”
The Captain walked right by us all, striding confidently into the colony proper. “He isn’t a fan of open spaces,” he called over his shoulder. I felt my cheeks heat up immediately. “It’s why he’s with us. His last ship didn’t work out.”
The caracal flicked an ear curiously. “Really? What happened?”
I knew he’d keep asking, and Dane wasn’t gonna stop him, so I sighed heavily. “I was little, okay? Captain Voya wanted me to do space-walk stuff but I couldn’t do it.”
“What, so he stuck you out there and you froze up?”
“Every time.” I scuffed the plastic flooring, hesitant to step into the dome, to get under that roiling sky. “Wanted me to repair the radiators. I freaked every time.”
“He still kept making you go out there?” Niklas whistled. “Asshole.”
“Locked me out there the second time. Was real pissed I wouldn’t do it, but I couldn’t. Thought he wouldn’t let me back in.” My pride was already in tatters after throwing up in my helmet, so I decided to pull the sympathy card.
Thankfully, Dane came to my rescue. “Alright, come on, let’s go. None of that bullshit on the Oberon.” He dropped a paw right on my shoulder. “That dome’s been fine for something like sixty years, it’s not going to crack the moment you get under it, Mika. Your luck isn’t that bad.”
The Senkyo Habitat was like most other surface colonies I’d been to, including mine. The ground was mostly compacted black dirt, concrete, or the occasional patch of enriched soil, where colorful plants were thriving in an attempt to make the place less bleak. It was nice to see some color, some things that weren’t just made of plastic, glass, fibers or metal.
The roads and spaces between structures were mostly clear but for the occasional piece of litter – something Enceladeans took a lot more seriously, I guessed – and were smoothly compressed and marked by embedded reflectors, crunching softly under our paws. The colonists paid us no mind, pulling carts laden with goods, or just walking from structure to structure. Small trucks and tractors rumbled past us, taking up most of the roads. I had no idea what sort of shifts or schedules the colonists were on, but there definitely weren’t many around at this moment.
The structures themselves, though, were typically plastic domes or hexagons, though there was the occasional simple wooden shed or boxier structure.
Colonies on Enceladus weren’t this big. The ice wasn’t as hospitable, the moon was far smaller, and the atmosphere was thin outside the domes. Here, I guessed they were just more prosperous. Where we mostly used simple bicycles, there was a constant rumble of vehicle engines and machines here.
As we walked, my knees buckled from time to time, adjusting to the gravity. Under the dome, it was a full one g, something we rarely experienced off-world. At least not on the Oberon.
We passed a bamboo plantation, and I had to stop just to look at it.
Bamboo was an ancient Terran plant, and it was absolutely everywhere in every hab. It grew immensely fast, and the springy wood could do just about anything. I remember learning how to cut it up, plant it, and look after it when I was in school back then. Everyone learned that stuff. We had entire fields of bamboo back home.
“Must be easy to farm here,” I heard Niklas muse. “Take a look at the atmospheric composition. Must be a good life here, I suppose.”
I had to agree. I literally couldn’t see the other side of the plantation, it stretched on for at least several hundred meters deep and wide. I wasn’t sure if it was an actual farm or was some sort of park.
I kept wanting to duck my head and hide, though. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest every time I caught a glimpse of the dome overhead. The colony felt strange and empty, everything was so spread out. I preferred surface-time in the underground habs, or even the smaller ones where everything was closer together.
The open-plan surface domes freaked me the hell out. A crack in a dome wasn’t much worse than a crack in a hull, but I still felt more comfortable up there now. It didn’t matter that I’d grown up in a domed hab.
I still remember how it almost cracked...
Captain Jin led us to a specific building towards the far side of the dome from where we entered. The structure was also dome shaped, about the size of the Oberon’s entire hull and constructed of dark synthetic carbons, maybe to trap heat. Above the simple hatch was a sign.
“Xanadu’s.” Niklas grumbled. “Really, boss? Looks like a dive.”
“It’s where he said to meet.”
I frowned. I had no idea who they were talking about. I really had no idea what we were doing here at all, but rats weren’t really allowed to ask questions. As usual, I had no idea what was going on.
Dane’s gentle paw rested on my shoulder, and he ushered me inside to follow the others.
Inside was dimly lit, except for one section along which a long, plastic table stretched, lined with cushioned stools, brightly illuminated by ornate hanging lamps and glittering LEDs. At the center of the building’s domed roof, a smooth pole extended down to the surface of a raised stage covered in a shiny black lacquer, and lined by more tiny lights. Furs lounged in scattered chairs, mostly near the stage, not a one of them without a drink in their hand, talking animated or slouching drunkenly. Perhaps more strangely, distorted, beat-driven music played from speakers I couldn’t see.
The lighting was both poor and dazzling at the same time, depending on where you looked.
“Well, ain’t this place fancy,” I heard Niklas murmur as the captain got us to take seats at the bar. We set our helmets on the surface in front of us.
A cheetah lady emerged from the back room behind the bar and walked over to us as we did. My eyes bugged out of my skull, since she was wearing almost nothing. Only a thin vest-like thing that didn’t even come close to covering her navel, and shorts that bared almost all of her legs.
Niklas’s jaw dropped open. So did mine.
“What can I get you boys?” she said brightly, seeming to take no notice.
“Just something to drink,” Captain said. “I haven’t had a good Titanian spirit in a year.”
“For everyone? Including the little guy there?”
Captain looked at me. “Why not?”
“Be right back.”
I blinked. He was buying me a drink? That was new.
Chief tapped the bar. “I don’t see him here, Jin.”
“We’ve got thirty-six before we’re due to head back to ship. We’re early.” His rounded ears pinned back to his head, the Captain glanced around the bar. “Relax and enjoy the show, I say.”
Dane sniggered crudely. “Only you’d agree to meet in a nudie bar, Cap.”
“Wasn’t my idea. And I’ve never been in one of these places before.”
“Sure, we believe you.”
“If you meet my wife, you’d better act like you do.”
I felt even smaller and less important than ever. I always was unimportant, and I was always small, and I usually didn’t know what was going on. But this was different. I hadn’t been on surface-leave and ordered to come with the Captain on business like this. I had no idea how to act.
Dane’s warning was totally pointless. I was too busy being quietly nervous to say anything, let alone piss a colonist off.
Niklas leaned in and whispered, “Damn, she’s fine looking, right?” That made me feel a lot better, and I grinned at him.
The cheetah-lady returned and slipped tiny glasses of clear liquid in front of all four of us. “Say, boys, you look pretty uncomfortable in those suits,” she said, grinning. “Why don’t you stay and help with the main event tonight?”
“Married, married, married,” Cap murmured. “You guys do what you want. Just don’t get wasted.”
Niklas laughed, shaking his head. “Who’d want to see a skinny-ass spacer do a strip tease?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” She leaned closer to me. “I know a lot of customers would like to see you shake that tail, honey.”
My ears ignited. “Why me?”
“Well, think about it, cutie.” She laughed at me and went to serve others at the opposite end of the bar, her delicate hips swaying rhythmically which each step. But not before shooting me a playful wink.
“It been that long since you were surface-side, Mika?” The caracal beside me laughed and downed his drink in an instant. “That’s not bad, actually.”
“What do you mean?” I looked around, bewildered. “What did she mean?”
“Sometimes even these larger colonies still have that early-days mentality. If you can reproduce, you’re valuable.” Niklas eyed his glass appreciatively. He looked mildly surprised that it hadn’t tasted like engine-shine. “To the fine feline ladies here, you’re fresh meat. New DNA from a young male spacer. And there’s something about the inexperienced ones, they say.”
I flushed under my fur. “I-I guess.”
“You’ll be fine in this part of the hab, the guard actually gives a shit here. Watch your back if you get to the other domes, though.”
“At best, pushy ladies.”
I cocked my head at him. “At worst?”
“Uh, it can get weird.”
I never got the chance to ask what he meant. Something tapped me on the shoulder and I twisted around on my stool.
A young canid boy with stormy gray fur and a toothy grin stood right behind me. I blinked.
“coi do!” he said enthusiastically. “do xabju ma?”
I blinked again. “What?”
He just laughed. “xu do se Titanian?"
I looked at my crewmates, utterly bewildered. “Guys? What’s he saying?”
Captain rubbed idly at his neck, still enclosed by his excursion suit. “He’s asking if you speak the local language.”
“They have a different language here?” I asked, shooting the kid a wan smile.
“Well, you can hear it right there. Long story, but there was an accident when the first colonies on Titan were being constructed, and groups from different Terran nations had to work together or die.” Jin-Wei flagged down the feline waitress again. “They had some linguists with them, who decided what the next generation should speak, and they settled on a constructed language based on predicate logic. Now about half of Titan speaks some derivation of it.”
“Sounds like you know a lot about it,” Dane said.
“I’m from here, Dane.”
The dingo snorted. “Right, that’s true.”
“Do you speak Anglic?” I tried, picking up the little glass the waitress had given me. I had no idea what was in it, but I didn’t want to be a jerk to the Captain.
“mi na jinpe...” The canine kid shook his head, though I got the feeling he knew what I’d asked. “mi na se glibau.”
“I have no clue what you’re saying.” I felt uncomfortable. The others were watching me with undisguised amusement.
I heard a call from the other side of the building, and the kid shrugged. “i. e'i mi ca cliva co'o. za penmi.” Suddenly, he trotted off towards a curtained off section at the other end of the bar. I turned back to rest my elbows on the surface in front of me.
“He doesn’t speak a word of Anglic,” Jin-Wei told me, raising his second glass and downing the contents in a second. “Ah. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t want to play with you. A lot of monolingual folk come through here, he’s probably used to it.”
“Play with me?” I said it with a mix of bemusement and indignation. I wasn’t a kid. Well. Not really.
“Are you going to drink that?”
I stopped and looked at the glass. With a shrug and a show of nonchalance, I raised my chin and the glass, and tossed the contents down my throat – clumsily. I almost screwed up and sent the liquid down my chin. It really had been a long time since I had been surface-side. Even in a ship like the Oberon, which usually accelerated at a decent fraction of a gee, you drank from straws.
It burned a little going down, and the heady vapors wafted up into my nasal cavity. I coughed, slamming a paw down to the bar to steady myself.
Dane reached out to rub my shoulder. “It takes some getting used to.” He laughed. “Enough of those and you might be giving that show.”
“So get him another,” Niklas suggested. “He could make a few credits up there.”
I knew they were teasing, but it still made me flush under my fur.
Chief swore under his breath. “Don’t get yourself plastered, we’re here on business.”
“Hey, he isn’t,” Niklas sing-songed. “He’s a young guy now, let him unwind and get some education.”
“Keep it together.” The wolf glanced at his superior. “Should they all be here? Is that a good idea?”
“Stay composed.” Jin-Wei laced his fingers. “For all we know, they’re already watching. This is usual business to us.”
I lowered my voice. “Is something wrong?” My voice was hoarse.
Another pat on my back from Dane. “No, just business negotiations. We’re taking on a passenger. Chief’s being his usual self.”
Jin nodded, and looked at me with a smile on his rounded face. “Relax, Mika. This is why I hired Chief. He’s one of the biggest worrywarts with no sense of humor this side of Jupiter. You boys are on surface-leave, I just want you near me for a few reasons.” He shrugged. “I’m sure Dane can carry your drunken ass to the pod when you’re done.”
“Sorry sir, but isn’t he meant to be keeping me out of trouble?”
“Dane, there’s not a force in the ‘verse that can do that after a few drinks.”
I smiled. It was nice seeing them like this.
“You can get up and stretch your legs, Mikael.” Captain nodded at me. “Take a look around in a little bit. This is life on Titan. Another world. You can go see what it’s like, just a little. On your own time, before we go back.”
My smile got even wider. “I will. Thanks, sir.”
We sat, idly chatting for some time. There was a definite shift in attitude, together on the surface of a moon, away from our duties. Everyone was more relaxed, more open. I didn’t know if it was because we were on ‘leave’ or if it was the effect of the drink. Even Chief snorted a few laughs, even at some of my jokes.
For my part, I felt myself get warm and even a little dizzy by the time I’d drank three of those little glasses. Though not the tastiest drink in the world, it wasn’t awful, and each time I let that liquid slip down my throat I got a little warmer. I relaxed with every glass, feeling less and less out of place.
It wasn’t more than a kilosec later that another group clomped inside the building. Chief caught sight of them first, and he swore quietly.
“Jin,” he muttered, lowering his head. “Terran Espatiers.”
I snapped my eyes to the doorway, paying no mind to an appearance of subtlety. Surprise, anger and curiosity compelling me to see my first Terrans in so long.
They were of various species, though mostly canid. Ten of them. Clad in dark blue overall fatigues with what I could only guess to be markings of rank or role above their hearts and on their upper arms, all of them were thickly built and rough looking, with the physique of surface-bound laborers rather than stringy spacers like us. Some of them had undone the top section of their rugged overalls and tied the sleeves around their waist, their tank-tops baring thickly muscled arms.
Over their shoulders, rifles of matte-finished plastic were slung over their shoulders by straps. War-makers. Soldiers of space. Armed and trained to kill, even in peacetime. And they’d barged into this place like they owned it.
“C’mon, sarge, you owe us a drink. Might be our last chance.” One of them ushered the others towards the bar, slapping his colleagues on the shoulder, one after another.
“Forget the drinks,” another declared loudly. “Plenty of backwater booty in here!”
The rambunctious louts chattered and laughed as they took up stools at, thankfully, the other end of the bar.
“You alright?” Dane murmured into my ear. I hadn’t even realized my paws were fists and I was sitting perfectly still.
“I’m fine.” I straightened, flattening my pinked ears. I pushed aside the fuzziness I’d started to feel.
Chief shifted as well. “Our guy better show up soon; I don’t like this.”
We had mere moments of quiet, waiting for some sign of whoever we were supposed to be meeting, before one of the Terrans noisily approached our group while flagging down the waitress. He thumped a paw down on the bar, a grin on his wolfish face.
“Ten beers, babe,” he told her, looking so jovial I wanted to puke. “We’re not leaving till we see triple.”
The cheetah lady chortled, leaning over the bar herself – giving all of us a look at the cleavage between her ample breasts. “No problem, just don’t bring it back up, hun.”
“Would we ever do that?” He slapped down a plastic card with an exaggerated wink. As the waitress, bartender, whatever, strode off, the guy glanced over at us. I looked down so he wouldn’t see I’d been watching him. “On surface-leave, guys?”
“More or less,” Dane replied, raising his glass. “You guys?”
“More or less.” The wolf smirked.
“Long way from home?”
I felt uncomfortable, caught between the two of them. It felt like my head was buzzing. I tried to ignore their exchange, friendly though it seemed.
I didn’t care. I didn’t want a Terran war-maker near me with his gun slung over his shoulder.
It wasn’t long until he said something to me, trying to drag me into the conversation. “You’re a bit young to be stuck in space, kid,” he exclaimed.
Without even thinking, I snapped at him. “Yeah, whose fault is that, asshole?”
The espatier recoiled. The others looked at me sharply.
“Mikael,” Jin-Wei said. His tone was soft but commanding. “Take that walk I mentioned. You need it.”
I lidded my eyes. “Yes, sir.” My legs were shaking when I slipped off the stool. Quickly, I made my way back to the entrance, head down and hoping nobody would intercept me.
That had been stupid, I knew that, and it’d probably get me whacked later. I swore to myself as I stepped out into the compacted dirt street again.
How else could I react? My habitat was the first one to be attacked. They’d nuked my father’s mine without warning, my mom disappeared without a trace, and I saw assholes in that exact uniform throw my teachers into the street as they tried to protect us, and then shoot them. With rifles that looked a lot like those ones.
Titan was hit by the Terrans as well. Many Saturnian satellite colonies were. How could they act so calm? Those guys weren’t friends. They were either murderers, or on the same side as murderers!
The habitat beyond was still eerily quiet when I stepped out into it. I had no idea what Titan’s rotational period was or what the local time was, so I could only assume at least most of the colonists were asleep. Regardless, it was still very bright, and it wasn’t just the light reflecting from Saturn’s swirling clouds.
Daring a glance skyward, I could see the tops of several of the taller structures stretching upward towards the habitat’s pressurized dome. Industrial buildings, I guessed. The colony was more densely packed, likely with people as well as structures, than I expected. I was probably surrounded by more people here than I’d ever been.
I knew that some colonies on Titan were some of the first ever built, and had been around for decades. Centers of trade and the last major stops on the long trip to the far-flung moons of Uranus. I guess it made sense for them to be much more developed than my old home.
With a sigh, I started to walk. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I didn’t want to stick around in case the Terrans decided to teach me a lesson. I returned to the bamboo plantation several structures away and slipped around one of the nearby domes. There, I crouched and fell to my backside.
... That really was stupid. I could’ve got beaten to a pulp, and for all I know I just got the others in trouble too. I really hoped that wasn’t what I’d just done. Those Terrans looked rowdy and dangerous.
I closed my eyes and slouched against the side of the structure, feeling sorry for myself again. Letting my head clear away the effects of those tiny, potent drinks.
It wasn’t much later when I started to hear raised voices. At first I thought it was coming from the structure I was leaning on, but eventually I realized it was coming from somewhere amongst the dense bamboo thickets. Or perhaps the far side of it.
There was a loud yelp, and that got me to my feetpaws. It sounded like someone was being hurt.
Cautiously but quickly, I jogged along the outside of the bamboo thickets, with that strange gait of someone trying to sneak along quickly. My fiber-clad paws made little sound on the ground and I peered into the mass of branches and leaves.
Damn did they grow them close together here.
I had almost circled around to the far side of the thicket when I heard the voice again.
“mi na djuno lodu'u... za'u ra makau zvati!” That voice – and the bizarre musical language – sounded familiar. The kid from the bar? I stopped.
The response was in a deeper, baritone voice. “This one then?” it grumbled. “Uh. te?”
“I have no idea what he’s saying,” another voice added.
Peering through some of the bamboo trunks at the periphery of the large thicket, I could see them at last. It was the kid from before, from the bar. He must’ve left and gotten ahead of me.
He definitely wasn’t alone. Two full-grown males had accosted him, and one of them had clearly grabbed him by the wrist. One was a lean panther, another, the one gripping the boy’s arm, was a stout canine of some sort, and both were dressed in grey overalls. Spacers? Miners? I wasn’t sure.
“ko jundi. ju’i.” The panther knelt, holding something to the kit’s face. “ko'a mo?”
“mi se slabu nai ra...”
“Fucking hell.” He stared at the kid. “I barely know what I’m saying, let alone him.”
“e'o ko curmi lo nu mi cliva!”
“zi. ko tolxanka.”
I frowned. They were talking in that weird language, obviously. Why would two adults grab and interrogate a child, though?
The kid was shaking. “d-do e'o na kusru mi.”
“ko na xanka. be'u do sidju mi. ti mutce vajni.” The panther fumbled for a second, then showed the boy another object – I still couldn’t see what. “noi prenu?”
“na go’i...” The boy, a husky or wolf, I wasn’t sure, was staring in fearful compliance at the panther, who had an eerily stern look on his face. “e’o.”
“ko sisti lo ka zukte. e’o ko spuda loi mi preti.”
“mi na kakne sidju do.”
“He doesn’t know anything.” The canine sighed, shrugging with the boy’s wrist still in his paw. “We’re getting nowhere.”
“I don’t believe him. You saw where he came from.”
“Fuck this kid, let’s move on.”
“I’m not done. Maybe it is time for you to panic, kid.” The panther frowned for a moment. “...mi ba catra ra. ma se zvati lo do celxa'i? ko dunda ta mi.”
The boy inhaled deeply, staggering backwards as far as he could. His paws scrabbled at the ground as the adult held him, and he collapsed awkwardly. He squealed shrilly. “e'o ko na catra mi! e’o! na zukte-!”
The boy’s tone told me all I needed to know. Before I knew what I was doing, I rushed around the bamboo trunks and skidded to a noisy stop on the compacted dirt. “Hey!” I yelled. “What the fuck are you doing?”
All three of them jumped. I froze too when I saw the canine’s paw reach for his hip pocket – obviously for a weapon. The adults shared a glance, and the kid just gawped at me.
“Not worth it,” I heard the canine grumble lowly. I felt my stomach tighten as he said that, but to my relief he let go of the kid’s wrist.
The panther stood and dusted his knees. “ko to'o klama.”
Without hesitating, the boy scrambled over to me, clearly scared. He hid behind me, as if I could protect him from the two grown males. For whatever it was worth, I stood to block them. “What were you doing to him?”
“Forget you saw anything, kid,” the canine told me. “This isn’t something you want involved in.”
The wolf-boy touched my paw. “a’ei klama...” he said in a small voice. “a-au... mi djica tu'a lo zdani.”
“Yeah, okay,” I replied, guessing at what he said.
Without waiting for me, the two adults had turned and started to walk away. I blinked, confused.
What were they asking him? Was it some sort of criminal group targeting the bar? Did they just want to hurt a kid? I briefly considered following them, but I was almost certain they had a weapon, if they’d even need one. I wasn’t sure they’d hesitate to kill a space rat if I pressed them.
I briefly considered finding some guard patrol or even seeing if the Terrans cared at all about someone threatening a child. I dismissed that option almost immediately. Like they’d care.
“mi pu sisku do,” the boy told me as his harassers slipped around the bamboo. “do jersi.” He squeezed my paw and stepped back, tugging on me. “vajni!”
“Okay, alright!” I turned and let the kid lead me back to the bar, pulling me like an awkward cart along the firm dirt – though every few steps I stopped to look back. Something had been very wrong back there. Those guys were being brutes.
But the kid didn’t seem to care anymore, and within minutes we were back at the dimly lit drinking hole that I guessed was his home, and he dragged me through the open door.
He let go and shot me a smile. “ki’e sai!” In a flash, he was around my waist and squeezing me tight. “mi pu terpa.” With that, he let go and darted around the bar again. “mamtaaa!”
Lost, I watched his bushy tail vanish into the backroom.
“There you are, Mikael.”
I whirled around. “Sir? I-”
My crewmates had all moved from the bar to a few chairs in a dark corner of the building, the a plastic table in front of them adorned by several empty glasses. But that wasn’t what made me pause.
Jin-Wei just shot me a lopsided grin. “This is Doctor Masden, and Mister Weiss.”
It had been a long time since I’d seen anyone like the two strangers seated to the right of my captain.
The first was a short, dumpy snow-leopard, middle-aged and peering at me through glasses nestled atop the bridge of his nose. The other a lean, hard-faced jackal of some years younger. The both of them wore old-style fabrics and designs, indicating they were probably from older or more prosperous colonies. Jackets of what seemed to be leather and fiber, baggy pants lacking in the pockets every spacer considered necessary.
“Uh. S-sir. Sirs.” I nodded to them, and they raised their paws slightly in greeting.
“They’re the passengers we came here to meet.” Jin reclined slightly. “You’ll get to know them over the next few megasecs.”
“Um, hi.” I had no idea what to say, obviously.
But my captain was watching me carefully. “They’re Terrans. I trust that won’t be an issue?”
I shook my head. “No, Cap. I don’t care.”
“I didn’t think so. But I wanted to be sure.”
The leopard leaned forward. “To be clear,” he said, “most Terrans do not even know about the events in the outer solar system, and there are few among those that do who approve of our government’s conduct.” He paused. “I understand you might harbor some resentment, but we are not even close to being your enemies.”
“I know that, Doctor, uh, Hasden?”
“Masden.” He adjusted his glasses. “And I’m glad.”
Jin picked up his drink. “Mika, I called you back here because we aren’t going to stay on the surface for much longer. I want you to go with Dane and Niklas to the markets.”
“I’ve given them a budget for you. It isn’t much, but you need clothes at least. Go with them and let them work it out.”
I nodded. I wasn’t stupid enough to expect I’d get to choose too much for myself. Besides, I’d never actually paid for anything in my life.
“Take a seat.”
Dane reached out and pulled a seat over for me, and I gratefully slipped onto it. I was glad that I wasn’t in trouble, and the espatiers were on the clear other side of the bar. That made me a lot less nervous.
Still, I shifted the chair a little closer to Dane.
“Should get him a few more drinks, cap,” piped Niklas, leaning forward clumsily in his chair.
“I think you just want to see him dance.” Dane shook his head.
“Sure do. It’ll be fun.”
“Well, that’s up to him.”
Jin-Wei turned to the snow leopard and started to talk softly. I strained to listen over the sounds of Nik and Dane’s banter.
“It will take some time to get to your destination if you make that detour,” I heard the captain murmur.
“I understand. But I must.”
“You’re the client.” Jin shrugged slightly. “The Uranian system is along trek, but we can get you there in a megasec or so. Two at worst.”
The doctor mulled it over. “That’s sooner than I expected,” he admitted. “If I’m not wrong, it’s about twice the distance as it is to here from the Jovian system.”
“Depends where the planets are in their orbit. This isn’t the best time to be going inter-planet. Do you have any other cargo? The trip will either take a lot of delta or a lot more time otherwise.”
“Just this. Nothing else.” The leopard raised his left arm slightly. His jacket sleeve shifted slightly, and I realized there was a thin metal cuff around his wrist. At the other end of the handcuffs was a small metal briefcase.
Dane tapped my shoulder. “Your friend’s coming back,” he told me.
With a flash of gray fur, there was suddenly a tray on the table in front of me. The wolf-boy smiled at me beatifically, gesturing to it. Or rather, to the thick burger “ko citka!” he said breathlessly. “i. no da jdima ti.”
The captain laughed aloud.
I hadn’t seen a burger in years, and the smell was almost overwhelming. Also on the tray was another small glass of that heady liquid, and a much larger one of what I had to assume was water. “I-! For me?” I pointed to it quizzically.
“go’i i. ckire fi lo ka sidju mi.” The boy bowed quickly.
A smile cracked my muzzle, but I looked over at Jin. “Can I?”
“Sure, it’s not like you’ll get fat from a single burger.”
“Th-thanks!” I said to the boy, trying to restrain myself.
Jin-Wei raised an eyebrow. “ju’i, nanla. ma jibri do?”
The boy bowed again, this time his head easily going to his knees. “mi dansu.”
“i’e. mi’a xamgu! mi bazi jarco ro do.” He grinned at me again. “zi penmi co’o, pendu!” The kid took a step and froze, frowning at the doctor – who looked thoroughly baffled. “ju’i. xu mi refsajbi'o do? J-ju’i nai. co’o!” With those uncertain sounding words, he darted off again to the bar. A frown on his little face.
“You’ve made a friend, Mika.” Again, Captain laughed at me. “He’s a dancer here, believe it or not. He might give you a private show if you’re lucky.”
The jackal accompanying the doctor seemed bemused, before literally shaking it off. “Just curious, but why would it matter if he put on weight? I get the feeling it wasn’t just a joke.” His voice was soft but clipped. “I’ve never seen an overweight spacer in my life.”
Niklas shot him a look. “Take it you don’t travel in spacecraft much?”
“No, this is the first time. I was an infantryman on Terra, never left the atmosphere.”
“Takes getting used to huh? Well, simply put, the more payload a craft carries, the more fuel it needs to move its weight, but the fuel has weight too. See the problem? Especially if you want to point-and-shoot the way we do?”
“I suppose so.”
“We’re not built like stick-figures out of choice. But that was still a joke. A burger ain’t gonna be a problem. Mika here has less mass than a pillow.”
“Thanks,” I said wryly, picking up the burger. I was already salivating. The first bite was pure bliss. I almost forgot how to swallow. And the sudden, mocking cheers from my crewmates did not help...
I was so overwhelmed by the taste of a simple, salad-free burger that I completely forgot about the thugs bullying the kid, and even forgot to be curious about our new passengers. I even managed to mostly forget about the Terrans on the other side of the building, who eventually left anyway, the entire group steaming drunk.
We bantered quietly until Jin-Wei decided it was time for us to make ready. There were things to buy and arrangements to make.
As we stood and gathered out things, which is to say, our helmets, the cheetah-lady came out from behind the bar. But she didn’t come over and greet us. Instead, she made eye-contact with me and beckoned me over.
“We’ll meet back here in about twenty kilosecs,” Jin announced, tapping the touchscreen on his PDC. “That’s plenty of time. See the sights, get some experience. It gives us enough time to get everything organized and get to the launch site.”
“Um, excuse me,” I murmured, slinking away. “I think she wants to talk.”
“That’s fine.” Jin tapped his PDC. “Everyone else, make sure to meet back here on time.”
“That’s not a lot of surface-leave, cap.”
“Our passengers are in a hurry.”
I ignored them and walked over to the cheetah lady, who was now leaning against her bar.
“Yeah?” I asked her, perking my ears. “Is something wrong?”
“There might be.” Her bright tone had darkened, and her brown eyes were serious. “My son told me what happened.”
“I- he’s your son?”
“Adopted. He lost his parents, and I suppose you did too.”
“Those males were looking for someone – and my son is sure it’s that doctor fellow you’re taking on-board.” She leaned closer. “We get a lot of shady business in this sector, like any busy habitat with a drop-port. Please be careful. You did a brave thing for my boy. This is all I can do to repay you.”
I felt cold all of a sudden. “Y-you think I should tell my captain?”
“Definitely, but be discreet. Those thugs threatened to kill my son if he didn’t answer them. They seemed to think he knew those two for some reason.”
“They had been in here before, but not when my son was here.” She straightened. “That’s all I can tell you. Just be careful. I think you’re all in danger. If you’re ever back on Titan, come see us again.”
Dane called me over. “Mika! Time to move!”
“Coming.” I hesitated. “Uh. Thanks.”
“Not at all. You’d better get going. di’ai.”
I made my way across the dimly lit dive to the others, trying to catch a proper glimpse of the snow-leopard and his metallic briefcase.
Who was he, and what the hell was he carrying? What was going on? Why did I have such a bad feeling all of a sudden? Why were we taking Terrans onto our craft in the first place? Since when could they ever be trusted?!
Suddenly I didn’t feel so excited about our shopping spree.
Ch2: Strange Matters
“Everyone to the cargo bay, now!” I heard Chief roar as he kicked off in the direction of the ladder. “Count up everyone, we need to know who’s in there!”
I didn’t move. I just floated there, shaking. I knew I had to look stupid, like a stunned infant.
But I just couldn’t believe this was happening.
“Mika! With me, down to life support, move! We’ll probably need you!” I flinched, startled into action. I flailed around uselessly as if trying to swim in mid-air until my paw touched the wall and launched me towards the ladder as well.
I had never seen everyone try to navigate the spinal ladder at once. It reminded me how cramped even the Oberon was. How many of us lived here. How few of them I really knew. It could be any one of them up on the bridge now. Planning something terrible.
“Out of the way!” Chief growled over and over again, bouncing from the ladder to the walls and back again to expertly dodge the others rushing to the cargo bay in a panic. I tried my best to follow him; the others would make way for the Chief, they just thought I was getting in the way. “Dane! Life-support, now!”
When we dropped to the life-support section, Chief thrust himself across the room to the computer workstation by the algae tubes, his tail actually whipping me right in the face. He smacked into the wall with a thud but paid it no mind, immediately lunging for the keyboard.
“What’s going on?!” I heard Dane clanking down the ladder, bewilderment in his tone. “The fuck is that buzzer about? Where’s Jin?”
“Someone’s sealed themselves in the bridge.” Chief typed furiously, his gaze affixed the screen. “I’m trying to lock them out of life support systems. I don’t know if the bastard plants to vent atmo or what he’s doing but I won’t give him the chance.”
“If he has the override code we’re fucked.” Dane joined him at the monitor. “Shit, that’s not all he can do, Chief. He could retract the aft radiators and we’ll bake to death in no time at all.”
“He doesn’t have the code.” It sounded like Chief was hoping more than stating. “He doesn’t.”
I floated in the space behind them, lost and aimless.
How many times was I going to have to watch and be so totally useless? How many times would I just sit there and be a... scared little boy? If we didn’t make it through this, it might be the last time.
“Fucking hell, what else can he do?” Chief snarled. “Engines are down for now, but he needs the reactor still. What’s he doing? What else can he do?”
I felt a chill. “Th-the shield.”
“What?!” snapped the wolf, not even looking at me. Then he froze. “He’s right. He’s right!”
The adults sprang back to the ladder, thumping off of the floor and flitting through the air at dangerous speed. Missing me by almost nothing.
“Are you serious? The fucking thing can be opened from the bridge?!”
“Yes! Mika, come on!”
...What use would I be? I had to ask as I floated over to the ladder again.
At the very bottom of the ship, at the end of the spinal ladder, the floor and walls were radiation shielded and dense. The ladder didn’t end at the shadow-shield floor; it ended at a corridor that extended downwards at an angle, sharply hooking twice downwards towards the reactor and engines. Further reducing the radiation the crew was exposed to. The corridor was narrow and cramped, a full-grown adult couldn’t stand and could barely squeeze through, as some of our fuel-tanks occupied the space behind the walls, against our outer hull.
This was not a place we needed to come often. But now we flung ourselves desperately down the access corridor, its gunmetal gray walls lit by dull LEDs.
“We’ll have to disable it before he figures out what he can do!” Chief cried, hitting the far side of the dog-leg and springing off.
I swallowed. Whoever was in the bridge wouldn’t do that. Would they? They’d kill every single one of us and turn the Oberon into a glowing bolt of radioactive death streaking through the black.
One of the first things I learned to forget about and ignore was the sheer lethalness of the radiation out reactors and drives spew into the black. We were safe only because the reactor and engines were at the base of the ship, with a convex plate of tungsten lithium under the very bottom habitable floor. It was just far too heavy to totally shield the entire reactor and engine bay, but the shield would cast a shadow of safety for us, protecting us and our ship from becoming a radioactive coffin.
“Who the fuck puts a door in a radiation shield?!” Dane demanded, sounding pissed. “Why would you ever need that?!”
I held my breath as I floated to the end of the access corridor, into the Oberon’s dark cellar. Crammed with whirring pump units and grumbling pipes, it was lit about as well as you’d expect for a place that was almost never supposed to be inhabited.
Chief and Dane kicked over to the far wall immediately. “There.” Chief nodded at the small hatch in the floor, beside which was a floor-mounted dosimeter. “It can be popped if the reactor’s in shutdown, for repairs if you can’t get at it from outside.”
“So he has to shut us down?”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s still hot enough to bake everyone to death. You’d need to wait weeks before you could go down there in a rad-suit, and repairs better happen fast, because you’re already dead.” Chief pulled out a driver and started opening a panel in the wall. “The bridge’s shielding is enough to protect it for some time. We’re not so lucky here.”
“And that’s why it’s remote-controlled,” Dane muttered. “To let someone in for that one-way trip and close it behind them.”
“Do me a favor. Carry my ass out of here.” The panel covering suddenly went soaring off to the other side of the chamber. I blinked when I saw Chief shove his ungloved paw into the exposed wires and brace himself.
Dane flinched. “What-?! Are you seriously-!”
Chief didn’t wait for him to finish. With a sharp jerk and an angry cry, he tugged on a thick black cable.
The spark was blinding. There was a sharp explosion and a hair-raising hum. My vision returned just in time to see Chief collide with the opposite wall and go perfectly still.
“Is that it?” Dane asked, his arms crossed. “That’s the only way in?”
Yuki nodded. “Probably. If Chief locked him out of life support systems, then he can’t close that vent. That’s the point of the override codes: someone seizes the bridge, the chief engineer can stop him from isolating it from the rest of the crew compartment.”
“Right. Even if he could vent the atmo, he’d space himself too unless he had a suit.”
“Which he doesn’t. They’re all accounted for.” Yuki snorted. “I guess we’re lucky he never thought of that.”
“He doesn’t know anything about craft.” Dane frowned. “I still have no idea how this helps us.”
I lidded my eyes and swore silently. The answer was right there, it was obvious. “I’ll have to go. I’ll go through the vent.” I kept my tone steady.
Dane looked at me sharply. “Mika?”
“He’ll probably kill me,” I admitted. “But I can fit through.”
He whispered back to me. “For fuck sake. You’re not serious.”
“You know the others are gonna say it anyway.” I shrugged.
“Chief has a bow,” offered Niklas, floating over to us. “It’s not much, but it’s a weapon. I know where he keeps it.”
Dane thought about it. “Crossbow huh. Nobody has a gun?”
“Not that I know of. Worst case, HE does. Don’t think he does.”
I avoided looking at Dane. My eyes burned.
I wanted to die with him, with the others, not pathetically trying to defeat a trained killer by myself. What could I do to a guy like that?
But if I didn’t try, we’d be dead anyway.
Dane read my mind, it seemed. “Mika. It doesn’t matter how big or strong this guy is. Nail him and he’ll go down.” He pulled me closer to him and lowered his voice. “Do you think you can do this?”
I shook my head. “No, but I’ll try.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Yeah I do.” I smirked. “I guess you guys finally need me for something.”
Dane suddenly pulled me into an embrace and kissed me right on the muzzle. I gasped, but after only a second I found myself kissing back. Soft chuckles and cheers filled the cargo bay, and I felt my ears get hot. But I just squeezed harder.
I guess when we were all facing death, nobody cared who slept with who. Any love at all was worth cheering.
“I always needed you,” Dane breathed, breaking the kiss and nuzzling into my neck. “So watch your ass, okay? You’re the only one who can do this.”
I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to float there forever. I wasn’t used to this, this serious side of him. Hearing him say things like that.
Maybe. Maybe this time I could do something aside from just watch as everything fell apart.
In a empty and unfeeling cosmos, emotion is nothing more than an insignificant chemical reaction. Words like "love" and "home" have no meaning to the apparent emptiness that is nearly all existence. But what is the ultimate end of life if not a defiance of that meaninglessness? Follow the story of a young boy as he fights to find hope in a hopeless life beyond any sky.
A "hard" sci-fi story by Kichigai Kitsune, to push the boundary of erotic fiction.
And you thought I was out of the game. Furs don't think it be like it is, but it do.
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