Into the Silence – Chapter 35

Sys arrived a moment later.

“Would you quit dragging your heels, hatchling?” she growled. “I’ve been waiting for ten minutes for you to haul out another load. Now come on.”

The remainder of our packaging for the food supplies was done in a hurry. Apparently we all felt some sort of tension in the air that compelled us onward with the task at hand. I was worried about what Sys might think, and do, about my relationship with Mearr. I sometimes still wonder what was on her mind.

Once we’d packed up the remaining supplies, the three of us hauled the bundles out to the main room, unpacked them, and pushed them through the gap in the door before repackaging them to haul back to the ship. We found ourselves with a minor quandary when we found we had more bundles to haul than arms to drag, but a quick prioritization on Sys’s part eliminated enough to let us get the rest back to the ship.

Continue reading “Into the Silence – Chapter 35”

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Into the Silence – Chapter 34

This repetitive task played itself out for about three more runs before I came back and found Mearr standing over the wide table, holding herself up with both hands and breathing heavily.

I rushed to her side, unbidden and unable to help myself. I clutched her elbow with one hand and set the other at the small of her back. She glanced up at me, but then returned her eyes to the point on the table that she had been staring at before, breathing steadily in and out.

“Are you okay?” I said, still on a proximity channel.

“Fine,” she ground out between breaths. “Just give me a minute.”

As I stood there, she steadily regained her composure. There were a few times, between breaths, that I thought I saw her form flicker, as though her face were beginning to melt into wax, but her feline features returned each time as she breathed out again.

“Alright,” she said at last, when the world was still once again. “I’m fine. Now get your hands off me.”

Continue reading “Into the Silence – Chapter 34”

Into the Silence – Chapter 33

Mearr was in the back of a sub-zero food storage container. Which really didn’t mean anything when the entire ship was floating open to a vacuum. She looked up at me, briefly, when I came in before turning her attention back to the food supplies.

That sliver of contact between me and Mearr was electrifying. I hadn’t realized how desperately I’d been craving her attention these past two months until our eyes met in that storage cooler.

Sys leapt to the ceiling, then crawled around to the wall facing Mearr. She chittered on a private frequency, no doubt informing Mearr of my warnings from Gator. And maybe telling something of my past?

No. That was between me and Sys. We both knew that. There was no reason to mention it to anyone else.

Continue reading “Into the Silence – Chapter 33”

Into the Silence — Chapter 32

I finished loading the gear Em and Guhle had sent me with onto the ship and commed Gator — bracing myself just a bit in case I needed to endure his ire — to see what I should do next.

“Sys and Mearr are heading to galley storage to see if there are any non-perishable food supplies we can scavenge. Go over and help them while I finish up here with Em and Guhle.”

My stomach was a hollow pit as I closed the comm line. Sys and Mearr. Together. And I had to go help them.

The directions to the galley detailed themselves on my visor. I mechanically turned my feet in the indicated direction and shuffled off to help my crewmates. I must have switched on some sort of internal, biological autopilot, because I don’t remember ever adjusting for direction. All I know is that my feet continually dragged me closer and closer to the destination, regardless of how I felt about the process.

Sys and Mearr…what was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to do? Would Mearr attack me again? If she did, I doubted if I would survive again. We would be nearly isolated in a remote part of the battlecruiser, in a vacuum — or near-enough to it as to make no difference to my lungs.

Would Sys help me? The thought almost made me laugh. Sys was probably even more pissed at me than Mearr was, especially now that she likely knew the truth.

My palms began to sweat inside their gloves. My chest constricted to the point that every breath burned my lungs, despite the steady influx of clean oxygen. I wanted to turn back, but my legs dragged me ever-closer to the galley, and the inevitable confrontation.

I stood outside the door. It was half-opened. Apparently the emergency power didn’t stretch this far yet. Food was probably a lower priority than life support, and we didn’t even have that yet.

The state of the entrance created a new predicament, one that my feet couldn’t instantly solve or ignore by dragging me forward. In order to enter the galley, I would actually have to put some effort into it, contorting my body to squeeze through the smaller space. There were a number of ways to do it — especially with the added maneuverability of zero gravity — so it wasn’t a challenge, but it did present a definitive moment of decision.

Do I go in? Or do I leave?

My mind froze on that set of questions. It repeated them over and over in my head, never progressing beyond the existence of the choice.

In? Or out?

Stay? Or go?

Commit? Or abandon?

My mind flashed to my mother. I saw her face superimposed over a receding green landscape, until the landscape fell away far enough to be replaced by a green-blue orb floating in starry blackness, with my mother’s face floating in my vision, covering the circle of the planet.

I blinked away the vision and shook my head.

The choice. The immediate choice. What was I going to do about the choice?

Another reality sprang to mind. Getting in and out of this room would not be a swift task. Should the two of them wish to trap me here, or ambush me as I entered, it would not be difficult.

Antagonistic visions of Sys and Mearr filled my head. I saw them lurking just inside the doors, springing upon me as I wriggled through the gap. I never had a chance.

All of a sudden, my comm crackled to life.

“Hatchling,” came Gator’s voice. “What’s your status?”

“Um, approaching the galley.”

“Good. Tell Sys and Mearr to hurry it up in there. I’m having trouble reaching them and we need to start consolidating our positions. Just in case.”

All fear of Sys and Mearr fled my system as my blood froze at the utterance of those three words. Just. In. Case. I had seen more than one plan go to hell following the report that we needed to do something “just in case” to not feel the jolt of adrenaline as I scrambled to be one of the few left standing.

“In case what, sir?” I ventured, knowing I’d get a smokescreen answer.

“Nothing for you to worry about just yet,” said Gator, fulfilling my expectations. “Just focus on securing those supplies and getting your crewmates out of there.”

Tactical language. Secure. Get ‘em out of there. Camaraderie. The shift in tone was impossible to miss. And it’s message was clear. We were not alone on this salvage run. And the other visitors were hostile.

I pushed myself through the door gap and into the galley without a second thought. Whatever I had to fear about Sys and Mearr apparently didn’t compare to my newfound loyalty to the crew as a whole. I was actually a little surprised at myself. How quickly the old pack instincts came back to me.

On the other side, I crouched down, listening. It took me a moment to remember that I couldn’t hear anything because of the vacuum, so I opened a general proximity channel and called out.

“Sys? Mearr? Are you guys in here?”

No response.

I crept forward, staying on my haunches. No sense in creating a bigger target, regardless of what was threatening me.

Around a corner. Down the aisle. The galley storage facility was laid out like a supermarket, but without price tags or unsecured packages. Just shelves upon shelves of tan, nondescript boxes with spartan labels describing its contents. I glanced at one or two before continuing onward in my search.

I never saw her coming. One moment, I was creeping along, keeping my bearings straight, checking behind me for stalkers. The next, I was face to face with Sys.

Well, face to thoracic region. But whatever.

I stumbled backward and fell on my ass as I exclaimed my surprise.

Sys just peered down at me with her head cocked to the side. I noticed, perhaps for the first time, that she wasn’t wearing an atmospheric suit, but stood as bare as she did aboard the ship.

“What’re you doing here?” she said, voice coming over my comm through a small headpiece she wore.

“Gator sent me,” I said as I stood up, shaking off my surprise. “He says to hurry up.”

“He’s always saying to hurry up,” said Sys wryly. “Why’d he send you? Only expendable member?”

The jab stung, but I shook it off. Don’t let her get to you, I told myself. Don’t let either of them get to you. You were the one who hurt them first.

I didn’t like being reasonable. But in this case, I figured it was the easiest way to survive.

“I think he’s spooked about something,” I said. “He seemed worried. Like maybe we’ve got company.”

Sys blinked, and for the first time I noticed she had two sets of eyelids.

“That could be a problem,” she said. “Come on.”

“How are you able to breathe out here?” I said as I matched my stride to hers.

Before she answered, she leapt to the ceiling, crawling along it like an anorexic oversized cockroach.

“My kind don’t breath,” she said. “We metabolize our nutrients in other ways.”

“Then how do you talk?”

“Vibrations in our exoskeleton. We can speak in sounds and frequencies that are impossible for fleshy mouths to replicate. But limiting ourselves to consonantal languages isn’t too much of a burden.”

“I see,” I said, though only just. The principle made sense, but the actual mechanics of how something like that worked didn’t quite connect with me. I suppose that’s just one reason why I’ve always been unnerved by the insectoidal species. They just seem to ascribe to different rules of biology than the rest of us.

“I see you’re still walking,” she said, leaping from the ceiling to a corridor wall. “Mearr’s cut didn’t sever anything vital?”

I glanced at her, wondering what she was trying to do. Insult me? Or was she expressing her own regret? What was my best play here? Boast my survival? No. That would only antagonize her. Maybe some sort of humility would work.

“Yeah. I got lucky, I guess.”

“Psh. Don’t joke. I saw you shift out of the way. That’s some serious training you got there. Former military?”

I stared. She had completely disregarded my attempt to placate her. Even if she had noticed my defensive shift — which was entirely possible — wouldn’t she have noticed my attempt to play the peacemaker? If anything, her observation should have made my gesture more apparent.

Now what was I supposed to do?

“You look kind of ridiculous right now, by the way,” said Sys, leaping back up to the ceiling as we came out of the corridor and into another storage room. “Don’t be so embarrassed. For what it’s worth, you hid it really well.”

I swallowed it all. Everything. My pride. My embarrassment. My presuppositions about where I stood with Sys. Everything dissipated as I gulped down and pushed them into the pit of my stomach.

“Thanks,” I managed to grind out.

“So what were you?”

“Border infiltration,” I said. “Close quarters specialists trained to sneak in and out of industrial locations. In our case, reconnaissance on orbital facilities.

“Ah,” said Sys. “That’s how you got stuck around Migo III. Sent over on a mission right before the place got snatched by the Imperium.”

“Something like that,” I muttered.

“Well, it’s a good thing you had all that training. I watched the blade. If you hadn’t moved, you’d probably be dead.”

“I know,” I said.

“Then again,” said Sys, dropping to the floor beside me. “If you hadn’t had all that training, you probably wouldn’t have been carrying that knife, and Mearr wouldn’t have had the chance to stab you in the first place.”

“I know,” I said again, more forcefully this time. “Jesus, I had two months alone in a bed to think through the whole thing. Don’t you think I would’ve figured that all out for myself?”

“Sure,” said Sys. “I just wanted you to know that I knew it to.”

Suddenly, I was intensely unnerved by the face that Sys couldn’t smile. Not really. Not the way species with mouths could. I was confident that, if she had been able to, she would have been grinning the most sinister, menacing grin I had ever come face-to-face with in my life. The lack of that nonverbal threat made the verbal admission of her knowledge — and unspoken threat — all the more compelling.

I didn’t speak. I simply stood still. I tried to poise myself for a retreat, or a defense, or anything. But in that bulky atmospheric suit, there wasn’t much I could do.

Sys leaned into me, but she didn’t touch me. She didn’t grab the front of my suit, or jab a finger at my chest. She merely loomed.

“Listen,” she said. “I get that Mearr’s a hotheaded, fickle, arrogant, selfish bastard sometimes. You think you’re the first? That you’re special? I’ve known him long enough to get him by now, and I’m okay with the way things are between us. But he’s mine at the end of the day. You got that? You and I can be friends, or we can be enemies, but we cannot be rivals. Have I made myself clear?”

My heart was pounding. Here it was. The ultimatum. The pressure and paranoia of the past two months built up and brought together in one, fine point. This moment.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even moved. I just stared Sys in her multifaceted eyes and waited.

Nothing happened. She didn’t speak. She didn’t strike. She just let her words hang there between us in the vacuum. And she loomed.

In the end, I nodded. It was all I could bring myself to do.

Into the Silence — Chapter 31

The salvaged parts that Em and Guhle had found were of such an eclectic variety that I don’t know if I could list them all out for you. There were certainly devices and components that were beyond my knowledge as far as their purpose is concerned. There were a few replacement coils, valves, compressor units, and cords of varying size and length that I recognized from my time aboard Bessie — if not in actual design, then at least in similar make and purpose — but the bulk of what I found myself carting back to the ship was so much scrap metal, as far as I could tell.

Em and I didn’t talk about anything of consequence after her initial comments. She did make an effort to show me that she wasn’t mad. Teasing me about my inexperience. Pointedly requesting my help when lifting some heavier items. Stuff like that. I guess mentioning my insecurities made her hyper-aware of how she treated me. I appreciated the gesture, but it was kind of awkward and I felt self-conscious whenever she did it while Guhle was around. As if I was worried about what he’d think.

At any rate, once we had finished loading the gear up, I started ferrying the materials back to the ship, while Guhle and Em stayed behind to continue helping Gator with his calibrations on the engine network.

Mearr and Sys had apparently had better luck on their end. They had even managed to find a medical center filled with supplies, which Cap was now checking out to determine what we did and did not need — or, more likely, what we could and could not carry.

No word at that point on how the Farseers were faring, though I doubted if they’d keep us appraised even if they had run into trouble or found something of interest.

My thoughts turned to the Vigilant Sentinel T’Vosh as I carted the equipment across The Gap, as I had come to calling it. It was more to keep my attention away from the endless void than because I actually had anything to think about him. But as my mind zeroed in on him, I realized that he was, in all likelihood, now alone in one of those corner rooms up on the bridge. If there was any sensitive data on board this ship — or a captain’s record of what had happened here — then he would likely have complete access to it.

What if he had been purposefully obscuring sensitive files while the captain was with him? He probably could’ve done it without even trying. I’d seen the way Gator hooked into computer systems. No doubt the Imperium’s armor was even better. And that wasn’t taking into account the kind of efficient integration they could design into the relationship between their own suits and their battlecruisers.

I felt a sudden urge to warn somebody. Gator? That would make the most sense. He was right there. But what were the chances that I could get him to come out of his network troubleshooting to listen to my paranoid conspiracy theories?

Not good, I reasoned. But I’d never know until I tried.

I opened up a direct comm line to Gator as I reached the other side of The Gap.

At first, I got the wall of silence that accompanied a dead receiver, but then it crackled to life and I heard Gator’s pseudo-mechanical voice on the other end.

“What is it, hatchling? Make it fast. Are you in trouble?”

I realized then that I hadn’t actually expected him to answer. I suddenly found myself at a loss for words.

“Uh, no,” I said stupidly.

“Then what do you need? I’m very busy, so if this is not urgent, save it.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I heard the line go dead again.

Stupid, I told myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. That’s what I was. I had blown my chance.

I tried again.

“What?” said Gator. If there had been any patience in his voice before, it was completely gone now. His voice was dry and crisp, cutting through any fluff I might have led with to force me to deliver an immediately relevant report or else to not speak at all.

“T’Vosh,” I said, trying desperately to keep my words short and blunt. “I think he’s hiding something.”

“And?”

“I think he’s going to access hidden data while the captain is down in the medical bay.”

“Why?”

“So he can keep the truth from us-”

“No,” said Gator, cutting me off. “Why do you think this? What evidence do you have?’

“I…”

I didn’t know. I didn’t really have anything. Just hunches. Assumptions. Suspicions. Nothing concrete.

It left me feeling hollow and flimsy.

“I’m sorry, Gator. It was just a hunch.”

“A waste of my time, more like,” said Gator, and I could already hear his attention being directed elsewhere. “Next time you come to me with an accusation — of any kind — bring some evidence.”

The line went dead. I was left with my cart of supplies, pushing it toward the ship, feeling basically useless.

Into the Silence — Chapter 30

The four of us milled about the bridge for nearly an hour, trying to piece together some sort of clue as to the fate of the crew. No matter how thoroughly we searched, however, we could find no physical evidence of their whereabouts.

So it was with frustration and resignation that we finally turned to the consoles.

There were not many still operational. Most had been upended and crushed by various factors. But there were still a handful wired into the network, and the computers in the adjoining rooms had fared slightly better in the attack. So we were able to access records for most of the core systems.

“T’Vosh,” said Cap, once Gator had glanced over and assessed each of the operational consoles. “You and I should look over the commander’s records. Perhaps we can find something noteworthy in there. Gator can handle the ship-wide assessment.”

The Farseer didn’t dispute the captain’s suggestion, and so the two of them retreated to one of the corner offices.

Meanwhile, Gator stood in the midst of several consoles that he and I had wrestled out of the operations pit and onto one of the upper decks. We had arranged them in a circle like some stone monument from a prehistoric civilization. Now, Gator had extended data cords from his suit and plugged himself directly into each of the nine active consoles. Lights on his suit flickered on and off, winking as they indicated the flow of streams upon streams of data between him and the ship’s network.

It wasn’t enough to control the ship. Gator had explained that to me some time ago. But it was an efficient way to secure an overview, and he could manage some baseline operational commands using this method of integration.

It did burn him out quickly, though. That much had been apparent when he tried to help Guhle during the ion storm.

After several minutes, during which I sat on the edge of the platform and listened to the silence behind the whirring and beeping of Gator’s interface, Gator turned to me and spoke.

“Guhle and Em need assistance down in the engine room,” he said, sounding somehow more mechanical than usual. “I need you to get down there and help them recalibrate the network systems. Guhle will help you,” he added as I opened my mouth to protest that I didn’t know how to do any of that stuff. “They will also need assistance in transporting the newly acquired gear back to our vessel. Stop by the ship and pick up a cargo loader.”

I hoisted myself back up onto my feet, securing the magboots as I did so, and made my way back to the lift shaft. On my way, I noticed Cap and T’Vosh huddled over something in one of the corner rooms, but I figured it wasn’t my concern and continued my trek toward the shaft.

***

Once I had gotten the loader from the ship, I commed Gator for directions to the engine. He projected a three-dimensional map of the battlecruiser, complete with damage, onto my suit’s visor. I didn’t know he could do that. Suddenly, I felt a brief twinge of increased fear of Gator as I got a Big Brother vibe from him. But I shook that off and proceeded toward the engine room.

The engine was actually on the other side of the ship. I had to cross through a demolished corridor, completely open to the void, tenuously connecting one half of the rotten ship to the other.

That was a harrowing experience. Even with the magboots. Precariously putting one foot in front of the other, clutching the handle of the cargo loader as though that would somehow keep me anchored down to the ship’s deck. I crept along inch by inch, not daring to look out and away from the corridor in front of me except once. When I did, I saw the twinkling of a million stars and the swirling brightness of a hundred nebulae staring back at me through the gaping hole where battlecruiser had once been before.

The experience was…mesmerizing. I felt my eyes cross and my stomach lurch as I tried to fathom the depths of the universe. I could feel the distance pulling to me. The infinite darkness and unfathomable light. Like standing on a catwalk above a perilous drop into oblivion. Grasping the railing tight beneath your hands as you wrestle with your own impulse to launch yourself over the edge. To feel the wind rushing past and the your stomach in free-fall.

Except, my stomach already felt like it was in free-fall. And it wasn’t fun. It was nauseating. That’s what ultimately pulled me back. And from that point on, I didn’t dare look out into the starscape.

When I reached the engine room, I had to look around for several minutes before I could find Em and Guhle. I couldn’t even hear them at first, even though they were bickering like madmen when I did find them. The low whirring of our own engines, that I had grown so accustomed to, was here a roaring like the sea crashing against a cliffside.

Granted, I suppose I wasn’t looking for them very fervently. There were no doubts about my reluctance to be reunited with my crewmates. Especially now. While I could have fooled myself into believing that perhaps we were reconciled in some professional capacity during this expedition, actually coming face to face with any of them I knew would shatter that little delusion. And that was not an experience I was looking forward to.

So by the time I found them, their impatience was such that there was little ceremony to our meeting.

“About time,” said Guhle, when Em had nodded over his head to indicate my arrival. “Come on, hatchling. Gator’s already riding my ass about this network.”

It was a good thing we had internal comm units, because there was no way I would otherwise have heard Guhle in that engine room, even if there had been air.

Air. That suddenly reminded me. Why was I able to hear the engines roaring?

I posed this question to Guhle.

“Limited atmospheric pressure,” he said distractedly. “Apparently some kind of emergency system. You may have noticed the working airlocks on your way over?”

I had.

“Those sealed shut when the pressure blew outside, I’d reckon. Hard to say for sure, though. In any case, it means we have to put up with this beast’s grumbling.”

We turned several corners around mammoth engine turbines, each easily the size of Bessie’s whole engineering bay, to say nothing of her individual engines. Finally, Guhle stopped in front of a computer terminal.

“Here we go,” he said, keying up the commands to synchronize with Gator. “Be glad we don’t have full pressure,” he said while he waited for the system to reboot. “Things’d be a hell of a lot louder, and they aren’t even running at full power, either.”

My mouth gaped as I tried to imagine the deafening volume that would have filled this chamber when the ship was intact. I counted myself lucky, as Guhle had suggested.

“What can I do?” I said at last, growing uncomfortable with the silence that had fallen between us.

“Well, we need to troubleshoot this terminal so we can give Gator full engine status. There’s apparently some sort of trouble with the connection, but I can’t figure it out on my own. I need to have eyes both here and along the network’s routing path. That’s where you come in.”

“Okay,” I said doubtfully. I only half-understood what Guhle was talking about. And at any rate, his warming professionalism was beginning to unnerve me. What happened to the bitterness and the cold hatred? Had I been forgiven? Or was Guhle merely ignoring our personal differences to get the job done?

“Alright,” said Guhle, bending over the terminal. “Looks like we’re up. Have you got your signal receivers boosted? Things can get a little weird in here. I want to make sure you can hear me.”

I checked my comm readouts. Everything checked out, as far as I could tell. I nodded to show Guhle that I was ready.

“Okay, great. Now follow that cord there until you find something funny. There should be a cut or a terminal or something between here and the bridge.”

“I’m supposed to follow this thing all the way from here to the bridge?” I said, already on my way to wherever I was supposed to go.

“Not if we can get it working before you get there,” said Guhle. “Just keep going and tell me what you see.”

“Alright,” I said, now crouching down so I could follow it with my fingers as well as my eyes. “It’s out of the engine room now. Passed through an overhead vent. I’m on the other side and it looks like it’s heading for a security checkpoint.”

“There should be a console in there. Maybe even a routing station. That’s a hive for problems. Check it out.”

I nodded, then realized that he couldn’t see me anymore, so I confirmed with my voice.

Inside the security station, the place was a mess. Weapons lockers hung open, or else off their hinges. All the combat gear was gone. Still no bodies, but definite signs of habitation. Paper forms, data readouts, and half-eaten meals sat scattered around the desks and tables inside.

In a small partition off to the right, a lone guardsman could sit and scan incoming engineers, approving or barring the access to the engine room. I decided to start my inspection there, as it seemed likely to me that the engine room data cords would connect to the engine room check-in station.

Guhle disagreed with me.

“It would make some manner of logical sense,” he said over the comm when I shared my reasoning with him. “But I’ll bet the engineers complicated it. More likely, the security check-in is on a satellite router. Feel free to check, though. No harm in it.”

I booted up the computer and followed Guhle’s instructions for tracking a data signal. He sent a ping through the router and asked if I could see it come up on my monitor.

I could not.

“Like I said, satellite router. But it’s still a good place to start. Follow it’s network trail and you should be able to find the local hub. I’ll bet my network cord feeds into there.”

I did as instructed, physically following the cable from the monitor to its source, and then from there to the hub. One of the computers in the security station’s main room served as the routing hub for the entire area. At least, according to Guhle.

“Alright, let’s get it fired up, and tell me what you see.”

I waited. The device was taking longer than expected to come to life.

“Uh, Guhle,” I said. “I think we’ve got a problem.”

“Knew it,” he muttered. “Alright, give me a sec.”

I waited. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was Guhle going to come here and take a look at it? No. He said he needed to keep his eyes on the terminal in the engine room. Would he contact Gator, and the two of them would figure out a workaround before instructing me on what to do? That was possible. Though it sounded a bit complicated and difficult. Why not just make me a part of the discussion so I could feed them real-time information?

Guhle’s voice crackled over the comm, interrupting my musings. “Hatchling, I’m sending Em up.”

I froze. Em? What was she going to do? Wasn’t she a mechanic? Did she have any technical experience with network technology or computers? More importantly, what were we going to say to each other?

I suddenly realized that I had no idea what side of the issue Em came down on. Maybe she was on my side, but that seemed like a hopelessly optimistic notion. More likely, she hated my guts. I know I would if I were Em. She would see this whole mess as my fault. And when someone as sweet and friendly as Em decided you were bad news, you never got a second chance. That was it. You blew it. You were a bastard, a scoundrel, a demon, and a generally not-nice person forever after that. No questions asked.

Em arrived. I could tell she was already in a foul mood, so I decided not to make it worse and kept my presence as unobtrusive as physically possible. I didn’t speak. I simply stepped out of the way and into a nearby corner.

“I don’t know why Guhle even sent me,” she complained loudly. I couldn’t tell if this was on a direct channel or a general one. “I’m not a computer technician. A mechanic. These things aren’t a part of my job. I do engine work. It’s in the name. Engineer.”

As she spoke, she crouched down beside the console and quickly dislodged the panel to reveal the wiring underneath.

“Hand me that thingy there, would you?” she said, waving me toward her tool belt with her hand while she poked her nose around inside the wiring.

I stepped gingerly forward, and then hesitated above her tool belt, not touching anything. “Which, uh…thingy?” I said.

“The soldering iron,” she said. “And the wire cutters.”

I grabbed the appropriate tools — I had learned how to recognize the tools on Em’s belt during one of the earlier months aboard Bessie, when I had been sent down to assist her with some routine maintenance in the engine room — and handed them to her.

“Simple power short,” she said. “Just gotta uncross these guys…and then hook ‘em up to those guys over there…and then…let’s try that.”

As she extricated herself from the tangle of wires, the screen above the console flickered on and started displaying the reboot command sequence.

“There,” she said. “Don’t know why Guhle even sent me. Just a simple electrical problem. Any half-wit could’ve done it.”

But I could tell she was proud of her work.

“Thanks for the help,” she said, grabbing her tool belt from off of the ground and fastening it back onto her suit.

Guhle’s voice crackled over the comm. “Em, stay there for a sec. I may need you to monitor the power output while I test the network signal.”

“In other words,” she said. “You want me to standby in case anything goes wrong.”

“Pretty much,” said Guhle. “Hatchling, are you on the console?”

“Not yet,” I said, stepping forward and keying in the basic system commands that brought up the network monitoring screen. “Alright. Go.”

“Pinging now.”

Sure enough, the signal came through. I told Guhle, and he growled his appreciation.

“Alright, now that we’ve gotten that silliness out of the way, maybe Gator will lay off my back long enough to let me and Em do our job. Em? Go ahead and get back here. You too, hatchling, now that I think about it. You need to hoist this stuff back to the ship.”

With that, Guhle cut the feed and apparently turned back to whatever he was doing.

Em and I shuffled along — you never really walk with magboots; it’s more of a gradual shifting of weight — as we made our way back toward the engine room.

Neither of us spoke, and when the silence became too much for me to really put up with, I finally asked her. “Em, do you hate me?”

The question surprised her. “Hate you? What for?”

I have to admit, I found myself at a loss for words. What for? Well, for everything, right? I didn’t know what to say. Eventually, however, I found my voice.

“Well…Mearr, for starters.”

Em barked a laugh. “Mearr? That stuck-up, fickle bitch?”

I gaped.

“Oh,” she said. “Sorry. That was…impolite. And unkind.”

We walked in silence for a few moments more.

“It’s not that I don’t like Mearr,” she said at last. “Or respect her. It’s just…well, she’s a great pilot and occasionally a good friend. But she isn’t consistent enough for my tastes. I put up with her, the way we all put up with each other. But that doesn’t mean I like the way she flits from friend to friend amongst the crew. Or the way she rides Bessie into the ground on a regular basis.”

Those last words came ground out between her teeth, as though the strain Mearr put on the ship was more physically painful to Em than anything else that the pilot did.

“So…what about me?” I said at last.

“You? You’re alright. But a bit weird sometimes. I think it’s stupid what Mearr did to you, and it sure made it hard on the rest of us while you were recovering. But then, when you got out, you just kinda disappeared. I tried to come see you, but you were never around. I just figured you wanted to be alone.”

“I guess I did,” I said after a while. “But it’s still nice to know that, well, you don’t hate me.”

Em snorted. “I don’t think it’s possible for anyone on the ship to truly hate anyone else. We live too close to each other for that to be practical. But what do I know?”

I prayed that she was right, even while judging her naiveté.

Into the Silence — Chapter 29

Guhle brought us around and into the hangar bay of the enormous, broken vessel. As we approached, it became clear just how devastated the battleship was. It had the same sleek structure of the scout ships we had encountered early on in our travels — an aesthetic to match the armor of its Farseer creators. But this ship was so beaten and battered that its elegance was almost unrecognizable. Jagged rips along the edges of its metal plating. Great, big holes dotting the surface where something had punched through it. And inside, though the sleek aesthetic was better preserved, piles of shrapnel, debris, and once-operational devices took away from that perception.

As we touched down, Guhle deployed our docking clamps — magnetic feet that held us down to the deck, even in zero gravity.

“Alright,” he said. “We’re latched on. Everybody suit up.”

And, as if to drive home the point, he lifted a pressurized helmet from underneath his seat and settled it over his head, fastening the clasps to the stiff collar of his suit.

Once everyone was fully prepared for the lack of atmosphere — some, like Cap and the Farseers, didn’t have to put anything on, since they were already enclosed in their own survival suits, and Sys apparently didn’t need any kind of atmospheric protection at all — Guhle lowered the gangplank and we all marched on down onto the hangar deck.

It was the first time I’d seen Mearr, or most of everyone else, in close proximity since the attack. I was somewhat startled by the change in her appearance. It was as though her entire features had ballooned out, along with her stomach. While she retained her feline grace and agility, there wasn’t any other word I could think of to describe her except…pudgy.

I made a note to keep such thoughts to myself. At all costs.

Continue reading “Into the Silence — Chapter 29”