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?”
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.