This is the final installment of a novel length story, please begin at the first installment.
Surface of The Crush Force: Hour 37
Guugel was onto his second antenna now, technically third, as Blu and Bucketbot had guided him through the process via the first antenna in exchange for a small blow-torch. It was a laborious explanation process, with Guugel frequently needing to use a small tablet to communicate his messages to the robots and for them to communicate with him. The little robots had a far greater grasp on technology than Guugel had, particularly because they spent so much time with Dash, and they understood his various mechanical quirks. With the tutorial completed, the robots borrowed a few tools from Guugel’s kit and wandered off on their own, to what end he had no idea.
Travelling from ship to ship erecting the antennas had made one thing perfectly clear… spacers were not particularly observant of the outsides of their ships. That was one thing Guugel would bring up with Dash later on: The Strike needed some sort of surface-based security scanner to prevent the very sort of stuff Guugel was currently engaged in. He wouldn’t be engaged in it for much longer, of course. He only had a single antenna left to install.
The little Wot made his sweep of his immediate area for any security, and content to move on secured his tools, unslung the grapple rifle from his shoulder, and took aim at the next ship. He wound the small lever on the gun to charge up the electrical pulse that would shoot through the magnet, repelling the grappling line away from the reel. He pulled the trigger, felt the vibration of the electricity travelling through the magnet and then was pleased to see the head of the line sailing cleanly to the next ship where it collided with the hull and stuck to it. Guugel jerked the rifle to ensure the line was hooked to the ship, and then satisfied, began to pull himself over. Due to his size and weight, the grapple remained in place, and reeling in the line had the effect of pulling him to the point of contact. As he approached the ship at a steady pace, he threw out his feet, magnetic boot soles aimed squarely at the surface of ship.
Then he noticed the patrol ship.
The patrol ship was a tiny, two person vehicle that belonged to the Jump-Gate Authority and Guugel watched it move from ship to ship, creeping ever closer as he helplessly reeled himself to his target. He continually turned to track the ship’s position until now the ship was located behind his point of view. He whipped around to see it, not realizing where he was until he collided with, and bounced off of, the hull near the grapple-point. He scrambled and tightened his grip on his gun, swung around and threw his feet to the hull, feeling the slight buzz in his feet from the magnetic energy making contact. He scrambled to detach the grapple-line, swung the rifle over his shoulder, and kept his body as flush to the hull as he could as the patrol ship studied his position.
“Oh man, oh man.”
He considered possibly tapping into his telepathy, but at this point it was safer to simply do nothing. That turned out to be the right course of action as the patrol ship swooped past. It wasn’t worth going any further now, this ship would have to do for the final antenna. He reoriented himself and made his way to the communication beacon.
Marken’s Bunk: Hour 38
The kitchen smelled heavily of various cuisines and Marken found himself in his element. It wasn’t readily apparent, but he was an anxious person. He didn’t show it much, though, thank goodness, but there was always a tension in his stomach and the only time that ever really diminished was when he was at a stove, oven, or working a mixing bowl. Of course even now, in his element, the tension was there… all thanks to Dorian.
There was a feeling of annoyance and guilt that he had been dealing with since yesterday. His attempts to forge a bond with the young Grey had failed, spectacularly so, and he had only dug in deeper trying to connect with the kid through food. Marken loved food. It could be simple, complex, poor, rich… Food could be anything. It was universal… well, maybe not. Guugel didn’t necessarily eat “food.” Maybe the analogy was flawed, maybe the approach was all wrong?
Dash told him about the music. Apparently nearly everyone on the ship had some sort of crafted playlist they received from Dorian. Everyone except Mr. Bernell Marken, the humble ship’s cook. No… scratch that… the CEO of the damn company.
Marken realized he had been stirring a little too vigorously when he felt hot water splash his paw, arm, and apron. “Damn.”
He wheeled his stool to the sink and plunged his hand and arm into the running tap water in an attempt to sooth the steamed fur. No real burns, thankfully. He dried his fuzzy arm to the best of his ability and wheeled back to the stove to get back to the stewing broth. He didn’t like feeling like this. He always came off as affable because it was an image he actively cultivated around himself. It was what allowed him to afford the Lucky Strike in the first place with less than half of a rather lacking inheritance from his parents after they had…
He stopped stirring.
All he wanted in life was to cook. That was his passion. His parents never really understood it, and while they never forbade it, they never encouraged in either. Maybe why that’s why he created the delivery company? It seemed safe. It seemed like what they would have wanted. That just meant that cooking became his life in a very odd way, and was the lens through which he saw his world. He was good at it. Damn good. A good meal should be a way to bond, he figured. But with Dorian…
He sighed and felt that little ball of anxiety tighten up in his stomach.
He thought about the music again. For him, music was just a sort of entertainment… not something he really connected with, but he could understand that people could connect to it. Maybe that was the whole point? Maybe he had never found the right music, just like Dorian had never found the right spices and combinations of flavors.
That would change though. Marken set the broth the a simmer and consulted his notes about Grey flavor profiles. As he reviewed the notes he considered songs that he liked. Maybe Dorian could expand his horizons?
Little by little the ball of anxiety began to dissipate.
Surface of The Light Shifter: Hour 39
The final antenna, of course, ended up being the trickiest. The soldering wand had run out and he nearly lost the secondary spool, only barely managing to snatch it in time before it floated away into the cosmos. He was tired now and the artificial atmosphere in the suit was beginning to grow stale. Wot respiration was far from taxing on any resource, but regardless he knew he was pushing the suit, and himself, to their limits.
The return to the Strike was uneventful. The process of grappling from ship to ship was laborious, and the constant spinning around the jump-gate began to take it’s toll on him and he felt his organs shift and tilt over and over. Back on the hull of Strike he took a moment to center himself, he hadn’t realized until now he was exhausted. When there was a tap on his shoulder he nearly lost his magnetic contact and nearly drifted off but managed to stabilize himself. He turned to see Blu and Bucketbot, scoured with all manner of dirt, grime, and what seemed to be scratches.
The trio stood in silence on the hull. Blu took the tablet that he had borrowed from Guugel and hastily typed out something and handed it over.
It simply read: “Long day?”
Upper Common Room: Hour 42
Dinner was far too quiet for Bernell Marken’s comfort. Normally the group meal would be raucous and brimming with life, but everyone at the table now felt listless and distracted, as though the idleness of the last two days had clung to them like some form of miasma. The only sounds heard were breathing, some polite chewing, and the occasional crunch from Kracker as his beak crushed the various nuts he ate. Yet Marken found himself silent as well. What could he say? He had been in his own ridiculous quagmire for two days, stressed about Dorian’s diet which in the grand scheme of things amounted to nothing of importance. This listless orbit had clearly sapped the vitality from everyone, and resigning himself to it, Marken ate quietly, observing each member of the crew.
Marken observed Guugel standing on his seat to reach his bowl of water. He watched the Wot dip his fingers into the bowl, withdraw them, and then rub the wet fingertips on his brow. Marken knew little of Wots, nor did the rest of the galaxy, but Guugel seemed happy enough with his light, water, and soil. What Marken saw here, however, was exhaustion he couldn’t understand. He hadn’t seen much of Guugel lately, but he had no idea what could have driven him to exhaustion. It was just another symptom of the malady that was the jump-gate delay.
Dash and Mara, from what Marken could tell, were looking at each other, but not at each other, diverting their glances just in time as to not make one aware of the other. Marken had admittedly not paid too much attention to what was happening between them, but knew them well enough to know they had a fight and that they were each attempting to bridge the divide in their own way, only hesitantly. Having known the two for several years he could see the signs, and he wished them the best. The two fought constantly but always managed to reunite. Perhaps one day they would get to the root of their tension, and then maybe they could finally be together like he had always wanted for them.
Dorian, well… Marken owed him an apology. After dinner, most definitely.
The most curious case at the table was Kracker. Normally he was a bundle of manic energy, bad jokes, racing statistics, or workshopping pranks. Here though he sat in silence, munching of is herbivorous dinner staring at nothing at the center of the table. This was the most unsettling thing about the silence… Kracker himself was compelled to keep quiet. Marken had heard rumblings about the incident with a lost ship here and there, and he was well aware of Kracker working on something which kept him in nav room for two days, but he had been so involved in his own foibles that he missed something of great importance. That was maybe the most uncomfortable thing of all.
Upper Common Room: Hour 42
It was time.
Kracker pushed the bowl away from himself and then rose to his feet, his fingertips of both hands splayed across the dining table. He coughed for attention, but all eyes were already on him. He looked over to Mara who gave him a reassuring nod.
“I need to ask you guys about something important,” he paused.
“I am thinking about doing something that can be very bad for us.”
Marken was the first to respond. “What are you wanting to do?”
Kracker fished into his pockets and pulled out a small holo-projector. He set it to the center of the table and turned it on. A three dimensional wireframe projection flickered to life, showing the current object of their misery… the damaged jump-gate.
“I started out of boredom. I decided to dig up whatever info I could about the jump-gate, why it stopped, and maybe see what I could figure out.”
“What did you figure out?” Dorian asked.
“Well, based on my calculations, there was a ship called the Sulany that was caught in the jump-gate as cargo container hit the structure, damaging the gate and interrupting the wormhole travel the Sulany has just started.”
Marken shuddered. “Oh no.”
“Basically, the wormhole dissipated and sent the Sulany spiraling into the other side of the galaxy. There’s no way of getting to them unless, at the very least, the Federation, Empire, and Neutrality work together on making a specialized jump-gate.”
“And the odds of that happening are practically nil.” Dash added.
Marken asked, “So, what is it you are wanting to do?”
Kracker took his feathered palm and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Well, the JGA is claiming no such thing happened, that nobody was in transit during the gate malfunction, and they’re hoping to keep it quiet. I don’t think this should be something just swept under the rug.”
Dorian leaned forward. “Kracker… have you considered contacting the authorities about this? Maybe send communication to the Federation directly?”
Kracker shook his head and frowned. “The jump-gates keep the whole civilization thing going. The JGA isn’t something that anyone is going to take on because it’s owned by all the governments.”
“If the Federation pushes to do anything with the JGA then the Empire would just try to sway the JGA more into their favor and who knows what that would do for the Federation. The JGA is basically it’s own government.”
“Nobody wants to rock the ship,” Dash took a sip of water, and then continued. “So what exactly are you proposing?”
Kracker began to pace back and forth behind Dash and Mara.
“I am going to leak all the data I’ve snagged, and include my calculations concerning where the Sulany may be right now.”
Dorian looked puzzled and asked, “But you just said that nobody is going to do anything, so what is the point of leaking the information?”
Marken smiled. “They won’t do anything of their own accord…”
Kracker snapped his fingers, pointing to Marken, and continued. “Right, if this goes public then all three factions would need to act on it from public pressure. But I guess the most important thing is that, well… they won’t be forgotten.”
Everyone sat in silence, but moments later Kracker continued.
“It’s just… I looked at their manifest and… they were us, you know? Seven people just trying to make a living out here and then in an instant just… gone. We’ve had our own shit to deal with-” he turned to Dash, who sat in silence, “some of us more than others, but we scraped through.”
He paused and turned to the viewing window at the other end of the common room.
“But that could have been us. We have each other, of course… but I would want others to remember us… to know what happened.”
He turned back to the table and to his friends.
“The JGA will look for the source of the leak. I’ll do everything in my power to scramble it so they can’t track me down, but doing this could get all of us in real trouble. I’m not trying to seem paranoid, but if they’re willing to cover up the Sulany who knows how far they’ll go to keep it covered.”
He sat back down into his chair and leaned back. He crossed his arms.
“So that’s what I want to do.”
Upper Common Room: Hour 42
It was a lot to think about. Marken immediately knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to give Kracker the go-ahead and to leak the data and damn the consequences, but it wasn’t his decision. Yes, the Lucky Strike was his ship, and the Lucky Strike Transport Company was his business, but he always found he valued the opinions of his crew- no, his family.
Mara stood up. “Let’s put it to a vote.”
Marken expect this from the beautiful, pragmatic Mara, who he relied on above all others, who did more than her fair share, beyond being the captain. He could always trust for her to do what needed to be done, often before he knew what needed to be done.
Mara turned her head to Guugel. “ What do you think?”
The Wot closed his singular eye in contemplation for a single moment, and then gave his signature “thumbs-up” gesture. Mara looked to Dash for confirmation.
Dash smirked, “I don’t think you need me to know that was a yes.”
Mara rolled her eyes, “Just being thorough.”
She turned her attention to Dorian, who looked, of course, nervous at the prospect of making any form of decision, much less one of such high stakes. To his credit though she said nothing as he nodded and added “It’s the right thing to do.” He was a good kid, maybe a little overly serious, but Marken realized he wouldn’t have the young Grey any other way, really, fussiness issues aside.
She looked over to Dash who was chewing on a piece of fish. He shook his head, eyes closed. “You already know my answer.” Indeed, everyone already did.
Mara nodded. “So Dash is a yes. That leaves me, with a yes vote, naturally. Kracker’s vote is obvious.”
She turned to Marken. He smiled. “Let’s make sure nobody forgets the Sulany.”
Mara gave Kracker a curt nod, took her seat, and began to eat her dinner again. There was no more to be said, and Kracker, although he looked exhausted, smiled widely as he popped a large, ripe berry into his beak.
It was now as though a veil had been lifted and the gloom the pervaded the dinner, while having not quite diminished, thinned out enough to where everyone seemed to be in a better state than they were.
Dorian was the first to speak. “I am really looking forward to getting off this ship for a while, maybe go for a nice walk where something crazy doesn’t happen to us.”
Dash replied, “With our luck the planet will probably spontaneously combust the minute you set foot on it.”
Mara snorted and choked slightly, caught off guard by the remark, and soon everyone began to laugh.
Marken was proud of his family… not only for their selflessness, but the fact they would always find a way to shake off the doldrums.
Upper Common Room: Hour 42
Uncharacteristically, Dash volunteered to clean up after dinner. Normally he would clear up his own plate and then return to the engineering bay to work on whatever technological terrors he was occupied with beforehand, but tonight seemed different. Mara realized she had blown him off a bit and decided to stay with him to clean up as well. He seemed pleased about that.
So far though, the help she was offering consisted of her leaning against the counter while he did the work as he seemed to get a little twitchy whenever she offered to do anything.
“It’s not that I don’t want the help, it’s just that it gets kind of cramped with both of us over the same sink. Besides, what do you suggest, we share the steam-wand?”
“Or we could take turns or something?”
Dash scrubbed at a bowl.
“That would just make things take longer. Help makes things go faster. Help does not, typically, make things go slower. That would not be helpful. It’s the exact opposite!”
“Well then what do you suggest?”
“I didn’t need help. If you wanted to talk you could have said you wanted to talk.”
“Figured I could at least offer to help.”
Dash finished the last plate and put the steam-wand back into its sheath. He looked at the pile of clean dishes, bowls, and cups.
“I just realized I have no idea where a lot of this goes.”
Mara laughed. “That’s fine, I’ll just sit here and help. The bowls go down there.”
Dash rolled his eyes and started gathering the bowls. Mara silently pointed to a cabinet low to the ground on his left. Sure enough that was where the bowls were kept.
“Teamwork,” she said.
Dash grabbed a bundle of utensils and moved toward the drawer next to her. He started laying the utensils out into separate niches.
“Those go to the far right,” Mara chimed in.
Dash rolled his eyes and made a show of moving the knives into the far right section. When he was done he grabbed another batch of implements from the sink and began to sort those as well.
His sorting did not stop as he asked Mara, “How is your ankle?”
“I did not, actually. Dorian pointed it out. I’ve not seen a lot of you since yesterday, and this isn’t a big ship. I was thinking you were avoiding me.”
“I’m avoiding a lot of things. Not you though. We’re okay.”
Dash smiled, “I’m glad.”
He closed a cabinet that he had loaded some cups into, and then made a show of clapping his hands as if he’d accomplished a vital task.
“So, how is your ankle?”
“All in my head, apparently, at least that’s what our resident medic says.”
“Well, he’s a smart kid, he’s probably right. What are you dealing with?”
Mara hopped down from his spot on the counter. “I’m not sure, but he said I need to find a hobby that doesn’t involve injuring myself.”
Dash smiled. “I think I may have just the thing.”
Bunk Room: Hour 42
Dorian stared at the playlist he had made. Fifteen songs, selected with discretion and arranged in a fashion that would evoke the feelings that Dorian couldn’t get across to Marken. Just like everything else that Dorian tried to do, it was perfect. There was just one more thing he had to do. He called Marken down to his bunk. The small cook knocked on the door a few times, and Dorian let him in. Marken seemed reluctant to speak, so neither did Dorian, for a moment. Marken opened his mouth to speak, but Dorian held up his hand.
“Just listen to this,” he said.
He turned off the lights, walked over to his mixing equipment and put on his headphones. He took a deep breath and pressed play on his mixing software. The room filled with the sound of a wailing guitar, which he modulated with one of his knobs. The drums came in, as well as another guitar; Dorian altered the sound profile to put more emphasis on the treble and the vocals during the bridge, before turning up the bass and applying an echo filter during the chorus. All the while, a pair of projection lights played upon the ceiling of the bunk, dancing along with the music. His improvisations were messy at first, but he soon got into a flow, making the song not only his own, but Marken’s, as well. Marken stood there, mesmerized by the lights and sounds. Song after song began and ended, Dorian bobbing his head along with the music, focusing on his knobs and crossfaders, playing between two different songs at points, affecting them to sync up and weave in and out of each other. Time seemed to slow down, becoming a constant state of rhythmic, thrumming pleasure. Before either of them knew it, with one final fade-out, Dorian finished his set. Wiping sweat off of his forehead, Dorian looked up at Marken. Marken stared at him for a moment, before raising his hands to clap.
“That…was genius, Dorian,” Marken said. “I always knew that you had something like that in you.” Dorian lowered his head, a little embarrassed.
“T-thanks,” he said. “I just wanted to make it up to you, for being such a stubborn idiot earlier.” Marken shook his head.
“We can all get like that sometimes,” he said with a chuckle. “But, don’t let that get in the way of friendship.” He went up to Dorian and hugged his leg. “Friends?” Dorian stared down at Marken, feeling flush with embarrassment. But, he ignored that, brushing Marken’s furry head.
“Friends,” Dorian said.
Nav Room: Hour 43
It had taken a couple of hours and a lot of reading up on the back streams of the GIN to cobble together what, Kracker hoped, would be the most secure way to spread the Sulany data without making it traceable to him or his friends. Theoretically he had managed to create something that would do the job, but one could never truly be sure. If he had an extra layer of encryption… a hardware solution, he’d be set. Unfortunately he couldn’t find the scrambling antennas he and Dash had collaborated on for such a purpose and he was agonized over this. Dash hadn’t seen them, and nobody else besides him would have had any idea what they were. There was that fear that maybe that one last level of obscurement would be just enough to keep everyone safe. It was that frequent bargain, one that he had seen his best friend make so many times, pushing people away. Of course, the difference was that Dash was actually justified in pushing people away because of that bastard Vark, but that was just the “Kameku” luck that he had heard about so many times.
But even here Kracker found himself bargaining. He was desperate to do every conceivable thing he could to spare his family even the most remote chance of being caught in the JGA’s gaze. He had even, and making sure he told no one, created a text-doc in his private files, plain as day, as a confession of sorts, indicating he acted alone and that the rest of the crew was unaware of his actions. This of course was paired with a series of encrypted text docs, not only personalized password encoded but additionally burnout protocoled telling his friends to say nothing if the worst should happen. Even though he had done all this, there was still a fear that gnawed at him.
There is a moment in the throes of tunnel vision where the focus ebbs and one gains a hyper awareness of the area around them. It is as though the body realizes it may be going too deep and shocks itself to allow someone reprieve from their laser focus. This instant came to Kracker, making him aware of the silent Wot who stood next to him in the nav room, staring at him, waiting to gather his attention.
“Oh hey Guugel,” Kracker said as he obscured his work on the monitor, unsure if the Wot had seen the incriminating letter, “What’s going on?”
The ever silent security officer moved over to the virtual whiteboard that had been Kracker’s sole focus for two days, and found a clear section. He began to scrawl out a message. When he was done Kracker knelt down to read it.
SET UP THE 4 SPOOFING ANTENNAS ON OTHER SHIPS. SEQUENCE # 10191979. USE IT WELL. WE BELIEVE IN YOU.
Kracker looked over at Guugel who stood there, eye closed and arms folded across his body. Kracker swept him up into his arms and began to cry.
Mara’s Bunk: Hour 45
“Wait. You’re telling me your parents, the archaeologists, never taught you about Ragna?”
Dash was completely shocked. He sat on her bed, his shell off, his back against the wall. His mobile was in his hands, and he was in the process of sending her a Romance of the Three Factions invite. Mara sat at her terminal, but had turned to face him.
“They weren’t the most attentive parents a kid could ask for.”
Dash snorted and looked over.
“Alright, select her and I’ll fill you in as we play.”
“Why do I have to be Ragna?”
Dash dropped the mobile to his lap and leaned forward as his face grew serious.
“Because Ragna is the biggest badass to ever exist. She suits you and your stubbornness.”
“Just do me a favor and start her campaign.”
“Okay, okay, fine.”
Dash moved toward the edge of the bed and placed his feet on the floor. He flipped through various messages on his mobile finding little of interest. He looked up at Mara who was focusing on the game. She seemed intrigued.
“So are we going to talk about what was really bugging you?”
Mara was still glued to the screen.
“That depends if you’ll talk to me about the Vark thing for a change.”
Dash sighed and continued to browse through his messages.
“Alright. You first, explain the ankle.”
Mara tapped at the virtual keyboard on the desk surface, each tap was audible.
“It was in my head, I was dealing with some stuff. I thought I twisted it while running.”
“Yes, but what kind of stuff?”
Mara paused the game and turned back to see Dash was leaning forward with concern on his face.
She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s dumb.”
Dash smiled, “Probably, but I’d like to hear it anyway.”
Mara spoke at length for a while as she played the game. Certain moments were accompanied by more frantic clicking in the game, whether from a spike in challenge or some manifestation of her annoyances no one could tell. She covered everything from the distance of her parents, to the fight she had with him the day before, to the late night discussion with Senn about the Sulany. But it all seemed to come back to her parents and the fact she hadn’t heard from them in what seemed like ages. All the while Dash listened patiently, and as her story came to its end, Dash put the finishing touches onto a message he had been writing as she spoke. He then switched to the game.
“I didn’t mean to snap at you,” Dash said. “That was wrong of me to do that.”
“I could understand it, I think. I can be… forceful.”
Dash laughed. “That certainly is a diplomatic term for it.”
She paused the game and turned to him.
“So, what was the Vark situation actually like?”
Dash sat in silence for a moment as he planned his next move. On this virtual battlefield, he had a modicum of control. His reply was soft and distant.
“It was the single scariest thing I have ever experienced.”
Dash sent his units to capture a fortress and ended his turn.
“I’ve dealt with my fair share of my father’s enemies and I’ve even space-walked in a helmet that was bleeding air.” He paused as he watched Mara’s units sweep toward the fortress to cut him off. “But what I saw in his eyes was a hate I can never understand, and it horrified me.”
“The whole time I was strapped down to that table I was sure I was going to die. I kind of accepted that, but what really got to me was not knowing if you guys were okay. Vark was insane and was hunting me down for a decade. I didn’t even know if he had gone through any of you to get to me.”
He looked up from the game at her.
“Then when I saw you I was thankful, but that just frightened me even more.”
“Why? I could handle myself.”
“Yeah, believe me, I know that. I remember what happened to Emvo, Charj, and Korren.”
“Shit… you knew about that?”
“The fact they left me alone and were covered in bruises? Yeah, I knew that was you. My thing was that I knew Vark wouldn’t stop at just beating someone, he’d kill. You’re good, but nobody is that good. Eventually death catches up.”
“So when I saw you come in, I was relieved you were okay, but then I thought ‘what if she dies right in front of me?’”
“But I didn’t.”
“So there has to be more to it. You saw that we were okay. You know that we can get through anything, together.”
“Yeah, and I realized that maybe I’ve been an idiot for a long time. I spent so much time running away from the people who could help me because I didn’t want to lose anyone.” He leaned forward, arms resting on his legs and his head dangling down. “I ended up losing you because of some idiotic notion that the right thing to do was to keep you, hell, everyone, at an arm’s length, but the problem is that all this shit with Vark cleared up nothing. It didn’t mean I was right or wrong, or that maybe I can ease my guard, or if I should run away from you all. I still have nightmares about everyone dying, even though we all turned out okay in the long run. I’m always going to be afraid and there is nothing I can do about it, all because of my damn father I don’t even know.”
He grabbed his mobile and started his next turn, sending a secondary force to take a mountain pass to serve as a chokepoint. “Whatever it was my dad did or was to all these monsters has left me marked my whole life-” He looked at Mara. “I just feel like a target all the time and there is nothing I can do about it.”
Mara returned his glance for a moment, and then looked back to the screen, trying to counter Dash’s newest strategy.
“That’s no way to live,” she said.
“No way to live at all,” Dash echoed.
Nav Room: Hour 45
Kracker sat in awe at the analytics. Within minutes his packets of information had spread far beyond this system. Sure enough, “The Sulany” was trending across Chatr and some GIN networks were beginning to roll out live commentary about the leak. He quickly located a pirate stream and was happy to find his data easily downloadable. He copied it to his private drive and gave it a cursory glance before he decided to try to crack the data.
He tried several common and custom hacking protocols to see if he could trace it back to himself, but thankfully nothing had worked. He started a running packet-by-packet analysis but had fallen asleep by the time the analysis completed, showing that the data was untraceable. He turned to a small bottle of ale sitting on his console and began to reach for it, but suddenly felt himself stop. He didn’t need it. Besides, he wasn’t done yet. He was exhausted now, but had one last task to attend to. He opened the mail-server and re-read the message Dash had sent him. Kracker set to work.
Bunk Room: Hour 45
Dorian laid on his bunk, feeling relieved. That mix was one of the best he had done in a long time. It seemed to have the power of draining the pressure he had felt out of his body. And he was feeling all of that pressure for an audience of one! It wasn’t like the college parties, where one bad crossfade could ruin the entire vibe of the night and make people leave. This mix made one person happy; it made up for a dozen bad DJ gigs. Dorian felt so relaxed that he could have fallen right asleep. But, he heard the door to the bunks open.
Blu and Bucketbot walked into the room. The two were filthy; it was as if they had been digging underground, or otherwise getting into someplace dirty. Blu’s chassis was scratched up, and Bucketbot walked with a slight stagger. The two caught Dorian’s stare; Blu waved at Dorian while Bucketbot chimed. Dorian raised a limp hand to greet them. He felt too tired to do much else. He laid his head back and closed his eyes. It seemed like while Blu and Bucketbot were having an adventure outside, Dorian just had an adventure within.
Mara’s Bunk: Hour 46
Dash and Mara were both lying on the bed, each was staring at the ceiling. Mara’s hands rested on her stomach, while Dash’s were latticed beneath his head.
“I can understand the fear,” she looked over, “I mean, I have not had your experiences, but I understand them. I get the fear. I understand why you ended things with us back on Gnarlruut. I don’t agree with how, but I understand why.”
“A letter by the bed was the absolute worst way to handle it. You would have been fully justified in hating me for it for the rest of my life.”
“But it’s been good, hasn’t it? Being here with me?”
Dash nodded. “It feels right.”
“So I hope you know I mean it when I say I want to help.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not saying you can only understand all the crap by living it, but no matter what there is just always going to be this disconnect you and I have. I just hope that you can see through things when I, y’know, lash out. It’s never at you.”
Mara asked, “You know I love you no matter what, right?”
“I know. I love you too.”
He turned his head and looked into her eyes. He laid out his hand between them and felt her hand take his.
“You know we’re always going to fight and argue? Right?” He asked. “We just seem to be wired that way.”
“I’d like to think we’d get better at that as we keep going.”
Dash looked incredulous. “Hah, after the past couple of days you’re saying we should start dating again?”
“Is that such a bad thing? It’s the best way for me to keep an eye on you.” She leaned over to her side. “Besides, who else can tolerate being with you for more than a week?”
Dash frowned. “You were doing so well, too. Almost had me back.”
They both laughed.
“Are we really doing this again?” he asked.
“We never really stopped.” she replied.
Bunk Room: Hour 47
After a couple hours of rest, Dorian woke up in the middle of the night. He rubbed his head. While he was glad to be rested, for once, this was going to mess up his sleep cycle. He would be in the middle of important work in a few days and he would need to swallow a few caffeine pills in order to get through it. Oh, well. That was one of the many consequences of the last few days. His stomach grumbled. He realized that he hadn’t had much to eat in the past half a day. He got himself out of bed in the dark, trying not to step on any clothing or electronics that might be on the ground.
He walked down the dim, grey hallway toward the kitchen. Though it was the middle of the night, he swore that he could hear sizzling and smell food cooking. And the smells were less pungent and aggressive this time around. If anything, they were much more aromatic and calming. The smells drew him closer to the kitchen, where he found Marken cooking. He turned from the pot and faced Dorian.
“Somehow I knew you’d be up now,” Marken said. “I hadn’t seen you since your little concert for me earlier.”
“I…just needed to rest,” Dorian said, still groggy. “Isn’t it a little late to be making food?”
“It’s never the wrong hour to cook,” Marken said. “Whenever your tummy growls or you are just feeling low, a little home-made cooking will always fix your ailments.”
“A little bit of late-night folk wisdom?” Dorian asked. Marken nodded.
“Indeed,” he said. He lifted up a ladle from the stew. It was full of vegetables, and the color was less strong than the dish that they had made earlier during the pause. “This dish is just for you,” he said. “Sit down and we’ll have some.”
Marken served himself and Dorian bowls of the special stew. Dorian stared at the thick stew. The last soup they had made stung Dorian’s eyes and made his nose wrinkle. This one had a hint of the spice from before, but not much else. He tried the soup as Marken watched. Indeed, it tasted slightly spicy, but it was not overwhelming. It settled on his tongue before disappearing. It was just enough to be a little exciting, but not enough to be repugnant. Dorian continued to eat, and Marken joined him.
“You like it?” Marken asked.
“Very much,” Dorian said, his mouth a bit full. “Thank you for toning it down. It’s much better.”
“You’re welcome,” Marken replied. “I’m glad that I was able to find something you’d like. You’re not like Kracker, who eats anything put in front of him. “It’s a miracle he stays so skinny.”
“Trust me,” Dorian said, “If you saw his chart, his weight’s been on the uptick. He needs to lay off the fatty nuts.” Marken chuckled and Dorian smiled.
“I’ll make sure to be a little more accommodative in the future,” Marken said.
“You don’t have to go out of your way, it’d be too much hassle.”
“What kind of a cook would I be if I didn’t make the whole table happy?”
“You can never guarantee that.”
“If I can make at least one person who feels left out happy, then I’m happy. It’s like when you play your music. You can play all of the dancey music all night, but if you don’t put on a slow song, someone who is feeling a little more melancholy would feel isolated. Even if they’re all alone that night, in that moment, they feel like they’ve been recognized. So, you put that extra song in your mix, and I’ll make your own separate plate.”
Marken smiled at Dorian. After a moment, Dorian found himself smiling, too.
“Sounds good to me,” Dorian said.
“Good,” Marken said. “Now, if you would, I’d like a copy of that mix from earlier…”
Nav Room: Hour 47
In the course of his nightly security sweep, Guugel made his way to the nav room, past the conversing Grey and Asro-Mole, and checked inside. He found Kracker in the chair, snoring rather loudly. Guugel stepped out, and moments later came back with a rogue blanket that had found its way into the upper-common room. With a flourish he draped it up and over the sleeping Parrack.
On the screen it seemed he had been doing some sort of analysis, but what stood out most was the trending coud on Chatr. “The Sulany” dwarfed everything else on the page. Guugel switched the systems off, turned out the nav room lights, and let Kracker sleep.
Mara’s Bunk: Hour 47
Mara closed the bunk’s door behind Dash as he left, still putting on his shirt. They debated whether or not he should just spend the night in her bunk, but to spare her the catcalls and jokes of the rest of the crew he opted to return to the bunk he occupied with the others. No sense in advertising anything. Besides, the secrecy might be fun, she suggested.
She pulled her blanket tight around her shoulders and realized the bed was a mess. She intended to go back sleep soon, but her meticulous nature dictated that the bed need to be fixed. She straightened and tucked in the blanket, and the stacked her pillows a nicely as she could.
She made her way to her desk. She wasn’t sure why, after the past two days, she felt compelled to check her messages, but it was a habit at this point, and maybe even there was the faintest glimmer of hope, or good news. She sat down at the desk, booted the terminal, and watched a flood of messages drop in. Surprised, she checked the first of them, seeing a chain of messages from the entire crew.
The first message came from Kracker:
We don’t tell you enough how important you are to us, so we each decided to write you a letter. Don’t be mad, but Dash and I were talking about the lack of messages from your parents and I agreed to look into it. I am almost certain it is just a network error, but if I am wrong, I just want to tell you a few things. Dash suggested we all send you something, so I am gonna go first.
Mara grimaced. It was a nice gesture on Dash’s part, but she never felt comfortable being put on the spot in such a way. Regardless though, she knew the place where the decision came from, and felt thankful.
You were there for me last night when I was at my worst from the Sulany-thing. I thought about what you said, about how you feel like you’ve accomplished nothing, and about how you feel like you’re in a sort of stasis and I just need you to know that you’re wrong. I thought of you when I decided to release the info about the jump-gate. I thought, “what would Mara do?”
It was a touching notion, sure, but Senn was a good man. He would have done it regardless… but it felt good to know he valued her judgement so highly.
I am a little tired right now, but I am going to check on those messages for you. I also heard you started playing Romance of the Three Factions. I definitely need the challenge. Dorian’s been way too easy to beat and I recall you being quite the strategist in college. So next time you’re up for it, let’s game.
Mara laughed to herself. The Romance of the Three Factions-bit was definitely a plant by Dash, but it was appreciated. The game was a lot of fun and definitely scratched at an itch that she had. What was most striking was Senn mentioning he was going to look into the messages. Maybe, she entertained the thought, maybe something happened? Perhaps they had sent me messages and I just never received them? She shook her head, though, unwilling to entertain the theory further.
The second message was from Dorian:
How is that ankle treating you? Better? You need to watch yourself because we need you to keep your eye on us.
Thanks Doc, she thought.
Thank you for talking to me earlier today about everything that is going on. Opening up about personal issues can be really tough… almost impossible at times. I am incredibly honored that you were willing to let me know what was going on. I usually feel like an outsider on the ship, as most of you knew each other before we all came together. I always appreciate how you make me feel welcome even though I am a bit… aloof.
“Aloof?” she asked herself. She thought about it and smiled a bit. That was a pretty good descriptor. She always went with fussy. Dorian was a good kid, and he was growing by leaps and bounds every week. She was proud of him. In a lot of ways he reminded her of Shippena, back on Ocia. Those two would probably have a lot in common…
Honestly, you’re kind of like a big sister I never had growing up.
Shit. She stifled back some tears. She was not ready for that one. She saw the connection to Shippena even more, as she had told her the same thing before. Damn it, kid, she lamented, as she felt moisture trail down her cheeks. She wiped them away and continued to read.
Anyway, I wanted to see if maybe we can talk some time about the situation between my brothers and I. I figure you probably have some good advice there.
Anyway… thanks for always being there for us.
Dorian D’Lazmuh RM
She didn’t know much about the D’Lazmuhs aside from what Dorian had told her. It was time to change that. Something was on Dorian’s mind, and as the big sister, she smiled again at the thought of this, I need to be there for him.
Then came Marken:
Hello my Captain,
You already know how much I rely on you to keep our day to day operations going. You do more than your fair share and you are honestly the glue that holds this whole business together. I was thinking about the dinner earlier tonight, and about how we all rallied around Senn to support him. I think our path wouldn’t have been so clear if you weren’t here. I think we would have done the right thing, of course, but not so earnestly, if that makes sense?
Mara was flattered. She didn’t understand how doing paperwork made her the “glue” of the ship. Surely Marken was just exaggerating because of how much he hated paperwork. Regardless, the sentiments were sweet and made her feel better. She had to call him out though… everyone on the Strike was a good person and with our without her there they would have all volunteered the information of that poor, doomed ship.
I think I will bake you some cookies tomorrow. Please let me know what kind you would like.
Mmmm, pola chips. She was looking forward to diving into those. Her sweet-tooth was notorious around the ship. She planned to scoop up the adorable chef into a big hug tomorrow.
Guugel chimed in:
We don’t talk much, for obvious reasons,
She smirked. Understatement much?
… but I have a great deal of respect for you.
Oh… She felt bad about about her cattiness just then.
I could sense that you were in a lot of pain, and in my own small way I try to help where I can, though it may not be something you (or anyone) would recognize right away. I know one thing I can do though. We don’t have any secrets between us, and that doesn’t seem fair at all. I wish you could hear my thoughts. It’d make things so much easier sometimes. So here goes, I’m not 2 years old. I’m way, waaaaaaaay older.
Mara wasn’t sure how to respond to this information. She was shocked, of course, but even then it wasn’t like there was a lot of information out there about the Wot in general. She kept reading.
It’s a bit much to explain over a message, but I promise I will explain it one day. Maybe Dash can hook me up with a translator circuit or something. I don’t know, I’ll ask. Anyway, we should totally hit a range next time we make landfall. I am curious to see who is the better shot.
BTW – You don’t need to be psychic to see you and Dash are still crazy about each other. I don’t even *really* know either of you and it’s super obvious. Maybe hash that out a bit?
( O ) b
Psychic? Guugel is psychic? That certainly cleared a lot up. But that didn’t explain how Dash was able to converse with Guugel so clearly… unless Dash was psychic? She thought about it for a while. No, no way Dash is psychic. He’s been obtuse way too many times to have any sort of psychic power. She shrugged off the notion. She’d find out some day. Speaking of Dash, though…
There were two messages that came from him. The first one was in the chain.
I hope you get to feeling better about your place in the universe. I think we all agree that your place is with us, and even if you don’t feel appreciated or like anyone cares, you can at least count on us. If you want to punch me for letting everyone know about the thing with your parents I totally understand, but I still think that was the right call.
Dashen Razaal Kameku
She was most definitely intending on punching him tomorrow. The message admittedly felt a little distant, but she understood why, especially because of the fact there was a second message, that was sent directly to her, outside of the chain.
You ever listen to some of the old Terran music?
The hell? She thought.
When Humans first arrived in the galaxy they brought archives of things from their world. I admit I have dove into it quite a bit, particularly their music and of course partially on Dorian’s recommendation. But also I am just curious about what aliens from another galaxy experienced. I ask because I found a song a couple months ago, a human one, and since then I’ve been a bit obsessed with it.
She had recalled him humming and whistling a tune to himself absentmindedly in passing. Maybe this was the song?
I’m not entirely sure about the meaning, but it’s quite pretty, and I’ve been trying to see about getting a Terrikinese translation started. I’d love to hear it in my native language.
She wondered where he got his energy sometimes. As if he didn’t already have a ton to do.
It’s called “Don’t Worry Baby” and it was by a group called “The Beach Boys.” I don’t know a lot about them, yet, but this song reminds me of you. I don’t know where I am going with this, but I just wanted to share this with someone I love. I hope you like the song.
She extracted the song file and threw it into her playlist. The two had always shared many things, but music always came off as a oddly personal thing for both, particularly after the mix disaster of their second year at the university. It turned out they did not have the same taste in music… at all. Besides, why did they need music from each other when Dorian had such a good damn ear for tunes?
Finally was a message from Kracker:
I poked into why you weren’t getting your messages from your parents and found out that you actually were. It’s a little messy but it seems they kept sending them to the wrong GIN address. There seemed to be a hiccup with how your messages were bouncing through different GIN routers and somewhere along the way some of the digits got switched around. I went through and fixed that. I also managed to download all the messages for you into a few text docs, but I am sorry how messy that will be to sort through. I managed to forward your parents a message about the mixup and they should be sending you something soon. Anyway, I hope this helps.
How, after all the exhaustion and chaos of the past two days, was he able to do this? Senn’s computer skills were astounding, and she was amazed how he trivialized what seemed to her to be such a challenging problem to solve. She loved that Parrack like a brother. She made a note to herself to do something extra-nice for him. The poor guy had gone through a nightmare recently. Perhaps she’d take over piloting for a day and just let him sleep. He needed it.
She turned her attention to the stack of messages above. Sure enough, several messages were full of text dumps of messages from her parents. What stood out, however, was the latest one, received about an hour or so before, directly from her mother, Ula, and father, Alva:
You do not need to reply right away. Well, actually, please reply right away, it doesn’t need to be anything substantial, just something to let us know you got our message. It’s me, your mom, by the way. Your father says hello and wants to write you a letter soon. For now though he asked that I make sure I mention hello from him as well.
So, it seems like all this time our messages never came through. How unusual. Your co-worker, Senn, was kind enough to help us figure this out. I feel horrible about that. So does your father. We were actually rather confused that we kept getting GIN-mail from you saying you hadn’t heard from us in ages. Your friend said something about getting the old messages to you, so I guess we should just treat this as a clean slate?
Your father and I are incredibly proud of you. I know there is some resentment from us sending you off-world to live with your aunt Mauria, and I completely understand how much that must have hurt… but we only had your best interests at heart. Avabia wasn’t a good place for a brilliant little girl, and even now I’d send you offworld again, if I had to, because it is still awful here. It seems every month or so our dig sites are raided. We’re safe though. We’re well protected, please don’t worry. We have a brilliant little fort we’ve erected around the Tarra-kuun dig site. You know how we’ve been working on that for years? We’re finally making some real progress now. We’re estimating we’ve uncovered about 80% of the city. Your father can’t wait to invite you to tour the site.
Do you think you might be able to come see us this year? I don’t know if your job will take us through our system, but we’ve missed you so, so much. You should definitely drop Mauria a line as well. She misses you quite a bit. We learned about your falling out, but she says that she was unfair. Are you still with that Kameku boy? We know you are working with him now.
It’s a little strange being observers to your life and never being able to say anything to you. Gods, I really hope this one reaches you just so you know that we’ve read everything and honest-to-goodness tried to get back to you every time. We’ve not had the closest relationship. I know that. I understand the frustration. When you left Avabia for Teslovia after you graduated I realized that we took your being there for granted. That was a mistake. Your father and I love you, so very much, and we are so proud of you for living a life in the stars. We want you to be able to travel to whatever worlds you wish and find what makes you happy.
Please, send us a reply right away so we know you got this. Also, we finally have a GINvid receiver, so if you want to video chat we can figure that out, though we may need your friend to help us set that up.
Okay, I’m sorry, I need to get back to work now, but we are excited that we might be hearing from you soon! Please stay safe.
Mara sat there for a moment, staring at the screen. Warm tears ran down her cheeks and fell onto the desk. It had all been a misunderstanding and a technical error. It was a weight she had carried for a while now, and though it came as a relief, the weight hadn’t quite lifted. There was real anger at the situation, but the anger toward her parents began to melt. It wasn’t them neglecting her… it was a stupid, stupid addressing error. She let out a hoarse sob, and soon the emotional valve opened, and she was openly bawling in the safety of her bunk. Then the sobbing turned to laughter… it was probably her father who had put in the wrong address. Soon her cheeks were soaked, and sore from the smiling. This was going to be an interesting story to tell everyone.
Mara smiled though her face hurt and began to hammer out a quick reply before she went back to bed. There were a lot of feelings to sort through, but at least now there was a chance of being able to do so. She found the song from Dash’s message and let the harmonious sounds of “the Beach Boys” wash over her.
Engineering Bay: Hour 48
It had been a long couple days, and Dash’s body ached. He had been hunched over the data-bands he was working on for the better part of an hour, and now he began to feel his vision blur slightly. We waved a hand across his face and realized that he would need to brave sleep again soon enough. Yet, he wasn’t feeling as hesitant as he would have been. Things felt better now than they had in months. He stood up from the workbench and wobbled a bit as his foot had begun to fall asleep. He winced and stomped his bare foot on the plastisteel floor to reintroduce some blood flow.
Blu had been hanging out in the engineering bay when Dash had returned after his time with Mara. Now the little robot was pantomiming Dash’s stomping on top of the workbench. Dash laughed a bit.
“Not seen you in a while, little buddy. Hope you’ve not gone too stir-crazy in here.”
Blu gave him a thumbs up gesture, then scampered off the bench and out the door, off to do whatever he did. Before he was out of sight he waved to Bucketbot, who was now making his way to the engineering bay. Bucketbot nodded and then entered the bay. Dash noticed a slight limp on Bucketbot.
“You two seem to be on better terms. You’re usually fighting.”
“Not worth the trouble, Mr. Kameku. Blu does as he does and I am just the observer.” Bucketbot paused. “I am going to switch to a low-power cycle for a few hours if you don’t need anything?”
Dash nodded, “I’m going to take a look at your leg-servos tomorrow. You’ve got a little limp.”
‘Thank you, sir.”
“Sounds good, I was about to power down myself. “
“I was not aware Terrekin had a low-power cycle function.”
Dash laughed. “It was a joke. Goodnight Bucket.”
Bucketbot paused for a moment, and then came a tinny, canned laugh. “Oh, what a humorous statement. Goodnight.”
Dash smiled and turned down the lights. He made his way to a corner near the gravity-pump. It tended to be a warm corner due to the heat of the equipment. He was feeling particularly drained by now, so he decided to pull over his hammock that hung loose on a wall-hook. He grabbed one end and strung it across the front of the gravity-pump. He took off his shell, resting it against the wall behind him, and gingerly placed himself into the hammock. He fished into his pocket and found his mobile. He took one of his playlists, a Dorian-crafted one, but with a few additions of his own. Soon music washed over him. He placed a palm against the warm wall and began to rock the hammock. In moments he was asleep.
He stood across from Vark on a sandy beach. He felt like a child again, like in their first encounter. The Furnesean loomed large over him. He took a swipe with a heavy fist, but as it came down Dash felt a hand grasp his own. Next to him was Mara, not as a child, but as she looked now. And grasping her hand was Kracker, and in his was Dorian, and with Dorian was Marken, to Guugel, to Blu, and even Bucketbot stood with them. The fist came down in a slow-motion, and Dash turned to it, no longer a child but as a man. He stared right into the eyes of his tormentor. The fist reached Dash’s face but dissipated into a harmless red mist. Vark’s eyes grew wide in powerless-shock and now Dash found himself standing alone on the beach, sand between his toes and the tide creeping forward with each ebb and flow. He smiled and laid down on the ground, enjoying the sun and the surf.
He looked up toward the clear blue and cloudless skies of Ocia and felt truly at peace. Vark crept into view now, intimidating as always, a ghost in his mind. He stood over Dash, and leaned forward, eyes locked in.
“I’ll be seeing you again, Kameku. You know that.”
Dash swiped away the vision with his hand, and watched the figure burst into a red mist that got carried away by the ocean breeze.
“Probably,” he replied.
In the engineering bay Dash was fast asleep as the ship began to whirr back to life. On a nearby terminal a status light blinked from red to green.
The jump-gate was open for business. The crew would be free to go in the morning.