One week later:
Riph holds a wooden cup of wine between himself and the abyss.
It’s not all that melodramatic. There’s a vacuum lid over the wine, and he’s wearing a suit. He’s not longing for death—just preparing himself for it. Himself and his dear little family.
Even after seven days of thinking about it, that idea still makes him want to cry.
Look up, Riph. Look up.
He looks up, and it keeps the tears from forming in the corners of his eyes. His breath rattles in his helmet, the only sound in his tiny bubble of silence.
He always looks up when he feels small, or afraid, or hopeless. For many years, he gazed up at the stars from the cooling sands of his home planet. For many more years, he gazed up at them through ship cockpits and portholes.
Now, he’s watching the universe go by through a gaping hole in Falcor’s hull.
This is how he’s meditated, these last seven days, coming here alone to pray and to think and to be with the universe. And to write. The artificial gravity is just heavy enough here to let him scribble down embarrassing half-poems, half-ramblings—and the gravity is just light enough that when he ripped the pages out and flung them towards the hull breach, they floated away. Offerings to the pinpoints of light slipping past.
Tonight Riph is here without his paper, to bless the wine and prepare to give last rites to his fellow Shames. He raises the cup and draws a deep, heady breath of filtered air. He lets his eyes defocus and fill with stars.
He whispers ancient words, worn to something more familiar after years of tumbling through his mind.
“Deep peace of the wave, deep peace of the air.”
Riph raises the wine and lets it splash gently against the lid, three times. He can’t hear it, but he imagines the swish of liquid; he imagines the purr of waves lapping at his feet. Home is always a close companion of Death for him.
“Deep peace of the earth, deep peace of the stars,” he murmurs. He gazes beyond the cup to the stars, the entire galaxies floating across the jagged wound in Falcor’s side in a way that makes Riph’s soul hum softly.
He closes his eyes. The last words of the blessing swirl in his mouth, a kiss of the divine. “Deep peace of the infinite peace to you,” he breathes. He gently lowers himself to his knees and places the cup in front of him, then dips to press his forehead to the rim of the cup.
He murmurs prayers so secret he doesn’t dare enunciate them, even to himself. One for each of them.
Riph pauses when he comes to Fray’s name. He reaches for something to wish for her, something deep and all-encompassing, but he finds a vast mental sea of unnamed emotion.
So he just says her name, over and over.
It soothes his fear. He leans into the sensation of all that is, stretching out far beyond him—not from him, because he is not the center, but out and away from him in every direction.
Deep peace. For a split second, Riph’s mind expands to contain everything, and he understands the meaning of deep peace. He understands how it all works. He surrenders.
In the midst of this sense of being ripped open, bared to the universe’s inner workings, he thinks of his chosen family. He winces and clenches his hands into fists, his meditation broken by hollowing loss.
An invasive idea strikes him.
Riph lurches forward. He finds the unspilled wine is still clutched in his trembling hand, and he rights it and sets it a foot away from himself. His stomach roils and his breath steams up the visor of his helmet as he pants with rare anxiety.
This could be it. A way out. A way to keep the Shames alive, at least long enough to get the Starfarer somewhere they can repair it.
Just one problem.
If Riph had any choice in the matter, he’d never speak to Evrenn again. The man is everything Riph hopes he never is: cruel, arrogant, dismissive, a maniacal asshole. A stain on the cloth of the galaxy. Worst of all, Red Evrenn may as well be a slaver for all he lets the despicable industry operate under his nose.
But he’s also the keeper of much information. Important contacts, intel, secrets—if it’s information, Red Evrenn trades in it.
And much to Riph’s chagrin, gods know why, Evrenn likes Riph. So there’s a good chance that asking him for a contact goes over quite well, and someone is summoned to get them to safety with a minimal amount of noise.
Riph knows he might be able to save the Shames.
But it means talking to Red.
He reaches for the wine and cups it to his chest. He can feel the blessing’s power radiating from the liquid within. He is still being spoken to.
Riph is sure of what he must do.
He needs somewhere quiet, somewhere no one can overhear him. After stripping out of his suit and grabbing a small, non-descript box from under his bed, Riph slinks away to the maintenance bay. But he hears giggling as he sidles up to the entrance.
Riph leans into the wall and swallows his chuckle. It’s Dog and Dragon. Dragon’s pressed against Dog, who’s pressed against the wall; their bare skin glows with exertion in the red lights. Dragon’s eyes glisten and she pressed her forehead to Dog’s.
Riph slips away, light on the balls of his feet. He’s a voyeur in his own right, but he would never steal the privacy of a couple finding peace in one another.
He likes his second idea even better: the engine room. There’s no reason for someone to come up right now. Still holding the lidded wine cup to his chest, and with the box’s rough handle reminding him constantly of its purpose, Riph brushes his dreads nervously down over his right shoulder. He can feel his feet dancing inward, hesitating to carry him to what he will do.
Fray said no comms! he scolds himself. There’s only silence from his conscience in return. He knows better than to blame her for his own inaction. If anything, the Regent would scream at him for not making the damn call three days ago, when they knew they were stranded.
Still. If she knew that Peripheral Damage was slinking off to Red Evrenn again, begging for mercy… What would she think of him? How pathetic would he be to her?
Riph tugs on a strand of hair close to his scalp to shock himself out of the spiral of self-hate. It’s all too easy, if Fray isn’t there to actually yell at him.
His stomach flips. He walks into the engine room.
The box hits the floor as soon as he can afford to drop it. The handle may as well have burned him. He’s never actually touched this with the intention of opening it, despite carrying it with him for the last half-decade. Riph swallows and presses his thumb against the readerlock. It blats an affirmative and the latch slcks open.
Bile rises in Riph’s throat and he turns his head away from the offending object. He has to do this. For his family.
Well, half of it.
Riph takes the electrode and unwinds its cable, pressing it to his temple. A small screen inside the box scrambles, then blinks to life with a simple question: “Who?”
He sighs and closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to say the name aloud, so he lets the brainwave detection technology do what it does. After a very slight delay, the screen changes to say, “You want to call: Red Evrenn?”
The call rings just once before it connects. As if Evrenn is waiting for Riph to call.
“Hello, Damage. Shall I guess why you’re calling, or would you rather tell me?”
Evrenn’s voice coils. Around the ears, around the mind, around the throat. It’s wispy and raspy and malevolent. It sets Riph’s whole body humming with tension and barely-controlled rage.
“You know why,” Riph growls. “I’m in a blackout. I need—” His courage almost fails him, but he spits out the words. “I need your help.”
“Is that so,” the man on the other end of the connection purrs. In those three syllables, Riph hears everything left unspoken: the faces of his foster brother Mekar and Mekar’s son Bayan; the little Red birdy who told the authorities Mekar was collecting food scraps from the kitchen he worked in to keep his tiny family from starving; the life sentence in the slave camp.
An unbearable wave of grief and hatred rocks Riph. He staggers physically, planting his hands on the floor on either side of the box and counting his breaths to keep from throwing up. On some unforgiving, classified penal world Riph will never find, Mekar and Bayan live miserable lives, just because Red knew it would destroy Riph to know that.
Riph almost ends the call.
Feet pad softly overhead. He raises his eyes and imagines who it might be: probably Rahab, but maybe her.
“Yeah,” Riph manages through his teeth. “That’s so.”
Rapid-fire clicking sounds fire at Riph from across an unknown distance; Evrenn is typing, an old-school interface he insists on keeping around. Something about the sound and the act and the show of it all. Riph curls his lip.
“Well,” Evrenn says, and now his tone is all business, “aren’t you in an interesting position, Damage. A bit off course to be headed for Borea, aren’t you?”
“We’re drifting.” Riph holds the image of Falcor’s wound in his head, and the electrode dutifully transmits the corresponding specifics. He declines to correct the other’s assumption about their destination; something stills his tongue.
“Quite a few of you on board, as well.” Evrenn makes a soft tsking sound. “Seven. Superstition will be the death of you, orphan boy.”
Riph tugs the electrode away from his head and then thinks, hard, Superstition is the only reason I don’t find you and tear your throat out.
“Seven’s my number,” he says stubbornly. He puts the electrode back on.
“Oh,” Evrenn says. “Well. Interesting.”
There’s fear in the man’s voice.
Riph is afraid to ask, but he forces himself to say, “What is it?”
“You’ve become a person of interest.” Evrenn’s voice frosts over. “Silver has been pinging you.”
“Fuck. Yeah. That’s—a thing.” Riph reaches out and squeezes the neck of the wine glass until the edges imprint in his palm. “Does it say in your damn logs what they want with us?”
“Just that it would be pertinent to monitor your position.” Evrenn snarls this, and Riph knows he’s lying. Probably just omitting something. That sounds plausible enough.
He wishes he could see over Evrenn’s shoulder.
Then again—he really doesn’t.
Riph shudders. “Well. Good to know they’ve put it in writing.”
Evrenn grunts. More clicking. Riph counts as slowly as he can to five and back to one, up and down, and it’s as fast as he allows himself to breathe.
“Mm,” Evrenn says. Finally, Riph thinks. “There’s a second Starfarer in the area. Mercado. Belongs to the Wizards. I can send them to you, but their Spectrum page lists their current fuel price at fifteen UEC per liter. Their repair services are even worse. And, Damage, I really can’t afford to front you right now.”
Riph’s heart sinks. It’s a thread of hope, and he clings to it like it’s a ship’s rope, thinking of Fray; but the reality is the Damn Shames can’t afford the cost of fueling a ship Falcor’s size, much less repairing it.
Not just repairing it. Dragging it from the edge of its fucking grave.
But he can’t just let his family die.
“Send them to us.” Riph chokes on his words.
Evrenn’s chuckle slices at his insides. “Lovely. I’ll let the Wizards know they have the greenlight to squeeze Miss Sintre for as much as their time and hydrogen are worth.”
“Did I just hear my name?”
The voice makes Riph’s heart sink and his belly leap at the same time. “Do it,” he snarls at Evrenn, then slams the box shut as Fray swings herself around the doorframe to follow her words. He’s sure she can hear his heart thudding, or see how hot his face is and how his hands are trembling. His forearms are on fire, hotter than the engine behind him.
“Were you on a call?” she prompts after he doesn’t respond.
Riph can never lie to his Regent. “Yes ma’am,” he says, swallowing. He raises his gaze to her face, and he almost bursts into tears. She’s so stern, so kind, so beautiful, so severe.
And yet, when she speaks, so gentle. “I trust you were busy trying to save us, love.”
“Yes ma’am,” Riph whispers.
“Thank you.” Fray reaches for him. He rests his hand over hers, marveling as he always does at the difference in size. Her hand looks so petite and frail, resting in his palm. Yet he would trust her hands with his life. “Thank you,” she whispers again.
Riph enfolds her in a hug. Her hair smells space-limp, but her embrace is firm and resolute.
“I wouldn’t,” he murmurs, “if it weren’t for…”
He can’t finish.
Somehow she’s got the wine, and she’s pressing it into his hand. “Here. Please. Do whatever you were going to do. I came down to find you because—” She tips her head back, and Riph gazes into her grey-green eyes and wishes he could just drown there. At least that would be a sweet, peaceful end. “—because you’d been gone too long.”
“You missed me,” Riph says. He’s smiling as he sets the wine on a ledge, his first real smile in days.
Fray’s eyes glitter. “Sure. Yes. Perhaps I did miss you.”
She takes his hand and squeezes it. He squeezes back.
“Silver’s pinging us.” It flies out of Riph’s mouth before he can consider it. He narrows his eyes. “They won’t get much at this point.”
“We have got a minimal signature,” Fray agrees wearily. “But good to know. Gods. They must have been really spooked to throw so many resources at us on principle.” She passes one hand over her brow; Riph realizes he’s still holding her other one. He lets go.
A shudder of exhaustion passes through Riph’s body. He registers how tired he is. He’s almost ready to let go of everything. There’s just one thing—so he pulls his last earthly treasure into his arms again. Dips his head so he can bury his nose in her purple hair.
Fray has never been his. Not for longer than a day and a night. But those days, and those nights—Riph counts them among his best.
He always needs her. And every once in a while she needs him. And he’s learned to let that be enough.
It’s not enough now. But Riph’s so attuned to Fray that he knows exactly how much of her, and her injured mind and body, is left to go around. He doesn’t begrudge Kin or Rahab their chance to make final memories with Fray either; she belongs to them as much as she belongs to Riph.
Still, pangs of jealousy twist his stomach as he holds Fray tightly against his chest.
When she finally presses her fists into the small of his back, he knows he has to let her go. He releases her like a jar seal coming undone, within infinite slowness. Swallowing, Fray bumps his chest with her fist.
“Come with me. Dragon apparently has some skills in cooking, because everyone’s managing to choke down a few bites of her dinner. Lunch. Whatever it is.”
Last meal, Riph thinks. He registers that he fully believes Red Evrenn never intended to send an overpriced rescue their way. Why would he? He would be so amused knowing his favorite victim Peripheral Damage died full of false hope.
Fray slips her hand into his again. Her fingers are so small, so light. Even after all these years of soldiering and hard living, her hands are still soft.
“I love you, Riph,” she says quietly.
And with that, the deep peace Riph was seeking washes over him.
“I love you, Freyja Sintre,” he says with all his heart. “I always have.”
Calmly, Riph reaches for the wine and gestures towards the hallway. “After you, m’lady.”
Fray only lets go of his hand after they walk through the open door at the bottom of the stairs and stand side by side in the hold, because Dragon is already there with two bowls. Riph takes his with one final twinge as Fray moves away from him and to the little cluster of Damn Shames and oorhunds.
She loves me. And she knows. It’s got to be enough.
Dragon nudges Riph’s elbow. “Cheese?”
He blinks. “’Scuse me?”
“Would you like some cheese? I saved enough for you. It’s, ah, not very good without it.” Dragon twitches her nose and smiles at Riph—a sad, weak smile, but real enough. “Sorry in advance.”
“Cheese. Sure. Thank you.” He hands the bowl back to her and she tops it with a meager handful of white powder.
One of the oorhunds scrambles to its feet and snuffles at the top of Dragon’s head, inching towards the cheese residue on her hand. She grunts and bats its muzzle away, turning back towards the group as she does so. “Not for you. You already got your dinner.”
Riph takes a bite of the food and nearly gags. It’s not really food, it’s rations of something that may have once been alive, mixed with what water and salt Dragon could find. He swallows that first bite and resolves not to take another.
“Riph hates your food, Dragon,” Rahab shouts. Her voice comes, unusually enough, from near his eye level. Riph looks up to see Rahab and her smirk hovering on the cargo box looming over the group.
He raises an eyebrow at her lounging position questioningly. “That doesn’t look comfortable.” In answer, Rahab grunts and points at the dogpile of oorhunds napping under where she’s sitting. “Fair enough,” Riph says with a soft snort, setting his bowl of food next to Rahab’s hip.
He sinks down beside the cargo box, his stomach falling with him. An oorhund snout rests heavily in his lap and the golden drool begins to seep into his clothes. Riph brings the wine up and rests it on the flat part of the animal’s skull, steadying his breathing.
When he finds the courage, amidst the muted conversation and soft oorhund snoring, he says in as steady a voice as he can manage, “I’m going to pray.”
They all go silent, save for the ‘hunds. The Shames are staring at him, and he sees the puzzlement in their eyes as he searches each face. He’s never really brought up his faith before, certainly not in ways that ask them all to take part.
Riph purses his lips, lowers his head, and closes his eyes. Finds that sweet peaceful place to drown.
“Oh mighty universe around us, oh universe inside us, I call to you. My family is around me. We’re your instruments of fate and free will, so we choose to sit with you and ask that you clean us and take our pain, so we can face what’s to come.” Riph feels his prayer unspooling from somewhere deep and unconscious, and he clings to the rhythm of his own voice. “I call on the universe to draw us further up and further in, to make us what we once were and will be again.”
Riph raises his head and looks at each of them in turn as he continues to pray.
“Let it be a gentle journey, wherever we end up.”
Rabbit, whom he’d wanted so keenly to come to know, twinkling with her unshared secrets.
“May we open our eyes to the nature of what we are: infused by the universe, as powerful as anything may be.”
Dragon and Dog, inseparable, their intertwined auras aflame in Riph’s mind’s eye.
“Turn your infinite compassion on us. Wash away our sadness. Lift our burdening guilts. Make us into vessels of peace and love.”
Kin, his brother, his steadfast friend, eyes full of sorrow for the sins he must believe he’s committed.
“I turn over my troubles and my aches. I sit in fellowship with my family. I treasure this moment.”
He looks up and Rahab’s hand is hovering just above his dreadlocks. She doesn’t move when he catches her eye, pawing at his hair instead. Her eyes are swimming. Rahab, the broken child, the fearless warrior.
“Oh mighty universe, prepare our places, so we can be ready to stand at your center forever.”
His gaze drifts down to his leader, curled tightly into herself with her back against an oorhund’s flank. Oh, Fray. His Fray, his pillar. She’s so afraid. She meets his gaze and tries bravely to smile.
Suddenly, Riph is snarling through his teeth, passion forcing the words out. “Know this, universe, that I saw fit to live as well as I could, to save as many as I could, to love as many as I could. I will join you if you choose to claim me, but know this and know it well: I will fight with every atom of my being to keep my family alive.”
Riph grips the glass of wine until his knuckles pale. He tries to calm his shaking voice. “Draw us to you, oh universe. Draw us to you. Let our joining be gentle.”
He raises the glass high, quickly, so it splashes a few drops into his lap.
“We are the congregation of the stars. We—”
“SPIDER!” Rahab screeches. “MOTHERFUCKING CRATE SPIDER!”
She kicks, and something larger than her head tumbles off the cargo box and into Riph’s lap, eight legs flailing and curling and flexing. Riph can’t help it. He yelps.
He’s not sure how he gets to his feet or manages not to spill the wine, but he’s on the other side of the box before he can blink. Rahab’s screech continues as an incoherent wail, and Dragon’s saying something like, “Ohgodsohgodsohgods,” and three of the oorhunds throw back their heads and howl while the others whimper. Then there are two distinct thumping noises and a splat and Dog whoops triumphantly.
There’s a long moment of silence.
Riph creeps out from behind the crate. Everyone is standing in a loose circle, alternating between wild-eyed oorhunds and trembling humans. The smallest oorhund sniffs at the smashed crate spider’s still-twitching legs and recoils when it pokes her up the nose.
The laugh bubbles out of Dragon so fast that even though she slaps her hands to her mouth, it pings around the walls and fills the hold. Rabbit whips around to look at Dragon and chortles back, a noise of pure delight at Dragon’s mirth. Suddenly they’re all laughing: nervous, tear-edged, ragged laughter, falling against one another as they struggle to breathe. Riph finds himself with Fray tucked under his arm, cackling.
“We made it! Hey! Hey, hold up! We made it! WE MADE IT, SHAMES!”
Kin’s roar cuts across the laughter as he raises his MobiGlas over his head. It’s flashing an image of a space station and the name in capital letters: BULOI. It’s close enough that they can drift to it.
“We made it,” Riph repeats in a whisper as the Shames erupt in a flood of relieved laughter, tears, and hugs. He stands alone, holding the cup of wine, the words of his prayer still caught in his throat. It’s surreal and mystical and heart-wrenching.
Then it occurs to him how nice it will feel to tell Red Evrenn to go fuck himself, and he smiles.
Source image captured in-game (Star Citizen), and thanks to ShadowDragonborn52 for the wine glass.
CIG-approved disclaimer: Please note that this is a work of fan fiction, set in the Star Citizen universe. The marks and properties, ‘Star Citizen’, ‘Squadron 42’, ‘Cloud Imperium Games’, and ‘Roberts Space Industries’ are property of Cloud Imperium Games Corp. and Roberts Space Industries Corp (“RSI”). All rights in content, including places, characters, concepts, and ships produced and created by RSI relating to said marks and properties belong to RSI.
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