It’s not often Riph’s compass spins so wildly. He’s finding it hard to concentrate on anything but the way Fray’s hair is spilling off the operating table. It’s less disorienting to focus on the exact curve of each individual strand than to focus on the fact that a complete stranger is operating on his Regent’s brain out in the middle of nowhere.
Some part of Riph knows he should be thinking about being Regent instead of Proxregent. But he’s not thinking about that. He’s thinking about everything he’s always thought Fray knew, but that he’d never actually told her. He’s thinking about what will happen to the little family they willed together out of a bunch of Navy misfits. He’s thinking about—
Without meaning to, he slips into a trance.
He leaves the confines of his body and is drawn magnetically to the brokenness in the room. He feels the threads of Fray’s consciousness straining and he gently lends his strength to her fight. Here, your courage. Here, your colors. Here, your comfort. The threads he holds are hers, but he tints them with his own interpretation, like a lens the color of his very core.
Riph finds solace in a few simple truths in life. One: there are rights and wrongs, and everyone gets a few of each. Two: he is personally and intimately acquainted with the thrum of the universe—its God, its spiritual power, call it whatever name is comfortable, but Riph knows what he’s dealing with. Three: there’s nothing more important on this particular plane of existence than family, chosen and unchosen.
It’s when those truths butt heads that he finds his compass spinning out of control. That’s what Riph—that physical entity of male sex and human species sitting in the chair in this room—that’s what Riph is experiencing right now. An internal compass spiraling out of control, because its north lies dying on an operating table.
Dying? Not dying, as this entity of energy and spirituality knows well. Having abandoned the Riph body, it’s twined itself with Fray’s immutable strength and felt that she will live, today. She’s not dying. Fray’s going to live. That’s what he wants to communicate back to Riph, to himself, to—
Then he’s back in his body, sucking in a gasp of air as he reenters consciousness, digging his nails into his knee to center himself. It works, mostly, that sharp nip of pain on his bare skin, and he blinks and shakes his head. His dreads rattle against his ears. Rahab shoots him a funny look, which he reflexively matches with a queasy half-smile. No sense in letting the others key in to how unsettled he is. Rahab and Kin are already shaking, they’re so exhausted and on edge.
Riph remembers, then, like a clap of thunder: Fray isn’t dying. He surges to his feet and crosses the seemingly impossible gulf between himself and the operating table in just three steps.
And just as he reaches her, Fray’s lips part and she hisses in an audible breath. Riph’s compass wobbles, then swings slowly towards north and comes to a comfortable stop.
He smiles down into Fray’s hazel eyes, his nausea and vertigo gone. “Hey, Regent.”
“Riph,” Fray whispers, his name scraping out of her dry throat. But it’s the most blessed thing he’s ever heard.
“Give her a little room,” the angel in the garden smock tuts at him. “She might like to breathe, now that she’s breathing again.”
Riph looks up at the woman who’s just masterfully repaired a deadly head wound in less than a couple of hours and encounters a look of mild skepticism. Maude’s as dark as he is, but it’s nothing like looking in a mirror. She’s rich in Earth-autumn reds and golds that shimmer in her skin and hair and eyes, and she has the air of someone who could scientifically break him down to the atomic level. At the same time, she looks ready to spit fire or spin him up in a magic spell with a flick of her powerful hands. Or is that her aura? Sometimes the corporeal layer blurs with the auras, and Riph can’t tell them apart. It usually doesn’t matter, but he can feel a mounting debt of gratitude in his heart, and he wants to truly know this Maude Lightfoot.
He chides himself even as he thinks that, but it makes him grin, his crude suitor’s grin. Or maybe that’s just the relief washing over him, renewed by Fray’s gentle tug on his short sleeve.
“I said, fetch me some water, you ogling oaf,” she croaks.
He laughs gently, maybe even tenderly, right in her face. “Alright. Yeah. Lemme do that. Always the princess, eh, you?”
“Don’t you forget it!” Fray growls at his back.
The room bubbles with near-hysteric laughter as everyone lets their relief show; there’s even a throaty huff of amusement from the Princess herself. Suddenly, the tension of the last few hours lifts from Riph’s shoulders, and it’s only then that he realizes how much it had weighed him down. He closes his eyes for a moment, his hand finding Fray’s.
When he opens his eyes again, it’s to find Maude looking at him with a curious half-smile. “Well, Riph,” she says, “I think I’d like to run a few tests on your girl Fray here, to make sure my work stuck. I’ll need her at normal levels of brain activity—lost in thought, engaged in conversation, laughing, that kind of thing. You all think you can keep her awake and talking?” Her gesture and her words include all of the Shames, but her gaze is still on Riph.
He half-smiles back at Maude, squeezing Fray’s hand. “Count on it. We need to make a plan anyway.” Riph flips a look over his shoulder at Rahab. “Where we at on weapons?”
Rahab shrugs with one shoulder. “Not good. But you knew that. ‘less you expected I’d grown a pistol in my—”
“Kin, Dog, ships?” Riph asks quickly. He’s not usually a prude, but not sure he wants to risk offending the doctor yet. He prefers she think the Damn Shames are more civilized than they really are.
“Still got my Gladius, and Dragon’s LN,” Dog answers before Kin can say anything. “Now that we’re so far southeast, I’d say we’re about…ten, twelve miles from picking them up.”
“Falcor’s hurting,” Kin adds, with a faint glare in his tone. “But I think we can at least get off the ground. We’ll need at least two pilots to EVA once we get into orbit, to pick up the fighters, and we’ll need to stop at the next possible refueling station and find Falcor a discreet repair shop, but… We certainly have room for everyone.”
Riph hears the tiniest hiccup on Kin’s last word, and it makes him glance up sharply at Maude. She gazes back steadily, and he has no idea if she can see the wheels turning in his head. Hopefully not, at least not yet. The plan’s a quarter baked at best.
“Sure, that’s all well and good,” Rahab says, and Riph tries not to smile at her condescending manner, “but we don’t have supplies for everyone. We don’t have…food or med or arms for everyone. We,” she adds after a brief pause, emphasizing the word, “are better off hucking and trucking.”
Fray’s hand feebly squeezes Riph’s.
“Hucking and trucking,” Kin huffs, “might be your way of handling things, but that’s what I do with waste, not friends of the crew. I—I think we’re better off leaving in the dark.”
Riph can’t believe the roar that just came out of dear wounded Fray, but she’s struggled up onto her right elbow and is glowering at her master-at-arms and her ‘field admiral. The bloody bandage falling halfway over her left eye gives her a truly menacing air. At least Kin and Rahab have the courtesy to look chastised, ducking their heads to hide relieved grins.
Riph finds himself beaming, too. Right beside him, brushing up against his aura, he can feel Fray’s fire roaring up out of the canyon it had fallen into.
She’s going to be okay.
“What the hell, Shames,” Fray’s still snarling, struggling to sit up. “We can trust the woman who just fixed my fucking brain.”
Using his forearm, Riph gently bars Fray from her desired upright state. He makes eye contact with Maude. “Tests?” he asks, quirking an eyebrow.
Maude nods. “Fine so far. She’s good to sit up.”
“Yeah, Riph, I’m fine.”
Riph backs away just in time to avoid Fray’s feeble two-handed shove at his chest. He chuckles. “Steady, Regent, save your strength.”
“I am in shockingly high spirits, Riph, do not test me.” She says it through her teeth, her unbandaged eye glaring out from under her matted purple hair. Riph can hardly think of a time she’s looked more beautiful or terrifying. “Look, you clods,” she continues, gingerly sitting up to face her crew, old and new alike, “we aren’t going to survive what we’ve gotten ourselves into unless we trust a few beings here and there. Alright? She’s one of them.” Fray points over her shoulder at Maude, her arm wobbling. Riph is watching the energy drain from Fray as she speaks, and he takes a sideways step closer.
Kin is the first to agree, as is his way. “Aye, that’s more than fair,” he says sheepishly. “Apologies, Maude. We just watched you work magic—”
“Science,” Maude says. “That was definitely science. Would’ve needed a couple of days to do that with magic.”
Kin nods graciously. “Science. Yes. We watched you work science. And Fray’s still alive, somehow, and we owe you for that.”
Riph looks over at Rahab. She opens her mouth like she’s about to yell something at Kin along the lines of, Speak for yourself, but instead she glares at her feet and swallows, hard. “Yeah, we do,” she says in an uncharacteristically mousey way.
“I’m already halfway better,” chimes in a small voice, and Riph realizes it’s the new girl, from the couch where she’s curled up in her partner’s arms. “Thank you, Maude.”
“You’re welcome. Both of you. All of you,” Maude says, though her attention’s fully on the trio of small screens she’s fiddling with. “Now please go back to ignoring me so I can get real results.”
Fray presses the back of her knuckles to her temple. “Gods. I’ve got quite the headache. I suppose that’s not exactly a surprise in my condition.” She wobbles around to look at Maude. “I’ll ignore you in just a moment, but hold on, one thing—did everyone introduce themselves? That has been one of my training focuses this year.”
Everyone groans, even Riph, thinking about the training session they endured together last month: a lecturebot, rigged up to sound almost-but-irritatingly-not-quite like Fray, droning at them for four hours about the importance of a professional brigand’s good manners. Fray shoots them all a dirty look that silences them as Maude chuckles.
“Yes, actually, they were very polite. Gave their names and just about nothing else, just like you’ve taught them to, I’d imagine.” Maude taps the side of her chin with her finger, then points at Fray. “The minute you focus on the data projections over here is the minute they lose their validity, girl, so don’t.”
Fray grunts, a noise Riph recognizes is amusement rather than dismissal. She scoots forward on the operating table, finding the edge with the underside of her knees. “Right then. Okay, Shames, the recap. The first serious job we’ve had in months turned out to be an ambush.”
“By Silver,” Kin is quick to point out.
Fray gestures in a way that says, sure, maybe. “Whomever it was, we should have seen it coming. For gods’ sakes, Riph, Rahab, Kin, how many diplomats did we anticipate ambushes for in the three-eighty-third, and on how many different planets? And we all went blind to Virtus II.”
Riph winces. In Squadron 383, it was his job to coordinate the logistics of diplomats’ visits to dangerous planets. As Proxregent of the Damn Shames, it was his job to coordinate the logistics of the promised cargo job on the volcanic mining planet Virtus II. He knows he should’ve read between the lines, seen the treachery and the trap laid there, but he was as desperate as any of them for fresh supplies and a good night’s rest, and he blindly planned around what he knows now he should have spotted.
“Silver’s got it out for us,” Rahab says. “I’ve been trying to figure out why. No luck so far.”
“You think they’re why we can’t get work?” Kin asks her. His words drip with genuine confusion. “We went from more work than we could manage with eleven of us, to…” He snaps his fingers and they all wince. “Just like that. In a matter of weeks.”
Rahab raises one eyebrow. “Actually, I think it started when Fray decided she liked Falcor. No offense,” she adds quickly, gesturing at Fray.
The Regent waves back dismissively. “False cause and effect. The timing is just similar.”
“I’m not so sure,” Kin says slowly. “I mean, it’s an interesting connection, if it’s there. We thought we were hijacking a small-time criminal gang, but…maybe we were actually hijacking an undercover Silver unit. Maybe the Starfarer’s got something more than AstroGas and they want it back.” There’s just the barest hint of mocking in his voice—not enough to get called out, but enough to force Riph to tuck the corner of his mouth in his shoulder to disguise his smirk.
“We’re keeping Falcor, and that’s final,” Fray says firmly, leaving no room for argument. “I’m aware of its potential dangers as a highly combustible ship, but think about the kind of freedom we earn ourselves if we can process our own gas, refuel our own ships, and sell anything we’ve got left at a premium in deep space.” She folds her arms across her chest, swaying a little, unsteady.
Riph moves up beside her and Fray leans against him without acknowledgment, still pitching in favor of her new favorite spaceship. “Not only that,” she goes on, “but no one’s going to guess a Starfarer is filled with pirates. And it’s large enough we can all crowd on board if we need to.”
“Well,” Rahab says in her moodiest way, “now.”
With that word, Riph feels the emptiness roaring up. When loved ones or friends leave his life, he carries a physical void with him, a hollow in his essence that will never be completely filled again, barring miraculous second chances. In the last year, he’s lost twenty-odd Shames to cruel accidents and combat zones. Twenty-odd humans and aliens, bound together by a space biker’s creed and code of conduct, rumbling around the galaxy in their dubiously-acquired ships doing dubiously-acquired work—that’s twenty-odd conversations he’ll never have again, twenty-odd laughs he’ll never hear down the hall again. Twenty-odd moments (or hours) of silence.
In the ambush that sent them to ground on Lahmu, he’d lost four dear companions all at once—two when Falcor’s hull blew, one when the enemy boarded, and the last when Fray and Riph and Rahab and just a handful of others finally staved off the attack from the bridge.
Riph is still reeling from how quickly the Shames can vanish from his current existence. He still wakes up in the middle of the night, calling out to them.
A strange tingling at the edge of his consciousness draws him away from his grief, and he realizes he’s started to feel the auras of the new characters, Dog and Dragon. Dog’s awareness is turned towards Dragon in such a laser-focused way, and Dragon’s is so weak because of her wound, that Riph hadn’t noticed them before. Now that he has, though, he realizes they fit the battered shape of the Shames; he’s sure that’s why Fray didn’t hesitate to include them in this madness, because she could sense a need those two could meet.
In the room, no one’s spoken for a long time. Maude’s computer beeps insistently and she lets out a rush of air. “Well. I impress even myself. You’re all clear for recovery, Fray, and clear to go to the recovery couch. Good old stasis unit managed to stabilize you well enough you might not even need to be on bedrest for long.”
“Yay!” cheers Dragon, and Dog scoots themselves and Dragon to occupy less of the couch and puts their hands together in an awkward one-person round of applause—while Kin, Rahab, and Riph trade worried looks. Bedrest for the Princess? Riph can’t remember a time she took a sick day, unless they’d all agreed to go into vacation mode anyway. Come to think of it, maybe that was what usually prompted her spontaneous vacations…
Riph puts both of his hands on the table next to Fray. She lightly raps her knuckles on his. “Hey,” she says, catching his eye, “it’s a good thing, right?”
She projects It at him, with all her diminished might. It is something only the two of them understand. It, as usual, taps a deep well of determination in him, and even as his eyes mysteriously produce a bit of moisture, he squares his shoulders and offers Fray his arms.
“Hey, it’s amazing,” he says, “that’s a fact.” And he means it.
She accepts the offer of his arms, and he carries her to the couch and sits down. The cushions are old and worn and well-loved, and they settle in around him like a familiar embrace. Riph draws in a deep breath that makes him shudder more than he’d like. He smells Fray, so close to him: she’s bloody and exhausted and terrified, but still. She smells like home.
He doesn’t try and move her out of his arms, and she doesn’t try to move out of them either, only settles in against him so she can sit halfway up and talk. Her feet bump up against Dragon’s, and neither of them seem to mind.
“So,” Fray says after a moment of quiet, “we’re taking Falcor and everybody else’s ships and we’re getting out of here. That’s easy enough. Where are we going?”
“Buloi,” Kin says, at the same time as Rahab says, “Home to Delamar.” They glare furiously at each other in the ensuing three seconds of silence. Both of them suck in deep breaths in preparation for a yelling match, which Fray cuts short before it begins.
“Nope,” she says, “one at a time, and somebody else first, please, for the love of the gods.”
Rahab’s boots twitch and her mouth pinches into an ugly line. Kin sniffs and pointedly looks in the opposite direction.
Riph knows Fray intends him to speak. She often looks to him in moments like this to set the tone, or at least be a voice of reason amidst a rabble. As he always tells her privately afterwards, he tries his best, but he’s not exactly the least roguish himself.
But right now, he’s as content as he’s been in weeks. His beloved leader is alive in his arms, and not lying dead of the head wound that’s now just an impressive set of stitches and bandages on the shaved side of her head. He’s still got the three soldiers he learned to lean on in the trenches of Pyro III and Tyrol II and Vann; Fray and Kin and Rahab are all still alive, and they’re his makeshift family.
He lets his consciousness drift again, this time on that tide of contentment. He drifts with intent, buoyed by hope and clairvoyance. This moment is a moment spent entirely in the present, and a moment of evident destiny, though it is a moment he spends out of time.
“Seems to me, if we play our cards right,” Riph says, in a voice not entirely his own, “we could be very rich heroes.”
Thanks to Wikimedia for the source image.
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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