Sometimes Kin gets feelings. He’s not sure if he should chalk them up to instinct, or observation, or premonition, or some convoluted combination—but he trusts them.
And right now, his stomach’s at his feet and his heart is whirring, and he knows something is very wrong outside.
He jerks his head up sharply to scan the shop for threats, and in doing so, sees that Dog is on the same page as he is, tight-lipped and narrow-eyed. They’ve stepped protectively close to their wife and look about ready to spring across the room.
“Maude, is there somewhere we can make ourselves scarce?” Kin asks in a low voice, feeling Fray tense against his chest. He realizes they have no idea how long the intruders could have been standing outside, listening to the Shames chatter. Even if the words had been indistinct, it would be clear to a half-trained ear that there were at least a few people in the shed.
Time to disappear.
Maude nods her silent understanding and pads on soft feet to the wall behind the Dragonfly. She makes a few indistinct movements, and then the floor slides open to reveal a crude stone staircase.
Kin is used to this part: the slipping away, the ducking out, the covering of tracks. He’s good at it, too, which is why the Shames never get caught. Still, every time he gathers up the crew and herds them to safety, he feels like he’s leaving someone behind.
This time, that feeling is twice as strong. Maybe it’s that Riph and Rahab are out of reach except by comm, or that Fray still seems so damn fragile. But Kin can’t shake the feeling of abandoning someone even as he ushers Dog ahead of him down the staircase, each of them careful with their precious burdens.
“I’m going to see what they need, and if I can’t get them to leave. Then I’ll come back for you,” Maude promises them. It doesn’t occur to Kin to doubt her, in the heat of the moment—he’s already decided that enough of his people trust her, and so will he.
But his feeling of forgetting and dread only strengthens when Maude closes the door above them and the Shames are shut into the underground tunnel with a soft whuff of pressurized air.
“Well,” Fray whispers into the near-silence, “let’s not stand on the stairs, eh?”
Once they’re below the hidden entrance, the tunnel is actually clean, dry, and well-lit, though it’s not exactly bright. Kin’s eyes adjust almost instantly and he sizes up their hiding place: an expertly-paved path, curving away into darkness back in the direction of the infirmary. Kin suddenly understands where Maude has stashed them.
“I’d guess it’s a supply tunnel,” he says, still keeping his voice low, since it’s hard to tell how much muffling the stone walls do. “Probably runs under every one of Maude’s buildings.”
“This way, nobody finds out about the stasis unit,” Fray says. “I would guard that secret like a fiend too, if I were her. Lahmu is not the friendliest planet.”
Dog bares their teeth. “We should get away from the door. I didn’t like the sound of Maude’s new visitors.”
“Don’t forget, we were ‘Maude’s new visitors,’ what, ten minutes ago?” Dragon pipes up quietly. “Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s just locals.”
“Maybe,” Dog says, nuzzling the top of her head, and Kin hears the same doubt in their voice that rests heavy in his own heart.
He shuffles his feet and adjusts Fray in his arms. “Either way, there’s no harm in staying out of sight. C’mon.”
Slow and quiet, Kin and Dog walk for a few minutes. The tunnel reminds Kin of the Spyglass Cavern, or something that might have run beneath the Spyglass for the staff and maintenance to use discreetly. There’s the same blue-red glow to the low lights, the same craggy rock walls. Fray seems to have noticed it too, because she takes a shuddering breath and lets it out in a sigh, then buries her face against Kin’s chest. It’s warm where she’s pressed to him, oppressively warm. She’s grieving. He’s afraid. He wishes. He’s too—
“—thought fresh eyes might spot something the others haven’t.”
The voice, a deep and not unpleasant male voice, booms out as if suddenly broadcast into the tunnel. Kin pulls up short and Fray braces for danger, but the change in Dog and Dragon is much more forceful.
Kin has only known Dragon a few hours now, but he’s seen evidence of nothing but a gentle, thoughtful human being. The wolverine twisting in Dog’s arms, lips skewed in a snarl, is the opposite of that person, and Kin’s sensation of fear heightens.
“Let me go!” Dragon’s hissing at Dog, who’s doing their best to keep her from hitting her head on the floor, though they’re trembling wildly. “I’ll kill him! I’ll do it right now!”
Dog brings their hand up sharply against her mouth. “Tssssst,” they say at her ear, kind but firm, “no. Don’t even think about it. You’re staying here.”
“But Dog,” she half-sobs, “Dog, that’s Zaalis. He’s right here. He’s…right…here.” The last three words devolve into blubbering, and Dragon curls into a ball in Dog’s chest.
Dog raises their head and looks straight at Kin. “You were right to have us hide,” they say in a voice so dead serious, Kin’s blood ices over. “That’s Bac Zaalis. Dragon and I know him very well. We want him dead.”
Bac Zaalis. Kin knows that name. It’s something out of a previous life—a politician his then-girlfriend Arnetta had admired in a weird, sideways manner. It’s just that I think he does good things for citizens, Kin. And he’s so open about his disability. Besides, I didn’t put the stickers oneverything. Just the side of the levcart. And so on.
But the buzz-cut, horse-faced man from Borea, whom Kin had watched Arnetta watch adoringly for hours at a time, didn’t seem like the kind of person to make a seemingly reasonable young woman go frothing mad at the sound of his voice.
Kin frowns up at the ceiling, which here looks less like the Spyglass and more like a maintenance hallway. He wonders if they’re standing under the infirmary now. “Are we talking about the same Zaalis? Short hair, long face, one leg—political guy?”
“We’re talking about the same man, yes,” Dog says darkly, “but probably not the same Zaalis. The Zaalis we know is a ruthless local governor with no regard for human or native life.”
“He drove us out of our home.” Dragon sucks in a three-part breath, gulping down tears. “He’s a monster.”
The voice of the man under accusation fades up again, this time underscored by someone else’s laugh: “—suppose we picked up whatever she had when we both enjoyed her intimate company, on the same night—” The words become indistinguishable again, ostensibly as Zaalis moves away from the ventilation shaft in the infirmary, which leads down to the rocky ceiling of the tunnel.
Kin’s eyebrow rises. Lewd behavior is something he looks down on, but not every lecherous being deserves to be called “a monster.” And he’s hard-pressed to believe in a direct and malicious link between a governor’s big-picture actions and their impact on ordinary people, not without proof anyway.
Nonetheless, the new recruits don’t seem like idiots or liars, even if he does find them a bit…odd. Annoying? He’s not really sure yet. His impression of them hasn’t fully formed. But he’s convinced it won’t have time to fully form if they don’t figure out what’s going on up there—and who is and who isn’t the enemy.
He sets Fray down so she can sit against the wall between two of the lights, then extracts something from his belt pouch. It’s a sonnwand, something he acquired mostly to “hear” around ships both unfamiliar and noisy, attuned to the frequencies of human (and some alien) vocalizations. It’s about to earn its hefty cost.
He only needs a few seconds of walking around, head craned all the way back, to locate the ventilation shaft. Kin raises the slim sonnwand as high as he can and thumbs it on.
Immediately, they can all hear the conversation happening in Maude’s infirmary room as clearly as if they were back up there, still sitting on the couch. What they hear Bac Zaalis say first makes the tunnel’s temperature drop twenty degrees.
“Perhaps your assistants in the shop will be able to expedite the request.”
To Kin’s eternal relief (I’ll tell her when this is over, he swears to himself, I’ll tell her how grateful I am), Maude doesn’t miss a beat. “Assistants?” she asks, sounding adequately but not overly puzzled. “I have one, and he isn’t here today. Or at least… He told me he was celebrating his mother’s birthday in town today. Did you run into someone on the grounds?”
“Ah. That’s odd. I was certain I heard voices in the shop you came out of when Dredge and I approached.”
“The oorhunds,” Maude says with a laugh—a perfect, natural, almost-but-not-too carefree laugh. “Goddess above, they make a racket when I’m in there if it’s just before I’m supposed to feed them dinner. Their feeding schedule’s been rigid for years, but they beg me every day nonetheless.”
“Oorhunds! That’s a marvelous name for a creature. Perhaps I’ll take one with me for Dredge, as a thank-you present for finding me a nice, discreet doctor.”
Kin almost jumps when he realizes Dog has carefully crept up beside him. Dog makes eye contact with Kin and blinks down at Dragon, who looks half-asleep. Kin nods, and Dog sets their wife beside Fray. Kin keeps looking down long enough to catch Fray reaching out to take Dragon’s hand, and the two women giving each other a long, searching look.
Reluctantly, he turns his attention back to the sonnwand and holding it steady so they can hear. He realizes he must have missed something Maude said, because Zaalis is talking again, this time in a very low and dangerous tone.
“You…are a discreet doctor, are you not?”
“Of course,” Maude says, sounds more irritated than nervous. “I don’t file paperwork I don’t have to. This place keeps me busy enough as it is.”
“Yes, yes, of course it does, of course it does,” Zaalis purrs. “And so far away from the rest of civilization. Information takes such a long time to travel, this far out.”
“Yeh,” pipes up a third voice, wheedling and whiny, “no one would know what ‘appened if’n you just vanished.”
“Come now, Dredge there’s no need for such talk,” Zaalis scolds, in a tone that implies exactly the opposite.
Kin can hear his heart in his ears. He’s relieved he decided to act when he did, the way he did—thank God for small miracles and my intuition just there, he thinks, almost whispering it under his breath. Dog and Dragon are right about one thing for sure: Bac Zaalis is a dangerous man.
His arms are growing heavy and tingly from holding them up, but he draws on reserves of strength to keep the sonnwand up.
“Tests are done,” Maude says. She sounds strained, though she’s still maintaining her cool, professional manner. “Looks like—yes, as I suspected. You’ve contracted a mild to moderate case of chlamydia, likely from the activity you described.” The two men chuckle and Maude goes on as if they didn’t. “It should clear up in a couple of months naturally, but as I imagine you’re ready to be done with these symptoms as soon as possible, I can prescribe you ofloxacin.”
“Splendid!” Zaalis says, still laughing. “And do you have that on the premises?”
There’s a soft click-hiss of a refrigerator seal, and then Maude says, “Right here, in fact. Would you like a bag?”
“No, thank you. Dredge has a bag. Dredge, you can carry the medication.”
The exchange is so ordinary, so normal, that Kin almost lowers the sonnwand and deems his surveillance good enough.
“Wait—what is this? Do you have…visitors?”
Zaalis speaks so softly that even the sonnwand has trouble amplifying the sounds. Yet it’s as if he’d come down the stairs and bellowed into the tunnel, for all Kin feels the blood drain from his face and sees it do the same on the others.
Kin gets another feeling. A feeling that he’s fucked it up, and bad.
They all start to catalog—Dog with their eyes, Fray with her hands, Dragon with little whispers. Kin runs silently through his mental checklist of items he brings planetside, tapping their locations on his body as he thinks of them, just to be sure. LH-86 sidearm. Wallet. Identity papers. Vitalpen. Sonnwand, of course. Fray’s backup Arclight…
Above them, Maude snorts, a sound both derisive and dismissive. “Goddess take him, Sethry cannot remember his head on his shoulders. That belongs to one of my patients. I even reminded him to grab it from the table when he left. Here, let me take it. He’d die if he lost it.”
Kin’s insides contract.
The words consume his heart with cold heat. The birthstone is his most precious possession: a stone cross, carved with symbols for luck, blessing, and his son’s name, embedded with Kile’s birth certificate. It’s the only tangible link to his boy that he can carry with him everywhere, clenching it in his palm until it’s warm through, tucking it back in its inside pocket against his breast.
Kin plunges his fingers through his layers of clothing and finds a hole just big enough for the cross to slip out. Bac Zaalis has Kile’s birthstone. The world blurs into a howl of white noise, of rage at himself for failing his son yet again, of rage at the universe for yet another cruel heaping of injustice. He finds himself on the floor, on all fours, hyperventilating. He knows the others are trying to talk to him and keep him quiet, and he tries his best, through the tsunami of panic and fury, to lower his voice. To suck down oxygen desperately, but more quietly.
When he comes to, Maude is leaning over him, gently shaking his shoulders and speaking to him in a low stream of earnest commands. Kin blinks stupidly, trying to clear the tunnels from his vision, trying to focus on her words and do as she asks.
“Kin—I need you to look at me. I need you to get us all out of here. Now.”
Thanks to AMGPG 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.
Join us in Star Citizen with referral code STAR-PQ6L-9R4B!