The Starfarer’s hold is sour with gasoline and oorhund fear-sweat. It’s giving Maude a serious headache.
She thought she’d been clever, heading back down to the cargo area to find some solitude. Already, the number of people in close proximity is driving her a bit mad, so she’s posted up against a metal box amongst the cargo. Three heavy ‘hund heads rest on her crossed legs. Her fingers twist Rivet’s long, silky ear as she stares off into the blur of grey-on-grey metal and rosy running lights, losing herself in her thoughts.
She misses Lahmu already. She’s lived on seventeen (eighteen, if the station counts) planets and planetoids in her 39 years, and Lahmu is the only one that felt like her home. Her soul is woven from as many threads of sweetly constant rainwater, singing fields, and gritty fellow colonists as it is from threads of her childhood, her education, her experience.
Maude closes her eyes. She feels the rain caress her face—soft, cool, a reminder of what mindfulness truly means. The sensation is so real that she raises her hand to touch her cheek; her fingers come away dry. Her melancholy sigh rustles through the hold.
Rivet, Jo, and Qi all raise their heads when she moves, their glittering red eyes placating her. Maude laughs and fishes around behind her for the bag of treats, catching up three between her fingers. Holding her hand in front of her face, she barely whispers, “Rall’om,” and the oorhunds slip to their feet without really moving their bodies. Hunt. It’s what she tells them when she needs her big, galloping guardians on their toes, in stealth mode.
“What good pups you are,” she murmurs, and flips each a treat. They munch happily, drooling on her pants. Around them, the other oorhunds nap blissfully in lumpy piles.
Maude ruffles Jo’s ears. She rests her head back on the cargo box.
She misses Lahmu’s people most of all. Guilt twinges in her belly as she thinks of Tikay, her assistant, a timid man but a noble one. They shared so many meals and life-and-death emergencies, and she couldn’t even leave him a note. Oh, goddess, and Breth, and his dear employees, the ones she’d treated so many times after particularly ardent sessions with clients—she knows in her gut something happened to them, but she’s afraid to ask any of the Damn Shames what happened at the Spyglass.
So many other loyal, hardy, kind Lahmun faces pass across her mind’s eye. So many people she treated with her own two hands and may never see again. Maude catches herself close to tears, her breath hitching in her chest. So many going-aways in her life…and this one was the first to wound her quite so deeply.
The intercom makes her jump, shattering her grief into shards. “Shames to the bridge… We have a problem.” It’s Fray, crackling overhead like a static deity.
Maude hooks her fingers in her hair and sighs. “Do I count as a Shame, Riv?” she asks Rivet, who raises his head and tilts it at her. There’s curiosity, if not sympathy, in those botched laser eyes. Maude can’t stop a little smile from pursing her lips. “Well, I suppose I should check in on the patients anyway. Make sure no one’s done themselves in while I couldn’t stop them.”
She makes a kissing noise at Rivet. He cranes his muzzle forward and bats it up against her cheek, harder than she expects, so she’s seeing stars for a second. Nonetheless, she plants a smooch on his fuzzy face, careful to avoid the spittle. Rivet makes a happy grunting noise and settles down on the floor, head on his paws.
Maude extricates herself from the other oorhunds and picks her way around the cargo, keeping a watchful eye out for Rahab. With an embarrassment like whatever that little kerfuffle was with Dragon to fuel her self-righteous indignation, Rahab’s a high risk for being a sneak attacker right about now. And even with minimal training in psychology, Maude can spot a (barely) functioning sociopath.
She’s known enough of them too well.
But there’s no one on the way up the ramp and around the corridor and past the escape pods, and Maude feels silly for assuming Rahab would lie in wait for her. Dragon seems the much more obvious target. This idea, and the eerie glow of the word SURVIVE inside the escape pods, hastens Maude through the door to the bridge.
Fray’s perched backwards in the captain’s chair, hands resting on the top. As Maude comes in the room far enough so the door closes behind her, Fray catches her eye and gives her a deep, grateful nod. “Welcome to Falcor’s bridge. Have a seat.” She gestures to the only empty seat in the room, the one to Maude’s right, facing an instrument panel.
Kin and Riph turn around from the pilot and co-pilot seats, respectively, and Riph gives Maude a broad smile. Suddenly self-conscious of the golden drool on her pants, Maude sits in the chair and tucks her legs under the console. She twists around so she can peek at Dragon, who’s in the seat opposite. The girl looks tired, but most certainly alive and un-Rahab’d.
As if reading Maude’s mind, Fray says, a touch frostily, “Rahab and Dog are on their way.”
Maude raises an eyebrow at Dragon, who shrugs and smiles again, with more fire and mischief this time. Well, Maude thinks. A spacefaring life can necessitate a certain flexibility of relationships—though she wouldn’t have pegged Dog and Dragon for a pair of wandering eyes. Their worlds don’t seem much bigger than each other.
And…Rahab? Really? Maude bites her lip. No judgments, Lightfoot, no judgments. That’s a mantra she’s developed as another necessity of the spacefaring life.
The aforementioned pair appear now, and her speculation is rendered useless. Although…Dog’s collar is disheveled, and Rahab looks flushed. Maude tucks her smile behind her hand and avoids Rahab’s eye, catching Kin’s instead. He rolls his eyes, though she notes it’s not without begrudging affection. Probably not for Dog, and therefore… Ha. She’s starting to piece the Shames’ interpersonal dynamics together.
Before Maude can say anything, Dog swoops down to sit on the floor next to Dragon’s chair—which leaves only the space beside Maude’s chair for Rahab. It’s impossible not to look at Rahab now. The younger woman’s eyes narrow to deadly slits. Maude gazes back levelly, telling herself, It’s just like staring down a rabid oorhund. Steady, steady, show no fear, and she won’t attack.
Rahab finally huffs and flings herself across the bridge, rolling up into a tight ball as far from Rabbit as possible.
Fray follows Rahab’s progress with a pointed sniff. “I hope everyone is comfortable. If I may…?”
Rahab’s hugging her knees to her chest, pressing her face between them so only her eyes are showing. She shrugs dramatically. “Whatever,” she says, the word muffled by her pants.
Maude carefully exhales and lets herself relax just a little. Rahab may be wild, but Fray’s a taming force. Even if she acts quite wild herself, the leader of the Shames exhibits a nearly extreme amount of self-discipline and restraint.
Fray clears her throat now, interrupting Maude’s reflection on her character. “To make a long story short: we need to repair, but we can’t do it with Silver watching,” the Regent says. “We are just out of sensor range of a station where we’ve repaired Falcor before. Someone needs to go sweep the whole station, make sure there isn’t anyone on the ground or in the air.” Fray winces and touches the side of her head. “I would go myself, but I’m in no shape. Even I have to recognize that, this time.”
Kin and Riph suck in their breath, and even Rahab uncurls a little. They all lean towards Fray, shadows passing across their faces. A shared memory, Maude senses, and not a good one.
But before any of them can speak up or volunteer, Fray raises her left hand to her leaning crew members. “And no, before you ask, patched Shames, you are not going. Remember, we’ve been to this station before, so we might be familiar faces. Plus—” Fray turns around to look at Kin. “I’m truly sorry, Kin, but losing Kile’s birthstone puts you in Silver’s targets. You’ll have to stay shipside for a while.”
Kin’s hands are on the Starfarer’s yoke, and Maude sees his knuckles whiten. His jaw sets in a grim line, but he looks straight ahead out the window and says, “Yes ma’am.”
Maude’s heart squeezes. She likes Frosted Tips—he’s like the conscientious father of the gang. It’s got to be killing him to have his estranged son’s birthstone in the clutches of the enemy.
Her mouth volunteers before her head has fully committed. “I’ll go,” she says. “Friday’s licensed as both a ground vehicle and a vac-vehicle, but I’ve only ever flown him on the ground, and the vac license’s outdated but not expired. He shouldn’t raise any eyebrows, and it shouldn’t be obvious who’s flying.”
“Do you have clean papers?” Fray asks, in a way that tells Maude she assumes the answer is yes.
She assumes correctly. Maude doesn’t like it when people assume things about her. She grits her teeth. “Of course. Licensed physicians can’t get by without clean papers. I’ve more than gotten by.”
She raises her gaze to see Dog and Dragon holding a silent conversation. Dragon’s brow is furrowed fiercely, and Dog’s gaze is pleading. At last, they drop their head, and Dragon pulls herself up in her seat. “We’ll go with you.”
There are too many reactions for Maude to note, and her attention’s on Dragon anyway—her patient, the idiot. “You can’t go. You’re still wounded,” Maude says, managing to speak first.
Fray crows over her, “Yes, well, that’s decided, then. Thank you to the new recruits for volunteering.”
Maude frowns and spins in the seat, sitting sideways, heedless of the drying drool now. “Woah. No. You brought me on board as the medical staff, and as the only qualified member of that staff, I am refusing—”
“Refusing?” Fray says. It’s phrased like a question, but there’s a dagger in the word.
Maude freezes. Her flight-or-fight response kicks her in the gut like a spooked ‘hund, and she realizes where she is: on a big, strange starship that belongs to strangers she happens to know are also space pirates.
Refusing may not be in the interest of survival.
Nonetheless, her indignation flares and she folds her arms across her chest. “Yes. Refusing. I cannot in good conscience—”
Dragon interrupts: “I’m weak, sure, but that’s cover. Silver’s dumb enough to think everyone’s just like them: you send only the best and you send them in mean. They won’t look twice at us if I’m sporting a bandage.”
“Exactly.” Fray clasps her hands on the back of the chair. “If there’s anywhere truly out of harm’s way, it’s amongst the enemy.”
“Bullshit,” Rabbit shoots back. “Don’t try and sell me bullshit.” She looks sharply at Kin and Riph, who spin back to their stations to hide their snickering.
“We don’t really have a better option,” Dog says, in a frustratingly reasonable tone. Rabbit wants to throttle them, but then they give her a conspiratorial wink that makes her feel less alone on this damn ship. “Plus—then you won’t have to let Dragon out of your sight. The best place for a patient is within the doc’s reach.”
“Plus,” Fray says, “it’s an order.”
Rabbit bunches her hands into fists. I don’t take orders from—
Goddess above, who am I kidding. I do take orders from Fray now.
“Looks like this is where I say ‘yes ma’am,’” Rabbit says. “I’ll get Friday out of his box.” She makes a threatening face at Dragon. “And you.Don’t you dare move unless I tell you it’s okay. And I’m going to wrap your wound so tight you’ll regret that I patched you up in the first place.”
Space yawns before Friday’s slim yellow profile as the Dragonfly rests on the extended ramp. Falcor’s door is closed behind the little craft, keeping Maude from seeing her sorrowful-eyed oorhunds begging her to return. She stares out into the void, her breath rasping in her helmet. She’s never done this before, flown the flimsy craft in open space. Suddenly, she’s intimately familiar with just how small and meaningless she is.
It’s oddly exhilarating.
She raises her feet, tight and awkward in the spacesuit, and rests them on the running boards. Then she engages the throttle and the little Dragonfly tips forward into infinity.
It’s nothing like ground flight. There’s no ground or gravity stopping the Dragonfly from zipping off in any and all directions, and for a heart-dropping moment, that’s just what Friday does: dips and twists and shudders and lurches, throwing Maude over the bars until she figures out how the thrusters work in three dimensions.
She can’t turn around to look at Dragon, but she can still feel the girl pressed against Maude’s back, hanging on for dear life. Dragon’s perched backwards, just the way Drake intended. Talk about riding bitch. Maude feels her mouth draw into a line of self-disapproval. This kind of herky-jerky flight is not what the doctor ordered.
But now she’s got Friday levelled off at a mere two meters per second, and eases his nose around back around towards the front of the Starfarer. The Gladius is waiting like a frozen bat, the name Will o’ the Wisp painted bright and yellow around the nose. Dog waves from inside the cockpit.
“Willo here. Your ears working, Friday?” Dog asks suddenly in Maude’s ear, making her jump.“
Goddess above.” She fumbles with the button on the outside of her suit. “Friday on ears.”
Dog’s dangerous grin gleams in the reflection of Falcor’s running lights. “Perfect. Let’s get this over with.”
“Stay close, Dog,” Dragon pipes up.
“I will,” they say. “Falcor, do you read?”
“We read you,” Fray says, her physical distance from Friday making her sound far away compared to Dog—spatial mimicry being a quirk of the Shames’ comm system. “We’ll stay out of sensor range until you give the all clear.”
“Roger that,” Dog and Maude say in unison. “And I’ll clear out any danger so Your Delicateness won’t be harmed, eh, Rahab?” Dog adds.
“Eat my asteroid,” Rahab snaps back. There’s a cracking noise as a comm mic hits the floor, and Dog chuckles.
“Shall we?” they ask, and then the Gladius brightens and begins to float soundlessly away from the Starfarer.
Maude’s stomach flips. She adjusts her grip on the handles and leans into a turn, easing Friday’s nose around until they’re facing the space station, somewhere out of visible range. It’s a ways off—a couple of hours of straight flying, following Will o’ the Wisp’s instruments.
Dragon’s bony back shifts against Maude’s. “Long ways off. Lot of time to think,” Dragon says. “Double-edged sword.”
Maude curses silently. She shoves away the thoughts pressing like tears against her ducts. No time for those now. “So we’ll talk,” she says, setting her jaw determinedly.
“About what?” Dragon’s voice brightens with interest.
“Anything and everything.”
By the time Friday draws close enough to make contact with the station, Maude is confident in her handling of the Dragonfly in space and has learned quite a lot about her companions. It turns out that Dog used to be a caterer, and they’ve got a rash of gruesome horror stories from their career; that Dragon once tricked her parents into buying her a fire-pony, and convinced them to let her keep it for a year of ashy shenanigans; and that the pair met when Dog was 24 and Dragon was 21, and have been inseparable ever since.
The latter is hardly a surprise.
But they’ve set aside their light conversation for now, because the docking agent is kind of an asshole. He demands the spelling of Maude’s name three times, even though she’s pretty sure she heard the system acknowledge her identity in the background after the first try, finally giving them begrudging clearance. With a haughty sign-off—“May you swiftly find what you need here at Ararek Station,” sniff—he withdraws from the comm, leaving Maude to navigate through the crowded lanes to where he’s banished them.
It’s the most inconvenient sliver of an excuse for a landing pad. Barely a stable, flat surface, the pad might have been an unloading dock in another lifetime, and now sits decrepit and deadly. After dismounting Friday, Maude and Dragon have to edge along sideways to avoid falling the ten feet to the spacious (and empty) landing pad below.
Once she makes it to Friday’s rear and the relative safety of the reinforced walkway, Maude slams her private comm button. “Son of a bitch,” she growls between her teeth. “Sure wish I had some of the ‘hunds with me. I’d track that docking agent down, I swear to the goddess, and make him wish he hadn’t come in to work today.”
Dragon grasps at Friday’s struts as her bulky suit nearly sends her tumbling backwards. Maude grabs her hand and pulls the smaller woman against her, where she can catch her balance—though not without making her wince.
“Sorry,” Maude says. Dragon tilts her head inside the helmet, and Maude remembers she has to push the button for Dragon to hear her. She does so. “Sorry for hurting your arm. This was a terrible idea.”
“No, I’m—I’ll be okay. Willo?” This last, tentative, as Dragon presses a different button.
“Willo here,” Dragon’s mate responds immediately in a soothing voice, and Maude sees Dragon slump with relief. “You two safe and sound?” There’s barely a trace of the fear and relief Maude knows Dog’s feeling in their voice.
“Close enough,” Dragon replies. “This station is the worst, but I did see a sign for a rest stop at least.”
“Didn’t get close enough to the directory to read the logos,” Maude says, trying to rub an itch on her face with the back of her hand, which bumps against her helmet. She sighs. “Dammit, I hate EVA.”
“Oily Jengi’s is supposed to be on level three, room seven-zee,” Dog says, distantly now. They sound distracted. “Might just head there.”
“We’re going dark, Willo,” Dragon says with hardly a wobble in her voice. When she disconnects, there’s a low, underlying static hiss in Maude’s ears. “Let’s get inside and out of these things for a bit,” Dragon says over the local channel, extricating herself from Maude’s protective grip. The smaller woman only wobbles a little as she walks to the ladder and slides down it.
Maude follows her, and they pick their way across the seemingly endless desert of landing pads, around ships perched like snoozing sentinels. Pilots and crew side-eye them and turn their way, but no one hinders their progress.
They wait their turn to go through the double airlocks, alongside a severe woman who refuses their attempts at polite conversation, and her scaly, snarly pet. Walking away double-time from the unpleasant woman, Maude shrugs out of her spacesuit and approaches the customer service deck, where she pays more than she’d like for a dubiously secure rental locker. She hands Dragon one of the combination codes upon her return.
“There is no way these codes are secure or original. Do not leave anything you value in there,” Maude says under her breath. Dragon’s gaze attentively sweeps the area, never lingering too long on one area, and Maude nods her approval. “Good. I’ll help you ditch the suit.”
She’s just helping Dragon peel out of the last leg of the bulky thing when three loud, gruff laughs hack into their personal space. Maude feels the first man behind her before he even touches her, his malignant presence giving her goose bumps; she whirls to see a lowlife with a mangled house arrest chip on his shoulder. He gives her a gap-toothed smirk and then his hip jabs hard into her rear, even as he mutters, “Oops,” in an exaggerated way.
Maude stumbles but catches herself on the bench beside Dragon, who’s on her feet with a lithe grace far outstripping her current condition. House Arrest’s buddies are smaller than he is, but clearer-eyed and more dangerous, and swiftly flanking the women. The one on the left, with the scar from his eye to his cheek, he’s the one Maude’s really worried about. Him, and the sidearm poorly concealed in his pants.
Maude glances at Dragon and notices the smaller woman has squared off without being conspicuous. Good girl. “Excuse you,” she says out loud, directing her scorn at House Arrest as if he’s the only one there, “don’t you have something better to do than bully a couple of tourists?”
“Couple o’ girls,” says the third stranger quietly, to House Arrest’s right. It’s a humanoid in a thick cloak and hood, so Maude can’t even tell if it’s human. Its voice doesn’t sound quite right. “Think you might have something pretty for us, eh, lassies?” it rasps.
Maude straightens and laughs, as ugly a sound as she can produce. She brings herself up to her full height. “Me, carry something pretty around? I’m a doctor, pal, not a fashion icon. If I’ve got metal on me, it’s a pair of surgical scissors. My ears aren’t even pierced.”
“Me, though…” Dragon makes a convincing dagger-flipping motion with her right hand. There’s a glint of silver, and Maude realizes it’s more than convincing, it’s real—Dragon’s hefting a seven-inch blade. The men stop moving closer.
House Arrest still leers. “Well, now, that’s a pretty thing, isn’t it?”
“Her or the knife?” the hooded humanoid says. They all laugh.
Dragon raises her dagger higher, and Maude is gratified to see no sign of pain on her face. Just hard black eyes and a rat-in-a-corner expression. Maude drops her arms to her sides, squeezing her hands into fists. The armed man’s hand slides to his hidden gun.
Quicker than he can get the weapon free, Dragon darts forward and slashes at the hem of his pants with the tip of her blade. The knife gently snicks through a good six inches of the fabric down the leg, a noise that hangs in the air almost as long as the man’s pants do.
The look on the man’s face—horror and shock and indignity—makes Maude want to laugh as his pants puddle at his feet. Somehow, she manages to keep her intimidating expression as he scrambles to pull up his pants and trips on the entangling clothes; his gun, dislodged, skitters across the floor to Dragon’s foot. She places her boot on it with a meaningful twist of her knife.
House Arrest shoves his still-standing buddy. “C’mon, we’ll get ‘em later. See ya, Skarn.”
The man on the floor lets out a strangled sob, gathers up his fallen pants, and rolls onto his feet. He throws a look of utter hatred over his shoulder at Dragon as he vanishes up a shadowed stairway.
Dragon shudders and collapses against the lockers, breathing heavily. Maude rescues the dagger from her charge’s hand and tucks it in Dragon’s now-visible boot sheath.
“You did good, kid.”
“Oh gods. My side is on fire.” Dragon bites her lower lip and sucks in her breath. Then she flashes a toothy grin. “But damn, that was a lot of bluff. Nicely done.”
Maude gives her a reproachful look. “Shhh. You heard them, they didn’t go far. Don’t let them hear you. But did you see? They weren’t Silver. No bands.”
“And that’s not how they work,” Dragon says, shaking her head. “Too cowardly even for them.”
“Good so far, then,” Maude says. She wraps her arm around Dragon’s middle, bending to compensate for their significant height difference, and half-carries the smaller woman away from the lockers. Brightly-colored, pulsating lights indicate there’s a rest-shop at the other end of the long hallway, and Maude heads that way. She and Dragon each take a side, watching for any sign of attackers, old or new.
They make it to the rest-shop without further incident and pass through the sliding doors, which open at their approach. The attendant, lounging over the counter with her mobiGlas up in front of her pretty face, glances up and then goes back to ignoring all of her customers.
Of which there are—five, Maude counts swiftly, with herself and Dragon. The mart is big enough and the clientele spread out enough to browse that Maude feels comfortable whispering to Dragon, “Maybe the attendant knows about Jengi’s.”
“Does she look like she’s going to talk to you?” Dragon whispers back incredulously. She busies herself examining a box of Big Bennys. “Damn. She’s adorable.”
“She won’t talk to me—she’ll talk to you,” Maude says, giving Dragon a gentle push towards the register. Dragon makes a soft sound of protest, but manages to smoothly land on the counter beside the girl, Bennys still in hand.
Dragon throws on a conspiratorial, silly tone. “Just this please. And hey, I was just wonderin’—my uncle’s got a big ol’ ship out there, Carrack-sized, and it’s in a bit of a bad way. You got any mechanics here with the chops to fix somethin’ that big?”
The girl flips down her wrist, deactivating her mobiGlas, and flicks her dark bangs out of her face. She looks Dragon up and down pointedly. “You got a Carrack?”
“My uncle does. And it’s Carrack-sized. Say, doesn’t Jengi Oggrien have a shop somewhere around here?” Dragon nibbles on the tip of her thumb, eyeing the attendant sideways. “Saw it on Spectrumblr.”
The attendant’s eyes widen and she starts twirling the gum she’s chewing. Maude hides a giggle in her shoulder. Good on Dragon, finding a weakness in the armor so quickly.“Yeah, they’re here. Three-seven-tee. Maybe you saw my selfpics with their sign?” The girl titters. “It’s so fifty years ago. I love it. Kind of my aesthetic.”
The attendant’s getting louder, and Maude’s sixth senses buzzes. Her stress level rises even as she looks around the rest-shop shining with plastic and light to see the other patrons still scattered peacefully, minding their own business. Something’s off—she’s missing something. Frowning, she tries to focus on Dragon’s attempt to ask about Silver without invoking their name.
Without warning, someone grabs Maude’s wrist.
Source image captured in-game (Star Citizen).
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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