The Desulti Chronicles: Stranded

Discussion in 'Writing' started by Jonesy, Dec 14, 2015.

  1. Jonesy

    Jonesy Sarif's Attack Kangaroo Forum Moderator

    Stranded Sig.jpg

    Name: Virbon
    Gender: Male
    Age: 24
    Fur Colour: Grey
    Position: Chief Engineer
    Background: Virbon grew up in a town on the outskirts of a major city on Tisetora, leading a comfortable yet unexciting life. In his teenage years, he discovered he had an aptitude for technology, which he utilized by moving into the city and studying engineering. While there, Virbon met an aspiring pilot named Amius, and the two quickly became close friends. Upon graduating, she offered him to join her on the ship she had signed on to. After some consideration, he accepted.

    Name: Amius
    Gender: Female
    Age: 24
    Fur Colour: Dark Orange
    Position: Pilot
    Background: As the daughter of a shuttle pilot, Amius always dreamed of becoming a pilot herself and exploring the universe. Having inherited her father’s knack for flying, she enrolled at the local university into a program to get her licence. Afterwards, she joined the crew of Captain Pridux, and talked her friend Virbon into doing the same.

    Name: Pridux
    Gender: Female
    Age: 37
    Fur Colour: Orange
    Position: Captain
    Background: Having decided to join the armed forces during her youth, Pridux enlisted into the Aerospace Force as soon as she reached recruitment age. After a fairly successful career that saw her rise through several ranks, she left the Force following an unspecified incident on a vessel she was stationed on. Despite this, she acquired a moderately sized freighter with the intention of becoming a freelance merchant. The crew she hired was somewhat inexperienced, but she saw their potential and was determined to ensure they reached it.

    Name: Tiroti
    Gender: Male
    Age: 22
    Fur Colour: Brown
    Position: Navigator
    Background: Tiroti was originally from one of the earliest Desulti colonies established. Something of an overachiever, he excelled academically despite struggling socially. Deciding to become a navigator, he travelled to Tisetora in order to find a crew. After being turned down a couple of times by different captains, he was given the chance to join the crew of Captain Pridux. He quickly found himself to be a welcome addition, and developed a sense of belonging.

    Names: Sannul and Ultuf
    Gender: Male
    Age: 25
    Fur Colour: Orange
    Position: Engineers
    Background: Growing up in a remote mining town, the near identical twins were given a home education and worked at their family’s workshop for many years. As the business entered a patch of slow business, they decided to spend a few years working off-planet for some experience and money. After some time on a large mining vessel, they decided they’d rather work someplace quieter. After hearing that one Captain Pridux was putting a crew together, they found that that might just be what they’re looking for.

    The ship sat ready in the station docking bay as I approached. It seemed like everyone was ready to depart. A couple of other Desulti, the ground crew by the looks of it, were packing up. It was a simple enough job; pick up a cargo hold full of unrefined ore from Delta Suvaris V, and return it to Tisetora for refining. The route we were taking was fairly long and wasn’t a particularly well documented one, but we believed it was safe nonetheless. As I approached the ship, our pilot Amius was there waiting for me.

    “There you are, Virbon,” she said. “I was wondering where you got to.”

    “Sorry about that,” I replied. “Lost track of time. Still, I’m ready to get going.”

    I followed her onto the ship. We had been friends since we met at university, and have managed to work together since then. Being the ship’s chief engineer, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the bridge. But even so, I enjoyed her company whenever I could have it.

    On the bridge, the captain was nowhere to be seen. Over at the navigation console, Tiroti sat checking the map of our route. He was the youngest member of the crew, still trying to get his space legs. But he was a decent navigator, and hadn’t let the crew down yet.

    “How’s it going, mate?” I asked politely.

    “Alright, I guess,” he said, turning his head. “Just want to make sure we know what we’re in for.”

    “Anything along the route we should be aware of?” I asked.

    “Not too sure yet. I’ve heard rumours about various things, but nothing that can be proved.”

    “Don’t worry about ghost stories,” I said. “Chances are there’s nothing important around there.”

    “Only one way to find out.” said a voice behind me.

    I turned to see the captain walking into the room. She was a former Aerospace Force captain, and quite well decorated. But for some reason she left, and never told anyone why. But even then, her leadership was what kept the crew together. She sat down in her chair and turned to me.

    “We’re ready to head out,” she said. “You’re going to be needed down in engineering.”

    “Yes, captain.” I said, walking off the bridge. I eventually reached engineering to find Sannul and Ultuf talking about the rugby game last night. The two brothers were not exactly idiots, but not entirely competent either. They knew their stuff, but I just wish they’d stop messing around and actually do it right more often.

    “Come on, fellas,” I said. “We’re on the job now.”

    They moved to their stations with some half-hearted complaints. Standing at mine, Amius contacted me through the communicator.

    “Alright mate, we’re taking off in one minute.”

    I acknowledged, and made the necessary preparations. A quick check showed all systems were OK, so I proceeded to power up the engines. After the minute was up, I felt a rumble as Amius guided us out into space. From there, it was a simple matter of preparing the FTL drive for hyperspace. When everything was ready, I called Amius.

    “Everything is A-OK down here,” I said. “Ready when you are.”

    “Hang on a sec.” she replied.

    I heard Tiroti and Amius speak about plotting coordinates. The captain also said something, but I couldn’t make much of the conversation. After about a minute, Amius spoke to me again.

    “We’re clear of local traffic. Jumping now.”

    I heard the drive begin to charge. A quick glance at the power levels showed everything was as they should. Before I knew it, we were in hyperspace.

    Things were quiet after that. After a while, I decided to go get some sleep. We wouldn’t be arriving for a while yet. Leaving some orders with the brothers, I went to my quarters, lay down and closed my eyes.

    I awoke to the dull thump of the FTL drive exiting hyperspace. Strange that it would happen now, without the captain making me aware of it. Even if those two bogans down in engineering handled the transition, surely the chief engineer would at least get told about it?

    Climbing out of bed, I paused to look out the window. Was this even our destination? I didn’t think Delta Suvaris V had a gas giant, or a red sun either. I climbed out of bed, crossed my cramped quarters to the locker and dressed hurriedly. If we were making a detour, the captain would let the crew know. Slinging my tool satchel over my shoulder, I walked into the corridor. I had a bad feeling about this.

    Seemed like the sudden departure from hyperspace had woken Amius as well. She was also dressed, leaning out of her quarters and looking down the corridor. I was convinced now something was wrong. If we were really at our destination, she would have been on the bridge, being the pilot and all. She turned and noticed me, scratching her head.

    “What’s going on? Have we already arrived at DS-5?” she asked.

    “Dunno,” I replied “If we have, no one told me.”

    She snorted, and stepped into the corridor. There was a sudden rumble, and the lights dipped. The normally constant rumble of the engines had ceased, but the noise coming from the vents indicated the life support was still working.

    “Bloody hell.” I heard Amius mutter from the darkness.

    As quickly as they’d failed, the lights promptly returned. I gulped when I realized the engines didn’t. The alarm system engaged, deploying a klaxon in case somebody hadn’t been keeping up with current events. Amius and I both decided that we should get to the bridge, and hopped off down the corridor.

    When we got there, Captain Pridux was standing behind Tiroti at the navigator’s station. While the captain was scowling at the readouts, Tiroti looked more scared than anything. Poor kid. Deep down, I didn’t think he was ready for a deep space voyage. They both turned to look at us.

    “What the hell is going on?” I asked.

    “The bloody stardrive dropped out on us, that’s what.” answered the captain. “And now other systems are screwing up.”

    “Have you heard from engineering yet? Maybe they can fix it so we can-”

    “Those dumbarses couldn’t fix the stardrive if it was still working!”

    The intercom emitted a burst of static, before the voice of Sannul droned out over it.

    “Uh… Virbon? Chief, we could use some help down here…” he said. Off in the distance, I heard his brother Ultuf yell something along the lines of “FIRE! FIRE!”.

    I walked over to the intercom, gave a brief acknowledgement and went for the corridor. As the captain and Tiroti turned away, I heard Amius whisper to me.

    “Hey…do you think you can fix the drive?”

    “Maybe,” I said “I’ll need to take a look.”

    “Right. Be careful down there, OK? Don’t get your fur singed.”

    We shared a smile, and went our separate ways. As I walked down the corridor, the moment replayed itself in my head. We had been friends for many years, but sometimes I wondered if more to it than that. She’d never really said anything to show she was interested in me, so I left it at that. Normally it didn’t bother me, though. Normally.

    I could smell the smoke from engineering long before I reached it. Thankfully, Ultuf seemed to have gotten the fire under control. Sannul was standing at an open access panel, cursing at various components.

    “Sannul? Damage report.” I said, walking over to my console. Sannul turned, banging his head on the open panel in the process.

    “Power failure to the stardrive,” he explained, rubbing his head where he’d hit the panel. “Now the primary power is about to give out.”

    Sure enough, the readouts told the same story. Not long before, there had been a sudden dip followed by a significant surge in the main power supply to the propulsion systems. The failsafe had been automatically deployed, dropping the ship from hyperspace. But even then, other systems were suffering similar power issues. The primary power system was definitely on its way out, and I wasn’t sure if I’d seen anything quite like it.

    “Any idea what caused it?” I asked.

    “No clue,” Ultuf replied, glancing over a readout “Might have been an anomaly in a system we passed through. Maybe a nebula or something.”

    At least the stardrive wasn’t broken, like I had feared. There was still a chance we could get out of this. I sighed, turning back to the readouts. We needed to sort out the primary energy system before more damage was done. As it was, the lights had already begun flickering again. I brought up the communicator to the bridge.

    “Captain,” I began “Looks like we need some time to fix the primary energy systems, before anything else fails. We’re going to have to go to auxiliary power.”

    I heard the Captain sigh. We both knew there was no other option.

    “You know what to do,” she said. “Go for it.”

    I acknowledged, and went about engaging the secondary power. To ensure maximum longevity, I diverted only as much power as I dared to essential systems; engineering, life support, gravity, lighting. While they wouldn’t function as well as they normally would, it was better than drifting in the cold and dark without any air.

    I turned my attention to the main power supply. After spending the better part of an hour analysing various subsystems, I could begin to see where the immediate problems lay. It would take some time, to say nothing of any other problems hiding in wait. Leaving some orders with Sannul and Ultuf as to where to begin repairs, I returned to the bridge to inform the captain of the situation.

    She sat in her chair, quietly listening to my report. She occasionally piped up to ask a question regarding certain details. Given her background in the Aerospace Force, I think she was used to keeping a level head in a crisis. To her, it was apparent we had picked up some local energy fluctuations. Normally we were shielded from that sort of thing, but at the same time the shielding was not infallible.

    “We have no other choice,” she said. “We’ll get the power system back online, and go to DS-5 for full repairs. You know how long it will take?”

    “No,” I admitted. “But auxiliary power will last us two weeks at the most. I don’t know about the supplies situation, though.”

    “We should have enough for a couple of weeks, but we should begin rationing. To be on the safe side.”

    I nodded, and she dismissed me from the bridge. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Amius glance at me as I left. I returned to engineering, and got to work.

    After a good many hours down in engineering, I returned to my quarters to unsuccessfully get a couple hours of sleep. Before I knew it, days began to pass, and the repairs went much slower than anticipated. As soon as one part of the system was repaired, it was as if we found something else that needed to be fixed. I wasn’t sure how long our supply of spare parts would hold out.

    As one would imagine, things went downhill for the crew. Meals were rationed, and the heating and lighting were on reduced capacity. That meant we were left cold, hungry and in the dark. I could even swear the atmosphere was thinner, as I found myself out of breath more often than normal. But as many times as I checked, the atmospheric life support systems will still functioning fairly close to normal. I was beginning to think I was imagining it. My sleep was constantly troubled, so it wouldn’t have surprised me.

    On the sixth day of being stranded, I went to the mess hall to get some dinner. After preparing my ration of what was supposed to constitute a meal, I turned to see Amius sitting by the window, staring out into the stars. I went over and sat beside her.

    “How are the repairs coming?” she asked, after a while. I swallowed what I was eating and replied.

    “Not as well as we were hoping. But I reckon we’re starting to get somewhere.”

    She nodded, and looked back out into space. I could tell something was on her mind. And whatever it was, it was making me feel uneasy.

    I finished my meal after a while. I briefly considered taking the tray back, but just moved it away and stayed with Amius. I leaned forward a bit and clasped my hands together, thinking of something to say. Eventually, she broke the silence.

    “Are we going to die out here?” she asked.

    I didn’t know what to say. If anything, I was afraid that telling her about the repairs hadn’t exactly been reassuring for her. I didn’t want her to worry about it.

    “No…no, of course not,” I said, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be fine. You know we will.”

    She sighed, and put her hand on mine.

    “But what if you can’t fix the power? We’ll be stuck out here. We’d run out of supplies and power, and…”

    I felt her grip tighten.

    “Look at me,” I said, and she did. “Am I worried? If I didn’t think we’d make it, I would have told you. I’d never lie to you.”

    She smiled.

    “I know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe we’ll pull through. Sorry I was getting a bit…panicky…”

    “It’s OK,” I said softly. “I don’t blame you for it. It’s been getting to everyone. Even I haven’t got a good sleep in since we got stranded. But all we need is to keep going.”

    She nodded.

    “You’re right. Honestly, I’m really glad you’re here, mate,” she said, beginning to sound more like her usual self. “But speaking of sleep, I might have a lie down.”

    “Have fun.” I said, as she stood up. She turned to walk away, but then turned back to me.

    “Ah, before I forget,” she said. “Could you look at the heater in my quarters? I think it broke this morning, and it’s freezing in there.”

    “Sure, I’ll have a geez.”

    I followed her to her quarters and stepped inside. Sure enough, it was far colder than it should have been. A quick inspection of the heating showed it was indeed broken. It looked as if it had been in a bad way before we were stranded, but spending so much time on reduced power must have killed it off. It would need replacement, and that would take time. I also didn’t know if we had the materials necessary to fix it. But I wasn’t about to let Amius go uncomfortable, either.

    “Yeah, it’s buggered,” I said. “Going to need replacement, which might not happen for some time yet. You might need to borrow someone else’s room.”

    “Better than going cold.” she admitted.

    I noticed a photograph by her bed. It was of us, back in our university days. We were both a few years younger, standing by the front of the campus. It didn’t seem like there were any events on, so it seemed like something one of our friends decided to take. Still, it brought back memories.

    “You can have my quarters if you want,” I said absent-mindedly. “I can find someplace else to sleep.”

    I would have been happy enough with that arrangement, but then she answered me.

    “Or we could share.” she said.

    I didn’t want to make any assumptions about it, so I chose my next sentence cautiously.

    “I…umm…are you sure?” I asked.

    “Yeah,” she said. “I have a sleeping bag around here someplace. One of us can sleep on the floor.”

    I felt a bit strange with the whole idea of sharing a cramped little room with her, but shook it off. Amius opened her locker and pulled out the sleeping bag. She tossed it to me and gathered some of her clothes and belongings. I couldn’t help but notice that included the photograph of us together. A smile crept across my face, but suddenly I realized something.

    “Why do you have a sleeping bag on a spaceship?” I asked.

    “In case I want to camping,” she said. “I heard there is a nice forest planet in the DS system. I thought about visiting it after we arrived. I may even get there yet. You can come with me, if you want. Sound good?”

    “I might just take you up on it,” I replied. “When we’re out of this mess.”

    She smiled and nodded. She finished gathering her things, and followed me to my quarters. I let her unpack, and moved some of my stuff out of the way. There wasn’t much room for the both of us and our belongings, but I didn’t mind so much. I think we could use each other’s company at a time like this.

    I rolled out the sleeping bag and climbed inside, to try it out. It was fairly spacious, and could probably fit Amius inside as well. But I didn’t want to ask. Instead, we just sat around talking for a while, to take our minds off being stranded. At first we talked about our experiences on the ship, then back on Tisetora, and finally beyond all that, into what mysteries lay amongst the stars. I’d always known that one of the reasons Amius wanted to be a pilot was to explore the universe, even if it wasn’t as big a deal for me. I became an engineer when I found that I had a knack for technology, and figured that being a ship’s engineer was a good way to apply it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy travelling around the galaxy, but I generally had other things on my mind.

    Eventually, the conversation trailed off. We were both tired, so I turned down the lights and climbed into the sleeping bag. I didn’t bother zipping it up, in case I needed to get up and go down to engineering later.

    “G’night, Amius.” I said.

    “Night night, mate.” She replied.

    I lay there for some time, thinking. My thoughts were all over the place, about being stranded, about space, about Amius. I wondered if she minded sharing my quarters with me, but it was her idea to begin with. Either way, I was just glad she was safe. I shut my eyes, and tried to clear my head.

    After a while, I heard something move on the other side of the room. I figured it was just Amius, so I didn’t look over. But then I felt the side of the sleeping bag open, and she slipped inside next to me. I shuffled over a bit, and we lay there back-to-back. Sometime later, she rolled over. Fast asleep, she slipped an arm around my waist. I smiled, and put my arm atop hers.

    For the first time in days, I slept peacefully.

    Some hours later I eventually awoke, feeling quite refreshed. Amius was still beside me, holding me. I didn’t want to disturb her, but I figured I should see what was happening in engineering. I managed to reach my communicator without getting up, and promptly checked for any messages. There was only one from Sannul, and I read over the transcription. Playing the audio would probably wake Amius.

    “Everything is fine down here, chief,” the message read. “I reckon we’re actually making progress now. The Cap has been down here, making sure we don’t slack off. No need to rush, so you and your sheila can have a lie in. I’ll let you know if you’re needed.”

    I winced, and briefly wondered how he knew. Someone might have heard us talking, or something. Even so, I was relieved that things were going relatively well down there. I put the communicator back, and rolled over to face Amius. Nothing better than to wake up to a friendly face, I figured.

    Sometime later, she stirred. Opening her eyes, she looked at me and smiled warmly.

    “G’day,” she said.

    “Morning,” I replied, returning the smile. “Got a bit lonely last night, did you?”

    “A little,” she admitted. “I figured you wouldn’t mind.”

    “Of course not. To be honest, it was quite comforting. I hadn’t slept so well since we were stranded.”

    “Glad to hear it.”

    She pulled me closer, and wrapped her arms around me in a hug. At first I hesitated with surprise, but I soon found myself putting my own arms around her. We lay there for a while longer, holding one another. After some time, a gentle beeping started from my communicator. I reached over and answered it.

    “Hey mate, it’s Ultuf. Sannul reckons we’ve made some progress down here. You might want to come down and have a look.”

    “I’ll be right down.” I replied, and turned the device off.

    “Well, it was fun while it lasted,” said Amius, climbing out of the sleeping bag. “I should head up the bridge. Tiroti and I were going to send a probe to the nearby asteroid field. He thinks there might be a derelict or two we can loot for supplies.”

    “Sounds like a good plan,” I said, going to my locker and getting my tool satchel. “We’re starting to run low on spare parts, and we could use some more food in case we’re out here for a while longer. How is Tiroti holding up, anyway? Haven’t seen him in days.”

    “Not well. I think being stranded has made his nerves get to him. He’s been a bit depressed lately. But the captain and I try to cheer him up.”

    “Let’s hope it helps. He’s a good kid, but just not ready to deal with a situation like this.”

    I trailed off, then paused. There was something that had been nagging me since Amius climbed into my sleeping bag, so with a sigh I turned to look her in the eye.

    “Thanks for last night. It really meant a lot to me.”

    She smiled, and placed her hands on my cheeks.

    “Same here.”

    She nuzzled her snout against mine for a moment, and went out the door.

    “See you later, then.” She said, waving to me over her shoulder.

    “Looking forward to it already,” I admitted. I was still in shock for a moment, but soon shook it off. Once I had everything I needed, I went down to engineering.

    The brothers were standing near one of the system status monitors, talking amongst themselves. As I approached, Sannul turned to me.

    “Hey chief,” he said. “Have a look at this.”

    I was already planning on it, so I began reading over what was on display. According to the diagnostics, the main power system was almost functional, and the stardrive was also beginning to shape up again. Only a couple of subsystems needed work before we could reengage the connection between the two. I ran a few calculations in my head, and realized something.

    “Do we have the parts to fix this?” I asked Sannul.

    “I ran an inventory,” he said. “We don’t. There are a few components we’ve run out of.”

    He handed me a datapad containing a list. Most of the items were specific to the stardrive. But unfortunately, it would seem we’ve managed to go through our spares. Normally they wouldn’t be too difficult to acquire in inhabited territories, but out here was a different story. Our best bet would be looting the parts from a derelict. I went over to the communicator, and called Tiroti.

    “Hey mate,” I began. “Have you and Amius launched that probe yet?”

    “No,” He snapped. I could make out something different about his voice. I figured it was to do with what Amius had mentioned. “We’re still making our preparations. Why?”

    “We need some replacement parts. We’re going to have to try and salvage them from any derelicts you come across.”

    “I’ll let you know if we locate any wrecks. But there is one other thing.”

    “What’s that?” I asked.

    “If you’re going to salvage the wreck, we’re going to need to get closer. Do you think you can get the sublight drives online sometime soon?”

    Sannul checked the readouts, and leaned in towards the communicator.

    “We’ll need some time, but if we can hook it up to the auxiliary power we should be able to get it up and running in a couple of days.”

    “Alright,” Tiroti replied. “Call if there’s anything else.”

    He closed the connection. I was starting to get a little concerned about him, but I hoped Amius and the Captain would be there to make sure he’s OK. I also made a mental note to speak to him in person at some point. I turned to the brothers.

    “Alright,” I began. “Sounds like we’re going to need to get the sublight engines online. Sannul, it sounds like you’ve been looking into this.”

    “Yep,” Tiroti replied, with a slightly calmer tone of voice. “Ultuf and I had a bet going that we’d need to do it sooner or later. I won.”

    “Well done. How far have the repairs come for them?”

    “They’re not completely operational,” Ultuf said, consulting his logbook. “But we should be able to prep it for short-range travel. Not a lot, but better than nothing. We might have just enough parts to pull it off.”

    I nodded, and turned back to the readouts.

    “Sounds like a plan. Let’s get to it.”

    After some planning, we got to work. Normally the sublight engines would already be connected to the auxiliary power as a backup in case the primary failed, but the connection had been damaged in the power surge. We had enough parts to restore it, by replacing the damaged components. To save on resources, the focus was on restoring the components vital to the engines’ operation. They wouldn’t be able to function as well as usual, but if we only needed to manoeuvre to the nearby asteroid field, we should be fine. We still had plenty of fuel anyway.

    As I suspected, the repairs went on over a couple of days. I spent as much time as I could in engineering to get them over and done with. When I got tired, I’d go sleep for a couple of hours. Amius was usually there as well, considering our regular shifts coincided (or at least they had, since though everyone’s schedules were a bit irregular after being stranded). We’d have something to eat, and talk for a while before we went to sleep. But we didn’t spend the night together like we had previously.

    After three days, we finally got the engines online. With some co-ordination with the folk on the bridge, we managed to manoeuvre the ship closer to the asteroid field. We wouldn’t enter it just yet, until we could confirm the existence of a derelict. Amius had kept me up to date with what was happening with the probe. The launch had been uneventful, and they were systematically searching the field. However, they had picked up something on the long range scanners that looked hopeful, and would look into it today.

    A few hours later, as I was going over some performance logs from earlier, received a call from Amius telling me that they had found something. I left the brothers to make some efficiency adjustments before they went on their downtime, as I went to the bridge. They seemed to have become somewhat mellowed lately. I could appreciate the fact that they realised the gravity of the situation, though admittedly things were starting to look up. If we could find a wreck, we might be able to loot enough supplies to sustain us until the primary power and stardrive are back online. I realized that we may well get out of this yet.

    Stepping on to the bridge, I found Tiroti at his station, with Amius watching over his shoulder. The captain was nowhere to be seen. As I approached, I saw that they were watching the video feed from the probe. Amius turned to me.

    “Just in time, Virbon,” she said. “Take a look at this.”

    She indicated something on the screen. Even though the feed was grainy, I could still see that the probe was in the nearby asteroid field. But what Amius was pointing at didn’t look like an asteroid.

    “Is that a derelict?” I asked.

    “I think so,” answered Tiroti. “It’s not of Desulti origin, but it’s better than nothing. I’m going to try and get the probe closer and see what’s going on.”

    “Alright,” said Amius. “I might go get something to eat. You boys want something?”

    Tiroti mumbled that he wasn’t hungry, but I accepted her offer. As she went off to the mess, I knelt down next to Tiroti.

    “So, how are you holding up?” I asked.

    He sighed, and his shoulders sagged slightly.

    “I’ve been better.”

    I thought back to a few days ago, when I was speaking to Amius. I’d never seen her so sad, and I was beginning to see the same thing in Tiroti. I was beginning to realize how right I was in saying that being stranded was having an effect on us all.

    “Haven’t we all?” I began. “We’re going to get through this. If all goes well, we can get some supplies and parts from the wreck, and we can get out of here.”

    “That’s what everyone keeps saying,” he muttered, turning his head slightly. “But that’s assuming there is anything useful on the derelict. What if there isn’t? Do you think there’s going to be another just sitting there, waiting for us? Of course I want the derelict to have what we need, but it might not. Then there’s nothing we can...”

    He stopped, and hung his head.

    “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to give you an earful. It’s just…I don’t know…”

    “It’s alright,” I said. “I understand where you’re coming from. In fact, Amius was worried about it not long ago. You’re not the only one.”

    He turned his head to me.

    “I didn’t think any of this would happen. I’ve never been this far into uninhabited space. I should never have let us take this route.”

    I patted him on the shoulder.

    “You couldn’t have known what would happen beforehand. Nobody blames you, and you’ve never let the crew down.”

    He nodded, and reached towards the console.

    “I…I might get a closer look at that derelict.”

    “Right then.”

    I let him cool off. Maybe speak with him some more later, if he needed it. As he took up the controls to direct the probe, Amius returned with two trays of food. We sat down on the floor to eat while Tiroti continued to operate the probe.

    “Where’s the captain?” I asked.

    “She went to her quarters earlier. Didn’t really say why, but she said she would be there tomorrow when we board the derelict.” She replied.

    Nodding, I scooped up another spoonful of food. I had been hoping to let the captain know how things were going, but I figured I could see her tomorrow. That, or she speaks to Sannul or Ultuf in the meantime.

    After a few minutes, Tiroti turned to us.

    “Umm…the derelict seems to be undamaged. And the escape pod has been jettisoned.”

    “Maybe they got stranded as well, like us,” Amius said “The same thing that took us offline could have affected them as well.”

    “Strange,” I muttered, walking over to Tiroti to check the video feed. He was right. “Maybe there’s some internal damage. Or they were affected by the same thing that thing was that took us offline. But even then, why abandon the ship? There’s nothing they can land the escape pod on around, is there?”

    “Not really,” said Tiroti, checking a scan of the sector. “Just some larger asteroids deeper in the field.”

    “Why would they use it, then?”

    “You’re asking me,” he snorted. “Maybe we can piece things together when we board it.”

    The situation was intriguing. If there was something in the local system that could interfere with energy systems, maybe another ship had come across it. But what got me was that even if they used the escape pod, they could never have made it out. Where would they have gone, anyway? Worse yet, if they were here long enough, they may have gone through their supplies and not left anything for us to loot. I didn’t want to think that we’d share a similar fate as they had, but if we weren’t the only ones to get stranded out here…

    “Guess so,” I yawned, resuming my place on the floor by Amius. “It can wait until then.”

    Tiroti nodded, and got back to controlling the probe.

    “Tired?” Amius asked me.

    “Yeah. It’s been a long day.”

    “Want to head off to bed?”

    Tiroti looked over his shoulder and gave us a funny look. He opened his mouth to say something, but Amius beat him to it.

    “Not like that, Tiroti.” She muttered.

    “If you insist.” He said, glancing at me with a smirk. He seemed to be a bit happier in himself, at least. I wished him goodnight, and walked off to my quarters to spend the night with Amius.

    Drifting through the corridor of the derelict, I carefully manoeuvred myself through the final doorway. In front of me was the supply storage room, filled with various crates and canisters. Before I got too far, I spoke into my communicator.

    “Captain, I’ve found it,” I said, opening the nearest crate. “Looks like…”

    I stopped. The crate was empty. Frowning, I opened another. Also empty. I figured that the former crew would have gone through these first, since they were closest to the door, so I tried some more at the back. But no matter what container I opened, they were empty.

    “They’re…they’re empty…” I breathed into the communicator. “I…”

    I was interrupted by a sudden burst of white noise coming from the ship. At least, that’s what I thought it was. It sounded almost like metal tearing. But before I could figure it out, there was static. Then nothing.

    I tried to re-establish contact, but to no avail. Cursing, I kicked off from the nearest crate, back down the corridor. My crew were in trouble, and I needed to save them. I suspected an asteroid impact. If they were hurt…

    I made it about halfway before the lights cut out. Ultuf had also boarded the ship, and managed to hook them up to what was left of their auxiliary power system. It had been a quick job, and doesn’t seem to have lasted long. I put my arms out in front of me, to avoid slamming into anything. Instead, I collided with Ultuf.

    The lights flickered back on, but only at half their previous output. Ultuf had his back to me, unmoving but drifting away. Must have fainted from the shock of colliding into someone in not only the dark, but also zero gravity. I was a little rattled myself.

    “Come on,” I said over the short-range comm, as I moved up to him. “There’s trouble back on the…”

    I realized something on the back of his suit. The oxygen readout was at zero. The temperature was also very low. In that horrifying moment, I realized he was dead.

    I turned the body over, and saw a face through the helmet visor.

    It was mine.

    With a jolt, I awoke in a cold sweat. It was dark, but my eyes soon adjusted, and the familiar surroundings of my quarters revealed themselves. I was in the sleeping bag, with a familiar back against mine.

    “Virbon?” Amius murmured. “Are you alright, mate?”

    After a few moments of heavy breathing, I replied.

    “Yes,” I muttered. “Bad dream, that’s all.”

    The image was still stuck in my head. I told myself it was nothing.

    “It’s alright,” Amius whispered. “You’ll forget about it by morning.”

    I wasn’t so sure, but I did my best to relax. After a while, I managed to get back to sleep.

    Come morning, or the closest approximation we had running on ship time, the memory of my nightmare had mostly faded. As I had had breakfast, I still had an uneasy feeling. Amius was kind enough to hear me out, and assured me it was nothing. Deep down, I knew she was right.

    Afterwards, we went up to the bridge. Only the Captain was there, sitting in at the helm. She was looking out the front viewport, lost in thought. As we entered, she turned to us.

    “Virbon,” she said. “I’ve had Ultuf go down and make preparations for the boarding. I’d like you to go down to him, and go onboard with him. Have a look around, and try and find some supplies. When you’re ready, we’ll bring the ship in and engage the docking umbilical.”

    “Sure thing, captain,” I replied. “Give me time to get down there and suit up, and then I’m good to go.”

    “Very well. We’ll need some to move the ship alongside the derelict, so you can make use of that time. Go make sure Ultuf is ready as well.”

    I nodded, and went back down the corridor. I had suspected that it would be Ultuf and I going onboard, since we were the most experienced in zero gravity. Not only would we have to get onto the derelict from a distance, but it was also unlikely that its artificial gravity was still online.

    By the time I got to the airlock, Ultuf was already going over our equipment.

    “There you are, Chief. Captain asked me to get everything together. Looks like everything is in order.”

    “Good. Tell me, are you…I dunno, nervous at all?”

    “Not really. I’ve been trained to do this sort of thing.”

    “So have I. But I had a strange dream last night, and it made me wonder how well we’d go today.”

    He slapped me on the shoulder.

    “Ah, don’t you worry about that, mate. We’ll be fine. Come on, let’s suit up.”

    As we got into our spacesuits, I could hear the engines start up. I could see some asteroids slowly moving past the window, so I figured we were moving into the field. Once I had my suit in order, I grabbed my equipment; tools, communicator, logbook, jetpack. I picked up my helmet, and turned to Ultuf. He already had his helmet on, and through the visor I could see his face. I took some small relief in that, as I put on my own.

    “Ready when you are.” he said.

    “Just need to wait for the Captain’s word.” I replied.

    He nodded. We stood by the airlock door for a few minutes, before he turned back to me.

    “So, how is it between you and Amius?” he asked, out of nowhere.

    I was surprised at that.

    “How do you and Sannul even know about it?”

    “We noticed that her quarters were empty, and your door was shut. So, Sannul figured the two of you were shacked up for the night.”

    “The heating broke in her room,” I explained. “So we decided to share mine. Admittedly, we did get…close, but that’s all there was.”

    “So, you two weren’t making space joeys or anything?”

    I winced.

    “No, we weren’t.” I assured him.

    Thankfully, the Captain came in over the suit communicators before he could continue.

    “Alright boys, we’re in position,” she said. “Open up the airlock.”

    “Aye aye, captain,” I said into my mic.

    Moving to the airlock controls, I closed the interior door. After a quick suit diagnostic for both Ultuf and myself, I began the depressurisation process. A red light began flashing and a warning alarm started up to signify this. I watched the dial on the console progress, until the airlock was fully depressurised and I opened the outer door.

    I turned to Ultuf, who was securing our tethers to a rail just outside the airlock. He handed one to me, and I secured it to my suit. About 100 meters from the ship sat the derelict. It was a fairly sleek design, with a bluish hull. Up close, I saw that it was slightly larger than our own ship.

    “Virbon,” said the Captain over the comm. “Can you see the airlock on the derelict?”

    Looking closely, I could see that the airlock was not only on the facing side, but it was also open.

    “Yes, Captain,” I said in reply. “We’re making the transition now.”

    Carefully, I stepped out of the airlock and into space. Now out of the ship’s artificial gravity I began to drift. I engaged my jetpack and manoeuvred towards the derelict with some short bursts. About 10 meters away, I adjusted my trajectory back a little to slow down as much as I could. I grabbed the rails outside the darkened airlock, and managed to guide myself inside. I looked over my shoulder and saw Ultuf doing the same.

    He remotely disconnected the tethers on the ship, and began feeding them over to the derelict. I took out my flashlight, and located the airlock controls. I pushed over to them, and saw that they were inactive. However, there was a power junction next to the console. Ultuf and I managed to use it to re-engage the airlock’s emergency power, which was enough for controls to flicker back to life. I was able to close the outer doors, but I couldn’t pressurise the airlock. It appeared that the life support system was completely offline. As such, I opened the inner door, and kicked off through it.

    The interior of the derelict was pitch black. I switched on my flashlight, and shone it around. The smooth, grey metal bulkheads appeared intact, showing no signs of damage (as we saw from the probe). I was mildly relieved to see that the interior was nothing like in my dream. We were in a corridor, and I could see what looked like the bridge at one end. I grabbed the side the door, and propelled myself in that direction. Ultuf went off the other way.

    “Might see if I can re-engage the power.” He said.

    “Sounds good,” I replied. “I’ll have a look around the bridge. Let me know if you find the supply storage.”

    Emerging onto the sterile bridge, it seemed eerily still. Much like our own bridge, there was a captain’s helm, a navigator’s station and the pilot’s seat, but there were also a couple of other stations I wasn’t familiar with. But with the power offline, the monitors and controls were blank and inoperative. It was in stark contrast to the well-lit centres of activity I usually associated with bridges. I realized that there wasn’t anything I could do here unless Ultuf could re-engage the power, so I pushed myself back down the corridor and into another room.

    Shining my flashlight around, it appeared to be some sort of communal living quarters. A few loose items floated around freely between bunks; some clothes, a couple of documents, a vial of pills and a rotten banana. Nothing of use to me. On one of the walls sat a large poster. It depicted the face of an Apex, staring malevolently off the canvas. The word “obey” appeared below in block letters.

    “Hey, Ultuf,” I said over the comm. “Something tells me this is an Apex ship.”

    “Probably,” he replied. “When I found one of the engineers’ banana stash, I kind of figured that.”

    “Any luck with the power?”

    “Seems like someone did as we had, and re-engaged the auxiliary. It was a pretty shoddy job, and didn’t last. I should be able to get it back, though. I’ll get back to you in a few minutes.”

    I was about to go back out to the corridor, but something caught my eye. Next to one of the bunks was a small photograph. I drifted over, and held it up for a closer look. In it were two Apex, a man and a woman, facing each other and holding hands. The man was wearing a uniform of some kind, and I figured the photo was his. If that was the case, did he survive? And what would happen to the woman? She may never know what happened to him.

    It reminded me of the photograph Amius had of us when we were younger. I thought back to a few days ago, when she and I lay face-to-face. I’d always cared about her, but never as much as I had recently. I would do anything to ensure that we both got out of this.

    I let go of the photograph, and let it drift away. Near where it had been, I noticed a logbook. I picked it up, and began reading.

    …Billdale was able to bring the power back. The surge came out of nowhere. If we’d shut down the primary any later, it would have overloaded and possibly even destroyed the ship. At least the secondary seems to be working fine. I’ve told the crew that the mission objective still stands. The station should be in this system. It didn’t appear on any of our initial scans. I suspect it may be hidden in the asteroid field, but the surge hit shortly after we were able to scan it. If we can’t get the engines back soon, we may need to use the escape pod to reach it.

    I might sleep now. Spiralcutter must be missing me now. When we get things back in working order, I’ll send her a message. Until then, I might need to get out my other logbook. This one seems to be running out of disk space, so it’s a good thing I brought a replacement. Capkong out.

    As I was beginning to figure, it looked as if there was something in this system that affected the power systems of passing ships. Might have something to do with this station they were talking about. I flicked back a few entries to get some more details. Until the more recent entry, there was nothing out of the ordinary. The Apex appeared to have been systematically searching nearby systems. Before I could find out more about their orders, the lights flickered back on and the life support re-engaged. The artificial gravity seemed to have come back as well, and I crashed into the floor.

    “There we go!” chuckled Ultuf, over the comm. “Found anything?”

    “There’s a logbook,” I grunted, picking myself up. “And it mentions that these blokes also had their primary power taken offline. Also some mention of a station of some kind in this system.”

    “Yeah? We can go treasure-hunting later. I think supply storage is down this end of the ship. Wanna come down and have a look?”

    “Give me a minute.”

    I slipped the logbook into my pack, and staggered back into the corridor towards the aft. I rounded a corner, and found Ultuf standing by an open doorway. He gestured inside, and I looked in to see a fairly large number of metal crates stacked up. I stepped inside, and approached the closest one. With some slight hesitation, I opened it.

    “Empty.” I said to Ultuf.

    He moved to another, and opened it.

    “Well, this one has things in it.”

    He threw me a small sealed packet. Looked like rations of some kind. As I looked through some more crates, Ultuf contacted the Captain. She told us that Amius was bringing the ship alongside to dock, and asked us to manually engage the umbilical on the derelict.

    I went back to the airlock, while Ultuf remained in engineering. On his word, I deployed the umbilical. I watched our ship mover closer, and deploy its own. With some minor course adjustments over a few minutes, the two joined with solid thump. I did a quick scan to ensure the connection was sealed. I waited a little longer for the acknowledgement from the ship, and I opened the outer door.

    Sannul and Captain Pridux were in their space suits, standing in the airlock. They walked over into the derelict once the doors were open.

    “Good job, Virbon,” said the Captain. “What’s the condition of the ship?”

    “Auxiliary power is back online,” I began. “We have heat and gravity, but it might take some time for the life support systems to get the oxygen back. We did find the supply storage, and there seems to be a decent amount of rations left. You might also want to have a read of this, since it has some details of why these blokes were out here in the first place.”

    I handed her the logbook.

    “I’ll read over it later. First things first; let’s get those supplies onboard.”

    So began the heavy lifting, but with the Captain’s help Ultuf and I started to get the remaining supplies back to the ship. We didn’t bother with the empty crates, which seemed to make up about half of those in the storage. The Captain thought the crew went through some supplies, and brought more of it with them in the escape pod. Sannul, meanwhile, went to engineering to look over their stardrive. Much to our relief, he believed that it was still operational (or, at the very least, salvageable).

    Finally, after a fair few hours, we managed to get all the supplies onboard. The Captain estimated there was a couple of weeks’ worth there, so we should have plenty of time to finish the repairs. But suffice to say, we were all tired and sore by that point. I mentioned to Sannul and Ultuf that I would like to begin work on the stardrive the following day, before grabbing some dinner and going off to my quarters. Amius was already there waiting for me, sitting on the bed.

    “I hear you did well on the derelict,” she said, as I sat down beside her. “I take it your nightmare didn’t come true?”

    I nodded.

    “It was fine. There wasn’t anything dangerous on the ship. Did find plenty of supplies, though. Should last us weeks.”

    “That’s a relief. We would have gone through ours soon anyway. Any sign of the crew?”

    “Sounds like they were looking for some kind of space station. Looks like they used their escape pod to try and board it.”

    “Must have been close. Think we should look for it?”

    “Probably not,” I admitted. “We always can pass the co-ordinates over to the Aerospace Force, and they can look into it. I don’t think we should risk our necks for no reason.”

    “Fair enough.”

    I finished my meal, and returned the tray to the mess. When I returned, I saw that she was leaned back, looking over her shoulder out the window. I thought back to the photograph on the derelict. I resumed my place next to her, and I clasped my hands in front of me.

    “I’ve been meaning to tell you something.” I said.

    She turned to me.

    “What is it?”

    “You know, we’re probably not going to be out here for much longer,” I began. “And I just wanted to say, I’ve really enjoyed your company. You’ve always been a good friend to me, but lately…I feel as if we’ve been closer than ever. So…thanks, I guess. It was nice that you were there for me.”

    She smiled, and I could swear her eyes lit up slightly.

    “It meant a lot to me as well, Virbon. I’m really glad that we were able to bring comfort to each other. Especially at a time like this. It’s actually been kinda fun.”

    I nodded, and looked away.

    “Listen to us getting all romantic,” I chuckled. “A little over a week in deep space, and we’ve been snuggling like crazy.”

    She laughed, and rested her head on my shoulder.

    “And is there a problem with that?”

    “Of course not,” I said, putting an arm around her.

    Shortly after, we lay down on the bed together. We cuddled for a while before falling asleep, facing each other. Come morning, I was relieved that I didn’t have any nightmares. After a quick breakfast with Amius, I gathered Sannul and Ultuf to go over to the derelict. The life support had restored the oxygen level by that point, so we didn’t need our suits. On our way over, the Captain stopped me. The brothers went on ahead while I spoke with her.

    She told me that she had read over the entries in the logbook, but still couldn’t determine why the Apex had been seeking the station. She was also reluctant to try and find it ourselves, unless we were to search for survivors. But considering we had no indication that they were still alive, that may not happen. I had little to add, but still agreed with her.

    Getting back to the brothers, we began to study the derelict’s strardrive. After a couple of hours of analysis of the Apex technology and comparison to our own, we determined what parts we needed to salvage (with Sannul’s “shopping list” as a guide). With that, we disconnected the drive from the power, and began removing the parts.

    As we worked, I began wondering about the Apex stardrive. If they had been hit by the same anomaly that struck us, there must have been a reason that their drive was not affected. I put it down to the fact that our drive had been active (since we were in hyperspace) at the time, while theirs might not have been. It made me wonder what this anomaly was. Maybe something to do with the station the Apex were seeking.

    Sometime later, the Captain came down to speak to me again. This time, she asked me to come to the derelict’s bridge. I followed her there to find Tiroti sitting at one of the stations, looking a bit shaken. With the power restored, the controls were now active.

    “I was looking into their navigational records,” he explained. “But I accidentally activated their communicator.”

    “There appears to be some kind of distress call,” The Captain added.

    Tiroti tapped some of the controls, and the comm crackled to life.

    “…to all ships hearing this, we are in an ab-*static*-ation inside one of the local asteroids and need help immediately. We’re…*static*…from what…*static*…If able, dock at the station so we *static* out of here…I say again, help us! Repeat, to all ships hearing this…”

    We listened on, as the transmission repeated itself. Upon reaching the end, it did so again.

    “It’s a loop,” I noted. “Automated, by the sounds of it. Sounds like we’re too late.”

    “But at the same time, we can’t say for sure that they aren’t alive,” Tiroti pointed out.

    “Why didn’t we pick it up before, on our ship?” asked the Captain.

    “Secure frequency, as far as I can tell,” answered Tiroti. “This does appear to be a MiniKnog ship, after all. We could never have picked it up on our own.”

    “That’s all well and good, but are we going to do anything about it?” I asked.

    The Captain took the microphone, and sent a message in response. After introducing herself and stating our situation, she offered help if response was given. No reply came back. Tiroti made some adjustments as the Captain tried several times, before a male voice answered. Different to the one in the distress message.

    “…huh? *static*-meone there? Can you *static*-ar me?”

    A shocked silence hung over the bridge. We turned our attention to the Captain, who took a breath and repeated her introduction again. As she finished, a few moments passed, before the voice returned.

    “Desulti? You wo-*static*-een the last people I was expecti-*static*. How did *static* this frequency?”

    The Captain frowned, before explaining that we had boarded their ship for supplies and were speaking via their communication system. I was about to ask if we should apologise for looting the place, but the response came in before I could.

    “*static*-oesn’t matter now. I’m the onl-*static*-urvivor. Do y-*static*-ink you can get me out of here?”

    The Captain rubbed her eyes. She sighed, and spoke into the mic again.

    “You must understand…I don’t want to place my crew in unnecessary danger. Nor do I want to leave you in there to die, but you need to tell me what’s happening in there. What happened to the rest of your crew?”

    “We think that whe-*static*-anned the station, we activated so-*static*-ind of defence mechanism. Nearly wiped *static*-ur power system. After we boarded the station, I think *static*-ipped something else. Bots of some kind. At fi-*static*-e could hold them off, but…but…”

    The voice stopped. After a while the Captain spoke up again.

    “I’ll speak to my crew. If we have volunteers, they may be willing to try and get to you. We’ll contact you again when we’ve made our decision.”

    “Thank y-*static*. I’m safe where I am, an-*static* not going anywhere.”

    The Captain decided we’d hold a crew meeting. She ordered me to get Sannul and Ultuf and bring them back to the ship. I went back to engineering and briefly explained the situation to them. They seemed genuinely surprised that there was a survivor. We didn’t hang around to discuss it, and returned to the ship.

    Everyone else was already on the bridge. As we arrived, the Captain gave everyone the full rundown. In particular, she explained that she would not force us to try and rescue the Apex. Instead, if any of us volunteered, she might be willing to send a small party to try and help him. Looking around, she asked for volunteers.

    Tiroti refused outright. Amius said she was of more use to us in the pilot’s seat. Sannul said he would help, but Ultuf said he’d hang back and start working on the stardrive. I thought about it. I hadn’t planned on boarding the station at all, certainly not without a good reason. If we could save a man’s life, it might just be worth it. With a sigh, I volunteered as well. The Captain nodded, and said she would accompany us.

    Next, she ordered the brothers and I to finish salvaging the stardrive parts as quickly as possible. I didn’t think it would take more than a few hours, though the repairs themselves would take longer. She then asked Tiroti and Amius to return to the derelict’s bridge with her, to re-establish contact with the Apex and get some more information about how to get to the station and what we would be up against inside.

    Returning to engineering, we resumed our work. There were about a dozen individual components we needed to salvage, as well as several extras to ensure their successful operation (especially with the differences in Apex and Desulti technology, even if the basic function of the drives were the same). As we worked, I asked Sannul why he volunteered. He explained that it didn’t seem like anyone else would, and didn’t want to leave someone to die because nobody would step forward to save him. I admitted that I had similar reasons.

    After a couple of hours, the Captain came back down to speak with Sannul and I. Turns out the Apex we were speaking to is a MiniKnog soldier, albeit now a disillusioned one. He had been escorting the rest of crew onto the station, but the security systems had triggered. They were suddenly faced with several dozen security robots. Many had been destroyed by the Apex, but at great cost. This soldier was the last one left, and holed up in the crew quarters. He also provided directions for how to reach it without passing into areas that may still have active bots. The Captain left us to finish, while she prepared some weapons and supplies for when we get on the station.

    We finished the salvage about an hour after that. We took the parts back to the ship, and had a quick look around for anything useful. Aside from some tools and a couple of documents, we didn’t find much. I did decide to take the photograph I found in the crew quarters, though. After some final preparations, we powered down the derelict before returning to our ship and disconnected the umbilical. We watched the derelict out the window for a few seconds, before turning around and heading to the bridge, where the rest of the crew was waiting at their stations.

    “Ready to head over?” asked the Captain, as we emerged.

    “As ready as we’ll ever be,” answered Sannul, for the rest of us.

    On the Captain’s order, Amius guided the ship away from the derelict, and towards one of the asteroids. It was of moderately large size appeared fairly nondescript. Perfect for housing a secret station without arousing suspicion. As we got closer, the Captain directed Amius where the docking bay was hidden. We eventually reached a position that was supposedly facing the entrance, if the Apex’s directions were correct.

    “There’s nothing there,” observed Tiroti.

    “The Apex said it’s camouflaged by a hologram,” Amius reminded him. “He also said we should be able to pick it up on our sensors if we’re this close. Hang on, I’ll do a scan.”

    After a couple of seconds, the scan showed an anomaly straight ahead. A closer look showed that it was consistent with an energy field of some sort.

    “The Apex said that it should be safe to fly through,” said the Captain. “Take us in whenever you’re ready, Amius.”

    “Are you sure he’s right?” asked Tiroti. “I mean, if he was wrong…or lied to us…”

    “I think we can trust him, Tiroti,” said the Captain.

    “Only one way to find out,” snorted Amius, and guided the ship in.

    We passed through the seemingly solid rock, revealing a cavern within. There were obvious signs of habitation, with a couple of structures built into the cavern wall and a couple of landing pads on the floor. What appeared to be the Apex escape pod sat on one of them. Amius set us down on the pad next to it.

    We all moved down to the airlock. The Captain didn’t waste time, and issued Sannul and I with some equipment and supplies. We had a small stash of weapons in case we ever came up against pirates, which would come in useful now. She handed me a rifle.

    “Know how to use this?” she asked.

    I held it, and aimed it at a bulkhead.

    “I think so.”

    She placed a hand on the barrel, and lowered it.

    “Just don’t go waving it around. And, if we run into trouble, remember; short, controlled bursts.”

    We continued with our preparations. Sensors indicated that the station’s life support was still functional, so we didn’t need our spacesuits. I did wish we had some armour of some kind, though. The stim packs and bandages we were carrying wasn’t exactly a reassurance.

    Once everything was ready, we said our goodbyes. Hopefully not for the last time. Ultuf slapped each of us on the shoulder in turn, and gave us some encouragement. Tiroti and Amius didn’t seem so enthusiastic.

    “Good luck,” said Tiroti, looking up from his feet to the Captain and I, before turning to Sannul. “Be careful.”

    Amius also wished us well, before giving me a hug. As we were about to let go of each other, I placed a gentle hand on her cheek, and kissed her. For that long moment until our lips parted, I felt like she was all that mattered.

    “I love you,” I whispered.

    “Love you too,” she whispered back, with a smile. “Come back in one piece, won’t you?”

    “Of course I will. Just for you.”

    She kissed me lightly on the cheek, and I turned to the airlock. Sannul tapped some of the controls, opening the door and lowering the ramp. I stepped out cautiously, looking around.

    Up close, I could see that the structures bore little resemblance to the Apex ship. Instead, they were made of grey, seemingly tiled stone with the occasional window. But where the ship had appeared as if it had only been abandoned for a few weeks, it was obvious that the station had been here for much longer. Cracks had appeared on several of the walls, and several of the walkways seemed precariously tilted. Despite this, the power appeared to still be online. There was gravity, life support and lighting, though many were flickering, and some inactive.

    I turned my attention to the escape pod. It was apparent that it had originated from the Apex ship, considering the similar design. It appeared abandoned, with a few empty crates scattered around it. The Captain had a brief look inside, but found nothing. As she emerged, she noticed and pointed out something beside the pad. It seemed as if the rock had been disturbed.

    There were two rows of mounds, each with a couple of small items on them. I assumed that they were graves. One of them had a familiar looking hat on it. I pulled out the photograph from the derelict, and saw that it was the same one the man in it was wearing. Placing the photograph beneath the hat, I went back to the pod. From there, we decided to begin looking for the Apex soldier, and entered the nearest structure.

    As we stepped inside, we came across the burnt-out husk of some kind of robot. It was treaded and maybe about half the height of an adult Desulti, but beyond that I couldn’t figure out much of the appearance based on what was left.

    “This must have been one of the security bots that the Apex fought,” observed the Captain. “Let’s just hope that we don’t come across any others. Try and be discrete.”

    Sannul and I nodded, and followed the Captain down the corridor deeper into the asteroid. She sent a message to Amius, telling her to take off and wait outside the station until we returned. It didn’t sound good if we needed to make a quick getaway, but at least they would be safer out there.

    We passed several more destroyed bots. Signs of battle were also becoming more and more apparent. The walls were scorched from laser fire and explosions, and there were blood stains on the ground. We stepped around them cautiously.

    “Do you know where this guy is holed up?” I asked the Captain, quietly.

    “Should be just up ahead,” she replied, before nodding towards an askew door. “Have a look in there.”

    I crept over and examined the room through the door. It appeared to be some kind of lab, containing a couple of tables with a variety of apparatus on them. There was shelving stacked with chemical vials and containers. But what bothered me was the large, transparent tanks at the back. All but one were empty, and it was filled with a bluish liquid and contained what appeared to be an Apex. He was naked, suspended with several tubes leading into his arms and torso. I called the Captain over.

    “Do you think it’s him?” I asked, opening the door and following her up to the tank.

    “I don’t know,” she replied, laying a hand on the glass. The Apex didn’t respond.

    “It’s not,” confirmed Sannul.

    We turned around to see him standing with another Apex standing in the doorway. He wore dark grey metal armour with a mask covering part of his face. He also had a rifle, but it was slung across his back. Judging by this and his body language, he didn’t seem hostile.

    “You must be Captain Pridux,” said the Apex. “I’m Stonecutter.”

    “A pleasure to meet you,” she replied, walking up to him and shaking his hand. “This is my chief engineer, Virbon. And Sannul, another engineer.”

    “Well, I believe I ought to thank you all for coming. Perhaps we should continue our discussion at my little camp. There’s another issue we may need to discuss.”

    “What’s with this bloke?” asked Sannul, tapping on the glass tube with the Apex.

    “Some kind of experiment,” answered Stonecutter. “Not exactly sure what. The records about the experiments that took place here have mostly been deleted. But I fear there is nothing we can do for him now”

    The Captain followed him back into the corridor. Sannul and I glanced at the Apex test subject for a moment, then each other, before walking out after them. After winding our way through several corridors, we came to a door surrounded by crates in a makeshift barricade. We climbed over them, and went through the door.

    Like the Captain had heard back on the derelict, we were in the crew quarters. Most of the beds had been pushed back against the far wall, and in the centre of the room was a nanostove with a couple of beds pushed into position around it. There were several crates and other supplies scattered around. Stonecutter invited us to take a seat by the nanostove while he got some supplies and his belongings together.

    As he dug around in various crates and containers, he told us the story of what happened to his crew. Skipping around the parts we already knew, he told how he was a MiniKnog soldier assigned to protect a reconnaissance team investigating an abandoned space station. They were unsure of who had operated it, but it was suspected of being used for illegal and immoral scientific research. Having seen the Apex floating near lifeless in a tank, I shuddered to imagine what the MiniKnog thought of as “immoral”. They didn’t exactly have a good reputation themselves.

    As Stonecutter finished his preparations, he sat on a bed opposite us and continued his story. Staring into the nanostove’s blue flame, he explained how they had boarded the station and split out into groups to look around. He had been escorting one group into this part of the station, when another called in reporting they were in trouble. His group rushed to their aid, but several were killed by security bots. Only a handful of the crew survived, and went on to fight a guerrilla war against the bots. In a low voice and with closed eyes, he told us of how they had hoped to gradually knock them off one by one, but in the end more were killed.

    “Say what you will about the MiniKnog,” he said at the end, looking up at us. “But there were good people on the crew. They deserved more.”

    “I’m sorry for your loss,” the Captain said. “You did the right thing by giving them a proper burial, at least.”

    Stonecutter nodded.

    “Thanks. There wasn’t anything you could have done. It was all over before you even arrived in this sector.”

    “Now, was there something you needed to tell us?” asked the Captain.

    “Yes, there is,” said Stonecutter, with a little more enthusiasm. “I’m assuming your ship encountered a failure in your power system some time ago?”

    “That’s right,” she replied. “You had similar issued with your ship as well, correct?”

    “We did. I think I’ve figured out why, as well. Judging by several documents I’ve found on the station, it’s a defence mechanism. It targets any unidentified craft, taking their active energy system offline and possibly damaging connected components. But we were able to counteract it, by shutting it down and transferring essential systems to secondary power.”

    “Which is also what we did. What are you getting at?”

    “I fear that we engaged the primary power on your ship, the mechanism may strike again. Even if we were to taxi out of range on sublight engines hooked up to secondary power, it still poses a threat to passing vessels. Before we leave, I would like to disable it.

    The Captain seemed sceptical.

    “Right…what would this entail?”

    “I think I’ve found out where it’s housed in the station, so it should be able to be disabled or destroyed from there. But I’ve never been to that part before, and it’s entirely likely there are still active security bots there. I understand that you may not be willing to risk your lives, but I’d stand a better chance if I had help.”

    I wasn’t so sure. Judging by the silence, it sounded like Sannul and the Captain weren’t either. I understood his reasoning, but it wasn’t necessarily a risk I wanted to take.

    “Pass,” said Sannul. “We came here to get you to safety. Not escort you into danger.”

    “Might have to agree,” I admitted. “We’re not soldiers. I don’t know how much use we can be to you.”

    “Very well,” said Stonecutter, with a neutral expression. “What about you, Captain Pridux?”

    “I can’t force my crew to come along, but I’ll escort you. I have military training, after all. Virbon, Sannul, you two can go back to the hangar and make sure the coast is clear for us.”

    We nodded. Stonecutter produced a map of the station, and began making a plan with the Captain. He indicated where the mechanism was, and determined which corridors they would need to take to get there and back to the hangar. Stonecutter also provided the Captain with a set of armour similar to his. She admitted that it wasn’t her usual style, but put it on regardless.

    Once they were ready, the two of them set off deeper into the station. Sannul and I saw them off, before heading back towards the hangar. We were planning on checking out the corridors and rooms surrounding the hangar, to make sure it was safe for when the ship docked again. I was ready to just leave the station and jump to DS-5, so we could all get on with our lives. Especially since Amius and I might be spending ours together. I’d have to see what she wanted to do.

    My thoughts were interrupted by a loud noise up ahead. It was like breaking glass, and liquid spilling. We both froze, and fumbled for our weapons. We watched down the corridor for about a minute, before Sannul whispered that we should move up and investigate. Staying close to the walls, we crept forward. There wasn’t any more noise, but we were still on edge.

    As we progressed, I noticed that we were at the laboratory from earlier. It was then that I realized what the noise was. Before I could say anything to him, Sannul poked his head in. He yanked it straight back out.

    “Virbon,” he said. “You might want to see this.”

    I walked over, and peered inside. As I feared, the vat housing the test subject was smashed.

    And he was standing over the broken glass, staring at me.

    The test subject made an unintelligible chittering noise at me. I held my breath, and slowly moved my head back out of view. I turned to Sannul, and leaned in towards him.

    “What do we do?” he asked, beating me to the question. If we were both going to ask the same thing, it was clear neither of us knew the answer.

    “I don’t know,” I whispered.

    “Should we shoot it?”

    “Him,” I corrected. “And no. I don’t even know if he’s hostile.”

    “Don’t get yourself killed finding out. Though that would prove it.”

    I glared at him for a moment before I leaned back towards the door, and looked in again. The subject was still standing over the broken glass, with liquid pooling around him. He looked at me again, opening his mouth slightly. I watched on for a while, and saw that he made no move to approach me. I began to wonder what had happened to him. Judging by his behaviour, he had limited remaining intelligence. Whatever it was, clearly the MiniKnog had wanted to stop it. Or acquire it for themselves. Either way, it didn’t matter now.

    Slinging my rifle over my shoulder, I stepped out into the doorway. The subject shambled back a couple of steps, making a shrieking noise. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Sannul tense up. I gestured to him to calm. If possible, I didn’t want to harm the subject.

    So, I began speaking to him. Nothing spectacular; just introducing myself and reassuring him. The theory was that the actual words didn’t matter so much, but the tone of voice did. One of my uncles had told me that, since he was on a cattle station when he was younger. I didn’t like to think of the subject as an animal, but the same logic might still apply.

    If his reaction was anything to go by, it was working. He had stopped backpedalling, but still regarded me with uncertainty. I took a step back, and brought up my comm.

    “Captain,” I began. “We may have an issue. The test subject has escaped.”

    I heard her swear under her breath, before I clarified that he wasn’t hostile and asked what we should do about him.

    “Just leave him. We can’t do anything for him at the moment. Maybe we’ll discuss it before we leave. But if…”

    I waited for her to continue.

    “You alright?” I asked.

    “Yes. Just thought I heard something. Hold on.”

    She came back on after about a minute.

    “Nothing there. As I was saying, if he’s in too bad a way it might be difficult to have him in the ship with us. But like I said, we’ll discuss it later.”

    “You got it, Captain. Call back in a while, so we have time to look around the hangar and its surroundings. How long are you two going to be?”

    There was some talk between her and Stonecutter for a moment, but I couldn’t hear it well enough to understand.

    “A while, yet. We still can’t locate our target, let alone figure out how to disable it. Enough time for you two to sweep the area, and make sure our route to the hangar is clear on your end.”

    To me, it sounded like the Captain’s military training was doing the talking. Next, she’d have us wear uniforms and do parades. I smirked at the thought, and gave an affirmative in a discretely militaristic manner. I heard a brief grunt from the Captain before I cut the comm link.

    I turned to our Apex friend, and bid him farewell and told him we may return. Not that he understood, but there was no harm in being polite. He made no reaction to what I said, but I saw him slowly edge towards the door when Sannul and I began walking away. Not in an aggressive way, but Sannul scrutinized him coldly regardless.

    Stepping over the bloodstains and passing burnt-out bots, we eventually returned to the hangar. As we returned to the doorway overlooking the vast cavern, I got out my comm again. This time, I called the ship and relayed both the current situation and Stonecutter’s plan. Neither Amius nor Tiroti sounded very enthusiastic. Tiroti muttered something under his breath, while Amius said they’d be waiting just outside of the bay. She would land when the Captain and Stonecutter return.

    “I’m glad you had more sense than they did,” she told me. “Didn’t you want to go sneaking around unfamiliar territory that may or may not have murderous robots in it?”

    “Didn’t really appeal,” I admitted. “But I do hope they’re OK.”

    “They can take care of themselves. But keep an ear out in case they need help.”

    “That’s the plan. We’re going to have a look around, and make sure it’s safe for when they return. And you land.”

    “Well, take care, then. Love you.”

    I smiled, and closed my eyes.

    “Love you too.”

    I closed the connection, doing my best to avoid looking at Sannul’s amused grin. Instead, I directed him to a part of a corridor leading off in a different direction. We hadn’t been that way, so I figured it would be a good place to start our little patrol. So, through a series of unfamiliar corridors and interconnecting rooms of various description, the two of us gradually made our way through the adjoining facility. Cautiously, we checked each room, every alcove and every corridor, but still stayed as close to the hangar as we could. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any active bots or other dangers. But there were more several destroyed husks, and a bloodstain here or there. I stared at each uneasily as we passed.

    Between peering past corners and poking around empty rooms, I lost track of time. The assorted control rooms, storage areas and workshops surrounding the hangar held little of interest, but I reminded myself that that wasn’t the reason we were there. After we reached the end of our intended sweep, we decided to double back to be sure. Especially since we hadn’t heard back from the Captain yet. I didn’t want to call her and set off her comm, especially if it alerted a bot to her presence. I didn’t think she’d take kindly to that.

    Wondering about how she was getting on with Stonecutter, we finished our second sweep. Satisfied that the area was clear, Sannul suggested we sit back and relax while the Captain finished up. I was beginning to feel uneasy at the Captain taking so long, so I suggested we checked out the corridor the other two were going to be taking on their way back. He agreed, with joking reluctance. As he was about to propose how we should go about it, a gentle beeping came from my comm. With a small sigh of relief, I brought it up.

    “Virbon? Can you hear me?” came the Captain’s voice, quietly.

    “Yes, Captain,” I also spoke quietly. “We’ve checked over the hangar and the surroundings. It seems clear. We’re about to look into the corridor you were going to be taking on your way back.”

    “Good work. Should be safe for the ship to land, if all goes well.”

    “How are things on your end?”

    She explained that they had found the defence mechanism, and Stonecutter was working to disable it permanently. On the way there they had seen a couple of patrolling bots, but had managed to avoid them without detection. Getting back out would be tricky, but it would be quicker than if they doubled back. I figured that sounded reasonable enough, and asked her to inform me when Stonecutter finished and they decided what their next move would be.

    She paused, and I heard her speak with Stonecutter for a few moments. Then they both stopped, and some faint noises started. I moved the comm away from my ear for a second, but I realized that the noises were on their end. I waited for the Captain to respond again.

    “Weapon fire,” she explained, sometime later. “It’s coming from another part of the facility. Are you two in trouble?”

    “No, everything is quiet down here. Maybe their weapons are malfunctioning, or…”

    I had an unpleasant thought.

    “Maybe they found the test subject.”

    “It’s possible,” came the reply. “Though I think it’s coming from the wrong direction, unless he moved.”

    Stonecutter spoke to the Captain again, but noticeably quieter this time. She informed me that he had figured out how to sabotage the mechanism. I wasn’t sure if this was the best time to do it, if the bots were alerted. Unless whatever they were alerted to served them as a distraction. Cautiously, we waited for him to prepare. After several minutes, she informed me that he was ready, and was shutting it down now. After a few moments of holding my breath, the Captain told me it had worked.

    An alarm sounded immediately.

    Sannul spun around, cursing. Hurriedly, the Captain said that they were making a run for the hangar, and ordered me to keep the line open. With a sudden feeling of panic and dread, I swapped my comm into my other hand and readied my rifle. Adrenaline rushing, Sannul and I started off in a brisk run towards the corridor the Captain would be taking back.

    It then occurred to me to open another line on my comm, and call the ship. Trying to keep breathing and not trip over myself, I tersely informed Amius that there was trouble. She was clearly concerned, and told me that she’d be ready to land at a moment’s notice. Just then, I received traffic on the Captain’s line.

    “Virbon,” came her voice, betraying some unease. “The route is blocked by a cave-in. Stonecutter’s checking the map for another.”

    I stopped dead in my tracks, and gestured for Sannul to do the same.

    “What about the bots?” I panted.

    “Last I saw, they were approaching the area housing the mechanism. I don’t think they’re on to us yet. Have you contacted Amius?”

    “She’s ready to land when we ask her to.” I coughed, wiping the sweat from the fur on my brow.

    “Good. Stonecutter says we’re going to double back, and find another route. I want the two of you to stay near the structure we first entered. Make sure the hangar is clear.”

    Gesturing for Sannul to follow, I began moving in that direction.

    “You got it. We’ll be-“

    I was cut off by swearing, followed by what sounded like laser fire. I yelled the Captain’s name, but heard no reply. The fire continued, followed by more curses and a yell of pain. With a few curses of my own, I spun around to face Sannul.

    “They’re in trouble.”

    Sannul rubbed his eyes, from what looked like fatigue and frustration.

    “Well, I’d like to say I’m surprised…” he drawled.

    “We need to go after them.”

    He sighed and averted his eyes. I was about to repeat myself for emphasis, but he nodded.

    “It’ll be risky…” he acknowledged. “But we need to. I’m not about to leave the Captain behind. And we made a promise to Stonecutter to get him out of here. What’s our next move?”

    “Sneak in as far as we can, maybe. Avoid the bots long enough for us to figure out where they are, and try and get them back. Unless you have a better plan.”

    “We don’t really have a choice, so we’ll have to try. Come on, let’s not waste time chatting.”

    My heart was racing, and I had begun playing through different scenarios in my mind. What would we do if we came up against bots? What if Pridux or Stonecutter were hurt? Or worse? I didn’t know if we would be able to do anything, but I nodded. We set off down the corridor towards Stonecutter’s camp in a brisk run.

    As we got closer, we started to slow down. Even if there were no signs of any active bots, it didn’t hurt to be careful. As we passed the laboratory from before, I stuck my head inside to see that it was empty. I observed some footprints formed from the vat’s liquid, indicating that the test subject had wandered somewhere else. I continued on after Sannul, but with a feeling of sadness that the subject may have been killed by the bots.

    Passing through Stonecutter’s camp and down the corridor, we heard more weapon fire in the distance. Staying close to the wall, we crept further down the corridor and rounded several corners. Through open doors and the occasional window, we caught glimpses of adjacent rooms, mostly in the form of offices, meeting areas and laboratories. I couldn’t help but have a hopeful yet brief look in each to see if Pridux or Stonecutter were in any of them, but they weren’t. But in one of the labs, I made a disturbing discovery.

    “Sannul…” I gasped.

    “What? What is it?” he whispered tersely, moving over to look.

    Beyond the door was a laboratory similar to the one where we had found the test subject. It even had vats against the wall; all smashed open, leaving a pool of glass shards and foul-smelling liquid in front of them. That enough was a shock, but the corpse lying in the middle made things worse.

    It was an Apex…or had been. The fur colouring was unlike Stonecutter or the test subject, but was also naked like the latter. Tentatively, I stepped over and turned the body over. She was a female, and had several laser wounds to her chest. There were several severed tubes running into her torso. But what got to me was her face. It was pulled into a silent howl of pain, fear and anger. With a tight feeling in my throat, I pinched her eyes closed.

    I turned back to Sannul, with a wave of misery rolling over me. He was keeping watch of the corridor in both directions, but turned to me as I approached. Our eyes met for a moment, and he patted me on the shoulder as I passed and continued down the corridor. I appreciated the comfort, but all I wanted now was to rescue Pridux and Stonecutter, go back to Amius and get out of this horrid place.

    Before we got too far, something rolled into view from the right at a crossroad further down the corridor. Seeing the size and treads, I realized that it was a security bot. Panicking, I pressed myself against the wall, and saw Sannul do the same. Hesitantly, I looked at the bot closer. As I had pieced together from the wrecked ones we’d come across, it was half the height of an adult Desulti and used a pair of treads for movement. But now I could see that it had a squat, roughly cylindrical body with a smaller yet similarly cylindrical “head”. Also connected to the body was pair of short arms. Each were folded to the bot’s side, and ended in a weapon nuzzle.

    I stared as the bot halted in its path in the centre of the crossroads, before turning to face the opposite direction to us, down the corridor. Realizing the pattern, I began moving backwards and gestured for Sannul to do the same. If we could reach a doorway in time, we could hide in a room until the bot passed. But looking over my shoulder and back, I realized that we weren’t going to make it. The bot had already rotated again, and was now turning to face in our direction. It was only then that I saw two cameras in the bot’s “head”, like a pair of red eyes.

    Everything was still for a moment. Then, seemingly in slow motion, the bot’s arms began unfolding. Panicking, I pressed myself against the wall and fumbled for my rifle. But Sannul was way ahead of me, and fired a volley of shots at the bot. It was tilted back slightly by the impacts, giving me enough time to begin firing myself. Fear swelled up inside me with every shot, not knowing if we could defeat it. The bot fired a volley of its own, making me yelp in terror. But its shots missed us and flew down the corridor, leaving a smell of burnt ozone in its wake.

    Seconds later, sparks flew from the bot as it exploded. Pieces of scrap metal and electrical components. I released the breath I didn’t realize I was holding, while Sannul gave a small yet relieved chuckle. Our celebrations were short lived.

    “So much for stealth,” I muttered. “They probably know we’re here.”

    Sannul grabbed me by my shoulder, and directed me down the corridor.

    “Let’s not hang around here, then.”

    I wasn’t about to argue, and followed him in a jog down the corridor. We continued checking nearby rooms, but at a much hastier pace. I cursed under my breath, realizing we weren’t getting anywhere. To make matters worse, we crossed paths with more bots. We were able to destroy them by engaging them one at a time, but we each took a couple of hits. Thankfully, we were able to bandange smaller laser burns, and anything more severe we applied one of our precious few stim packs to. Thankfully, neither of us were injured too seriously. At the same time, it gave me a little hope that Pridux might have survived, if she had time to use her medical supplies.

    Just then, I noticed something in an adjacent branch of the corridor. It was a bootprointed bloodstain, smeared around a corner as if a body had been dragged. I cautiously followed it around the corner, and saw the trail lead to a door open a crack. A familiar mask was peering at me from within, but disappeared quickly. I opened my mouth to speak, but the door opened. Stonecutter, nursing a bandaged left arm, stood there and thanked us for coming in spite of the risk. But my attention was on Pridux. She lay propped up against the wall behind him, with her torso dressed with bloodied bandages. Walking over to her, she looked up weakly.

    “How are you, Pridux?” I asked.

    She smirked, which put me at ease a little bit.

    “That’s Captain to you,” she corrected, with a cough. “But I’ll be fine. Stim packs are working slower than I hoped, though.”

    “She was hurt pretty bad,” Stonecutter told us, confirming what we knew already. “Lost a lot of blood. I’ve stabilized her with the supplies we had, but she’ll need a proper medical facility to recover.”

    “It’s not as if we were going to be hanging around anyway,” pointed out Sannul. “We all get back to the ship, sort out the stardrive, and get the hell out of here. Once we’re at DS-5, we can get some help.”

    We agreed, and set about making a plan for getting out. Stonecutter would help the Captain along, while Sannul and I would protect them. We debated whether or not we should wait to see if the bots would lose our trail, but decided there would be no point. They may well already know we were in the station, but perhaps not exactly where. The blood stains outside were a dead giveaway, but they might not follow it. To be on the safe side, Sannul volunteered to stay outside and keep watch.

    Before we moved out, I was about to give the Captain another stim pack. As I told her I was about to inject it, she waved me off.

    “Save it,” she grunted. “We might need it on the way out. Especially if the bots find us.”

    It sounded reasonable to me, so I didn’t argue. There wasn’t really anything else we needed to do to in preparation, so I helped Stoncutter get the Captain on her feet. She could barely stand on her own, so he stood next to her and supported her with his good arm. We walked, or in the Captain’s case, limped, out and set off down the corridor. Sannul was just ahead, pressed against the door beside the corner.

    “Spotted anything?” I asked.

    “Saw a whole group of test subjects pass down the corridor. Seemed that they were running from something. The bots, probably.”

    “Is it clear? I mean, if the bots are after them, we might want to hold out until they pass.”

    Sannul crept up to the intersection and looked around. Coming back, he said he didn’t see anything. Deciding it was clear, we all walked up to the intersection and began going back the way we came. I was at the head of the group, checking around carefully as we passed adjacent passageways. I stayed as close to Stonecutter and the Captain as I could, in case he needed help supporting her. Sannul took up the rear, checking over his shoulder more than anything.

    “We’re getting close to the hangar now.” noted Sannul, as we neared Stonecutters camp. “No bots. No sign of the test subjects. I think we’re good.”

    I peered around the next corner, and saw at least a dozen test subjects standing there. Before I could do anything, a flurry of laser fire suddenly rained down upon them from another passageway. A couple fell, and the rest scrambled to get away. Most went in the opposite direction, but some were coming straight for us. I pulled back and leaned against the wall, struggling for breath.

    “Not yet,” I said.

    I pressed back against the wall as much as I could, and told the others to do the same. Hopefully the subjects would pass right by us in their hurry to flee. We might need to as well, if we couldn’t handle the bots. Making a loud racket, they began to run past. I held my breath, and tried to avoid them.

    This would be in vain, as one collided with me regardless. The both of us were knocked clean off our feet. I never got a good look at them, since he scrambled over and past me as soon as we hit the floor. I covered my head with my hands, but ended up getting my rib stood on by another subject. But before I knew it, they were gone. Choking back a whimper of pain, I nursed my side as I sat up. Thankfully, none of my ribs had broken through my skin. It also seemed like Stonecutter had also been knocked down, and was now helping Sannul pick up the Captain. I limped over to them, and asked how she was.

    “Fine,” she grunted, as Stonecutter had her stood up beside him again.

    “You, on the other hand…” said Sannul. “Might want to pop a stim. Still have any?”

    I nodded, and rummaged through the supplies I was carrying. Mercifully, the couple I had left hadn’t been shattered. After rolling up my shirt and injecting the stim close my possibly broken ribs, I turned back to the group. The pain was still excruciating, but hopefully the stim pack would take the edge off.

    Sannul had moved to the corner, with his rifle ready. Stonecutter told me he’d hang back with the Captain while we dealt with the bots. Moving over the Sannul, he whispered that the bots were pursuing the other, larger group of subjects. While that would take their attention off us, it would mean we needed to find another way back to the hangar. With one route blocked by structural damage, and the way we came possibly dangerous, we were running out of options.

    Regrouping with Stonecutter, he asked if we couldn’t just attack the bots from behind. Sannul thought there were too many to take on at once, especially since I was now wounded. An argument soon broke out, before I had to tell them both to stop. Stonecutter reluctantly apologised (though I noticed that Sannul didn’t), and checked his map again. Not long after, he devised a route that would take us in a new direction, and swing around to a different entrance to the hangar.

    And so, we turned around and walked back down the corridor. My patience was wearing thin at constantly going back and forth through corridors, retracing our steps or going to new same-looking areas. In fact, I had had enough of being cooped up in spaceships in general. I figured I could use some time planetside, recalling the promise Amius and I had made about going camping. The thought made for good motivation.

    By the time we had ventured further than last time, I was feeling gradually becoming aware of how tired I was. I’d lost track of how long we’d been in the station, and wasn’t sure how much longer we would be. Eventually, I decided to ask if we should rest for a short while. Sannul didn’t say anything, but Stonecutter said it was a good idea to let the Captain rest a bit as well. We looked around for somewhere safe, and holed up in a small office.

    I switched on a lamp sitting on the desk, and had a look around. There were a couple of chairs around the desk, along with a grandfather clock in the corner, some lockers and a bookcase against one wall, and a painting of an Apex overlooking the room from the behind the desk. The figure looked similar to the one in the poster back on the derelict, and I briefly wondered if it was this “Big Ape” character I’ve heard about.

    Swivelling the chair around, I eased into it and ran my hand over my injured ribs. The stim had kicked in by now, and the pain was reduced to a dull throbbing. More uncomfortable than anything, now. I closed my eyes for a while, listening to Sannul ransacking the lockers. He’d occasionally pipe up if he found something interesting, which thankfully included a couple more stim packs and some canned food. He passed them around, before moving on to the bookcase.

    I accepted the can gratefully, even though I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the contents. After I’d peeled it opened, I sniffed it curiously. Couldn’t put a name to the smell, but it seemed edible. Without any eating utensils, I made do with scooping the semi-solid contents with my fingers. I wasn’t overly keen on the taste, but I’d had worse. I decided that I didn’t want to think too much about it, and finished as much of it as I could.

    As I placed the can on the desk and wiped my fingers on my trousers, I realized that I should call the ship. Hearing Amius on the other end of the comm was comforting. I tried to sound optimistic during my explanation of what had happened, but it didn’t seem enough to reassure her.

    “We’re starting to get worried about you lot. How’s everyone holding up?”

    “I took a bit of a blow to the ribs, but that’s healing,” I admitted “Sannul and Stonecutter are fine, aside from a couple of smaller injuries. Captain’s not in a good way, though.”

    “Will she be OK?” asked Amius, with audible worry.

    “We think so. Stonecutter got her stable, and the stim packs seem to be working. Slowly. But we’ll get her some proper help once we jump out of here. All we need to do now is make one last break for it.”

    “Just be careful, OK?” she said, softly. “I’ll land when you’re in the hangar. We’ll be together soon, my love.”

    I couldn’t help a feeling of warmth every time I heard her call me that. A smile crept across my face, and I wondered if she felt the same way the other way around.

    “Looking forward to it already, love.”

    Even after closing the connection, I felt the comm around in my hands absent-mindedly. Having gone through a lot on the station, I was more eager than ever to leave. Especially when it meant Amius would be there waiting for me. Pocketing my comm, I noticed Sannul walking over with something in his hand.

    “Found this in the bookshelf,” he explained as he handed it to me. “Seemed to have been hidden behind some fake books.”

    The item was a small book. Flicking through the pages, I noticed that it was some kind of journal interspersed with equations and anatomical diagrams. The entries seemed to get less neat as time progressed. After some searching, I found the final entry.

    Entry #174

    This will likely be the last entry I’ll make. The rest of the staff, even the older ones who built this place from the ground up, have left. The Resistance has abandoned us. The MiniKnog have heard of our experiments, and will undoubtedly come looking for them. I don’t even know how they talked me into coming here in the first place. I can only hope that the station will remain hidden. I regret not being able to bring myself to engage the self-destruct. It would ensure that the MiniKnog would never find (or worse, steal) our work, but at the same time throw it all away.

    Then again, what would they find? Failure after failure. To control the VEP is a dangerous thing, particularly the Apex’s equilibrium of evolution and devolution both mentally and physically. It was foolish to think the process could be altered to undo the physical devolution, or at least bring about re-evolution, without sacrificing the achieved mental state.

    The end result? Those subjects that were not disfigured beyond recognition lost much of their higher brain function, reverting to an animal-like state. Not once were we able to actually undo the physical devolution. And the cost. I have lost count of how many died by our doing. By my doing. Even though they were all selectively bred from the original batch of subjects, to save us having to acquire more from the outside, they were all still people. They would never know a life outside their cell. The last thing many would ever see was a group of scientists watching them from the outside of a life support pod. I can no longer deny that there is blood on my hands.

    There’s nothing here for me now. As much as I want to leave, and start a peaceful new life to make amends, I know I could never do it. I’ve done too much to make it work, to move on. Part of me wants to stay, and do what I can for the surviving subjects. But they wouldn’t understand. I’ve decided to let them stay in their pods. I don’t know if it’s right to leave them there, or if I should mercifully let them die. Maybe it’s not my decision to make. But I’ve modified the life support parameters to make them more comfortable, so I can only hope that they’ll be at peace this way. For a few years, at least.

    I’ve decided to leave the disruption field on, to disable and maybe destroy anyone trying to plunder the station. As a failsafe, I’ll also hook up the security robots to some of the surveillance systems. I hooked up the test subject life support as well, to reduce the sedation after the bots get destroyed. Maybe then they can go free, either to attack the intruders or be rescued. I didn’t do a particularly good job of patching that in, so I’m not sure if it will work. Then again, I’m not even sure if it will ever get used.

    As for me, I’ll probably stay. Let this place become my tomb. Should be some supplies left for me to live off for a while. If I don’t let it all end. I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore.

    I closed the book. The answers to what had happened here sat in my hands. Briefly, I wondered what happened to the scientist. Sounded like the guilt over what had happened here was too much. If that was the case…what had he done? Experimented with evolution for some misguided reason, and cutting short however many innocent lives in the pursuit.

    But I realized I’d need time to let it sink in. We could get more out of it later. Handing it back, Sannul told me that he knew how I felt after he read the entry. He passed it to Stonecutter, who read it with an expression of stoicism. I stole a glance at the Captain, who seemed a little more alert now that she’d rested.

    “Time to get moving,” said Stonecutter abruptly, giving the book back to Sannul.

    “You alright?” asked Sannul, who stopped rummaging through the desk. He pocketed the book and help the Captain to her feet.

    “Not really. The things my people do to one another never ceases to sicken me.”

    “Then why did you join the MiniKnog?” I asked, trying not to sound accusing.

    “I didn’t know any better at the time,” he explained, unable to meet my eyes. “Thought I could make a difference. But I came to realize things were worse than I imagined. I keep telling myself that one day I’ll defect to the Resistance, or just desert and go into hiding. They’d kill me if they even knew I was thinking that.”

    The group began shuffling out of the office. As we did, the Captain patted Stonecutter on the shoulder.

    “It’s alright, Stonecutter,” she assured him. “You seem like a decent bloke. Not the sort who belongs in the MiniKnog. Besides, you’re in a good position to get away now. Once we get to Delta Suvaris V, you can go wherever you want.”

    “I’m not sure what I’m doing yet,” he sighed. “But thank you anyway, Captain. Maybe things will get better.”

    The conversation trailed off, likely to avoid attracting attention. So we continued onwards, feeling slightly more refreshed. The journal still weighed heavily on my mind, but I breathed deeply to calm myself down. No use worrying myself at a time like this. We weren’t out of the woods yet, and I needed to keep alert.

    After reading what had happened to them, I began wondering about the subjects. They couldn’t possibly survive, between the bots and lack of food. They should never have been here in the first place, let alone running loose. Taking the survivors with us was probably out of the question. Even I could see flaws in the idea, but decided I might as well ask the Captain before we left anyway. I figured the worst she could do was say “no”, so I began to mentally plan how I’d ask her.

    Several interconnected corridors later, I had no idea where we were. The entire place was using the same sterile, stone-like tiles I’d seen in the hangar. The recurring use of it wherever I looked was getting on my nerves. Stonecutter paused while he checked his map, but thankfully claimed to have a reasonable idea of where we were. As opposed to knowing absolutely where we were, but I kept the thought to myself.

    As Stonecutter folded up his map away, I glanced over my shoulder to make sure nothing was behind us. But when I saw a face looking at us from around a corner, I realized that there was. The face quickly withdrew, but I got enough of a look to see that it was one of the test subjects.

    Watching on for a moment, I didn’t see anything else. But Sannul seemed to notice that I had seen something.

    “What is it?” he asked, walking over. In the corner of my eye, I saw the Captain and Stonecutter look over as well.

    “Test subject over there,” I explained, nodding in the direction.

    Sannul turned and asked the Captain what we should do. She didn’t immediately answer, while Stonecutter looked away. I took a few cautious steps forward. I could hear the Captain tell me to be cautious, and saw Sannul creep after me a few paces. Reaching the corner, I took a deep breath and peered around it.

    Sure enough, I came face to face with a wide-eyed ginger Apex. He backpedalled, bumping into several more subjects standing behind. My heart nearly stopped, expecting them to panic and possibly attack. With some surprised screeching, they tensed up and repositioned themselves defensively. But they didn’t make any move towards me. Slowly, I stepped out into the corridor. All but one of the subjects made nervous noises and shambled backwards. All but one.

    He stepped towards me, and I recognised him instantly. It was the first subject we’d seen, with his matted black fur bloodied around his shoulder. Exhaling, I took another step forward. He made some chittering noises, more cautious than aggressive. The ginger subject I had frightened made some squawks. The other turned, and the two made some different vocalizations at each other.

    Listening to the exchange took me aback. It was unlike most of the animal-like behaviour I’d seen from them thus far. It wasn’t exactly an intelligent conversation, but they were still communicating or expressing themselves in some way. I watched on with interest for about a minute, before the ginger subject seemed to back off.

    Sannul stuck his head around, and jokingly asked me if he was late to the party. Only then did he notice the test subject we’d first seen.

    “We meet again,” he said dryly, before turning to me. “What now?”

    “I’d rather not leave them here,” I admitted. “I reckon we should introduce the Captain to our new friends.”

    “Fine. Since they followed you home, I’ll ask her if you can keep them.”

    I sighed, and glanced back at the test subjects. Sannul left, and promptly returned helping the Captain over. She leaned against the wall, watching the subjects mill around while I explained everything I had observed about them. She didn’t say anything, even after I finished, until I asked her what we were going to do with them. Her immediate response was to ask me if I wanted to take them with us.

    Begrudgingly, I admitted that the thought had crossed my mind. She shook her head.

    “Virbon, I know you want to do the right thing here,” she began, placing a hand on my shoulder. “But…well, you and I both know there would be difficulties. I don’t know how they’d take to being stuck in the hold for the duration of the trip. It’s possible something will make them panic, and hurt themselves. Or us. Then there’s the matter of supplies.”

    “I realized that those things would be an issue,” I admitted. “But are we going to just leave them here? They have no chance of survival. The bots will kill them off before starvation does.”

    “What if we kill off the bots, and leave them some supplies?” Sannul suggested.

    “We don’t know how many bots are left, and it would be too dangerous for us to try and take them all out anyway,” the Captain replied. “Besides, the supplies wouldn’t last them forever.”

    She paused, thinking. Stonecutter emerged from further down the corridor, and asked Sannul what was happening. As the two talked, I turned my attention once more to the test subjects. They still stood there, restless but watching us. Some appeared wary of our presence, others almost curious. The original test subject was still close by, eying Stonecutter.

    After a couple of minutes, he stepped towards the test subjects. They seemed a little surprised, maybe because he was an Apex like them. The rest of us watched on as the original test subject edged up to Stonecutter and sniffed him. Sannul struggled to keep a straight face as Stonecutter held his ground. Eventually, the subject backed away.

    “So…we decide what we’re doing with these guys yet?” Stonecutter asked.

    “I’m still a bit concerned about how we’d go taking them to DS-5 with us,” said the Captain. “But…I suppose if any of them follow us, we can try and take them with us. Even if this whole group comes with us, they might not be too hard to handle. But we’re not going to spend time trying to find more. We’ve spent enough time here as it is.”

    Seemed like a reasonable compromise, and everyone agreed. Slowly, we made our way back towards the hangar. Stonecutter took up the rear, coaxing the subjects to follow. Occasional glances in his direction showed that they were, in fact, following. I wasn’t expecting the Captain to even allow any of them to come. There were only about half a dozen in this particular group. Considering the amount of supplies we’d recovered from the derelict, we should have enough for them if we head straight to our destination. Then again, I think we were all eager to finally get there.

    As we crossed another intersection, I noticed that this section of the station was familiar. Shortly after, I realized that this was where Sannul and I had been before the Captain and Stonecutter got into trouble. If I remembered correctly, we were nearing a small control room overlooking the hangar. Sannul was thinking out loud, recalling the layout of the area and how we had gotten to the lower level.

    We passed a viewport, and could see the landing pads further down. It seemed clear, so the Captain called Amius. After reassuring her that we were all fine, the Captain told her we were ready for her to land. Hearing her say that made me realize that one way or another, this ordeal was almost over. As the Captain closed the comm, Sannul and I lead the group down a stairwell. Slowly. Not only were we cautious to keep the trailing subjects in line, but the Captain was also still uneasy on her feet when she wasn’t being supported by someone. Even I wasn’t in a good way, since the painkilling effect of the stim pack was wearing off. Every new step brought a sharp stab of pain down my side. Taking my mind off it, I thought about how close we now were.

    Distant noises emanating from the hangar indicated that the ship was landing by the time we reached the bottom. Thankfully it didn’t spook off the subjects. We took the last stretch carefully, coming to a doorway to the hangar proper. A walkway lead down to a landing pad, upon which sat the Apex escape pod. Our own ship sat on the pad beside it, where we had landed originally.

    Sannul and I leaned through the threshold, looking around. Nothing glaringly dangerous in the hangar itself. That’s not to say there wasn’t anything to worry about. Landing a ship may well attract some unwanted attention. A creeping fear I was developing was that the bots had noticed and were on their way. I mentioned that to Sannul.

    “It’s possible,” he admitted. “I say we get them to lower the ramp, then you and I cover the others while they make a break for it.”

    “Does that sound OK to you two?” I asked the others, over my shoulder.

    Stonecutter had a look at the hangar layout, and decided that it wasn’t too far to go. With nothing to add, the Captain called for someone on the ship to ready the airlock and lower the ramp. Cautiously, Sannul and I stepped out and began moving down the ramp. The Captain made her way down with the aid of the guard rail, while Stonecutter trailed behind as he herded the test subjects.

    By the time Sannul and I stepped off the walkway onto the landing pad, the ship’s ramp was being lowered. Scrutinizing the nearby structures and doorway showed that there was nothing to worry about. Sannul turned his back to help the Captain onto the pad. I maintained my watch, alternating my gaze between doorways. Something moved off in my peripheral vision, on the opposite side of the hangar. I spun around and saw at least three bots trundling into view. I yelled over my shoulder for everyone to take cover, and readied my rifle.

    One of the bots fired first, firing a volley straight at me. The test subjects behind me screamed. It then dawned on me that there was no cover nearby. Before I could react, a bolt hit me in the leg. It was a glancing hit, but the burning sensation was enough to knock it out from under me. I threw myself flat on my stomach for cover, resulting in my injured ribs getting banging into the concrete. I groaned in pain, and focused on returning fire despite the pain. My shots were way off.

    But by that time, Sannul had already begun shooting. At least his shots were closer to the mark. Someone was even firing another laser from the ship’s airlock. Ultuf, I figured. I focused back on the bots, and making my shots count. I didn’t know how many bots there were, or what we were going to do. As the first bot succumbed, I glanced over my shoulder to see no sign of Stonecutter or the test subjects. I figured they were spooked off, so maybe Stonecutter went after them.

    I called out to Sannul, asking him what we were going to do. The Captain answered instead, telling Sannul to cover me as I got her back to the ship. I rolled onto my back, and did my best to inject another stim near my ribs. Rolling back over, I crawled over to the Captain. Laser bolts shot past, some a little too close for comfort. I reached the Captain, and helped her up to a crouch.

    Sannul inched himself forwards, and shouted for us to move. As the Captain and I made a break for it, I saw him stand up as he fired another volley. I slowed down and almost yelled for him to take cover, but the Captain grabbed me by the collar and tugged towards the ship. Over a short distance that took what seemed like an eternity to cross, we reached the ramp. Climbing up into the airlock, we came across Ultuf muttering action movie quotes as he fired at the bots. He paused when he saw us approach, and stepped forward to help us up.

    “Take care of her,” I shouted over the noise of laser shots. “I’m going back for Sannul and the Apex.”

    “Just don’t get yourself killed!” he shouted back, supporting the Captain by the shoulder.

    Darting back down the ramp, outright ignoring the pain now, I saw Sannul in a crouch as he fired. Half-hopping and half-limping over, I told him I was going after Stonecutter. He nodded, and covered me as I went back up the walkway before following suit. Instead of following me down the corridor, though, he stayed by the doorway to take potshots at the bots.

    Some noises down the corridor indicated where the test subjects were. I followed the noises, hoping Stonecutter was close behind. I eventually found them at an intersection. Stonecutter was kneeling beside the ginger subject, who was huddled on the floor. Most of the other subjects, including the first subject we’d seen, stood slightly hunched nearby. They looked frightened and ready to bolt, and regarded me with wide eyes as I approached.

    Kneeling next to the ginger subject, I saw that he was wounded. Two empty stim packs lay nearby, and Stonecutter was applying a bandage. Without looking up, he explained that the subjects had ran away as the shooting began. The ginger subject copped a laser bolt in the back, and had continued to flee until he collapsed. A couple of the other subjects kept going, but the rest didn’t seem to want to leave him. I was beginning to wonder if they were smarter than we had first thought.

    “Will he be OK?” I asked, once the bandage was secured.

    “As far as I can tell,” he answered. “I also gave him a sedative to calm him down.”

    “Probably for the best. Should we go after the others?”

    “No time, I fear,” he sighed, standing up and lifting the injured subject to his feet. “You take him and go on ahead. I’ll get the others to follow.”

    He turned around and did his best to coax the subjects along as I took the injured subject back down towards the hangar. He could still walk, but I needed to support and guide him. The other subjects seemed to be following Stonecutter lead. Maybe they thought he was some kind of supreme being amongst them. Who could say?

    The laser fire had seemingly stopped by the time we returned to the hangar, but the distinctive burning smell hung in the air. Ultuf was using the escape pod as cover, while Sannul was still where I’d left him. He whispered to me that his brother had seen more coming, and that we should hurry while there was a lull. I hurriedly took the subject down the walkway and across the landing pads, with Stonecutter and his flock on my heels. With those last few steps up the ramp into the airlock, I felt the first true relief since I stepped foot on the station.

    We didn’t waste any time. Stonecutter managed to get the test subjects into the airlock, while the brothers hurried over. As they entered, I closed the outer doors. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Stonecutter throw a small object outside. I considered asking him about it, but he was already herding the subjects out of the airlock with Sannul. Before I could follow them, Ultuf took the ginger subject from my side, and told me to rest. I leaned against the wall and slid down it to sit, as I felt the ship taking off.

    I must have dozed off there in the airlock. Only when I awoke with a jolt did I notice, though. With no idea of how much time had passed, I was about to stand up and go find someone. A very specific someone, who I then realized was sitting right next to me, smiling.

    “Finally awake I see,” she said, turning to embrace me.

    “Amius,” I breathed, gathering her in my arms.

    We kissed passionately, before I rested my head on her shoulder. After everything that had happened on the station, all those things that I would never be able to forget, I was content to just stay here and hold her. Apparently she wasn’t, and asked me if we’d be more comfortable in my quarters. She helped me to my feet, and we went over together. As I leaned my rifle against my locker and sat down on my bed, I rolled up the leg of my trousers to check the injury there. Seemed to be little more than singed fur and a small burn.

    “I let you run off without me for a while…” she jokingly scolded. “I’ll grab the med kit.”

    I extended my leg, and let her bandage the burn. It was still my ribs that were my cause for concern. The pain had lessened enough not to warrant a stim pack, but Amius still insisted on checking for broken ribs. I lifted my shirt for her to check with a small med scanner, teasing her by saying that she just wanted to see me shirtless. Smiling, she informed me that she could see anything wrong on the scanner. We figured that there’d be a bruise, and that I should probably get it checked once we got back to civilization.

    Afterwards, we lay down on the bed together. As she snuggled against my shoulder, I asked her where everyone was. Apparently Stonecutter decided to camp with the test subjects down in the hold, while everyone else was in their quarters. Even the Captain seemed to have settled into her quarters, which I was satisfied to hear. Amius opened her mouth to say something, but hesitated. With some assurance from me that we could talk about anything, she asked if I would tell her what had happened on the station. Reflecting on what I’d just been through, I realized what a mess my thoughts were. I told her that we’d talk about it after I’d rested, and she seemed to understand.

    Sleep came quickly, and was filled with strange dreams. I suspected that most were a result of my recent experience. More than once I was thrust awake with a fright, memories of whatever had woken me quickly fading. Instead, I focused on Amius’ quiet breathing. To calm myself down a bit, I made a mental note to talk to her more about our relationship sometime. Mostly if we wanted to become mates, perhaps even settle down and raise a family. Or at least, one day. Given her desire to explore, I wasn’t sure if Amius would be ready to settle just yet.

    After hours of fitful sleep, the two of us eventually lay awake in each other’s arms. Muffled noises from outside gave the impression that some of the other crew were awake. I stroked Amius’ back, appreciative for our intimacy. Especially after all we’d been through. Shifting position slightly, she mumbled if we should go get some food. Since I hadn’t eaten since that so-called meal on the station, I was more than willing. Despite my leg feeling stiff, I managed to get up and stagger out, grabbing my tool satchel on the way out. I was hoping to get back to work as soon as I could.

    In the mess, I found Sannul in the middle of giving his account of the events on the station to his brother and Tiroti. He was up to where we had met up with Stonecutter, and I listened on with as I readied two basic meals. Quickly bringing Amius up to speed as we sat down beside him, he resumed the story. At several points, he passed over to me to fill in some detail or provide my perspective. It quickly began to bother me. Not only was my focus on my food, but I was uncomfortable having to relive some of the events.

    Even after we finished eating, I stayed as the story continued. More that I felt an obligation to stay and see that the story was told correctly. The others had no idea about much of what happened, and some of it came as a real shock. More than once, Amius took my hand beneath the table when something troubling came to the fore. Dead test subjects. Attacking bots. Evidence of genetic experimentation. Much of it still weighed heavily on my mind, and I knew that one day I would have to address that. I could never forget, but perhaps it would be worth talking to someone about.

    Just as I was beginning to zone out, Sannul pulled out the scientist’s journal and read the last entry aloud. As he did, I couldn’t help but look around at the reactions. Ultuf raised an eyebrow at what he heard, more surprised than shocked, while Tiroti lowered his head with a look of melancholy. Amius had a neutral expression, but was gripping my hand tightly. I caressed the back of her hand with my thumb, wondering about what they were thinking. They hadn’t been there to see if firsthand. To get shot at. To smell the blood and the burning. To close the eyes of a corpse.

    I didn’t really pay attention to the others after that, and only spoke when Sannul prompted me. As his tale ended, I stood abruptly and put my tray away. I needed to take my mind off things.

    “I might go see how the Captain is holding up.” I told everyone as I walked out.

    As Amius had mentioned, she was in her room. I knocked at the door gently, and heard a reply from inside. Inside, she was lying awake in bed.

    “Virbon,” she said weakly. “How are you?”

    “Aww, Pridux,” I muttered absent-mindedly, kneeling next to her bed. “Don’t you worry about me. You’re the injured one, remember?”

    “Captain,” she corrected. “And your concern is touching. But I’ll be fine.”

    I nodded slowly.

    “I sure do hope so.”

    We talked for a while, about different things. She seemed pleased that everyone had returned safe, and was even kind enough to hear me out on some concerns. At the forefront was whether or not we’d done the right thing with the test subjects, especially since we left some behind with the bots. Their treatment before the station was abandoned was also stuck in my thoughts. Despite my concerns that I was pestering her, she seemed more than happy to listen. Even if she didn’t have the answers. I wondered if anyone did.

    As time wore on, I could see that she was beginning to tire. Politely, I informed her that it was nice to see that she was OK, and thanked her for her time. Before I could leave, she reached out and tugged at my shirt.

    “Did I ever tell you why I left the ASF?”

    That definitely got my attention, considering it was a mystery to the entire crew. I turned and knelt back down.

    “Did you ever tell anyone?” I asked.

    “No,” she admitted, looking out the window. “You’d be the first since it actually happened.”

    She continued after several moments of silence.

    “Late into my career, I served as an officer on a vessel patrolling the border of Desulti space. It wasn’t a particularly big ship by Force standards, but bigger than ours. Bigger crew, too. Very tight-knit. There weren’t many pirates out that way, so we were mostly dealing with immigration. Screening incoming ships and their passengers, and intercepting ones that try to enter on the sly.

    Floran ships are always a top priority, considering the laws regarding their entry. Sure enough, we catch one trying to go through an asteroid field to avoid detection. They didn’t bother trying to outrun us, and let us board once we were alongside. As per protocol, the team we sent in began to interview and test the passengers, to see if they’re suitable to be processed.”

    She turned away from the window, and stared at the ceiling.

    “It soon became apparent that we’d have to turn them away. The reports coming back to the bridge indicated that too many of them displayed carnivorous tendencies. When we heard that they were beginning to act aggressively, the team was ordered to pull back. That’s when the Florans attacked.”

    There was a long silence. Obviously this was uncomfortable for her. I opened my mouth to tell her she didn’t need to continue, but she went on anyway.

    “We had to defend ourselves. Especially when some of them got onto our ship, and attacked the crew inside. In the end, we killed all of them, and lost a lot of good people in the process. As you can imagine, Command blew their collective top when they learned what happened. The politicians got involved, and an inquiry was held. Initially the officers were publically blamed for the incident, probably to pin it on us instead of gaps in their policies.

    Of course, following the inquiry, we were found to not be responsible. But the damage was done. Our names and faces had been all over the news, and we’d been suspended for over a month. Despite the ruling, I didn’t need people to blame me for something I already blamed myself for, even though I knew it wasn’t my fault. In the end, I decided that the Force was no longer for me. Come to think of it, I wasn’t the only one to resign once it was over.”

    Many years ago, I’d heard about the incident on the news. I couldn’t remember the faces of the officers involved, but knew that the incident lead to a review of immigration policies. Turns out that Pridux had been caught up in the middle of it.

    “I think I remember when this happened,” I said. “And I’m sorry that you had to go through it. It wasn’t fair.”

    “It wasn’t,” she agreed. “But people died, Virbon. Not just our people. They never figured out what the story was behind those Florans, but the investigation treated them like they were civilians. Did we have the right to kill them in self-defence? Was there another way that things could have turned out? To this day, I don’t know.”

    “Must have been difficult for you,” I commented, not knowing what else to say.

    “It was a bad situation to be in,” she agreed. “The captain of the ship told us that the crew did what they had to do to survive. I still maintain that. But that doesn’t bring back the dead, or undo the things that the people we served said about us. We just had to move on.”

    “A bit like now,” I noted.

    “Exactly,” she said, taking my hand. “We’re a crew, Virbon. In this together.”

    I nodded, and let her get some rest. As I walked out and closed the door behind me, I took note of what she had said to me. I knew then that I’d move on eventually, with the help of my friends. Walking down towards engineering, I detoured to check our passengers in the hold.

    Stonecutter sat on a sleeping bag against the far wall, with a small campsite set up around him. Figured he liked his camps. The surviving test subjects milled around, looking at me. The injured test subject lay on a blanket near Stonecutter, seemingly still sedated. Walking over to Stonecutter, I was careful to avoid the subjects, though they seemed strangely calmer now.

    “So, how are you and your mob?” I asked, sitting down near him.

    “I’m fine,” he answered. For once, he wasn’t wearing his mask, revealing a pair of keen yellow eyes. “I’ve been giving them some sedatives I found on the station, which should help them get used to it here. At least young Littleteeth here is recovering.”

    “What, you’ve given them names?” I chuckled.

    “Yes, I have,” he answered, dead serious. “Thought it would give them some identity, instead of just being another test subject.”

    He then pointed out the others and told me their names. The subject Sannul and I first discovered, now with a bandaged shoulder, was Rockchest. There was another, older male named Spiraltickler, and a gangly female named Liferocker. I wasn’t entirely sure how he’d devised or assigned these names, but I welcomed the idea.

    Stonecutter talked a bit more about them, how he’d been keeping them occupied and the personalities they were beginning to show. Clearly Rockchest was something of an alpha male, and I could remember Littleteeth’s submissiveness towards him. But apparently Spiraltickler was more independent, and Liferocker possessed almost maternal behaviour at times towards Littleteeth at times. It was fascinating what he’d been able to observe about them in such a short time.

    As I turned to look at him, I could see him smiling. Probably for the first time since we met him. The look on his face showed that he was growing fond of them in a way. He reached over and scratched Littleteeth on the head with a sigh.

    “What are we going to do with them?” he asked, suddenly.

    “Haven’t really thought about it.”

    “I don’t want them sent to some lab,” he explained. “They were born in one, and spent their lives, if you can call them that, in one. Do you think Captain Pridux would let me drop them off on a planet somewhere? Where they can be free?”

    “I don’t see her trying to stop it. But it might not be for her to decide. You might need to speak with the authorities at DS-5. Especially if you want to release them on the forest world in the system.”

    He nodded, looking back at Littleteeth.

    “Good idea, though.” I added. “Got my vote.”

    “Thanks,” he said.

    I got on my feet, and remembered something.

    “Did you throw something out of the ship, when we took off?” I asked, turning around.

    He blinked at me for a moment, seemingly surprised that I’d noticed.

    “Timed remote trigger,” he explained. “Managed to attach a few charges attached to the power conduit before I disabled the mechanism. Just to be sure it doesn't reactivate. Seems to have had an effect on the power system as well.”

    “How do you know all this?”

    “Did a scan, while there was nobody on the bridge. Judging by the readings, the defence mechanism and most other systems are offline. Including those which block scanning, funnily enough.”

    Not sure what to make of this, I decided that I wouldn’t press the issue and instead said goodbye. It was time I went down to engineering, and actually try and get some work done. I made my way down, and found Sannul and Ultuf already down there. They seemed to have the salvaged Apex parts out, and were checking each of them over.

    “There you are, chief,” said Sannul. “Just checking over the new parts. Figured we ought to make sure they’re ready to use before we go sticking them anywhere. So far they seem fine, though.”

    Nodding, I picked up one of the components to look at it myself. Despite not being an expert on Apex technology, I knew that it served as a link between the primary power system and the stardrive. It seemed like an eternity since we’d last worked on repairs. Placing the component back, I spoke to the brothers about what repairs remained. Mostly to jog our memories.

    We didn’t want to put off work for too long, and began as soon as we finished our discussion. Carefully, we removed a damaged component from our drive, and replaced it with its Apex equivalent. It took some creativity to get it implemented correctly, but a system diagnostic afterwards showed that it should be able to work.

    Encouraged by this, we tried again with another component. Unfortunately, it wasn’t successful, and we spent a couple of hours on various possible solutions. In the end, we were forced to fashion another, smaller part into a makeshift adaptor. Another diagnostic came back with no issues, so we moved on. There was still at least a score of repairs we needed to complete before we could switch back to primary power.

    The next repair consisted of replacing smaller pieces of a larger module by cannibalizing one of the spares. Tedious work, especially keeping track of all the small parts, but it worked. I crossed it off the list we’d been keeping, and was about to start on the next repair when the brothers began packing up.

    “You two clocking off for the day?” I asked, more accusingly than I intended.

    “If it’s alright with you,” answered Ultuf. “Got some good work done today. More than I expected from you and Sannul, after what happened.”

    I looked over at the collection of parts we’d yet to replace, and realized even I wasn’t really up to doing much more. Supposing he had a point, I nodded and joined them. There was always tomorrow.

    Over the next couple of days, we picked up the pace with repairs. We had a reasonable yet limited amount of food, and were on rationing as a result of Stonecutter and the test subjects meaning more mouths to feed. That, and a general desire to move on gave us incentive to work as fast as we could.

    There was another thing that also stayed in the back of our minds. Considering the Captain’s injuries, we wanted to get her to help as soon as possible. As it was, I was beginning to fear that her condition was deteriorating. Amius and Tiroti, who were taking turns minding her, found that occasional stim packs seemed to keep her stable. But our supply was also limited, providing yet another reason for us to get the drive working.

    Repairs were complete three ship-days after leaving the station. We took another day to check and double-check the primary power and stardrive, especially where we were using our new Apex parts. Tests came back fine, so we cautiously arranged the return to primary power. With Amius and Tiroti in place on the bridge, I switched our systems back to the primary.

    The lights dipped, causing held breaths across the ship. They flickered, then returned as bright as ever. The drive hummed, as if life had returned. Before any premature celebrations, I ran a full system diagnostic. The results came back after an age. All systems were working satisfactorily. Not all were at full capacity, nor were they efficient, but they’d work. With a sigh of relief, I announced the findings over the ship intercom.

    I contacted the bridge, and Amius, with clear excitement in her voice, told me that everything was working on her end. Even Stonecutter came down to congratulate us on our work. Smiling, I leaned back against the wall. We finally had a chance at escaping.

    There was talk of holding a celebration in the mess, but it was eventually decided to hold off until we arrive in the Delta Suvaris system. Following a brief dinner, Amius and I returned to my quarters. Feeling thrilled from the success of the repairs, I seriously considered asking her to be my mate there and then. But I decided to wait until after the celebration, and settled for sleeping with her that night.

    “So, we’re almost ready to move on,” she mused, as we lay next to each other. “It’s as if we were just getting used to it. How long has it been?”

    “Too bloody long,” I mumbled. “Week or two, maybe.”

    “Now we can go on with the contract,” she continued. “If they haven’t cancelled it by now, that is. Just imagine how they’ll react when we tell them why we’re overdue. We’ll make the news for sure.”

    “One thing at a time, dear. We need to actually get to hyperspace first.”

    “True,” she agreed, rolling onto her side to face me. “Should we try tomorrow?”

    “Might be for the best,” I said. “Don’t want to waste time sitting out here, when supplies are limited.”

    “Tomorrow it is, then.” she replied, shifting herself on top of me and resting her head beneath my chin.

    Morning came, and we made our preparations early. As soon as we could, the brothers and I made one final check of our systems. Once we were satisfied everything was in order, I went to the bridge while Sannul took my place. When I got there, Tiroti was already at the navigation console, entering the coordinates for the Delta Suvaris system. He exhaled deeply, and said that he was ready. Amius nodded, and manoeuvred the ship into position away from the asteroid field. Once we were clear, she engaged the stardrive.

    Through the communicator, I could hear Sannul calling out readings. They, along with what I could see over Tiroti’s shoulder, appeared normal. Lines of code flew across the display at an unreadable speed while I watched the diagnostic. The drive was spooling, and was gradually powering up its subsystems. As the ship began accelerating, and the drive’s rumble became louder. The readout switched to read that the jump was in progress.

    It was all or nothing now. If the drive held out, we’d finally be out of this place. I gripped Amius’ shoulder, but her attention never left the controls. I reached over and clasped Tiroti’s shoulder as well, figuring he could use some encouragement as well. He glanced at me long enough for me to see the fear in his eyes, before he returned to concentrating on his console. Knowing that this was the moment of truth, I whispered a quick prayer.

    As the noise reached its peak, there was a loud thump. The bridge was lit up by a bright flash outside. The stars began moving past us at impossible speeds. In a heartbeat, the station and its denizens were far behind us. We were on our way.

    The brothers cheered over the comm. Tiroti leaned back from the controls, hands over his muzzle in respite. Scratching Amius between the ears, I congratulated the two of them. Amius told me that it would have been impossible without the rest of us. I agreed, and watched the mesmerising view outside. It was almost surreal to think how much distance we were covering.

    “Estimating time of arrival,” said Tiroti, looking at some readings. “Looks like…two hours.”

    Considering the distance and reduced capacity of our systems, that didn’t sound so bad. Leaving the two of them to keep an eye of things, I visited the Captain. As soon as I entered, I noticed that she was groggy and feared that her condition might be deteriorating. Last time I saw her, she’d been alert and talkative. Now, she was barely awake.

    “You didn’t wake me, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she yawned. “The jump did that for you.”

    Maybe she wasn’t in such a bad way after all.

    “Aye, we’re on our way. Should arrive in two hours, if the drive holds out.”

    “Well done, Virbon,” she said, reaching over and patting my arm. “Sounds like you boys got the repairs finished.”

    “That’s what we’re paid for,” I chuckled. “Now, you need anything while I’m here?”

    On her orders, I fetched her some breakfast. She accepted the tray, and tucked in. She seemed happy, at least. Afterwards, I also gave her the last stim pack we had. If all went well, she’d get proper medical care soon enough.

    I let her rest, especially since she wanted to be on the bridge when we arrived at our destination. Not entirely sure how I wanted to spend the remaining time in hyperspace, I figured I should check up on our Apex passengers. Stonecutter seemed impressed that we’d been able to even make the jump, remembering what had happened on his ship. Saying that seemed to distract him, as if memories were coming back.

    “Can I talk to you about the test subjects?” I asked, after a while.

    “Go ahead. What about them?”

    “I’ve been thinking about the ones that got left on the station,” I said. “I wish I knew if we were right in leaving them there.”

    “Think about it some more, then. How many others would have been left? Aside from those that left our group, there was that other group before that. The bots were going right after them, and I don’t think many of them would have survived. If any. We saved as many as we could, and there wasn’t time to go after anymore.”

    I knew he was right. There was no point beating myself up over something that we’d done everything we could to resolve. More than whoever had been in our situation had to. Better to just make do with what we’d managed to do, and more importantly who we’d managed to save, and keep going.

    Keep going. I remember saying those exact words to Amius shortly after we were stranded. Before the derelict and the station. How much had happened since then, it was hard to believe. And it was nearly over.

    “I suppose you have a point,” I said, at last. “Hell, would anyone else have done the same in our position?”

    “Not the MiniKnog, I can tell you that.”

    “Think they’re still after the station?”

    “Maybe,” Stonecutter replied. “If they do, they won’t find much of value. The charges I set off probably did some internal damage. Even before that, most of the records were wiped, unless that scientist left some other documents lying around. Even then, the experiments didn’t seem to achieve anything. I just hope they realize that, and not try and take it further.”

    “Hate to imagine what they’d do with it,” I muttered.

    “Can’t be worse than what they already have. I’ve heard stories about what goes on in some of the MiniKnog research labs.”

    “I don’t want to know.”

    “Same here,” he smirked.

    To pass the time, we talked a bit more about our lives. The difference between Desulti and Apex society was nothing new to me, but hearing it firsthand really highlighted it. Stonecutter had grown up in fear, with an oppressive regime watching over everything he did. Meanwhile, I’d lived without any such worries. Quite the opposite, considering the freedoms and rights I’d had compared to him. But I couldn’t help admire that despite all that happened to him, he was still determined to make a difference. He grew disillusioned, as I imagined many Apex would, and realized he wasn’t on the right side. Though he was still unsure of what he would do after this, I could see him defecting to the Resistance.

    Eventually, I was called to the bridge over the intercom. Considering the time, we must be nearly ready to arrive. Stonecutter decided to come with me, confident that the subjects would be fine unattended for a short time. When we got there, I noticed the Captain seated in her chair. She looked tired, but not uncomfortable.

    “Wanted to see the show, Captain?” I asked, walking up beside her.

    “Wouldn’t miss it,” she replied.

    Sannul’s voice came in over the comm, saying that he and Ultuf hadn’t encountered any problems from the drive. Amius answered, saying that we would be terminating from hyperspace in a minute. On Tiroti’s signal, she began decreasing our speed. The stars shooting past us seemed to slow down as well, until our surroundings became visible with another flash. Not too far ahead, I could see a sun surrounded by several planets, one of which had a station in orbit. We were in the Delta Suvaris system.

    Cheers erupted across the bridge.

    We’d made it.

    Delta Suvaris is on the very edge of Desulti space, but still sees quite a lot of traffic thanks to the booming mining operations on the nearly uninhabitable Delta Suvaris V. With minimal facilities on the surface, the DS-5 station serves as the main colony for the area. The station is one of the largest and most sophisticated ever made by our people, despite its remote location. Seeing it orbit over the blue-grey surface was a breathtaking moment.

    As soon as we had arrived on the station, the crew (plus Stonecutter) was taken to be questioned by both the station’s security division and Aerospace Force contingent. Except the Captain, who they’d been sent straight to the medical clinic. The test subjects were kept in the ship, under watch. We weren’t in any trouble, thankfully, but we still had to explain what had happened.

    The interviews, which the officers assured me was not an interrogation, took all day. I’d told them everything I could, and with all the details I could muster. It was still uncomfortable to go back over, but not as much as with Sannul in the mess. Nobody I spoke to seemed to judge me over it, despite some impressions of disbelief. Once I had given my account and answered their additional questions, I was left waiting for quite some time while they discussed the findings. In the meantime, I was checked over by a medic, but was found to be fine.

    Thankfully, we had been allowed to take time out from our questioning. Just in time, since I was about to complain about my time being wasted. On our first night on the station, we’d been given some basic quarters as a temporary arrangement. The crew was provided with cooked meals, which was a nice change from our rations. Apparently everyone else had undergone similar experiences with their questioning. None of us were too pleased, but we came to the consensus that it was a necessary evil.

    The following day, a representative from the business that had hired us dropped in. He explained that the contract had expired since we were overdue, but we wouldn’t be penalized due to the circumstances. He also offered us another contract once we were back in working order. I was disappointed that we’d missed our opportunity to complete the job, but was relieved that we would at least have a replacement.

    Later that day, the debriefing continued. We were told that until a proper investigation could take place, we could make no mention of the research station. Instead, we had to “adjust” our story to say that we had picked up Stonecutter on the derelict ship. He had supposedly been the only member of the crew not to abandon the ship after the test subjects they were carrying escaped. Instead, he was able to calm and befriend them. We reluctantly agreed to follow along. Before we were let loose, we were told that the final stage of the debriefing, aimed at helping any stress or mental trauma we were suffering from, would take place in a few days. That was probably the only part that took my interest. Hopefully, it would help clear up my thoughts.

    To celebrate our return to civilization, and temporary escape from the debriefing, I took Amius out for a nice romantic dinner. On the way over to a restaurant, which was recommended to me by one the ASF officers, I looked around at all the unfamiliar faces. It was almost strange to see so many people around, after being stuck with the same five or six other people for two weeks.

    After finding a table and placing our orders (a traditional meat platter for me and a Hyltol-inspired salad for Amius), I looked out the window at the planet below. Amius seemed absorbed in the view as well. Then I saw my opportunity, so I took it.

    “Amius,” I reached across the table and took her hand.

    “Yes, love?”

    “You know…you’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I’ve known nothing but kindness from you since the day we met, and I’m truly happy that we’ve been able to share our feelings.”

    It sounded too mushy to me, but Amius was smiling regardless.

    “What I’m getting at, Amius,” I continued, taking a deep breath. “Will you be my mate?”

    At first, she opened her mouth slightly in surprise, but said nothing. That didn’t matter, since I already knew her answer. She beamed at me, before she placed her other hand on mine.

    “Yes, Virbon. I’d like nothing more. I’ve cared about you for a long time, and I think you and I will be happy together.”

    We leaned forward over the table and kissed. Even though I had expected her to agree, it was still an exhilarating moment.

    Our meals arrived shortly after, so we tucked in while we talked. We decided that the next time we went to Tisetora, we’d tell our families about our intentions for each other. And then probably hold the ceremony to seal the deal while we’re there. As I expected, Amius wanted to return to travelling with the crew as soon as possible. But she assured me that one day, she would be willing to move back to Tisetora and start a family with me.

    As we finished and paid for our meals, I decided that we should visit the Captain. On our way out, I noticed Tiroti and Sannul were also in the restaurant, eating together. We walked over and said hello.

    “G’day,” I said. “What brings you two here?”

    “Well, since we’re always on opposite ends of the ship, I figured we don’t spend a lot of time together,” replied Tiroti, sounding slightly awkward. “Figured we should get to know each other, and all.”

    “Good grub, too,” added Sannul, between mouthfuls.

    I had meant to ask if the restaurant had been suggested to them as well, but I decided not to interfere any more. Leaving them to their night out, Amius and I walked down to medical, hand-in-hand. Asking around, we eventually found out where the Captain had been admitted.

    She was asleep when we found her ward. She seemed peaceful, and no worse than I’d last seen her. Seemed like we’d got her here just in time. Instead of waking her, I found a doctor and asked about her condition.

    “She underwent surgery the day she arrived,” the doctor checked her datapad. “Some minor internal injuries, which seemed to have been kept stable with a course of stimulants before she was admitted.”

    “That’s right, we were giving her regular stim packs.”

    “I see. She was fortunate that you were able to. Without them, she might not have made it.”

    That was a daunting thought. Not one I really wanted to comprehend. I glanced over my shoulder at Amius, who also seemed unsettled by the prospect of losing Pridux.

    “So…what’s her outlook, then?” I asked, weary about what the answer might be.

    “She seems to be recovering well. It may take her several weeks for her to recover fully, but her outlook is very good.”

    “Well, that’s good to hear. Thanks for taking care of her.”

    “That’s what we’re here for,” she replied. “But if you’ll excuse me, I must return to my rounds.”

    Amius walked over and held Pridux’s hand for a moment, but she didn’t stir. We departed after that, and made our way to one of the station’s hotels where the rest of the crew was staying. Using a voucher given to us from the station’s authorities, we were given a room for two. It wasn’t particularly big or luxurious, but it had a double bed, vid screen and ensuite. One of the walls parallel to the bed consisted almost solely of a window overlooking part of the station exterior and the vast expanse of space beyond. It was a far cry from the cramped quarters we’d been sharing, and we both seemed to like it.

    While Amius settled in, I returned to the ship to get our clothes and belongings. I was surprised to find it under guard by several soldiers. The one in charge seemed to know who I was, and let me inside. Once I’d gathered our belongings from our quarters and packed them into a couple of bags, I swung by the hold to check on the test subjects. There was a young, bored looking soldier leaning against the corridor wall outside, who saluted me as I approached.

    “G’day, sir,” he said. “You’re one of the crew, if I remember correct.”

    “That’s right. Virbon, chief engineer.”

    “Private Bellat, DS ASF. Sounds like you guys had quite an adventure. Not that they’ll tell us what really happened, but I won’t pry. You need something?”

    “Just wanted to check on the Apex being kept here. You minding them?”

    “I suppose,” he muttered. “Not that they get up to much. Gave them some food earlier, which they devoured. We also had a medic check them out, and gave one of them some treatment.”

    “Mind if I have a look?”

    “Sure, go for it,” he opened the door for me.

    Inside, it appeared that Liferocker and Littleteeth were lying on some blankets. The latter had a bandage around his torso. Spiraltickler was snooping around some empty crates on the opposite end of the hold, while Rockchest was by the door, staring at me. His expression gave a hint of curiosity. I whispered some reassurance to him, but as usual received no response.

    “So, what are you going to do with them?” I asked Private Bellat, closing the door.

    “Last I heard, a couple of boffins from some government facility wanted to examine them. After that, I think we were letting them loose on DS-2. They’re…well, they’re not much more than animals, the poor beggars.”

    “Sounds fair. What’s DS-2 like?”

    “Forest world. Not a lot of mineral wealth, so it’s mostly used for tourism and environmental stuff. And letting Apex run around naked, from the sounds of it.”

    Again, I was reminded of the camping trip Amius wanted to take. With the Captain’s condition, it sounded like we’d be here for a while. We’d probably have time over the next couple of weeks to go out that way, if she was still interested.

    “Well, it’s time I got back the missus,” I said to Bellat. “Keep up the good work.”

    “Good night, sir. Have fun.”

    I gathered up the bags and disembarked from the ship. Nodding to the commanding officer on my way out, I made my way back to the hotel room. Inside, Amius was nowhere to be seen. Placing the bags down on the bed, I checked the ensuite to find her showering. I undressed, and joined her.

    “Nice timing,” she said, wrapping her arms around me. “Got everything?”

    “I think so,” I replied, nuzzling my snout against hers. “Also heard about that forest planet of yours. Apparently they’re going to release the test subjects there, after some examination.”

    “Nice to hear. They can be free, that way.”

    “That’s what I thought,” I stepped behind her to wash the back of her shoulders. “So, you still up for camping there?”

    “Sure am. We can start getting ready in a few days, once they do the last of the debriefing. Get some food and tools together. Maybe wash the sleeping bag.”

    “Yes, I think at least one of us has been shedding in it.”

    She laughed, and switched off the water. We stepped out and helped each other dry off. It’s always easier said than done with a coat of fur. Afterwards, we passionately made love on the bed. Once we finished, we just lay embracing beneath the blankets. Both of us had enjoyed it, and felt closer together than ever.

    As I lay there, breathing in Amius’ scent, my thoughts began to wander. So much had happened these past couple of weeks. Things we’d never seen coming, and would never forget. But now things were quieting down. We’d have the final debriefing in a few days, which would hopefully help us all come to terms with what we’d seen. Amius and I would have our long-awaited camping trip after that. Captain Pridux would need time to recover, but by then we would be ready to move on. Stonecutter would probably go off on his own, unless he signs on with us.

    I rolled over onto my back, and looked out the window. There was so much out there; more than any of us would ever see in our lifetime. But life went on regardless. Amius and I would travel around out there more together, alongside the rest of our crew, until we were ready to quietly settle down. One day. Until then, we’d just keep going.

    “Pixel for your thoughts,” Amius murmured.

    Rolling over to face her, I licked her lips in affection.

    “Just thinking about what’s going to happen now. We made it, didn’t we?”

    “Sure did. I had my doubts for a while, but it was…interesting. Not what I’d call fun, but it wasn’t all bad.”

    “I suppose. Up for more adventures?”

    “Someday,” she chuckled, closing her eyes.

    Smiling, I rubbed her between the ears. I suppose some more adventures couldn’t hurt. Running around a space station getting shot at wasn’t something I’d planned on doing, nor wanted to relive, but there were some highlights. We’d managed to save Stonecutter and the test subjects, and pieced together what had happened there. That station might not have been the best introduction to adventuring, but I got the impression that there was more to it.

    In any case, there was nothing more I could do tonight. Amius and I were both exhausted, so I figured it was time I got some sleep. Nestling my head against hers, I closed my eyes and let myself doze off.

    I first got the idea of what would eventually become Stranded shortly after creating the Desulti race suggestion. In particular, I wanted a piece of literature to provide some first-hand insight into how the Desulti behave and operate, as well as advertise the suggestion. I figured I could also tell a neat little story in the process.

    The original idea was a lot more basic than the final product. It was likely going to be a send up of The Lusty Argonian Maid (The Horny Desulti Sheila was one title idea), and would focus on two crewmates bonding. As a catalyst for their newfound closeness, I figured that their ship being stranded in space might serve; they would find themselves in an unfamiliar and stressful situation, and turn to each other for comfort. However, due to feature creep, the premise expanded to include the mystery behind the crew becoming stranded, along with other smaller storylines.

    Going off this basic premise, I began to develop further details of the overall plot. An early treatment had them discover an alien artefact on a derelict vessel or research station, which would turn out to be the cause for their ship’s failure. One development of this would be the apparent death of one character (who later became Amius) to the artefact, causing the main character (Virbon) to become devastated to the point where he believes she is still alive. Despite the crew’s objections, he unlocks the secrets of the artefact and saves Amius. However, this felt largely unnecessary, and was unused. The concept of boarding derelicts was kept, and became a large part of the final story.

    Around this time, I began to flesh out the characters more, and add to the cast. The first two characters would be the original couple, who became Virbon and Amius. The former was always going to be in a fairly practical role such as an engineer, and be something of an everyman (though it would be several chapters before his name was finalized). Amius, in contrast, eventually became more of an aspiring character with a desire to explore the galaxy as a pilot. As planned from the start, their gradually blossoming relationship would form one of the larger plot threads. I was originally going to have them express their feelings for one another towards the end of the story (perhaps as far as the epilogue), but moved this forward to chapter four just before Virbon and the others board the station.

    Since a ship needs a captain, Pridux was developed to fulfil this role. She was originally to be a male character, but this was quickly changed to diversify the cast. Considering the character’s natural leadership and military background, the gender change made her a more a more interesting character. Her reason for leaving the Aerospace Force would be a mystery for the most part, but eventually revealed to Virbon as Pridux recovers from her injuries on the station. Inspired by Starship Troopers, it was initially going to be a training accident leading to another’s death. However, after I began to explore the Draconian immigration laws of the Desulti (mirroring real life Australia in some ways), this was changed to the aftermath of an attack on a Pridux’s former ASF ship by Floran asylum seekers.

    Tiroti is loosely based on a kangaroo called Michael Hopkins from furry webcomic The Class Menagerie. He inherits his basic characterization; intelligent and dedicated, yet socially awkward. A more specific one that was considered was Mikey’s sexuality. In the course of the comic, Mikey turned out to be gay, and I considered carrying this over to Tiroti. I was reluctant of doing it just for the sake of it, and decided not to make a subplot about it. However, I did include several references of varying subtlety to his interest in Sannul (from taking a different tone of voice when speaking to him, through to eating together).

    To round off the crew, Sannul and Ultuf, a pair of a pair of bogan mechanics-turned-engineers, were added. They are depicted as being skilled yet unprofessional early on, but soon become valuable members of the crew. The main role of their inclusion is to depict a more laid-back and casual side of the Desulti, as well as provide more hands on the ship.

    With the cast assembled, the first chapter was written. In addition to introducing the characters, it depicted the ship’s drive failure and early repair attempts. Some early bonding between Virbon and Amius also took place, laying the foundation for their later romance. However, considering that this chapter jumped straight into the action, a prologue was added in order to introduce the characters more.

    Chapter two was nothing exciting, and mostly dealt with the continuation of repairs and location of the derelict. This was probably one of the hardest chapters to write. It was a challenge to make it interesting, considering there wasn’t a lot of action. The subsequent chapter, focusing on looting and salvaging the derelict, would prove to be more action-focused (complete with a spur-of-the-moment dream sequence, which I believe turned out rather well). With new parts and restocked supplies, attention turned to a new development; a survivor from the ship, now located on a hidden space station.

    The next few chapters set on the station are aimed at cementing the story into Starbound’s universe. The adventure plays out much like it would in the game; land in an abandoned space station, fight against the robots guarding it and rescue the survivor. The fighting action also plays to Starbound’s style; namely, being able to survive encounters with small groups of opponents by using cover and healing items (though the latter is shown to still be fallible, in the case of Captain Pridux’s injuries in chapter five).

    For an unexpected twist, the test subjects broke loose at the end of chapter four. The cast’s actions towards them would add some moral choice to the equation, particularly in whether or not the crew should leave them behind or try to rescue them. After some discussion, a compromise is made.

    On top of this, a scientist’s journal was included in chapter six to provide some answers to the mysteries behind the station. In some ways, this does appear to be overly convenient for the plot. However, much like the captain’s journal in chapter three, it does play a similar role to an in-game text; to inform the reader of another character’s actions before the current events of the plot.

    Writing the chapters on the station was varyingly difficult, with the last being the hardest of the three. Much like chapter two, I wanted to keep things interesting while accomplishing the necessary developments. Once that was wrapped up, it was back to the ship for chapter seven. From there, things would begin to draw to a close as the cast dealt with the aftermath of what they’d been through. Finally, with the arrival in civilized space in the epilogue, loose ends were tied up and visions turned towards the future.

    Looking back at the early chapters, it’s amazing to see how far Stranded has come. Admittedly, I’m fonder of the earlier chapters than the latter, but I am very pleased at how it turned out. This wasn’t my first piece of creative writing, but it is the longest and probably the most serious one.

    I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Pseudoboss, who almost singlehandedly provided all necessary feedback for the story. Without his work, what you have read would likely have been very different (and not in a good way). I’d also like to thank Linkthegamer and TvK, who provided quite a lot of feedback and support as well. Link is also responsible for coining the phrase “making space joeys”, which I couldn’t help but include.

    Finally, I’d like to thank all you readers of Stranded for your kind words and support, especially if you took the time to read this reflection. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I have writing it.
    Firepaw Da Cat likes this.
  2. Firepaw Da Cat

    Firepaw Da Cat The Fluffy Cat

    This was deleted? Jeez, I didn't even notice
    Well it's good you brought it back, it would suck if I couldn't read it again
    Jonesy likes this.

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