Beyond the Warmth of Home
A story by Cesium, Edited by Infalle.
Chakat universe used with the permission of Bernard Doove.
The Nalis, NADA, and all characters herein are property of the author.
A low, dying scream slid down the halls.
It crawled through her ears like the scrabbling legs of a cockroach.
As if in fevered sleep she stumbled along the narrow steel corridors of the space port, fingers tracing along teeth of cold steel that jutted out from the maw of the hallway.
Fluorescent tubes bathed the red walls in their harsh glare.
Dried blood spilled over chipped insignia that had been carved into the steel, forgotten names of those spacefaring giants whose corpses now sheltered her life.
If this iron hell could be called a shelter.
She paused in her fevered run, grabbing a loose cable for balance as the world swung beneath her feet.
It was starting again.
For a mere moment the blood on the walls was fresh; the cable in her hand a cut vein, rubbery and wet. She dropped it, tottering back over the putrefying flesh that covered the floor like vomit.
In some corner of her crazed mind she yearned for oblivion.
She choked back bile, her stomach uncaring whether it was part of this broken world or her shattered mind and watched in shaking silence as the flesh and blood dripped away until her world was washed back into it's original filth.
This was why she was exiled here. Her reassignment a bitter mercy, like a battlefield amputation.
Back to the wall she slid down and placed her forehead against her knees.
A broken wreck.
Honoured Associate, they called her. It was a sick joke.
But it was all just fears.
Ain cursed the morning.
Fluorescent tubes flickered into life, the harsh light glaring. She raised her arm to shield her eyes and rolled out of the old sheets that stunk of vodka and sweat.
Her cot grumbled its old complaint, a creaky sigh to greet another day.
She sat on the edge of the bed for a few seconds and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Then she spat, then steadied her breathing in an attempt to reduce the pounding in her skull.
It took five minutes, but in the end she managed to assemble her plan for the day in spite of the hangover.
Get up. Brush teeth. Man station. Get drunk until bedtime.
Same as every day.
She pushed herself onto her feet, swayed, then groped her way to the bathroom.
Until recently she used to go to ship's gym, but after suffering a violent episode there, she really couldn't face it. Not with all the equipment there.
A few pounds more or less. Who cared?
She glanced down at her feet. She could see them, so that was okay, even if her black and electric blue fur patterning made her headache even worse.
Gritting her teeth she steadied her nausea and turned on the water, letting it sputter over her brush. Toothpaste. She began to scrub her fangs. They were long and white and rather too large for her jackal skull, but then the Nalis hadn't been entirely conservative in her design.
In fact, her whole design simply said 'fuck you' to both evolution and caution.
As a result she had three livers, two hearts and a left arm that was only good for tearing out vital organs.
She also had some other problems.
It wasn't fun, living other people's nightmares.
So she lived in this little automated outpost in the middle of dead space.
At least here she only had to deal with her own.
She spat out the toothpaste, thankful that the cloying paste washed away some of the sickly taste of her mouth.
Wiping her mouth, she pressed an old intercom button, the plastic rasping in its slot.
"Malice, status report,"
The A.I. took a while to respond. When it finally did its voice dripped with a sort of deadpan cheerfulness. "Today we have jack shit, with a 95.8% chance of jack shit this afternoon. Looking at the five day forecast, we have a steady trend of jack shit all throughout the Outpost 62 area. Back to you, Ain!"
"Asshole." she replied with a snort before silencing the intercom with her fist.
It was her job to look after Malice.
It was Malice's job to look after her and this little pocket of space, far in the outer-reaches of the Nalis's control.
He followed the latter with perverse glee, especially ever since he wrote Asteroid Protocol 72-1. It authorized him to shoot down anything that was over five grams and contained nickel.
She went back to her room and, albeit briefly, considered changing out of her stained nightgown. Malice would tease her about the fall of standards but she really didn't care.
Honoured Associate they called her. That entitled her to the rights of a true Nalis, so she could wear as little clothing as they did, which was none at all.
Never mind that they were machines.
She stepped out of her small steel room and out into the small steel corridor of her small steel home.
Like a sardine can in space.
The halls of Outpost 62 were not a thing to inspire confidence. Shackled together from the salvaged remains of destroyed spaceships, the Nalis went further and twisted the already scarred metal.
Dried blood and thruster burns spattered the walls, jagged and torn bulkheads thrust iron teeth into causeways.
Ain tread carefully along a narrow, winding passage, force of habit letting her lurch out of way of sharp edges almost automatically by now. Amid the ragged holes and dangling cords she shivered, her hand trailing to the back of her neck to smooth down the beginnings of a nervous tingle.
A low, aching creak started to slide throughout the space port; she could almost feel it skitter across her skin.
Her hand clenched reflexively, dirty nightgown and soft fur like a security blanket in her grip.
She breathed faster, the quick, light pant of a cornered rat as the creak built up to wavering keen.
The sound twisting itself into her own dying scream.
They were just fears.
She forced herself forwards as quickly as she could make herself move. To hide. To escape.
A shred of paneling fell away with the low sucking of dead flesh. It clanged harshly against the floor, perversely punctuating her rising heartbeats.
Pulsing arteries grew like cracks from the hole it left, dark red and lurid as they spread like the net of a spider. Moving through the walls like maggots through flesh.
She was running now. Fevered. Unsure where she started. Unsure when she'd finally be put down.
They raced after her; latticeworks of bleeding chicken-wire. Guided towards her across the raw, rotting floor by nightmares acting as puppeteers for an abattoir.
Teeth lunged from the walls. Leaping like vipers and shining as white as a new sun.
Ain felt her shoulder split like a seething boil, saliva and pus spurting from her suppurating flesh. She spun and fell, the ground hitting her violently. The stench of bile overcame her.
She started into the grinning dark. A sea of cutting damp washing over her, into her, invasive tendrils. Hot as pain. Cold as death. Draining the colour from her mind.
Her fingers slam against the cold steel. Scrape. Broken claws leaving bloody tracks across the metal and reality slipped in through the closing door of insanity like a cat.
It felt like eternity, but Ain stirred. Her head came up from the cold steel floor, eyes meeting the flickering hallway that should be there. Her chipped fingers felt a crack in the wall and she lifted herself up and leaned against it with a groan.
The left side of her body throbbed in time with her pulsed with a multitude of cuts. The dark sheen on her left arm's claws suggesting that her own mad flailing as the cause.
Her breathing started to slow.
"That wasn't so bad," she muttered to herself and took a resolute step forwards, trusting her weight to her legs. They held. "That's a good girl," she crooned gently, "That's right. Just take another step..."
Emboldened, she started to walk.
Vodka. She needed a drink.
The thought sustained her as she forced herself to the control room.
A large set of blast doors barred her way and she slumped against them, her eyes tightly closed. Her fist slammed into the metal.
"Malice," she began, her voice cold, "Let me in."
She didn't have to wait, for once. The doors grinding open almost before she had finished, orange flecks spraying from the old mechanism. Rust stung her nostrils. Malice was always very well behaved after one of her fits; worried that she'd file a euthanasia request and have him saddled with some tightwad who didn't spend half their time sloshed.
Thank the stars for small blessings.
Vodka. She needed a drink.
She made her way over to the control chair and collapsed into it; snatching the clear plastic bottle from under the control desk she tore the neck free with her fangs with single-minded need. Thrusting the shredded channel down her throat she gulped greedily at the painful comfort. The heady burn warming her stomach.
After almost a minute the last dregs slipped easily down her throat and she slammed the empty husk onto the desk. She settled back, letting a heartfelt sigh slip from her lips as the tension left her knotted muscles. Ain sat, waiting, as her thought started to slow and dim, keeping the wolf at the door.
Whatever her perverse excuse for a gift was, it couldn't operate with her mind blurred on alcohol.
It was lucky that she had some synthesized for her any time she liked.
Her eyes lidded.
"Malice, I want... I want today to be as uninteresting as posshible," she said, her voice beginning to slur. "That means you don't bitch, and I don't ask questions."
After a long minute, he replied: "Even if it's important?"
The hope in his voice was just too much.
Ain cursed under her breath. "Just what the fuck did you find?"
A low rise and fall of static came through the speakers. Malice was sighing. "There was a patrol vessel."
Ain swore, but Malice hadn't even begun. "It was Stellar Federation. I tried to consult, but you were otherwise... engaged. I managed to destroy them before they could transmit, but there are survivors."
Ain remained quiet for a moment, before hurling the empty bottle across the room. "Fuck. FUCK!"
She buried her face in her hands and scrubbed furiously, bloodshot eyes squeezing tight shut. This would mean an evaluation, minimum. The Achera was probably already on its way. Of course all those poor terrified bastards would be on the station well within her ability to receive. Oh, gods, if the Nalis performed an inquisition on the station...
The mere notion of other people, more fears frightened her more then the nightmares.
She sat stock still for a long while, hunched over and trying hard not to cry. She grabbed another bottle and cradled it to herself before letting the raw spirits gush down her throat.
"The survivors can be retrieved in six days. The Achera is currently on assignment, probably two months minimum for return."
Yet another vodka bottle learned to fly.
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