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 space-faring 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. 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 it, 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 it's 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 Astroid 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 forward 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; lattice-works 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 stared 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 slammed 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 pulse, a multitude of cuts gleaming dull red through her fur. 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 in 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 thoughts 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 synthesised 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.
Everything had gone wrong.
In fact, everything had categorically gone wrong. A textbook example of a first-encounter gone awry.
Captain Shir Minkfur felt uncomfortable, and it wasn't claustrophobia brought on by the cramped conditions of the escape pod.
This wasn't exactly pleasant, but normal. Shi had been trained for occasions such as this.
Her worry was more ephemeral. Ambiguous. An empathic, creeping malaise like a stormy night outside a bedroom window pane.
It made her want to curl up in a corner and cry; it was only getting worse.
She ran the last few days over in her mind. At least that was distracting.
It all began with that trail of debris. It could have been anything; rubble from a crashed ship, old relics or even a potential first contact.
Shi should have reported back to base, but she had been curious, and followed it like some silly cub stalking a grasshopper. Even now she had to admire the brilliance of it. The trail had led right to a desiccated old carrier, hanging broken and dead in space. It was a rather primitive model, even if it was alien. The missile racks and railguns she'd analysed wouldn't have worried her even if the ship were in mint condition.
It seemed there had been quite a battle. Shattered squadrons of tiny fighters had hung strewn like a nebulae of dead and twisted metal around the carrier, the gleam of a nearby sun creating a partially blinding spectacle of reflections.
Shi didn't pay attention to the tiny sensor anomalies in the wreck as she brought her ship in close in the hopes of identifying it. Old power cores, radiation from torn shielding; easy answers for all of it.
They took Occham's razor and used it to slit her throat.
Shi'd never forget the dull roar of nuclear fury tearing against her ship as the first of the fighters exploded in a rush of yellow fire. Staccato thuds as the old hulks opened fire for one last time.
It was too late to raise shields. Fuselage rent asunder under the onslaught.
It would never have worked if shi had kept her distance; raised hir shields; but they'd known that only the greedy or curious would come so far.
Neither would expect an ambush. At least not from the corpses that lured them.
Beautiful, in a sick sort of way.
Shi had run, fleeing down the halls as the Riviera died around hir, Shi'd have gone down with it, clung to the ship as it tore apart in an attempt to do something, anything, but hir heart was held by another, and so shi clung to life.
So shi sat in the small metal escape pod, hir navigator asleep against her shoulder. Hir first mate was staring at hir with an ocean's worth of concern.
"You can't blame yourself," he said simply.
"I don't! How many times do I have to tell you that, Jarah?" shi practically snarled back, shaking her head to dispel the visions of her destroyed ship. All her dead crew.
"It doesn't take an empath to see you are hurting, Shir."
Jarah was a good officer, Minkfur thought. Inventive and more level-headed than Rakshani reputation lead most to believe. It was a pity his cast-iron spine meant that shi butted heads with him more often then shi liked.
Shi didn't blame hirself, of course, but shi wasn't about to change hir tune just because he continued to believe otherwise.
Captains lived with their decisions.
Indecision was a pathetic excuse to attempt to live a blameless life.
Jarah shook his head imperceptibly as shi remained silent, calmly turning to look out through the cockpit while their captors towed them into uncertainty.
N'irs, their navigator, stirred on Minkfur's shoulder and nuzzled into the soft grey fur there – the source of the chakat's namesake. Hir head tilted until shi rested it against the little Caitan, feeling her anger ebb away.
Shi actually managed a smile.
N'irs was all blue eyes and brown hair which made it heard to believe that such disarming shyness could harbour a fierce heart.
Where Jarah was serene, the caitian was ruled by her emotions and had a tongue to match.
Minkfur's thoughts were promptly dashed by a soft impact that rocked the pod. A gentle sigh managed to struggle past the heavy exit hatch.
"It seems we have arrived," Jerah commented quietly. Minkfur chewed her lower lip. Situations such as these were never good for empaths: feeling all the fright only made her own worse.
The airlock slid open after a few moments of its own accord, the pod's subroutines obviously overridden by whatever they were forced to dock with.
The heavy metal doors hissed open. The air stirred as the stink of whatever lay beyond rushed in.
"Ye gods!" swore N'irs, waking up with jolt. The putrid air could have woken the dead and killed them again moments later.
"Where the hell are we?" Minkfur whispered, swallowing back bile. Nobody answered her.
"Well... we'd better go out..." shi added, trying to look calm and certain. She was still the Captain, after all.
She peeked out from around the airlock and saw hell.
There was no other word for it. Torn titanium jutted from scorched bulkheads, the ends melted down and hanging in beaded strings like the effluent of a bloody candle.
Rime smeared the ground, dried blood filling the cracks in the roughly hatched floor.
Jerah stepped forwards, his strong form blocking the exit hatch. Walling out the nightmare.
Bless the Rakshani. Some things just called for a warrior.
"I don't understand this," he stated. His voice remained calm as ever, but his hand strayed close to his sidearm. He was nervous, and that frightened Minkfur more then anything else.
"If there was someone here," he continued, frowning, "They would have cleaned the floors. Fixed the damage. If there aren't, then why? Why bring us here?"
"Automation?" N'irs piped up, practically cowering behind Minkfur's bulk. "I mean…" she paused to swallow nervously as Minkfur turned round to look at her, "What if the trap was automated? That would explain the lack of any life signs – just left it there to drag back anyone it catches."
"I hope not," Jerah muttered darkly, his ears flicking. "Dragged out here, stranded on some scrap-metal graveyard that barely has working life-support…" he glanced back, his eyes shadowed and grim. "We're too far out for patrols to find us. Even if the ship is still working I doubt there is a working replicator nor enough biomass to feed a rat on this hulk."
He looked back into the desecrated hallway and raised an eyebrow. "Unless we use corpses..."
"There's always each other," came a low chuckle that reverberated out of the dark.
Jerah pulled out his sidearm in a nervous blur, training alone keeping him from opening fire. His eyes were wide and staring, trying to pierce the darkness that hung cloying in the recesses of the fetid hallway.
"Who's out there?" he shouted, his voice echoing off the walls.
"No-one," the shadows answered. "Well, no-one of any consequence. I'm sorry, I'm being a horrible host,"
The voice sounded female, and honestly contrite, sounding out from the remnants of the onboard intercom.
"You know," the voice continued, "I forgot how good it feels to talk someone. To listen to something warm and bloody. Thank you." The bizarre apology ended with a sharp giggle.
Minkfur and N'irs exchanged looks. After a long moment, the chakat stood up and put a hand on Jerah's shoulder, pulling him to the side a little. She had earned her command by being able to use her empathic ability to stop disputes before they even arose. Time to earn her keep one more time. Clearing her throat she spoke:
"It's no trouble at all, really! Can you please tell me your name?"
Finally a sigh echoed down the hall. "It's Ain. Sorry, I'm being weird. Hell, caring about being weird is conversely weird in itself. See, you guys screwed things up for me. Okay? A lot of things. I just wanted to die out here. Alone. Now, however, this place is going to be a storm." She spoke with an odd accent, and with a shock, Minkfur realised it wasn't being translated. Why would unidentified aliens speak Terranglo? Did they have recon on the federation?
"Stars..." the voice continued, muttering the word like a curse. "Okay, here's the deal. I'm not your jailer. You don't need a jailer. As soon as you guys got grabbed, a quarantine order went out. There isn't an engine in the whole sector any more and all the radios on the base automatically slagged themselves. My job now is to make sure you don't blow this place up. Kill me. Or kill yourselves."
"Ourselves?" N'irs asked very quietly, peeking from around Minkfur's flank. "W-why would we do that?"
A derisive snort drifted back. "Shit if I know. Depression?" The naked lights in the hall flared and dimmed.
"Hell," Ain continued, giggling, "Look around yourself. Do you honestly need an excuse in this place?"
The lights came back with an odd crackle and she sighed again. "Stars, I've gotten weird out here. Come on, you're no safer in that pod than anywhere else. Besides, there's an exercise chamber out here. Some mess halls too. All sorts of crap down here really. I found a skull once. Oh! That reminds me. Computer core's off limits. Malice likes his brain. The last attendant died in there. Supposed to be an accident but I bet Malice killed his ass."
"He does that, killing. It's his job. That's why I brought it up, I think the skull belongs to the attendant." She paused for a moment, then continued, her voice thoughtful, "Or is it belonged? Does he still own his bones after he's dead?"
She cackled, a sound as empty and bitter as the rest of the station. "Hell. I'm going to go get drunk. Only way this place makes any goddamn sense. Rest of your crew should get here eventually. They're free to join me, with the drinking. I have enough vodka to keep you guys sane. Or nuts, whatever floats your boat. Don't break anything that's not broke already and don't go pissing around my room."
And with that quiet blanketed the scene.
The three Rivera crewmen shared a worried glance. What the hell was going on?
To be continued.
Chakat universe used with the permission of Bernard Doove.
The Nalis, NADA, and all characters herein are property of the author.
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