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Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Fiction · Fanfiction · #1853579
One dimension-hopping ship plus a crew determined to find their way home.
[Introduction] Goals:
Avoid being caught by the Powers That Be, who want to kill me and my crew, and retrieve my dimension-traveling ship.
Gather enough power to punch a whole in the fabric of the universe. If we can do this, we can sail right into the Between (a sort of limbo) which is pretty much the only place where we will be safe from the Powers that Be, and their Enforcers.

The Powers That Be: A race of space-travelers who harvest resources from other dimensions. Because they can't easily cross between the dimensions, they send Gathers out in special ships to trade with locals, and to harvest as many magic artifacts and advanced technologies as possible.

Enforcers: A sort of oppressive police force, who enforce the laws of the Powers That Be. They bring back people who try to stop gathering. Anyone who attempts to hand in their resignation gets hunted down and executed. The more you alter the timeline of the dimension you are in, the easier it is for the Enforcers to track you down. However, staying too long in one dimension guarantees eventual capture.

Gathers: We act as pack mules/traders and bring back resources to the main dimension. However, the more contact you spend with out-of-dimension objects, the more damage you sustain. Your body might slowly rot from the inside out, or if you are lucky you will die quickly and painlessly.

Energy: The energy that powers the ship is generated by the changed you make in a dimension. The trick is to make enough changes to build up significant energy, without making such drastic changes that you raise the alarm.

Dimensional Pockets: A kind of cheat. We can't expand the ship any larger than it is, which leaves living space at a premium. Thus, we store things in dimensional pockets; pinched off pieces of the universe that can expand to hold infinite amount of items. Unfortunately, they can't take the strain of inter-dimensional travel and will disintegrate (and so will anything stored inside). Luckily, they are easy to generate, so we always have ample storage space.

Rules:
Every rule we have is dedicated to avoid harm to the crew and the ship, or to avoid alerting the enforcers.
1. Avoid making huge changes to the dimension you're in. If you do, it sounds the alarm and gets you busted.
2. Don't stay in a dimension for too long. If you do, you'll find yourself caught. No matter how unobtrusive you are being, they will eventually figure out your location.
3. People from other dimensions cannot join your crew, if they are supposed to be dead. You can save their lives, and change the reality, but they must not travel with you. Otherwise, your ship might not take the strain, and will rip-apart during travel.
4. Ordinary, not-missed objects can travel with you. Big, powerful objects might sound the alarm.
5. Do not try and bring powerful objects or anything crucial to the dimensional thread. At best it will be like mild exposure to radioactive materials.

About Me:
My appearance can change depending on the dimension I am traveling in. My actual appearance is that of a skinny, pale geeky-sort of chap with curly black hair that never lies flat and eyes the color of burnished silver (or aluminum foil, as my apprentice likes to say.)

My Crew:
My apprentice, Aaron Hooper, is a proud ginger, with an attitude as fiery as his hair. Always by my side is my friend Michael Sparrow. He is a big, hefty sort of chap who takes his assignment (keeping me alive and kicking) very seriously. Not by my side, but always loyal (but not willingly) is Damian. He was caught doing something very bad (he won't tell me what) and was bound with some sort of enslavement artifact. I transferred ownership to myself so that I could find a way to free him, but so far no luck. He seems genuinely fond of me, but it's impossible to tell what he is really thinking at any given time.
My ship is a pretty good sort, although sometimes I wish it had a little more room. I'm thinking the TARDIS from Doctor Who, for example ("It's bigger on the inside!") We use some handy-tool to pinch off bits of the universe, to form dimensional pockets, big bags of nothing. This sounds like a useless tool, until you realize that dimensional pockets can store just about any item, and has nearly unlimited space. However, I can't say it was a good idea to throw perishables in there, because we once threw a whole crate of fresh fish inside one and assumed the cold and lack of air would keep them from spoiling. If you have taken microbiology, you will have of course figured out that some bacteria can survive cold, airless environments. By the time we figured this out, everything we took out from the pocket smelled like rotten fish.

These pockets have a downside, they can't handle the stress of inter-dimensional travel. They crumble and fall apart, leaving a trail of stored items scattered through the edges between dimensions. This was unfortunate, because this meant we had to store anything we gathered in the ship's hold, and that space was at a premium. We didn't have the advanced weaponry or guided missiles to use against the three Enforcer ships that were chasing us. Currently, they were dots in the distance, but that would soon change. They continued to barrel towards us, and I knew that if we didn't turn ourselves in, they would start to fire on our ship with every laser cannon in their arsenal.
And who could know what else.
We needed somewhere to hide from these 'enforcers' while we attained our bearings and figured out a plan - you couldn't fly a bloody inter-dimensional starship without a plan, back in those days. So, there I was, in the map room. A great sphere you float right in the middle of, suspended on a bauble in extremely low gravity that you could drift on, glorious. Each display hovered in three dimensions of space, glittering like stars against the beautiful black background of space that was held on the single smooth wall of the sphere, affording a full view as provided by a thousand cameras on the hulls of the ship. And then the windows, brilliance of every hue hovering on command, waiting for a mere twitch of a finger and flick of an eye to roll into the foreground and empty its digital contents, one for every system, every message, every warning and every report. Glorious. Had to be my favourite room.

So, there I was, in the map room. Spinning on a little bauble exuding the tiniest, softest gravitational field there ever was for proper manoeuvring in flight, they were glorious fun, those baubles. You see, when you're flying in no or negligible gravity you need something to steady you, some fixed point. In bigger rooms you had to go from the walls and that could complicate things. So, the architects had a problem, because they'd just gotten all this free space to build and now they couldn't use it, and they took it to the engineers, who just love these sorts of pranks. They came up with the bauble after trying all too many protruding mechanical devices, which always ended up leaving floating unconscious members of the crew stranded in the middle of the room, and the technology has kinda filtered down, as all great things do, until we got it. Now, to use it you had to have a certain knack; you needed to have the strength in your wrist to pivot your body on a bauble, the flexibility not to then break your body doing it and the presence of mind to always keep it in reach -the gravitational field was intended as more of a safety device- but then, if you really wanted to use it, there was alot of flailing with your legs and hip thrusting. But it was glorious, absolutely glorious, fun. The mechanical devices also found their uses, in various, decent... Fields.
I would have been enjoying myself if I wasn't so concerned about our present situation. Instead, I found myself cursing every Enforcer's mother as I navigated. My biggest fear was that we wouldn't have enough time to jump between dimensions, and the Enforcer ships would come along for the ride, bringing them with us to any reality we cared to travel to. Frankly, I didn't have time to input exact co-ordinates, and I certainly didn't have time to calculate anything (although thankfully, the computer in our ship could handle most of the work.) I kept one eye on the proximity display and tried to keep on eye on the navigation screen.

Trying to steer a starship is not always the easiest thing to do. Jumping dimensions is difficult, and impossible without the ship's AI. The act itself is extremely simple. To put it in oversimplified terms, you punch a hole in the fabric of space and time, and then fly through. Without a good, solid plan you would miss the co-ordinates you were aiming for, enter a reality that was completely incompatible with human life, or worse yet enter the wormhole at the wrong angle and find your ship breaking apart.

At the training academy, they used to tell us horror stories. So-and-so was in a hurry, and smashed into the wormhole. This captain managed to bring an enemy warship back, which promptly began attacking the docking station. That captain flew through, and everything went smoothly, until he flew right into a black hole that happened to be in the flight path. The most famous story was about captain Mark Hamlin, who made a wrong turn and wound up in a whole new reality where time moved differently. The entire crew aged so fast that they couldn't even make it to navigation before they died. The ship was never recovered, but the video feeds became required viewing for all Gatherers-in-training. The sight of his crew aging before your eyes like something out of a horror movie was memorable, to say the least.

To make my point, I wasn't just going to throw in co-ordinates and hope the ships navigation computer protected us from a bad decision. With time at a premium, I did the only thing that I could think of, and jumped to the universe immediately parallel to the one we were currently floating in. It was easy for the computer to calculate, and it would buy us a minute or two while the Enforcers tracked us.
And I was greeted by that reassuring vista of the intergalactic black, unmarred and unmolested by any Enforcer battle barrels. Except, the sensors had of course indicated that there had been a minor difference in the creation of this particular universe, as there always is, and it had cascaded, as it always does, resulting in a particular star system, galaxies distant, being born some handful of years early. And as by the inter-dimensional, cruel hand of Fate we were positioned in a decidedly unsynchronised orbit over a sphere, 300 million kilometres, as indicated by a protruding display, in diameter.

The sphere didn't manage to make much of a change to the black vista, so I continued to watch it with the fascination of an amateur astronomer while my crew made to observe the situation and inform me of our new intended destination. We didn't have long, but they didn't need long. One's sense for treasure can be honed over a matter of years to a surprising keenness.

You understand; as Fate wills it, our ship, more often than not, finds itself above some point of importance in a given universe's reality. Twenty three in forty and a half, I think. And places of importance in any given universe's reality are highly valued by those Enforcers -Pirates, more like- and their 'gods', so they are an ideal sort of place to escape into, if only for a time. They also often contain items of no insignificant use, which the boys dearly enjoy the obtaining of. But, rest assured, they cannot be any powerful, universe-changing artefacts for the trouble it causes us in transportation and on account of how inhumane it would be to make any dramatic changes to another dimension.
The Powers That Be used to harvest valuable artifacts indiscriminately, not caring about the effects they had on the universes that they plundered. They would bleed a dimension dry, not caring that sometimes the damage was terrible enough to ripple along dimensions directly parallel to the universe they were harvesting. They realized that this was losing more resources that it was gaining, so they stopped being quite so extreme. They never cared that the transport was difficult and gravely dangerous for the Gatherers, either. I swore the day I left their service, stealing a ship and a crew, that I would never be like them.

Of course, I don't always keep the promises I make to myself. My personal policy was to always have back-up co-ordinates ready, in case we were discovered. It was ignoring this self-enforced safety rule that got me into a pickle moments earlier. The excuses I mumbled to myself about being discovered much earlier than expected sounded lame, even to my ears. I eventually had two secure jumps selected. The crew immediately gave me list of possible-jump co-ordinates, while we waited for the computer to give us a more secure destination. Those required some fairly complex calculations, and even the computer was taking it's time (and double checking every piece of data).

That important task completed, I began to relax. To be honest, I found the sphere strange. I've seen gravity-less planets, life-forms the size of miniature suns, and planets made of gases that existed nowhere else in the whole multiverse. I had never seen anything like the sphere, not during a parallel jump from a universe that was about as vanilla as they come. Even given the amount of changes normally seen between direct-parallel universes, this was a pretty big difference. If the the numerous screens were to be believed, this universe should not be able to support something like the sphere. The arrangement of galaxies and planets was completely different than the parent universe. I'd expect to see a planet, a black whole, or even a wormhole or two. This sphere was curious, and with back-up co-ordinates calculated, I decided to spare the few minutes it would take to send a probe out.
I sent a probe out and sat back to watch the displays drift by, you might see the wonders of the universe but nothing quite stirs the soul like the wonder that you may call your own. They would drift and bob along as according to pre-programmed behaviours so complex that it could be mistaken for sentience, or my own brilliance, and with as little input as a glance they would respond, with as much input as a wave they would dance.

The probe's flash of burning white in the background draw my gaze and the windows speedily flew, hopped and flashed out of the way, only to crowd in again, as if with interest, on the particular event that now held the perspective of my pupils. The probe was propelled by a very powerful engine that spit out small amounts of incredibly energetic particles, the type of machine that runs on the same principles that allow for effortless cross-dimensional travel. So bright, in fact, that as it lit up like a small star, the surface of the Sphere for a great while in every direction glowed. This bright white of the probe's super-hot ejections brought out every possible hue of this astronomically vast body -larger than many red giants- such that the Sphere now gleamed a breath-takingly stunning rainbow of jet black against the jet black of intergalactic space.

The displays flooded in like an ocean suspended on air as my bored eyes drifted and my bored body followed. Minutes stretched ever so long, out here on the final frontier.
These probes were expensive, and hard to come-by. Of course, I didn't pay for it, I sort of stole it from an abandoned Enforcer ship that I stripped. Nonetheless, it was a nice little item, and in all probability I wasn't going to get my hands on another for a long time. The probe continued to orbit the sphere, taking reading after reading. The probe took temperature readings, and reflectance, energy levels, and others standard to almost any universe. It didn't just test for elements known in my home dimension, but it took readings to determine if there were any previously undiscovered elements.

The temperature came back as an error message: "Unable to take reading," which was the computer's way of saying it couldn't take a reading, but didn't know what the problem was. Attempts at discovering physical or chemical properties proved completely fruitless.

If the probe's reading were accurate, the sphere didn't seem to exhibit any influence on this universe. Oh, it existed physically in this universe, yet the probe could physically interact with it's obsidian surface. Yet if it sent any beams out they seemed to travel right through the sphere without hitting anything. I could see the sphere with my own eyes, and any images the probe took rendered normally. The light from the probe traveling around the sphere reflected off the surface, yet any light beam seemed to transmit straight through; the path was not bent, reflected, or absorbed.

It was beautiful, I had to admit that. I had wasted enough time trying to figure the sphere out, but I continued to take more readings. And the more readings the probe took the more evident it became that this sphere was like nothing else discovered in the multiverse.
So, in the meantime I was stumped. Absolutely stumped. No idea of where to go from there, of possibilities that might be, I decided to allow the probe to fulfill every scan it was capable of while I bobbed about the ship. The logical course might have been to run, and at full speed, away from this universe toward one of the less conspicuous ones -one of the parallel dimensions that aren't entirely unique, for example- but in space, one learns never to shy from opportunity and mysterious circumstances as every explorer of true heart and soul is inevitably rewarded by Fate. The crew knew this and would also not allow me to run. They were now sitting in the port docking bay -closest the Sphere- speculating in most civil manner the matters at hand, so I decided against bobbing in that direction.

Instead, I left my map room through the starboard exit that opened up to engulf me. The map room, making use of the smooth wall as it did, was built of a particular type of material that would allow ease of transport through to the passages that abutted by the wall creating and opening a mouth, shaped like one, so that the commuter did not pass through by their autonomous control, -or volition- but was rather passed through by a complicated set of lips. I personally designed and implemented the glorious feature. I had much control over the design of the ship, as one does, after the full ownership was transferred to myself, and went about several inconsequential changes that were thought, by all involved parties, to be entirely beneficial to the ship and crew. Amongst these changes were the map room, as you know, which was placed at the very centre of the ship, a simple ship-wide command, for convenience's sake, that would turn on the lights whenever someone entered a room and, if that person were myself, would turn off the artificial gravity and a series of cameras placed in the ship's various ways and rooms at strategic locations for the sole purpose of keeping a close eye on potential hull breaches and structural flaws - the existing systems that monitored room pressure and other environmental factors were inefficient.

I flew through at high speeds down some particular corridors that I knew to be uninterrupted and knocked my head on a jutting camera fixture. Continuing down a couple more corridors, I found a mess hall for two and a bedroom for a dog against the starboard hull - past the great bulkheads of the storage compartments which comprised most of the innards of my ship, if you must know. I settled down in the bedroom and gazed out the window into the black, again. Wondering when I would be notified that the probe had completed its scans. What was later revealed to be minutes seemed to go on like days.
Strangely enough, it was my 'apprentice', Aaron Hooper was the one who came to fetch me. He was hitting the call button on the panel next to the door of my bedroom. I checked the monitor to see who wanted me, and saw his face on the screen. He was the only one on my ship with hair that vibrant. The crew called him 'carrot top' and he tolerated it with good humor, but I always felt that it looked as though his hair was on fire. I could recognize him anywhere, even on a broken video feed. I'd put in an order to have the thing fixed ages ago, but it was never a big priority. Anyone who appeared on the monitor had white lines running through them.

A state of the art ship and the damn video system was busted. Oddly enough, this was the only video feed on the entire ship that had this problem consistently reoccur. Ah well, such is life.

I buzzed him in without a second thought. Hooper was as ill-suited to life on a ship, as he was ideal for exploratory missions. As a Gatherer, was was skilled, but like me he would never had lasted in service. If my crew had any reservations about my choice of Aaron, they were quashed after seeing him out in the field.

"Captain Griffin," Aaron began.

"Yes?"

"Damian has been looking at the readings," he began. This was fairly unusual, because Damian only examined something in depth if he thought it could be used against the Powers That Be. "You know, he thinks that it's some kind of stasis ship." Stasis ships are usually large, although small on living space. They don't keep passengers alive permanently, but they do put them in a hibernation-like state.

"Is he kidding? It's too damn big!" Not to mention, it lacked the typical wheel-shape; a central support hub and spokes. More damningly, it was not exhausting the vast quantities of waste and energy that these kinds of ships give off, in extremely copious amounts, even with recycling systems.

"Actually, " said Hooper, as if guessing my inner monologue. "He wants to see you right away in his room. He's found a solution to that particular problem."

I sighed, my enthusiasm dampened by the thought of sitting through a long, complicated lecture, full of theoretical concepts I would not be able to understand. Nonetheless, I found myself eagerly gliding down corridor after corridor until I reached Damian's workroom. I typed my pass-code into the lock, which also read my fingerprints while I keyed in the numbers.

I expected to see Damian at his usual place, sitting behind piles of books, old hand tools, and machinery parts. He wasn't there, so I walked through a sealed door into his laboratory. It was clean-looking, with racks of pipettes, beakers, and test tubes. For complex analysis, he would borrow the med-bay laboratory, but he could run simple assays at his workbench. He was sitting at his bench, engrossed in a portable reader. As I got closer, I could see that he had downloaded the probe data onto it.

Damian is a member of my crew, but he's bound to me with an antiquated slavery artifact. I couldn't destroy the evil piece of junk, so I made myself his 'master' and erased all the encoded instructions. Damian is thus no longer required to be honest, passive, or obedient. He doesn't seem to care a whit about my crew (outside of Aaron Hooper and Michael Sparrow), although he is still very fond of me. It's sincere (not enforced by the slavery artifact), and it doesn't stop him from being a sarcastic, heartless, pain in my backside.

"Please explain to me how that thing could possibly be a stasis ship," I said.

"Not in the mood for smalltalk, I see." He could see how impatient I was, so he went right to business. "Yes, I believe that the central hub is at the very center, and the spokes are honeycombed throughout the ship. This would maximize the amount of passengers that could be carried, although it would require a very large ship to be practical."

'What about all the waste that would build up? Recyclers would be very inefficient, and carbon dioxide and waste would have nowhere to go. There's no visible outlet for exhaust. And I fail to see how a sphere of that size could propel itself; the engines alone would be the size of an entire fleet put together!"

"I actually have not solved the propulsion difficulty,' said Damian. "However, I did solve the exhaust problem. While you were waiting for results, the sphere did exhaust several tons of waste." He showed me the screen which did confirm what he'd said. The readings were consistent. "Notice anything unusual?" he said. He focused in on the surface, magnifying the view, so that I could see that there wasn't a single opening.

"Explain," I said, hoping that Damian would start making sense at any moment.

"I haven't been able to get a sample of the sphere's material, it seems impossible. However, it seems that whoever created this object has discovered a long-sought building technique. It was theorized but never put into practice." I could sense another lecture coming, and I wasn't sure if I should take a chance and break for the door. "I'll put it in very simple words," he snapped, seeing my deer-in-headlights expression. "First, they built the stasis ship, as they normally would. The shell itself is built of an extra dimensional material that can exist as a seamless exterior. The ship no longer seems to exist in a dimension, as long as the shell remains closed."

I said, "This is ridiculous." It was all my tired brain could think of.

"It's amazing," said Damian. "If we hadn't managed to catch them venting, we might have never have realized it was a ship!" I could feel a headache building. It was probably psychosomatic, but it still hurt like the dickens.
"But they did vent and showed us about all we needed to know. They mustn't have known we were here." Damian continued, "Which brings into mind interesting questions about the nature of this hull and more useful questions about its penetrability. As you know, from the probe's findings..."

Damian's voice echoed in my skull, summoning up a maelstrom of such crippling pain that I fell to the floor, writhing in my agony. I screamed for mercy but I received no response to my suffering other than a tired sort of look from my torturer as of he who has bestowed the punishment before and gave it no more thought than the suffering of an insect.

"Stop being so ridiculous and get up," his mind-reaping words bore down upon me like knives, "You can't keep throwing tantrums like this every time something even remotely related to work comes up. You're a captain. Get up."

I got up.
With no small amount of suffering, I struggled to my feet and looked down into the well massaged eyes of my oppressor. "Can we go now?" said Damian, standing up and briskly making toward the bridge, located below the map room, only a few short corridors away.
A great door covered in engravings and suitably grand artworks in bas relief parted into the walls to allow Damian onto the bridge, bringing the many crew members to their feet in respectful salute. He strode down the red carpet, between rows of glowing stations, to his own throne at the head of the entire affair, elevated above the mere workers who maintained the ship's regular functions, lending their own minds to the vastness of the computer's. Balconies from where entire orchestras and the fanfare of cheering onlookers may have once sounded his advance lay in the arching walls to either side, the soft, holy light which gave the room an ethereal glaze now struck his seat with what could only be described as a brilliance as he lowered himself and surveyed this cathedral dedicated to himself. And just above his heavily ornamented throne, a portion of the map room jutted.

The wall of the map room turned transparent as I floated up to it, allowing me a proper view into the bridge, and the bridge to me in my rightful place. My ecstatic giggle bounced against the walls and instilled itself forcefully in the minds of every crewman present. "Charge!" went forth the command and the ship's mighty engines pushed it to a chugging crawl, directed at the heart of the Sphere.

The probe had recently discovered that with a little application of that sort of technology which allows one to travel through parallel universes with ease, the hull of the Sphere could be easily breached and the soft, vulnerable innards exposed. We had lost connection to it after some violent readings which indicated it had probably been shot down, very understandably considering the output of its engines, and so we had, wisely, decided to throw our whole ship through. An unspoken decision, based upon the well-known workings of Fate.
Simply entering the sphere unprepared, not knowing if anything dangerous was waiting within was a terrible idea. However, there was a surprisingly simple solution to that. We used a modified version of sonar that would be useful when dealing with a planet-size ship with an unknown schematic. Our ship pushed through without encountering resistance, and we found ourselves navigating the empty spaces probably used to aid in quick travel (I'd ask Damian about that, but I couldn't handle another lecture).

First, I sent out a message; a series to beeps at various auditory ranges. It forms a pattern that cannot be mistaken for random even a universe full of natural background noise. It doesn't tell them if we are friend or foe, but does give them some warning. An enemy is not like likely to send out advanced warning before an attack, so they should guess that we mean them no harm.

We hadn't prepared for a smooth landing, but according to the readings, it should be easy to fly along the corridors that crossed throughout the ship. I navigated them easily; these must have been created for this very purpose. Although the width enough for our ship to pass safely, these passageways were probably intended for smaller transports.

We were pinged by a small security ship, flying behind us. I replied back requesting a landing site, but did not receive a formal answer. Instead, I was given a flight path. This in itself was a message, "Don't deviate from the path, and we'll let your ship land in one piece." I should have felt worried, but I felt only a sense of growing excitement. This was something new, something utterly beyond my experience.
The wall of the map room showed me sights carrying such significance as to lend them a gloss of amazement and wonder. Swarms of windows full of data collected, harvested, from this new environment veritably buzzed with impotent fury as I brushed them aside to gaze with my own eyes at the view-screen in front of me.

I was, by this point, ecstatic. Every thought of the possibilities that lay around the ship and the immensity that lay beyond -the number of 'one and twenty four zeroes' recurred often- only made me more restless and I was bouncing off the wall, shouting at the slightly stunned bridge below, when it occurred to me to harass the security ship behind us. Bypassing the diplomatic precautions of the ship, age old measures designed to ease relations between extremely powerful ships and disallow the poisoning of those relations by one brash individual, I hailed the vessel that was currently emitting almost lethal amount of radiation in scanners conventional and not with an urgency a level below utmost. I was immediately answered by the apparition of a human projected, made on the slippery right slope of the uncanny valley which mouthed at me in rough time to an intoned question of, "What is it that is an official matter of instability?" to which I replied with, "Who are you?" and "What are you?" and "Where are we?" but by this time the connection had been closed. I took a moment of physical repose while I pondered the possible meanings of the hastily designed contact. When I attempted to re-establish the conference, I was refused by the aliens, when I attempted to raise the urgency to utmost, I was denied access by the computer.

So I diverted my attention back to the wall, displays all about, and watched the corridor go by. The walls of the corridor were divided into sections in a very haphazard way, as if the creators could not bring themselves to care about the constraints of physical space, each section presumably devoted to a singular purpose, how they stretched on in all three dimensions in a very immense way, that could only be guessed at, considering the strangeness of it all.

What I saw was
Beautiful, wide open space.

The landing site was far more massive than I could have anticipated. I was anticipating a small, out-of-the-way platform - a way to keep me from the important, inner hub that maintained the entire ship. Instead, I got a landing platform that was more of a small-scale spaceport. Row after row security ships, ready to take off at a moments notice. Bays stuffed full of transport ships, from small carriers the size of your average van, designed to quickly cart small loads to a few the size of tankers.

It was jarring; one moment I was winding through a vast tangle of sectioned corridors, hinting at the complex function of the hallways and rooms contained within the walls of the ship's functional space. The next moment I was face to face with the hub of the ship, it's nerve center. It controls atmosphere, gravity, maintains order, controls the transport of supplies, and if needed becomes the final defense against an impending breach. What impressed me most was the expanse of space surrounding it. When I looked at the screens, I could barely see the hints of safety lights that marked off the outermost boundaries.

While letting a strange ship into your most critical center might seem unsafe, my crew and I quickly realized that attempting any form of violence would be futile. The hub was so large (and no doubt had redundant systems to prevent failure of any critical life support systems), that any weapons we threw at it would barely make a dent in it's major functions. Moreover, it was well-defended, by every standard form of automated defense.

Drones buzzed around our ship like flies, none capable of doing real damage, but nearly impossible to hit, even with precision lasers. They scanned our ship constantly, and our ship was soon alight with their questing light beams. Security bots from small independent models to large, manned suits. Laser-controlled turrets, in sufficient quantity to drain any shielding, not with power but by the sheer number of strikes.

What threw me for a loop wasn't the level of security. It wasn't unexpected, not for the most critical center of the stasis ship. It was their map room, life support, and central computer, and much more. No, what baffled me was the wide variety of technologies and ships I could see. They were gathered from across the universe, or that's what it looked like to me.

Some were cold, metallic in design while others looked organic. A few of the ships looked like modified water craft, from one of the several planets with a surface completely covered in a single, vast ocean. One didn't merely look organic in design; it looked to be a living, breathing, plant-based life-form. Some of the security bots, on closer inspection, were vicious Psi-Dogs, capable of stunning an unprotected human in one of two blasts of energy. That's what we called them, because their native-given name is unpronounceable by human tongues. They are (as far as we know), found only on Apox VII, which happens to exist in one known dimension. In all other alternate versions of the Kerebus system, only Apox I to Apox VI can be found.

Well, this was interesting. Either this was scavenging anything and everything it came across, of this ship had taken up the extremely difficult task of maintaining numerous alien races in stasis. I didn't have time to further reflect on this, because I was greeted by a small luxury vehicle, flanked by four security ships. If the other small carrier ships were the taxis and trucks, than this was the limousine.

I found myself instantly taking notice.
For, in the proud tradition of space limousines everywhere, its surface was a gold, polished to blinding perfection. And gold was inter-dimensionally valued. It carried some practical uses, only moderate rarity when universes were at your disposal, but still it was so very nice and shiny. When supply increased, demand did so proportionally.

Of course, I would not stoop to such lows as the hoarding of gold. It did not befit my station.
But I had a crew to consider.

The flying lump -the style had a certain aesthetic value- soon hovered up to the nearest external camera where it waited with a stillness that, combined with its pomp, implied impatience. As such, I floated myself, in my map room, to another point on the wall and started to look about this hub. It did stretch into the distance, playing tricks upon my mortal eyes as they tried to comprehend such massive space as was splayed before me. Such a distance could grip the eye and the mind of someone before they were aware of the danger. But it was awfully small, though. A single hub, as I knew, or brain for such a massive ship as wide as some planet's orbits yet I could still see the dim safety lights on the far edges. Looking at the displays that came bearing its relative dimensions, it sounded very fragile, indeed.

But we weren't on missions of looting or war, no. Not us.

I found I could no longer distract myself from the amalgamation of gold which now started to ram the ship's hull gently as if to knock, putting dents in its own hull. So I hailed it. With a barrage of questions after opening communications, but the human who now greeted me, of far better make than the last, sat calmly and almost smugly until I had finished my aggressive cycle of inquiry and subsequent speculation aloud, at which point it closed the connection. I, somewhat confused, once again opened the connection and, upon seeing my expression, the human actually greeted me in formal manner and invited I and my crew off the ship and into their dining hall where we were all to be served the finest human cuisine and be pleasured with the greatest human entertainment. Of course, I accepted my invitation but politely declined the invitations of my crew, excusing them with matters of the ship's care.
Of course, Damian -at least, in the foreground. The background was occupied by a few dozen expectant bridge officers- then interjected with his equally polite acceptance and excuse on the behalf of his crew, and the link to the Greeter was closed before I could override this.

Damian looked very smug in the moment until he ended the conference entirely, and I heard quiet cheering from somewhere below me.
Most of the crew remained on board, but naturally Aaron Hooper and Michael Sparrow came with me. Aaron Hooper was fearless and very well-mannered. Michael Sparrow was useful to have in case things went suddenly wrong. He could keep cool in a crisis, and had familiarity with just about fighting style in the known universe.

Damian could appear charming, as the situation dictated. However, he also had a steel-trap mind, and I often found myself glad that he was loyal to me. He was as crafty as they came, and seemed to have no remorse. I had a funny feeling that this was why he was enslaved in the first place, although he never spoke of his crimes and I refused to ask.

I liked to pretend he wasn't anything special, to keep his ego from inflating any further. He knew just how invaluable he was, which was why he flashed me a smile as I walked past. Damian was dressed in his usual work-outfit, a white lab coat over a worn medical officer's uniform. "Put on something formal," I snapped. Translation "Wipe that look off your face."

Later, we found ourselves near the landing dock-side door. Damian had thrown on the only decent outfit he had, which was a set of formal robes normally worn in ceremonies by royalty on the planets of the Pachian system. I'm not sure where he got them, but I'm fairly sure they weren't voluntarily given to him. I hit the keypad on the door, and opened it wide. It was about time to meet our new hosts.
By some unknown number of levels of proxy, at any rate. A small party of six beautiful people stood two abreast, all wearing the same silly grin. They welcomed us with a cheer and, turning on their heels, led us into the single room that comprised the interior of the lumpy gold diplomatic vessel. Being the largest portion of its mass, the room was very sizable, housing several rows of tables all lined with hundreds of immaculately chiselled faces celebrating our arrival.

This room was of the same gold as its exterior, such gaudiness to be blinding if the eyes lingered too long, and seemed built around a raised platform in the centre which now held a small band whose soft music echoed off the walls in a most disarming manner. The walls followed the same contours as its exterior, as if it were no more than a thin layer between the inside and out, and it was almost enrapturing to look at, only held back by the material used and the inhabitants.

Immediately we were assailed by representatives from each table, forcefully presenting foods from a dozen different earthling ethnicities, which were gladly accepted, and then, equally forcefully, guiding us to empty seats that had definitely not been empty before. As if the previous members of those particular tables had left the room by some invisible way. The music picked up, the voices of every human in the room contributed and alcoholic beverages were provided in ample quantities. A stripper strutted by our table.

Needless to say that by this point, totally unbeknownst to I and my present crew-members at the time, my ship had been taken over and the crew on board abducted.
But that goes without saying, and I'll get to that later in my story.

The drink flowed in alarming quantities into my gullet, and inhuman quantities into those of my friendly neighbours, and the decent entertainment of the excitable stripper took a turn for the lascivious.
There seemed to be an endless supply of wines, not expensive on their home planets, but made of fruits not found anywhere in this galaxy, or even this universe. It made me wonder where they that had acquired this bounty of alcohol, but at the moment I was tossing back a richly flavored, sweet wine made from fermented berries. My mind was not concentrating on the further proof that this ship had access to the resources of numerous worlds.

Despite the distraction provided by the thought of good food, better alcohol, and the promise of "entertainment", I should have seen something very obvious. Many of the things I was enjoying no longer existed. They were either taken by the Gatherers as they stripped whole planets bare, or they were destroyed by the aftershocks as the violent draining of resources rippled throughout the galaxies. None of us were in any condition to think properly, which was a shame, because it would have saved my crew and I quite a lot of pain.

Damian, usually very sharp, was a little too inebriated to be of any use. Under normal circumstances, the splendor would not have dulled his alert nature. He of course, would have noticed the vast array of food and drinks that should not have been on this ship. None of us were at our best; Aaron Hooper who normally did not usually imbibe was drinking vast quantities of sweet beverages. Michael Sparrow was already full of an inhuman amount of strong liquor and hearty meat-based dishes. I don't even want to discuss the amount of alcohol swilling around inside my gullet (my liver would not thank me later).

Any chance at logical thought was quickly vaporized by the sight of Damian eyeballing the dancers with a clinical interest. He didn't seem to find them sexually attractive, but examined them the way one might examine a fine work of art. Aaron Hooper was trying not to stare, and Michael Sparrow was sitting with his arms crossed, pointedly averting everyone's gaze. Later, I would regret not using this invitation to investigate the stasis ship further. After all, this hall was filled with only a fraction of the populace that must have been living on this ship.

Spreading above and below us like the strands of the spider web, there were levels full of various sentient beings, held in a hibernation-like state. It would have been necessary to release everyone living on this ship, for at least a decent length of time. However, with living space at a premium there was no doubt that this was done in cycles. It had occurred to me to think about the vast populace present on this ship, and why this stasis ship was a necessity in the first place. A stasis ship is for refugees trying to extend their lives until they could find a safe place to settle down. What were they fleeing from, and just why did they need such a massive and well-hidden ship?

More importantly, if stasis ships usually held one to two diverse populations (to prevent in-fighting or quarrels over territory), this must have held alien species from every known corner of the multiverse. What common enemy could unite alien races with such diverse needs and goals? There was only one; they were fleeing from the same thing that chased my crew and I across the stars.
So it continued. I fell asleep. And awoke. And fell asleep again. This only managed to repeat itself a few times before an urgent Damian reminded me of my duties and that staying aboard a luxury vessel for days on end was not befitting of those duties. So I rose to find the entrance, while Damian returned to his table, that we had entered through and failed. So I sat back down to eat a breakfast.

Then I rose again. I was quite certain that I had gained access to this room at some point through some sort of doorway and the apparent lack of such a doorway must have been a mistake, I thought to myself. I managed two entire laps before I was thrown into a frustrated rage and grabbed the nearest person, intending to demand all kinds of answers. Aaron could not provide them and the next being hadn't the organs to speak, so I strode into the back of one of the very pretty humans and shouted at the back of his head. He attempted to lull me with a passing entertainment, but it only served to stoke the flames of confused anger, maturing it into a roaring hatred, blue in the centre.

He urged me to calm down and widened his smile, exuding an almost tangible aura of affability. This attracted more of these characters, real characters, each of whom tried different tactics: jokes, encouragements, distractions. One attempted to touch my shoulder. It grew into a small mob as they gravitated from across the room, where they were tending to Damian, Aaron and Sparrow, slowly encompassing me - cutting off all routes of escape.

Between a few heads I could see my crew mates lolling their heads in my general direction. I knew this probably meant they understood the gravity of the situation and were ready to make a daring escape through the pressing masses of these infuriating people. With their imagined confidence in mind and the mounting alarm created by so many happy faces, I struck one, kicked the shins of another and wailed and flailed the brave wails and flails of the comical bar fight.

My crew was now dashing with all possible speed and height to the nearest table or platform from which they could dive into the fray.
We were outnumbered, by a considerable amount. Even though only a fraction of their population was currently awake, there were plenty enough to overwhelm us. Nonetheless, if we could just get to our ship, we might have a chance. It seemed like forever, as I kicked, punched, and pounded my opponents, trying to force my way through the closely packed crowd. The only good weapons we had access to were stashed on the ship, out of our reach. Some of us did have light firearms, but I didn't dare give the order to fire hemmed in as we were. In any case, I did not want to seriously hurt any of the citizens on board the stasis ship. Damian, who apparently had no fear of blood-borne illness, simply bit at anyone he could reach.

Nonetheless, our movements were getting desperate. If we didn't break free in time, the security force could mobilize. I wasn't afraid that they might shoot at us, with such a crowd, but they could capture us. The sound of the alarm increased our desperation. Michael Sparrow, big as he was, cleared paths with wide sweeps of his arms. At this point the crowd was quite angry, and I wondered if we would have to resort to serious violence. The crowd parted, and I could see the security force arriving. They had stun-guns, assorted bladed and bludgeoning weapons, and several had some crossbows loaded with tranquilizer darts. We didn't have a chance against them, not without decent firearms, and if any one us fired a shot, the force would respond in kind. I didn't want a massacre; the blood of my crew would be on my hands.

Damian took matters into his own hands, whipping out an antique pistol (probably from earth, circa 1990s) and firing a few shots into the wall. The crowd reeled away, and the area around him cleared rapidly. Exposed, he was the perfect target, and I was sure that the noise had made him a visible threat. Not to mention, firing bullets in an enclosed space was incredibly dangerous. Besides, the security force was about to shoot him. Shit.

"ALL OF YOU", I screamed. "DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND SURRENDER!" My crew did as they were told, Damian looked mutinous, but did as he was told.
I blinked and took in the situation. I almost tripped over myself in surprise. Still around me, and now my crew, were the same smiling, beautiful faces, happy as happy could be. The aliens may have worn hostile expressions, I could not tell for their incomprehensible features, but were in no real way aggressing and the security force lowered their pointing 'weapons' and used them to scratch backs, shake hands and carry wine glasses. The music drifted back into focus, upbeat but not the stuff of war making, along with the thrum of the chattering throng and the draining of the red. I looked to my crew who were looking to me, weapons back in hand, and I noticed the same guests who had been bitten and bruised were on their feet, blissful.
The walls, however, carried a few obvious dints.

I pushed through the tight, intimidating crowd with a wave of my hand and a muttered 'excuse me', and made toward Sparrow, a kind of beacon in any crowd, and found the rest of my crew when I'd got there. I inquired as to what happened and got no satisfactory response, so I let my eyes rest on Damian, now caressing his pistol, and plastered an incredulous look on my face while I thought about what had just happened.
I did not know what level of technology these people, or peoples, possessed, it seemed they could heal any injury in an instant, and the question of why there was humanoids, let alone literal humans, so removed from Earth and our universes lingered.

The queerest idea came upon me to ask the other guests aboard this ship -one should never assume anything about alien life forms- and so I departed from Damian, the rest of the crew had gone in search of wine, who was starting to protest under my hollow gaze, to walk behind a being whom I was sure had spoken before to tap it on one of four shoulders.
As it turned around, I reflected once more on the situation under the transient tranquillity of logical curiosity and inquiry, and was a little embarrassed.
Frankly, the situation previous was so bizarre, that I found myself literally lost for words. The cuts on my knuckles had been healed, before I'd even had a chance to notice I'd been injured. The only signs were some bloodstains, without even a scar. Stupefied, I stared at the previously-injured guests, and saw no visible trace of previously-obtained injuries, save for some blood-stains in shades of red, blue, or green. I looked back at Damian, and saw that he was looking smug, although his pistol was no nowhere to be seen.

Well, he knew what was going on, and damned if I was going to humiliate myself by asking what technology could heal instantaneously (and unnoticed, to boot). The being I tapped had four arms, and a sort of blue-green skin. I'd swear that I knew the name of the species, but no name came to mind.

"Excuse me," I said, keeping my face neutral. Some species viewed smiles as threatening, and I wasn't going to offer to shake hands (another offense, in some cultures). Come to think of it, tapping on the shoulder was an offense in some cultures, but it was too late to take it back.

The being turned to look at me, a wine glass in one hand, and a plate of food in one other. "May I help you?" he/she inquired sweetly, in a voice that could be female.

"Ah..." I said, feeling rather humbled by at the speed in which a near-riot had turned into peaceful co-existence. I wanted to ask "What the HELL just happened?!?" but instead said stupidly, "That was interesting."

The being smiled, showing a mouth full of bluntly-pointed teeth. An attempt at being friendly? "Oh yes, quite a few fights break out. Most enjoyable!" I can't say I enjoyed it, although if things had gotten any bloodier, Damian would have been in his element.

"I'm not sure I understand," I said.

"Well, with so many different beings crammed together, there's always one scuffle or another. That is why this room is filled with healing bots." I didn't notice any healing bots, and they were not usually inconspicuous. I must have had a confused look on my face, because the four-armed being sneered at me. He or she looked like they wanted to lecture me the way one speaks to a small, slow-minded child. Except that I cut them off before they could start to speak. "Yes, I see."

I'd seen a tell-tale shimmer in the air, that I hadn't noticed at all during dinner, probably due to inattentiveness and a high blood alcohol level. Judging by the speed of healing, the room must have been filled with swarm after swarm of Nanites. Nanites are microscopic robots, and not visible to the eye, but I should have noticed the shimmer in the air ages ago. There were so many present that it was remiss of me not to have seen them. No wonder Damian looked so smug.

So far, that was the only thing that made sense about the entire fiasco.
Of course. Of course! A simple misunderstanding and nothing to worry about, I thought to myself, and it was only Nanites. I drew in some conveniently close Beautiful People and told them my deductions with such unshakable confidence that their faces lit up with charming likeability and I demanded to see the drinks.

I was led to a table where food and drink was forced down my gullet and strippers strutted by. I was embracing a neighbour and sobbing sane happiness when the room shook and I hit my head on the ceiling. I saw some comfort in the unfazed and soft neighbour but a lack of gravity always held a position in my basic needs alongside breathing and Understanding The Situation. The other occupants of the room may have been causing a fuss and protesting my style of swimming which involved alot of kicking off of things, but I am not entirely sure. I do know that I had such a great deal of fun that I completely missed half of the ship being removed and some bay or another taking its place. Until, that is, I bumped my head on an invertebrate -there had been none aboard the Gold Lump- and it refused my dual offer and request for drink.

This new half a room seemed like a sort of bay designed to hold one ship by opening the hull of that ship and creating a seal behind the opening. It was a totally foreign style when measured against the Gold Lump - it was Green. The sole invader was very busy bumping a head -you can tell what is and isn't a head by the way it is bumped- on every other guest. Their reactions ranged but no one had made a definite attack although only the Beautiful People were perfectly calm.

My crew was probably amongst the most extreme on the more aggressive range of reactions and Damian was making rude gestures at me. He was always making rude gestures at me whenever gravity dropped.
"Damian," I snapped, after he had given me a mock salute. "Do that one more time, and I'm going to rip off your arm and stuff it where the sun don't shine." Damian was used to my childishness, and barely reacted. I was understandably irritable; I had no recourse but to malinger on this ship. I love a great party as much as the next man, but not when it lasts forever.

We weren't prisoners, no. We simply couldn't leave this ship. Any attempt at escape would be thwarted, unless we resorted to violence, in which case we would be killed or thrown into the brig. I could not stay here any longer, and neither could my crew. Sooner or later, we would all want to continue our journey, until we finally found our way home. Every single one of my crew, gathered from the rejects of the Enforcers and Gathers, had a reason to travel with me.

The day I left the service of the Powers That Be, I had offered a berth to anyone who wished to come with me. Each member of m current crew had come with me, knowing that throwing in their lot with me meant grave risk. From the moment they joined my crew they were criminals, risking imprisonment, torture, or even death. They knew it, and chose to follow me anyways, because they believed that I could bring them home.

I wasn't going to fail them, by letting them fritter their lives away here. Right now, I felt like Odysseus, lazing about in Circe's mansion. The only good thing was that our gluttony had not resulted in our being turned into pigs. However, if we stayed any longer, our allotted time would run out and we would forced into hibernation like everyone else on this ship. At least, until the timer ran down and we were awoken again, to repeat the cycle. This would continue ad infinitum until this ship of madmen reached it's final destination.

If it ever reached it's destination...

I didn't want any part of the insanity. I didn't know if it was the alcohol, or if they were drugged, or if it was a side-effect of long hibernation. I didn't know who was responsible for the sorry state of the ship's populace. All I knew was that if we stayed here, we would become like them, and we would never want to leave. Then it would be too late for all of us.

This situation was my fault. I took the invitation without thinking, and let myself a part of this ship without thinking. We were so tired of constantly watching for Enforcer ships, constantly struggling to find enough supplies, thinking of uncertain futures. We let ourselves fall into this trap, but I was the leader and it was my job to keep my crew safe.

Come hell or high water, I was going to find out what was happening on this ship. Clearly, a mass break-out was not going to work. I called Damian over, interrupting his conversation with a young, red-and-blue-skinned, scantily clad female. He kept his eye on her, even as I nudged him towards a quiet corner. "Pay attention!", I snapped. He curled his upper lip at me, but immediately became businesslike when he saw that I was serious.

"We're getting off of this floating hell-ship," I said.

"Oh, don't pretend you haven't been enjoying yourself, Captain," said Damian.

"It was fun for the first couple hours, but there's only so much frat-party atmosphere a person can take."

"I'm glad you finally came to your senses," said Damian. "Although, I regret not taking that pretty young thing for a tumble." He gestured towards the female he'd been chatting up earlier.

"Start thinking with your brain because we've got to get out of here soon. If we stay any longer, it will be too late to escape."

"Don't look to me for help, because I refuse."

"For the love of...," I snarled.

"Well, aren't you the least bit curious about this ship?" asked Damian, tilting his head like a confused puppy. He looked more like a feral dog, examining potential prey.

"I know you have a thing for the ladies... and the gentlemen... and weird invertebrate blobs of no discernible gender..." I could feel another patented, Damian-induced headache coming on. "Just find us a way off of this ship and I'll find you some!"

Damian sniffed, looking offended. "Please, Captain Griffin. Don't be obtuse. The answer is right under your nose."

"What?" I was not in the mood for his games. The alcohol swirling through my veins was not helping matters.

"This ship shows advanced technology beyond the scope of anything we have previously seen. The amount of energy required must be absolutely fantastic. Food, atmospheric generation, gravity manipulation, temperature regulation, propulsion - these all consume vast quantities of power."

"What if we harness it? Could we possibly adapt it for our needs?"

"Ah, Captain," said Damian. "We could put aside our nomadic lifestyle, and finally escape those damned Enforcers for good. Not to mention, aren't you the least bit curious about all the long-dead races you've seen gracing this lovely soiree?" I frowned at Damian, because the question had been nagging me since we first arrived.

"While you've been off enjoying yourself, I've been chatting up some of these refugees from long-dead star systems. They've all been fleeing from destruction caused by the indiscriminate resource-stripping utilized by our not-so-beloved Powers That Be. Let's not antagonize potential allies, if it's at all possible."
"Even if those 'potential allies's way of introduction involves imprisonment? That's not a friendly act, Damian."

"Well I don't think so. I think this is a very nice change of pace. It's good for the soul to have the occasional holiday." My displeasure at this last statement must have been very obvious as Damian now started to float away. "Don't worry your pretty little head, Captain. Things will work out. They always do." he shouted from halfway across the room.

I could understand that sentiment, however. Half of the room was now missing and the chitinous Invader was about to finish head butting. I thought to try and amass what little remained of my non-mutinous crew but couldn't find the will. So I bobbed. And waited. And didn't worry. Until the rest of the ship started to dissolve and the Invader ushered us into this new, alien, Green ship. As our docile herd of guests passed through an opening into a corridor, the howl of distant sirens, shakes of small, high-speed collisions and the soothing screams of the terminal greeted us, completely unnoticed or deemed unimportant. The ship started to move very fast.

I, of course, was found, bumped and escorted away by a team of aliens, apparently identical to the invader, to what was probably a bridge designed around the premise that an officer works better under pressure. An orchestra of klaxons and system alarms yelled at me as a wave of body heat sent me spinning. After flying back into the room I was given a few dramatic moments by my escort to look around. An almost perfectly cylindrical room, the walls hidden by manned stations flashing shades of blue and a dangerously super (bordering on ultra) purple. In the middle of it all sat a very large Chitinous Invader, double the regular height at least, on a spinning egg-shaped throne. I tried very hard not to giggle as I was pushed into a geostationary path around this mountain of an alien.

Studying its features I recalled that I really didn't like Damian. But this was not an appropriate time to voice such concerns.
His guards were somewhat reminiscent of a rhinoceros beetle crossed with a bombardier. They didn't need to carry weapons, but they looked dangerous enough without them. The massive mound of alien sitting before me, clacked it's mandibles together very audibly. The ship obviously had a generalized translator in use, but it would be useful only for verbal language; it did not translate body language or whatever clicking language this being used. So, how was I supposed to understand whatever it was trying to say?

It hit a button with one of it's appendages, and a screen slid out from the ceiling above. It hovered just in front of my face. The alien clicked, and words began to appear on the screen. The language was simplified, and the grammar was strange, but an inter-space traveler soon becomes used to such things.

Good Day. Please Speak As Normal. I Can Understand Your Human Speech.

"Ah, thank you for inviting me. I am not sure quite why you wanted to see me, however."

Do You Require Nourishment?

"No thank you, I've had more than enough." I waited patiently, even though I wanted already found myself fidgeting.

What Can I Give To You?

"I don't really need anything right now, thanks."

I Wish To Have Your Ship Engine. What Can I Give You For It?

"See, my ship can't fly without an engine. Sorry, but I'm not going to trade it away."

I Will Not Keep It. You May Have It Back When My Scientists Have Replicated The Technology. Then You May Continue Your Travels. This seemed a little too easy. Well, if that was the deal, than it looked like we were golden.

"We need enough power to finish our travels, and you have the technology to generate that power. If you can give us a way to fuel our journey to the core worlds, I'll let your scientists examine my engine."

I Cannot Accept Your Offer. Energy Generation Source Is The Property of Janus Corporation.
"Well we have some very efficient batteries..."

I Cannot Accept Your Offer. Energy Consumption Is Monitored By The Janus Corporation. This was punctuated by a shake which almost knocked me out of my orbit. The sirens raised their volume only marginally.

"Maybe you could siphon some on the side?"

I Cannot Accept Your Offer.

"An alternate fuel source?"

No Such Thing.

"Perhaps if you dropped my crew and I at the energy generation source, we would be able to take what we need?"

I Cannot Accept Your Offer. Energy Generation Source Is Guarded By Janus Corporation.

"But you're under fire right now!"

This Is A Light Attack. Something exploded. You May Apply For Energy Allowance With The Janus Corporation.

I despised bureaucracy. The society destroying plague that it was spread across the multiverse borne by some unseen, cross-dimensional vermin. No matter how far you travelled, it remained a constant on every inhabited world and on every inhabited world could be seen the symptoms of the sickness. Most prominent amongst these is a strange way of the air to filter out colour.

I swore at the monster but nothing happened. Except for another shock wave colliding me with several of the insectile bridge officers.

After some minutes of clicking the screen displayed, I Am Under Light Attack By A Minor Coalition. They Collectively Owned Gold Lump.

I Will Take You To The Janus Corporation.

I tried desperately to mount the proper rage, perhaps throw a few things and shout at It to stop capitalising each word, but it was no use. I could find no haven in the red of blinding anger. I saw the vacuum of hollow depression envelope me in its abyssal, grey depths. Every sound and light consumed by the beast, then my soul. Dread attempted to fill the space but was only lost amongst the endless, knowing void. There was no recourse. I was already doomed to the arena, as I saw it I was already dead. Delivered into the maw of the plague by my own stupidity.

The ship sped on, hastened by insistent missiles, toward the Janus Corporation, displayed on the screen as the palpitating heart of the Hub some few hundreds of kilometres distant.
We slid into another, small docking bay. It could only fit one or two ships at a time, but it was armed to the teeth. The being's mandibles clicked in a constant stream of sound as it hit several confirmation codes. The alarms blared, and then fell silent, while the screen's red and green flashes dimmed to white.

The doors slide apart with a hiss, and I could see that the space was well-lit, but tightly enclosed by walls of metal. The massive beetle-like behemoth said helpfully:
You May Now Disembark. Do Not Attempt To Stray From the Directed Path. Any Detour Will Result In Your Death. My crew remained on board the ship of the beetle-aliens, to await my return.

In any case, I was relieved to be away from the blaring alarms, flashing screens, and a malfunctioning translation screen that capitalized every single word. Aaron trailed behind me like a lost duckling, but Damian dragged his feet like a moody teenager. He'd clearly wanted to stay behind to investigate the insect-alien's unique, chitin-plated ship.

Once we approached the doors, they opened automatically, despite the security locks. An unknown being was over-riding the door controls, relying upon the security cameras that littered each hallway to keep an eye on our progress. We didn't have to use a swipe card or input a security code. It was easy to navigate through the labyrinth of hallways, walking through whichever door happened to open for us. It felt rather unsettling, to know that someone had total control.

Numerous hallways, several large doors, and two lifts later, we found ourselves in front of an imposing doorway. It was a far cry from all the others we had passed through previously, as ugly as they were strong. Beautiful white marble, decorated with a scenes showing godlike-heroes locked in combat with demons. The red doors parted to reveal a a room full of friezes, dark paneling, and rich red velvet.
Treasures under any normal circumstance. Yet the faces on the statues seemed twisted beyond anything natural, the friezes shifted behind their physical presence, the red had a touch of grey. The room was crowded by all manners of aliens organised into strange, almost eldritch patterns by levitating lines of cloth that looked so fragile, but exerted such power immutable. At strategically placed locations around the edges of the mob sat wiry, gangly, sharp aliens behind elaborate desks that towered over the tallest of the other aliens, I could see exchanges of piles of something like paper before, invariably, the applicant was guided by hems into the very epicentre of the room to where I was being led. Lines of beings shuffled and the air filled with the clacks of their feet, but not a sound more.

It was only as I reached this start that I realised there was a single entrance without an exit.

I could tell it would be hours before I even reached the counter, so my eyes wandered. Surrounding me were dozens of species, some of them I had seen and some I had not seen and some I had trouble seeing. Heads and directional sensory organs were aimed at the floor or closed over entirely. They had already succumbed, now alone in each's separate, empty universe. I wondered whether they contemplated their present or their future, to empathise. But I felt nothing except my own encroaching madness - I had entered the room well over ten minutes ago and still my judge was no closer.

For that is what this particular species appeared as, it now struck me. Although not in any human, or even humanoid, way. They were stretched thin so that bony frames showed always and often pierced the skin, a dozen limbs worked industriously almost out of sight while four more maintained a presence, constantly, on the desk, impossibly long digits tying and untying themselves in complex knots, proving the dexterity, superiority and impatience of this being. But what drew the eyes, or other manner of sensory organ, were the long, blank faces. Sharpened like a weapon in so many points and featuring sockets that absorbed the light. Pulling it and your gaze in, away from distractions. Instincts that attempted to challenge found nothing to intimidate. Only emptiness. Perfect judges or administrators or bureaucrats.
I did not like them.

I looked to Aaron and he looked to me. I looked to Damian and he held a mildly interested look on his face.
Obviously they were both barely concealing their pure dread. But I had to be strong for my crew and the mission.
I could see a pair of scrofas guarding the door, heavy aliens only a head or two taller than I, but a mountain of pure muscle. They had massive tusks, which curled inwards. The tusks were used to shove other males during fights for mating rights or territory, but they were poor tools for stabbing. Although sharp and deadly in younger pigs, the tusks grew during the lifespan of the scrofas and curled inwards progressively. In older scrofas, the tusks eventually grew inward so that they pierced through their heavy skulls, and punctured their small brains.

They were too dumb to be bribed, obedient to whomever nurtured them as piglets, and made ideal guards, especially if their tusks were regularly trimmed. They didn't need weapons to be intimidating, but instead used their bulk and their razor sharp hooves.

An elderly looking gentleman dressed in black robes approached the front, and peered down at me over the top of his spectacles. Several lines of text appeared on the screen of his data pad.
"I am Alexander Stainthorpe, representative of Janus Industries. May I ask your name?"

"Captain Alan Griffin of the ship Redtail.

"I am given to understand that you wish to be granted an energy allowance?"

"Yes. We require energy in order to power our ship."

"May I inquire as to what kind of ship you have?"

"X-DIM Goshawk, Type 60." He began typing in information on his data pad. His spectacles slid down onto his nose. I waited for him to finish his data entry.

"And in trade, you will to allow us to examine your engines?"

"As long as they are returned in a timely fashion, undamaged and functional." More frantic typing. He slid his spectacles back into place with a practiced motion.

"We consider ourselves sworn enemies of the Powers That Be, their Enforcers, and any of their allies. You will have realized this by now, I suspect. I understand that while you technically do not own the Redtail, it is your ship for all intents and purposes."

I flash a cocky grin. "I stole it fair and square." I was gratified to see the corners of his mouth twitch upwards. Stainthorpe was surprisingly straightforward for a bureaucrat.

"Before we begin procedures, you should know that we don't really have power to spare. The corporation will require reassurance that your cause is planned out, and worthwhile. Second, they might question your intentions. You are listed as a fugitive by the Enforcers, which is not necessarily a negative. However, you are known to have killed several of them, and have stolen a valuable ship."

He passed over his data pad, and I could see that there was some sort of form printed on it's screen. Stainthorpe clarified: “This doesn’t mean the deal is accepted. It simply means that your request will be dealt with at their bi-weekly meeting. Is there anything that would interfere with proceedings?”

I said, "I do have a price on my head. The ship, my crew, and I each have a bounty approaching a million credits."

"I see. That is quite a high price, although the majority of us would not dream of handing you over to the Enforcers. I warn you, some of our less-friendly elements might argue for such an action, if given the opportunity. I am sure they would be out-voted by the others in the council. I recommend complete honesty in your dealings. Such information is easily obtained, and lying would be another mark against you."

"It will take a few days before the Janus Corporation board members to meet. At that time, you will be called to plead your case, and then they will vote. In the mean time, you will simply have to wait." My reverie was interrupted by Stainthorpe, who was looking at Damian. Damian was examining the room with obvious boredom. "Also, he is listed as being bound to you as a slave. The Janus corporation is against slavery, and this will have to be rectified if you wish to stay on our ship."

I pinched my nose. "He's not my slave! He had an enslavement artifact implanted, and we couldn't forcibly extract it without hurting him. We did disable it, though." Stainthorpe was typing again. "If that is the case, you can head down to the medical bay with this form, and they can remove it for you." He handed Damian a second data pad. It was only a few pages long, and short when compared to the monstrosity that was the energy allotment request form. Great, digital paperwork. The grease that kept the wheels of government moving.

I had filled out two forms, when Stainthorpe handed me another data pad. Forms began appearing on the screen. "Application for temporary IDs, so that you may move throughout Sector G without being detained by security. Application for dining hall seats and food allotments. Application for use of the dormitory beds. Application for use of the medical bay, should you require medical care. Application for use of Sector G amenities..."
I had soon had Damian finish the paperwork and, impressed with my work, made to return the forms. They were promptly accepted and we were again directed out the way we had come; by the statues and a thousand identical doors leading in every direction. Feeling returned to my mind as I stepped over the first threshold like a weight lifted. Some of the imagined power of my status and perhaps more of the shame at my capitulation to the bureaucracy.

We three rejoined with Sparrow and, now as temporary citizens of the stasis ship, requested that we be taken back to our ship by the insectile aliens. It was carried to the bridge and granted. The ship disengaged from the official heart of the hub and drifted out of range of the Janus Corporation's security measures. The almost soothing murmur of distant explosions returned and we were on our way to co-ordinates I assumed were well kept.

After some minutes of recuperation in the hold -where the party continued- I and my crew were brought back up to the bridge to finalise matters and keep up appearances. It was there that we pointed out to the bridge that our ship was not currently equipped with the ability to mask its presence from every known manner of scanning and to the dismay of all, it had probably gone missing. Although the dismay varied; my crew expected nothing more, but the giant in his egg shaped throne buried his mandibles in some claws. An initially non-urgent broadcast checking whether the Redtail had only drifted was sent out on the appropriate frequencies and our summons were swiftly answered.

A not at all small fleet, perhaps an armada, flew upon the scene and initiated diplomatic communications about how surprised they each were, astonished even, that everyone else had the goodness of heart to divert themselves from routine patrols and business trips and just what it showed about the quality of their community. Attention quickly switched back, however, to the matter of the missing Redtail which continued to be missing.

Our ship was the first to turn away from the ever-growing blob of ships and head in a very definite direction. An aside by the captain of this ship informed us that only one of the species in the current political mix did not have a presence at the site we were now speeding away from.
I thought it quite a blunder.
There was nothing we could do, not from where we stood. Our ship was the only bargaining chip I had; if we could not retrieve it in time, we would not only lose our primary transport, but our chance at leverage. It wasn't like I could simply steal another one, because I was not about to antagonize the Powers That Be further. Nor did I plan on stealing a ship from the stasis ship we currently inhabited - they clearly did not have any ship like ours, or they would not have been so interested in mine. They weren't trying to retrieve the Redtail for my benefit, they wanted it for their own purposes.

I had the override codes and a remote which could be theoretically used to force the ship to stop. All ships property of the Powers That Be had a slave-rig, and could be controlled from a distance. Damian had rigged the ship not long after I'd stolen it, to prevent the Enforcers from forcing locking the system. However, the system still existed and could be re-activated by anyone who knew the security codes. The problem was, the signal was weak, and I would need to practically be on top of the Redtail for this plan to work.

"May I have a map of the passageways?" The beetle-alien hit several buttons with it's appendages, projecting a map onto the screen. I could see white passages weaving their way through black zones, and a sea of green triangles in pursuit of a large red oval. The passages were closed off as security doors slammed shut to prevent escape through the multitude of passageways that crossed the entire ship. The pursuing ships closed in, trying to corner the Redtail, or at least slow it's progress. One door was slow to close, and I could only watch helplessly as the Redtail slipped right through.

I turned to the beetle-alien. "Can you give me a one-man ship? Some kind of fighter, perhaps?"

I Have No Such Ship.

"I need a small, fast transport, capable of flying up alongside the Redtail. It doesn't need weapons, it just needs to be fast and easy to maneuver."

I Have A Marlin Racing Ship. A Marlin was fast, literally the second fastest racing ship available. It had speeds of 500 kilometers per hour, uselessly fast in these enclosed passageways, and it's maneuverability was nil.

At that moment Damian spoke up. "We could always use the override codes, and stop the engines."

"Yes, genius. That was my plan, believe it or not."

"I hope your plan did not involve a suicide run. A Marlin takes too long to stop once you cut power to the engines, and it is impossible to steer."

"Please tell me you have a better plan."

Damian smirked. "It's not better, but it doesn't end in a fiery crash. I propose that we run the signal through the ship that we are on, and through the communications center of the hub. That would boost the signal to such strength, that it would reach our ship irregardless of it's current location."

"That's not possible. They're completely different types of signals."

"It's not possible for most people. I, however, happen to be a absolutely brilliant."

"Damian, I could kiss you!" I threw up my arms, overjoyed. I couldn't remember why I had ever disliked this scary, brilliant man.

"Please don't. It could become very awkward."

The beetle-overlord typed with his claws. Is This A Human Mating Ritual?

Damian and I, almost in perfect synchrony, barked "NO!"
"of course not..." I trailed off, to no one in particular.

And then wondered why he was interested.


The plan was incredibly involved and Damian was lost in a techno-babble monologue for several hours to get it done. As such, Aaron, Sparrow and I had time to explore the ship. Redtail had made its way quite deep into the branching corridors and the bored captain magnanimously allowed us our request to see the Merlin; they were fairly rare things in any universe.

We were then escorted by a dozen or so guardsbeetles and the captain himself. In a purposeful manner, down the ship's many passages to a storage room similar in size to where the former party guests were being held. This one, however, must have been much further within the ship as the dull sounds of minor battle faded into utter silence. Doors unwound themselves and the innards were exposed.

From the simple care of the items and the solemn awe reflected in the movements of our insectile escort it was obvious some great meaning had been attached to what lay within, even though my own sensibilities, and presumably those of my officers, revealed no gold nor elaborate craftsmanship. Aside from the Marlin, a centrepiece by its relatively large size, were trinkets, souvenirs, samples and, as I was later informed, doodads. These were all carried in display cases polished and clean, presented on pedestals. The very air smelt cleaned - by the lack of smells, not by cleaning agents.

The behemoth led the way and the heavy falls of its varied feet lightened, almost bounced, as it crossed into the room. Stepping in after him, I only felt the pressure of the sanctity of the place. He brought us to the Marlin, a thing of minimalist design, as were most racing ships, and little more than a pod -slightly larger than the admiring giant- with some thrusters held at a length by framework. Inside was something closer to a spacesuit than a cockpit.

An hour or so was spent in this museum of a room. Nothing was explained about the exhibits, but the reverie into which it struck the aliens kept us, at a distance, interested and amused. Soon enough, the gargantuan was roused and we were all taken back to the bridge where Damian was finishing up. He hit one panel with a wrench, I supposed he carried it on his person, and shouted at another on the other side of the room. The hundreds of systems present turned on and blared and glared as much as was possible, forcing several operators to rub their eyes tiredly.
I crossed my fingers, said a silent prayer to the gods of space-travel, and waited. The red oval-shape on the floating map ground to a halt, and was quickly surrounded by the green dots. I sighed in relief, and one of the panels ceased it's incessant wailing and began to ping. I had no idea what this meant, but presumed that it was good, because the screen above my head said:
Ship Retrieval Is Complete. Please Wait.
Finally: Type 60 Ship Will Be Towed To Docking Bay 110 In Sector G.
I thanked all of the alien's for their hard work, although I could only speak to them over the radio. I then graciously thanked the insectoids for the use of their ship.

We Are Happy To Serve You If You Are Again In Need Of Aid.

I had noticed a curious musical instrument in the room full of exhibits, which looked almost identical to one in our possession. I described item to the leader of the ship, and he clicked his mandibles and waved his claws.

Such A Flute Is Rare. It Is Sacred To US For It Is Part Of Our Religious Rituals.

"I'll have it sent over from our ship," I promised. The beetle-alien flailed all of it's limbs in it's uncontrollable excitement.

Later, we rode the beetle-alien's ship back to Sector G. My crew and I disembarked, knowing that our ship should be relatively safe. The Janus Corporation had a strong interest in keeping the ship safe, and in any case it was useless to would-be thieves with it's engine's disabled.

I turned my thoughts instead to Sector G. It was stark and barren of any decorations; it was quite ugly when compared to the splendor of Sectors A and B, closer to the hub. It was obviously not a place that anyone would willingly venture into. The pathways were sometimes blocked by old garbage and bits of unwanted machinery. There were rooms that I suspect were small shops and cafes, now cleared of anything valuable. Much of the machinery was not even powered, and several of the lights were in need of repair.

It was hard to navigate the maze, dimly lit as it was. I flicked on a flashlight, and hoped that my crew was following close behind. Anyone who became lost would wander through the maze of dim hallways, and I would have to go hunting for them. Not something I wanted to do. The map on my data pad was fairly useless, because it lacked a navigation system. You could easily find a path between point A and point B, but only if you started from point A. Our progress was slow, as I constantly re-checked the map.

At length, our progress was halted by a large, secured door labeled Dormitories, but a swipe of my newly issued ID card, and it opened slowly with a great grinding of gears. The data pad thankfully provided me with the total number of rooms, as well as the number of beds in each.

"Roll call!", I yelled playfully. I didn't need a list of names; the Redtail was a small ship with a small crew, and we had grown to know each-other very well. I could see that we were missing Aaron Hooper and Rachel Greevey, M.D. but they soon arrived, carrying an old crate between the two of them.

"I'll explain later," said Greevery. I didn't push, but began assigning rooms. Three or four to a room might seem crowded, but it was actually better than what they were used to, because the beds were larger than their bunks on the Redtail. Storage lockers and chests were at a premium, however. We didn't have any possessions to store, so it was a non-issue. What was an issue were the sleeping arrangements for Hooper, Sparrow, and Damian.

"There's two rooms for the four of us," I said. I was used to having my own room, but sacrifices had to be made. Damian always slept in his work-room, though he was technically supposed to share a room with Aaron Hooper. "Look, I'm willing to bunk with one of you, but you'd better work it out amongst yourselves. If you can't decide, I'll make all three of your share a room. Trust me, you don't want that."

"I'll share with the Captain," said Damian quickly. I hoped I would have to patience not to strangle him in his sleep. He liked to tinker with machinery at odd hours, but if her interrupted my sleep I would not be happy. Michael Sparrow frowned, but followed the unspoken rule of "First come, first choose".

"That's fine Damian", I said. "All of you... I don't care what you do with your time. I am not your mother, and you need not notify me should you wander off. There are signs you can follow if you need to find the bathrooms, cafeteria, or the recreation room. However, our ship is currently on override so you won't be able to get inside. If you need anything from the ship, you will need to come and fetch me."

I sighed. My crew wandered off, some in the direction of the bathrooms, others to claim their rooms. I looked at the crate, sitting between Hooper and Greevey. "Now, why in nine hells did you lug that thing over here?"
"Medical Mcguffin?" I prompted. She nodded. The box rustled.

I cleared it to be taken inside and whatever else done with it. There are certain needs of a crew member which may go unfulfilled during extended trips in close quarters and then may require fulfilment come the first opportunity. It is the mark of a good captain, not to probe too deeply into such things, lest the perfect balance of the crew's collective functioning be disturbed.

The crate squealed.

It occurred to me that I had just invited the entire crew to harass me for every item they felt they needed. I looked around and saw endless corridors in every direction, picked the third from the right then the fourth on the left and the second from the top. I was confidently lost when I first found another being. One whose race I had not seen before.
You'll recall that aboard the insectoid's ship, just after discovering the Redtail was missing, the captain engaged in a space video conference with all but one of the species currently awake on the stasis ship. Following that, this new species must have been, my memory is perfect, that which stole my ship.
It ignored me and strutted, very definitely strutted, on enough legs to seem like no legs at all. Curiosity and mildly confused anger peaked, I followed the little thing and just as I was about to sass it up, the tight corridor became an immense room, stretching kilometres in three dimensions, packed with more aliens. Thousands of species were represented and every one of them I had not yet seen. But I forgot to be stunned, being too busy staring.

The ceiling some thousand or so metres above arched in a noticeable way into various alcoves, as did the dozens of walls and the floor beneath. Although these things were only noted after I had wandered into a great centrepiece of an atrium -an atrium in every direction, so that you might stand in the middle and see clearly to every face of the room; an atrium in three dimensions- that cut through the hundreds of floors just to show that there was hundreds of floors. This new place still maintained the theme of litter, poor maintenance and a horrid shade of creamy white for the walls except that where the corridors were desolate and silent, every square metre was valued for what could be placed there and every square centimetre for what could be seen and ten thousand voices murmured within earshot. Stalls are what dominated here. And in every stall were one or more aliens tending to three or more customers in any way imaginable or not.

In fact, the only common theme amongst the blocks of stalls, they had to break the wall at some point so that customers could walk through, was food. I walked for twenty minutes and did not see recurring, in any obvious way, the same type of stall, excluding food. On occasion the claustrophobic single file walks, a shame for any creature wider than I, opened up into glades amongst the forest, jungle perhaps, where a great many things went on. Auctions, dances, performances, continued gluttony is all that I could understand.
And still I had not reached very far at all. To walk through the area at any speed was a feat due to the distraction and simple physical placement of all that went on around so that hours had flown by heading in a single direction but without a wall in sight. I wondered that entire lives might be spent in this place, still discovering the new. I also wondered that to even reach some of the stalls further inward, I could only suppose they existed, may have required more stamina than I was capable of, although I could not know the capabilities of the aliens around me. And even the amorphous blobs carried themselves better than I did, a slack-jawed tourist.

I made my way to the express ways on the edges of the atrium's arms and, using the sole map we owned, made my way back to the dormitories with this exciting discovery just in time to stop the rescue parties.
Damian spent a second or two checking to see that I was alive and unhurt, before he expressed interest in retrieving his toolbox. Knowing, he would not be content with his toolbox, but would soon bring half his workshop into the dormitories. A person has to draw the line somewhere. "No tools", I said. I relented and added "If I open up the ship for someone else, you may grab your toolbox."

Frankly, I was too interested in what I had just seen to worry about trivial matters. I gave a look that suggested sure death to anyone who dared ask me to unlock the ship for trivial reasons.

I said, "I've found a market-area, in the midst of Sector G. And I don't think it's been sanctioned by any officials."

Aaron Hooper looked puzzled. "How do you know it's not supposed to be there?"

"It's not on the official map. Secondly, Sector G is obviously in disuse - no one bothers with proper upkeep. You don't suddenly find stalls in the middle of a dead area."

"I agree," said Damian simply. I blinked, a little surprised. Oh, he just wanted his toolbox back. He frowned as if he was guessing my secret, guilty thoughts. "Obviously, I would have to see what you are talking about, but it sounds plausible."

"They obviously have a stable customer base, but all I could was a wide variety of alien races, none of which have been seen before. It just seemed strange, that's all."

"What you mean?" asked Michael Sparrow.

"Most species like to shop at stalls geared to their needs, for example an herbivorous race will not shop at a stall run by a carnivorous species. Consequently, markets subtly change to fit the needs of the customer population. I didn't think a barren area like Sector G could support such a thriving market."

"You're missing something important." Damian had to put in his two credits.

"Eh?"

"Obviously, they cater to the under-served on this ship, irregardless of the Sector they call home."

"Obviously," I said, sarcastically. While I've never been a captain who relied on approvals, it would have been nice to impress Damian. Just once in my life. Was that too much to ask? In any case, something strange was going on, and that meant that I was obligated to stick my nose in it.
"Well, how far can 'regardless of the sector they call home' extend? Just how 'under-served' are they? You remember when we found Redtail missing." I was back on the attack and determined to prove him wrong, "If they had ships why weren't these races there?" I persisted, "It mightn't be that simple, Damian."

Most of the crew had walked away by this point and I don't care to record what the argument devolved into, but it continued through a good part of the night and by the time we two woke up, the map had been distributed and only Aaron and Greevey were still around to tell me this. To those in adjacent dormitory rooms, I had painted a fair picture of where the market was so it was a reasonable guess that they'd all ended up there, although, considering the size, there was no such reason to be applied to the question of where in the market they were.

So after morning ablutions and with Damian in tow, I put the pair in charge of base and went to find my crew but mostly explore the market some more. I explained this to Damian as we walked, telling him that we may discover the answers as to why they are here and who exactly they are.
Damian pointed out helpfully that we might ask them. And it seemed like a good idea.

I precisely followed the path that I had taken the day before and found the journey to be a bit longer and ending on a trapdoor which led into one of the alcoves on the ceiling of the room. We hung onto the door frame and dropped down a few feet into a haze of solid smoke. Probably non-toxic. The outlines of shapes a few metres away were obvious, so a sort of shuffle was soon adopted so as not to fall off the hanging walkway or bump into the hanging stalls. Looking over the edge, I could just make out the lights of other stalls and decided to head down as quickly as was possible.

Only barely missing bumping into and walking into -there's a difference- and walking through several beings, we spotted a ramp down and another after that. Fumes were turning into simple fog and the voices from below started to carry up, as if we were steadily submerging, being consumed by the bustling of a thousand culture's chiming voices, straining to be heard above each other and the sheer massiveness of everything around them.

The stasis ship's size dwarfed stars, let alone planets. I wondered what it might be like to live somewhere where trillions of beings could search forever and never find one another, depending on how they were placed.
The hub stretched somewhere in the far beyond, with hallways filled with hibernating aliens, branching off of it. Although typically at least two-thirds of the population, and probably more, would be in stasis, it only inhabited a small percent of the stasis ship's bulk. No, much of the space was dedicated to living spaces for the other third. Here I was, running up and down ramps, ducking under maintenance catwalks and hanging lights, and side-stepping debris and pieces of junk.

It was squalid, and dingy, filled with noxious smoke, and cluttered. I hadn't cared for the bright, shiny sector A, with it's fountain of drinks and feeling of blissful non-caring. Where I was now, this felt more real than anything beyond. It was like being back on the streets on some backwater planet, or shoving through one of the great markets on one of the core-worlds. It had character.

I couldn't stop Damian from making a few purchases. He bought several bottles of some unknown substance, and placed them carefully into his pockets. He looked utterly bizarre, weaving his way through Sector G with his pockets bulging. Even amongst the sea of unusually-shaped aliens, he stood out like a sore thumb.

It was outside of a small patch of greenery (a tiny garden, filled with what looked like herbs) that I saw a familiar face. A big, white furry alien I'd met one on Apox V peered back at me. I'd actually saved his life, protecting him from some would-be kidnappers. I'd almost forgotten the incident, as it hadn't been a particularly memorable one in the grand scheme of things. The alien, Aberi, was an albino, and very unique with his albino fur.

He waved at me, a very human gesture. Damian ignored him, in favor of eyeballing the rare herbs growing in his garden.
Perhaps they were of rare species.

I attempted to make conversation with Aberi but it always seemed to drift toward the price of his plants. After several futile tries, I politely declined his offer. Damian accepted, though, and after a minute of haggling he came away with a lighter wallet but still a net gain in mass and weight. Damian had seen my attempts at friendly discourse and felt it his duty to share his note with me about how astronomically improbable it was to meet an alien we knew in another dimension, but he knew to stop when I started to lurch.

Without much of a plan, we decided the most logical course of action was to wander through the milling crowds of untold thousands, hoping to find a dozen humans. It also appeared that humanity was a relatively small and stealthy species and my crew could have been hiding behind any number of saurian legs or talking beneath the volume of every stall owner with a pair of unwieldy, trumpet shaped lips. But it was usually a safe bet that we'd be astronomically lucky twice in a row.

Today I had Damian with me and, as such, discovered a great deal that I had not seen before. For example, it turned out that if you were to patronise the stalls and walk between them, a few -or a few dozen- layers past would always be a hidden building of some sort, invisible from the main paths. One with walls and a roof that wouldn't fit into a pocket at a moment's notice, that is. The first of these that we found was a restaurant that smelled like it stocked human-friendly foods and upon walking inside found our Cook -and astrobiologist- with about half of the missing crew.

We sat down and berated them a few minutes before Cook obstructed airways with food too good to talk over. Cook always knew how to end an argument.

The architecture of the tenement and the tenants was of questionably sound design, and I had good opportunity when one came over to our table and sat down -showing us bipeds that we had all been sitting the wrong way- to talk to us at length. It took our new companion a few tries to master human speech, but when it did, it did not need to breathe to speak and paid no mind to dramatic pause or punctuation alike. It gave us a great many answers to a great many questions over the next few hours.
The Lycaon was beautiful, a dog-like alien with wide, notched ears, and fur that was a blotchy black, brown, and beige. It sat on it's haunches in a very-uncomfortable-looking pose, that must have been more comfortably with it's long, folded limbs. It mimicked human speech with great difficulty, although I counted myself lucky to find an alien that spoke Core-World Basic.

Damian explained that it's ability to vocalize non-stop was especially useful, especially when it was making a kill (a move that involved clamping it's jaw tight around the neck of it's prey).

It explained, or tried to explain, the layout of the ship. The ship could drift from world to world, picking up strays and refugees. It was especially likely to drift into a world destroyed by the actions of the Powers That Be, which explained why there were so many aliens that I had thought were extinct. The ship drifted in space, keeping it's passengers alive until it could find a safe place to unload them (which hadn't happened in the past thousand years or so, and seemed unlikely).

What this ship needed was a way to direct it's movements. It needed better engines, capable of inter-dimensional flight. Unfortunately, even if it was possible to acquire such an engine (I thought of my ship, resting in the hold in Sector G, and couldn't resist the urge to snicker), the act of opening the ship rendered it very vulnerable to attack. Moreover, the factions had, over the past thousand years of travel, begun to try to sabotage one another and seize power. Things were, on the surface, idyllic, but at the heart of the ship lay deep conflict.

My crew and I had walked right into this conflict (which looked to turn violent). I suppressed the urge to audibly groan.
And the Lycaon actually used the word 'idyllic' to describe the ship when the stain of bureaucracy was obvious, behind the eyes, in the soul of every being aboard. It must have reached so deep that it was no longer conceivable to them to live without it. A true tragedy.

A new group entered the restaurant and the Lycaon left us for them, restarting the well-practised speech.

I sat and reflected on the matter, I wasn't sure where they could go, even with cross-dimensional capabilities but perhaps that was an issue best left up to their own leaders. With these sorts of political troubles it was best to leave as quickly as possible, lest you be drawn in ever further. We still didn't know why these races weren't present earlier in spaceships of their own or why the other races weren't present here, in the market place but, again, best not to question.

And there was such alot of space in the stasis ship, who could know how much else went on out of sight and out of mind. And the mystery of who exactly attempted to capture the Redtail sat at the back of my mind. And why is it that the quarters we were assigned were so deserted, even though it seemed well lived and littered in.

But I didn't want to be taken in to the matters of this ship. It'd be a mighty long time before we could leave if that happened.

In fact, as I sat there it seemed that the aliens around us were paying us more attention. I was becoming paranoid and agitated. The crew noticed this and I noticed that the crew noticed this, so I led us out before Cook could shove something else into my mouth. We didn't have any way to contact the remaining members of the crew -I'd made sure of this- so it was back to the ship as fast as possible. Several hours later an exit was discovered -we ended up going in alot of circles and through alot more stalls, buying things as we went. It was very strange and unintentional- and by the time we made it to the dormitories, the rest of the crew was waiting for us. I wasn't very pleased at this and went checking on the ship in a huff.
When I appraoched the ship, I could see the signs of a crude. attempted break-in. The number pad was scrambled (a crude way to bypass a security code), that hyadn't worked. A failed attempt at bypassing the system automatically triggered a wipe, which made a second attempt impossible. The lock on the maintenance hatch was dinged, as if smeone had idiotically attempted to pry it open with a crowbar.

The culprit was sleeping not a few meters away, curled up under a blanket. The remains of an extinguished fire, a scattered assortment of primitive burglars tools, and a broken scrambler lay next to him. Upon hearing me approach, his wide ears twitching. He was a young Lycaon, his fur almost white with larger splotches of black.

He sat up on his haunches, looking at me. The entire time his broad ears continued to twitch and swivel back and forth. I politely refrained from making any kind of threatening gesture, chiefly because I did not want his teeth embedded in any of my limbs. Not wishing to assume the worst, I decided to start by asking a simple, friendly question, such as "Whata re you doing here?"

Damian pre-empted me by snarling "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
I found myself confused equally at the lack of security near this ship so prized to everyone aboard The ship and the sheer, stupendous gall of this alien.

The Lycoan backed into the wall of the ship, outnumbered and, presumably, well intimidated. Damian felt that violence was a perfectly reasonable option when violence was necessary and took some threatening steps toward it. What part of the crew that had come with us now started to clamour and soon to push, all while the centre of attention curled further into itself. I could hardly let my crew become bloodthirsty -I wouldn't brook a single shanty on any ship I captained- and made to deal with the matter concisely and promptly.

I looked for Michael Sparrow, my mountainous bodyguard, and found him standing directly over me, on the tips of his toes. I stepped out of the shade and gave him a clear path to the alien before giving him a push off balance and my order. "Look, a doggy," I whispered to him, from his elbow, and he flew into action, trundling past Damian, who was clenching his fists and breathing heavily taxed as he was by the strain of screwing up his every facial feature, and making short work of the Lycoan. He saw Sparrow just prior to collision but he barely had time to whimper before Sparrow was upon him.

As the crowd dispersed, only a few morally twisted individuals lingered to watch the resulting show - I certainly didn't. I knew what would happen, though. I'd seen it all before.

First, Michael will have lunged, forcing his full body weight into the air, directed at his prey. Then he will have opened his arms, pulling the quarry into a deadly-strong embrace, giant hands muffling any noises or cries for help. After this, he will have set in, patting and petting and caressing the poor creature he'd set himself upon, prising from it every pitiful last piece of dignity it had left, ripping and shredding any intelligent pride apart with a gentle touch, cutting deeper than any blade.

I had borne witness once and it brought me night terrors still.

Inevitably, when the Lycoan's torture was finally finished, I would be begged that question, to decide on his everlasting fate and what remained of his sanity. Perhaps that night, or perhaps even come the morning, Sparrow would ask me if he could keep it. And, although I am no inhuman beast whom cannot feel mercy, I knew what the Lycoan had done, I understood his plight, but I empathised with Damian. I would let Sparrow keep him.
Aaron Hooper petted the Lycaon, the way one might pet a friendly dog. I would have told Aaron to stop, except that the Lycaon's tail was wagging furiously. When I offered him a bowl of stew, he swallowed it down. The poor pup was starving; I could count his ribs. He was far too young to be away from his mother. His feet and ears were massive compared to his body size, showing his youth.

He was scruffy and underfed looking. Aaron Hooper gave me a look that said "Can we keep him?" I glared at him. The poor alien wasn't a puppy for God's sake!

In any case, he was obviously not capable of breaking into a sophisticated ship on his own. He must have had some reason to try what any reasonable individual would have labeled as 'insane'. I could remember trying some equally ridiculous things when dared, so I hadn't discounted the possibility of peer pressure. He was too young to understand the ramifications of his actions, and I couldn't very well let him starve.

I offered him a second bowl of stew, which he wolfed down at a slower pace while I talked.

"Do you understand what I am saying?" I asked. He did not have a translator, many aliens did not, in contrast the sectors above, where they were common. He obviously understand my question, because he shook his head from side to side.

I said, "Do you want me to find you a translator?" He nodded vigorously, his ears bobbing.

Damian had obviously thought ahead, because he returned several moments later, translator in hand. It was large and clunky, but it would serve our purposes.

I said, "Can you tell me your name?"

The pup said "Rupert. My name is Rupert!" He lapped up the gravy remains in his bowl.

"Can you tell me where your parents are?"

"Dead. I lived with my aunt, but she's dead." That explained his state. Even in the hardest times, pups are always fed first, which means that he should have been fat and well cared-for, irregardless of the relative poverty in Sector G.

"Okay, Rupert. Please tell me why you tried to break into my ship."

He looked at me, as if he couldn't understand. "I had to find you!" As I suspected, his misadventures were motivated by desperation. I decided not to lecture him on his foolish way of getting my attention, which could have gotten him killed.
"So, why did you want to find me?" I asked.

"Boss. Boss wanted ya."

"The boss?" I asked.

"Boss," he corrected.

"Who is that?"

"The boss. Boss is the boss of all of Gee," he gave some special emphasis to the 'all', "and he eats well, too."

"So, this important figure wants to see me? When?"

"Now. Right now."

I nodded my agreement, this was obviously a diplomatic sort of situation. It could be dangerous to put off the meeting too long. I quickly had the pup mark on a map the way to this leader figure and started to analyse everything that had happened in minute detail.
I made my decision, but decided to confide in my senior staff, nonetheless.

Aaron's dormitory still made the noise of a jack-hammer applied to bulkhead and Sparrow was far too infatuated with his new toy, so Damian and I returned to our shared room and sat for a moment in relative silence, appreciating the weight of the matter.

It was, in the end, my duty to break the silence (low clamour), "I'm tired. I'm going to go to bed."

Damian grimaced, but he knew what must be done and while he may have once complained, years of practice had taught him how useless it would be.
"Good night," he replied.


When I awoke that morning Damian was still not back, so I spent some few hours in the company of my crew and a few more playing with our new dog when he finally deigned us fit to be graced by his presence. Prince Damian stumbled through the door into the sizable hall of the recreation room, a little bruised and the tiniest shade green but hardly enough to cause his dramatics, and immediately set in to relating his tale. Of royalty's daily life. Needless to say we were all held enraptured, captivated by his highness' tales of his own magnificent bravado.
It boiled down to a simple "There was a scuffle in the market." More or less. Except that with Damian, it was more from less. His story was well-told, full of suspense. However, I had heard such things before, and would have left, if I hadn't been intrigued by the situation he described.

Apparently, the mob had started because of some argument over food allotments. Most of the beings in Sector G did not want to be entered into stasis. Consequently, they often fell short on food and energy. The market was unofficially allowed to remain open, but it often lead to problems involving resources.

During one particular nasty fight over food, the security force had been forced to mobilize. The gas they used to subdue the crowd was nasty - not simply an irritant or a sedative, it could be fatal in certain species. Several young Uca larvae (a crab-like race) had succumbed, and several of the aliens had become enraged. Damian had inhaled some of the gas, hence his pitiable state. By the time he made his escape, the crowd had turned violent, and Damian had to made his escape before he become trapped in the crowd.

Once he had slipped away, he had chanced a glance back. Several of the Uca and a few others were being rounded up and subdued by the weapons of the security force. Several other aliens were dead, some of them innocent bystanders. Damian had been glad he left when he sensed danger; had he remained he could have met the same fate.

I said, "This place is insane!"

Damian added, "Yes, I agree. However, it is simply a byproduct of the conflict between the Sectors."

"Uh huh," I said, no longer paying attention. Rupert was meandering around the ship, followed closely by Sparrow, who was more interested in keeping the curious pup from harm then any harm the pup could do to the ship. A clang, the sound of the pup hitting a panel with a screwdriver made me wince. Sparrow just shrugged, as if he could care less.

Rupert was still skinny as a rail, but he looked much better. A bath had done him a world of good, although he doubtless was not too thrilled with the idea. Michael Sparrow was obviously taking good care of the pup, so I sighed and found myself unable to stay angry at the odd pair.

Unable to put off the inevitable, I decided to walk off and find out just who this 'boss' was.
I made my way toward the market place where the 'Boss' was, coming out of the floor this time, and in the next moment became lost. Once more amongst heady fumes and the press of an alien crowd. It seemed even busier than when last I had been here, but it had certainly calmed from the riot that Damian described. That said, it was getting a little thicker, as if something ahead were disturbing the crowd, walking onwards and I noticed that some of the traffic seemed a little agitated.

I thought I'd head in between some stalls and find a nice chef to help me out with information again when I saw the glint of polished tusks between someone's two heads. The obstructing being passed by and for a few moments I saw through a gap to he who had taken my attention. A mountain of a Scrofa, bigger even than the ones I had seen on my trip to the Janus Corporation. He wasn't just bigger than the Scrofas guarding the Janus Corporation building in the hub, but scarred and grizzled where others seemed almost urbane in comparison. His beady black eyes darted and his head swayed to and fro, the tension of his muscles showing through hide. As I watched, he stared down an oncoming alien. It didn't have optical sense organ; it must have smelled his gaze. This was not a guard, but a soldier.

I stared for a second and the Scrofa caught me. He waded through the crowd, batting away aliens that hadn't the ability to react fast enough with the sharp ends of his tusks. I knew it'd only aggravate matters if I ran, but as I was about to turn and escape he reached me. Not a word was traded, but after a heartbeat or two's scrutiny, his eyes glazed with the memory of some briefing and he walked or waddled away.

After this, the crowd around me seemed to part and give way and so it continued as I walked. If a message was passed, then I did not hear it, though I may have seen it in their reactions. Something between that reserved for royalty and the plague-bearing and as every new alien came into sight, it would see how everyone parted for me and so it went.

I might have played with this new found power. Jump at passers by, hide momentarily behind stalls, herd the slower aliens into makeshift pens, and so on.

But a Lycoan face shoved itself into mine.

Its voice whispered that I was to trust it and be shown to the boss. Which turned out to be boss Boss. At this point, I was content not to bother it more and hurry along, so I determined to follow as I was pushed. A gaping hole opened in the floor space I occupied, sending me down a chute and bringing me to a gentle stop with my legs wriggling in the air.

A much... larger voice greeted me and insisted that it was really very rude of me not to have come at once and to have, instead, kidnapped its messenger. Although it wasn't too severe on this last point.
The Boss was literally called Boss. He was a big Panthera called Boss Gage. He was obviously the alpha male, because of the big, dark mane of hair that gave his species their nickname "The Lions of Gyreford". Boss Gage was not terribly slender, although not terribly large, compared to the under-fed populace above he was positively fat. He was very strong, and I winced as he slapped me across the shoulders in a friendly manner. His claws stayed in, but the force of the blow nearly sent me sprawling.

"So, what have you done with my Rupert?" he asked.

"Feeding him stew and teaching him how to fix a ship," I responded. Damian and Sparrow were at that moment teaching the pup potentially useful life skills. These included making explosives, identifying poisons by scent, and how to hack into data cubes. I was almost afraid to return to our own ship.

"Ah, I am sure you are taking good care of him. He does need a good feeding up."

"He's..." I struggled, trying not to offend Boss Gage. "He's rather skinny."

"Well, he is too small to fight the others for food and he has no parents to feed him." I wanted to add, "You could feed him!", but I bit my tongue. A Lycaon pack wouldn't take in a strange pup, and in any case, the average Panthera would kill any Lycaon they could. Pantheras were bigger and stronger, and viewed Lycaons are competition for food. Rupert was lucky to be under the protection of a big male like Boss Gage.

"So," I said. "Shall we get down to business?"

Boss Gage smiled, showing a mouth full of knife-like teeth. "I know you have a very special ship. I know the Janus Corporation wants to make an offer. Instead, you are going to hand it over to my company." Boss Gage was not one to mince words.

"Is that a threat?" I asked.

"No, I am not stupid. I know you have eluded the Enforcers. I know of your criminal record. I am sure that I could torture you, threaten your friends, subject you to mind altering drugs, and nothing would work. This would be a business deal."

"And what can you offer me?" I asked.

"Ah, a good question. Now, Sector G was not to know of this, but the Janus Corporation will vote very soon. I have my sources, and I am well-informed about what goes on in the higher sectors. I cannot offer money, as they will, nor an energy allotment. I can offer you what I have, which is your freedom."

"Excuse me?" Okay, this conversation had just took a turn for the very weird.

"Do you think that they intend to let you go? They can't let you leave, even if they managed to replicate your ship's engines, they won't risk letting you leave. No, they will kill you or hold you prisoner."

"Why should I believe you?"

"Why do you think that they allowed your ship to be stolen? Why would they leave your ship to the mercies of Sector G? They plan on taking it from you." He shook out his wide mane. "Now that they know you can disable your ship, they will allow the vote to go through. They will cling to their illusion of fairness, and then when your ship is in their hands, they will act. I know them, I know how they work."

"Big assertions," I said. "Do you have proof?"

"I have proof. Proof you will not be able to ignore. Come along with me, and I will show you."
Boss led me into a small, grimy secretive back room, turning on a dim and flickering light before motioning me to the table in the middle of the room.

"Sit," he said, "the shock may be too much to take standing."

I did so and then saw, in the centre of the table, a little holographic display with a few words in Lycoan bouncing from wall to wall. Boss sat down opposite me and fiddled with the display for some number of minutes, until he brought up a view of another similarly secretive and grimy, but less small, room. This room also housed a table as a centrepiece, around which were seated short of a dozen hairy, four legged Janus Corporation members. It was obvious they were such, for their many more than four limp, spindly arms, their hollow eyes and the holographic display that read 'Janus Corporation only - bi-weekly meeting'.

"This is a recording of one of their meetings. We managed to capture it with a hidden camera, sneaked in by an agent. It shows them discussing your fate."

The table was round, but still one seemed to sit at the head of it, through an aura of great dominance. Or perhaps because of the meekness all the others showed. This one spoke at length in a powerful, husky voice about the nature of my death; what particular organs would suffer particular punishments and in what order, etcetera, provided I did not give the technology to another group, perhaps a rebel group for example, thereby safeguarding myself from such a horrendous death or deaths in their gratitude.

At the end of this relished -it was almost exuberant in the telling- speech all at the table stood and cried their agreement with a collective, "hooray for evil."


To say the very least, I was deeply shocked. I did not like the Janus Corporation on a personal level or an ideological level or very many levels at all, but I had been assured that they were my benefactors, not such maniacal, deceiving, twisted evildoers. As soon as I had recovered I stood up and leaned through the holographic projection to shake Boss Gage's paw-hand. He was my saviour and I would not soon be out of his debt.
Okay, so I exaggerated slightly. Well, a lot, actually. The actually meeting was rather dull, but the intentions were more or less the same as previously described. The taped conversation did look pretty bad for us; if the Janus corporation was allowed to take out ship, we might not ever leave this hellish place. They would have no qualms about torturing us to get what they wanted. After all, my crew and I were strangers, and not worth much to them. I could see how they treated their own, and I knew without a doubt that we were in danger.

I had trusted the Janus Corporation to keep their word. I knew they were tied down by red tape and would try their best to delay. I had expected possible espionage attempts, lying, and stalling every step of the way. I had not expected to be viewed a problem to be dealt with violently.

Holographic tapes are hard to sneak into a meeting, unlike say a simple video, they require expensive, large, specialized equipment. I found the concept of someone 'sneaking' one into a meeting a little hard to swallow. However, they were near impossible to fake. You could edit a video or a sound clip with ease, should you posses the right technology, but holographic projections were almost impossible to tamper with.

Either way, I had to act as if they were plotting to betray me. This meant trusting Boss Gage (who did not strike me as trustworthy), and possible risk alienating the Janus Corporation. I didn't want them to know I was on to them, but I couldn't let them get their filthy limbs on my ship, either. This called for someone with tact, diplomatic skills, and a mind like a steel trap.

Obviously, I was not referring to myself.

"Damian," I said. "Come with me. We're going to get that slave-artifact removed in med bay, and then you are going to be my personal representative to the Janus Corporation."
Damian loved this sort of thing. He had a small library, about a centimetre on each side, of tales and minutes about the daring and brave and Herculean feats of politicians and corporate adventurers; years worth of training in the verbal harassment part of negotiation. But even this could be nothing more than a distraction against the power that the Janus Corporation could presumably wield. So a distraction it would be, and we would have to hope that what the Janus Corporation was built on, the bureaucracy, would be their undoing.

Gage's faction in the mix was that of the entirety of sector G. A fair population of the disgruntled with dissension and rebellion in their minds. But it was still only one sector of many and, at that, one without much power. Our plan was to throw in our bargaining chip of a ship with him, the most powerful chip around, and to entrust our every chance to him. His gain would be ours and we had the same goal; it was not an ideal situation.

Anyway, a rising power like Gage's would be far smaller and more agile, without the rot of the plague having yet set in. A David and Goliath scenario. Logically the David would win, so I was pretty confident.

The med bay was a Spartan sort of affair, still in sector G, and the main feature of the room was the doctor. Not for the size or impression of the doctor, but for the lack of anything else. Damian was laid on the floor and an anaesthetic was produced from a pocket and administered before he could start to struggle. With a bit of leaning and peeking I could see that the doctor's black coat of skin was equipped with what must have amounted to hundreds of pockets stitched to the inside. I marvelled at the ingenuity and style of this being - he wore several eye-patches and peripherals. Eyes, for example.

I was asked to leave the room while surgery was performed. After some hours of silence I thought to check and found Damian alone, with a stitch where the slave-artefact once lay under the skin and a contented smile on his face that lasted even after the application of cold water.
"I'm sorry."

Damian fixed me with his piercing gaze. "For what?"

"For not getting this taken care of sooner," I replied.

He snorted. "We didn't have the technology, and we couldn't have lingered long enough to have it taken out. We were on the run, remember?" He touched the spot gingerly, as if assessing the damage. "In any case, you chose to disable all the instructions encoded onto the dreadful thing. You could have forced loyalty, punished me with pain, or sold me to the highest bidder. I haven't forgotten that, you know."

"If you're so grateful," I said, one corner of my mouth twisting into a lopsided smile. "Why do you go out of your way to make my life miserable?" I was rewarded with one of his more genuine smiles.

"Because you're an arrogant, senseless, idiot."

"I'm deeply touched."

I looked at the remains of the artifact, which were tossed carelessly into a trash chute, complete with red lining and the ever-present bio-hazard sign. That was all that remained of a horrible, cruel artifact that must have made Damian's life living hell, at least for a time. Enforcing obedience, punishing infractions with pain, molding his mind... I wish I knew more of his early life, but a part of me wished to be spared.

Clearly, it had not broken his spirit. How had it affected him, I did not know. But here was this clever man, and he was going to be our last hope. If anyone could get us out of this mess, it was Damian.


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