This work is part of a series. The first installment can be read here.
A lumpy, ungainly, ugly thing. It hurtles at an enormous speed through the dark fabric of the universe, skirting gravity wells and skimming over swirling pools of matter. It passes the womb of a fetal star, soars under the tomb of a long-forgotten planet.
A ship, accruing a fine grey coat of silt. Raw, powdery stuff, crumbling at a touch. It is the ground upon which living things have walked; it is the dead remains of a star that once lit a long-forgotten System. The remains of so many places, with all their lives and wars and poems and stories; dust now, to be washed off at next planetfall.
A ship, pale and tiny against the all-encompassing black.
Pass inside it, through the thick steel plating of its skin. Pass the tough steel ribs filled with insulating foam. Pass the cords and cables, the veins that carry the ship’s necessary lifeblood—energy and information—throughout its small and hollow body. Pass the inner walls, to the interior—it is as dark as the universe itself, in here.
Here is the great belly of the beast, where reactors and injectors feed fuel into the fiery, closeted engine. Here is the cargo hold, where the dark shapes of boxes containing food and chrome and coffee filters lurk against the light-starved walls. Here is the cockpit, where the dials and screens provide a faint neon glow, tracing out the spare outlines of shapes in shades of blue and orange. Empty, worn chairs. A stack of papers topped by a small book.
In the upper part of the ship, just beneath the weld-scarred spine of the ship’s outer shell, there is a small room. It is located just above the cargo hold, slant-roofed in an architectural representation of an afterthought, and retrofitted with a small enclosed elevator to carry supplies up from the hold in order to save storage space in the room itself. It has empty counters, a small metal table, and a fold-down stovetop.
In the dark, the slight sound of hanging pots and pans clicking against one another in response to the ship’s shaky rumble is the only thing readily available to any human senses.
Just outside the opaque glass of the sliding kitchen door, a light flickers to life.
Unusual, for this ship. By UR time, the ship is currently experiencing 2400 hours—midnight. All is usually left quiet, undisturbed, for another eight hours at least.
The light from the hallway glows dully against the sharp lines of the table. The softly swinging pots and pans glint with it.
Voices—one bright with excitement, the other rougher and sleep-slurred—filter into the room. As the steady tramp of footsteps brings the two speakers ever closer, the voices grow louder.
The door slides open, sending the hallway light pouring in unchecked. Holding a stack of photographs, Ketzal barges into the room first, flicking the switch by the door as she enters. The room comes to life, bathed in a white glow.
Covering his mouth to stifle a yawn, Eli comes after her, and the door slides shut behind him.
Ketzal flings her photographs on the table, letting them spread out in a haphazard fan over its weathered, age-dented surface. Eli succeeds in beating down his yawn.
“So.” He makes his way fumblingly to the stovetop. “This guy.”
“Ma-Rek,” Ketzal supplies helpfully, as Eli folds the stovetop down and turns the dial to set it to heat. Among the pots and pans swinging idly above his head, he picks out a blackened kettle. Dislodged from its brethren, the kettle clanks and clatters in protest as he opens it, placing it in the small, efficient sink. The water turns on with a burbling rush, filling the kettle with a sound that is somehow both sharp and soft.
“Uh-huh. Let me see if I have this straight. He gets a ton of chrome,” Eli holds up one finger, as though ticking off items from a list, “hides it all, builds a map to where he hid it, and then—abandons his crew and flies into an asteroid belt?”
He keeps his four fingers up, holding them as though for inspection. Ketzal is unperturbed.
“Pretty much. Though the vampirism on Bleachbone might have been a part of his reason for abandoning the crew, if it happened before he left. Or, he could have just been being selfish, not wanting to share. He was a pirate, after all.”
“Share what? And when? He flew himself into an asteroid belt.”
“I don’t know what he was thinking. Too many variables to guess, really. It’s wild, right?”
Eli yawns again.
“I’d go for ‘insane’, but sure.”
The kettle is full now. The water jumps up from the small opening at its top, burbling over the sides like a tiny but very energetic waterfall. He reaches back to shut off the water, pouring out the excess before putting the lid back on the kettle and setting it on the stovetop. The kettle hisses, indignant, at the sudden heat. Ketzal pulls out a chair.
“It might not be a treasure map,” he says, readjusting the kettle on the stovetop.
“How do you mean?”
Eli, circling back towards the table, hesitates briefly by the cabinets. Opening one, he pulls out an apple. Setting it on the counter, he begins to open drawers with systematic steadiness. He frowns, briefly, into each one before closing it again.
“I mean,” he says, to one of the open drawers, “It seems like he went into a ‘kill everyone’ stage, right before he died. He could’ve built that map to—I don’t know, a planet like Blue 12. Somewhere deadly enough that whoever dared to go hunting for his treasure wouldn’t make it out alive. A death trap.”
Ketzal sits, running her tongue over her teeth in thought.
“That’s actually really likely. I didn’t even think of it.”
Closing another disappointing drawer, Eli hums slightly in response.
Ketzal is still turning something over in her head.
“That would be so cool,” she says. Eli turns away from his search to direct a squint at her.
“You’d still go, wouldn’t you?”
“To find out the closest existing equivalent of Ma-Rek’s last will and testament? Of course. Whatever else it is, it’s sure to be fascinating.”
The worry lines imprinted around Eli’s pale eyes grow a shade deeper.
“You can’t be fascinated if you’re dead,” he says, slowly, giving weight and meaning to each word. Ketzal looks up, one eyebrow cocked, shoulders straight.
“You’ve got personal proof of that, or something?” She says, a little sharply.
He frowns deeper, and after a moment, she sighs.
“Sorry. It’s just—I’m not built to be cautious, Eli. I’m not made for being prudent or looking before I leap or—any of that. I have to find things out, I have to look, even if it’s dangerous. It’s just who I am.”
On the stove, the water simmers.
Eli is still frowning, but after a moment he nods.
“I guess I can see that,” he says. “I don’t get it. But I can see it.”
He directs his frown at the drawer for a moment, then closes it, and opens another. He frowns into that one too.
“Have you seen our knife?”
She sits up in her chair, squinting at the drawer he has open without actually being able to see into it.
“I put it in there last time I used it.”
“Well, it’s not here now,” Eli says. He shuffles the drawer’s contents a bit, as proof.
“That’s weird. Here.” Ketzal digs something out of her pocket. “Use mine.”
He turns around in time to catch the folded knife that tosses at him.
He frowns into the drawer one last time before shutting it again.
“So,” Ketzal says, shuffling her photos again, “It’s a death trap.”
“It might be.”
Opening the knife, Eli returns to the apple. He cuts it into neat quarters, carving out the seedy centers in a neat, precise series of movements.
“Okay. So if you had to go somewhere that might be a death trap, how would you go about it?”
Eli returns to the table with two handfuls of apple slices. He places a small pile of them in front of her, and another in front of the chair just across from hers. Opening the incineration bin in the center of the room, he drops the core scraps into it, frowns at the over-full bin, and closes the lid, jabbing the button on its side. With a muffled rush of flames coming to life, the trash from the last few days is burned away to nothing.
“I’d get a good idea of what I was going into first,” he says, sitting down. “Take some time to assess everything. I’d have a plan to get out quickly, and I wouldn’t go alone.”
She nods thoughtfully, shoving an apple slice into her mouth. The water is boiling. Eli gets up again, going to the stovetop to pour out two cups of tea.
“Okay,” she says. “So, once we get to Red 16, do you know if there’d be anyone who would be interested in a possible treasure hunt/ death trap investigation adventure scenario?”
Eli turns away from the stove, walking back to the table and setting the two steaming cups down. He’s frowning again. Ketzal notices.
“We’re still going by Red 16 first?”
She wraps her tea in her palms, soaking in its heat.
“Well. Yeah. You still want to go home, right?”
“So, yeah. Red 16, then Ma-Rek’s treasure.”
Eli’s mouth is a flat line, and the crease between his brows is a veritable channel.
“I’ll pay you for the ship!” She says suddenly. “It’s mostly yours anyway—or you could keep it and I could buy a new one?”
“They do sell ships on Red 16, right?”
Eli bobs his head to one side, an inconclusive combination of headshake and nod that conveys no useful information about Red 16’s spaceship market.
“I do want to go home,” he says, “But not if it means leaving you to go shooting off alone to some pirate’s death planet.”
“I wouldn’t be alone, I’d—wait,” Ketzal gives him a piercing look. “You want to come with me.”
Eli picks his tea up and rolls his shoulders.
“I want to not leave you alone,” he says, after a pause.
Ketzal’s piercing look becomes sharper. It’s an expression she’s practiced many times in the mirror.
“You don’t have any obligation to keep me safe. Besides, I’d find someone to tag along.”
Eli’s shoulders fall.
“All right,” he says, reluctant. “Maybe I want to see this pirate treasure. If it is pirate treasure. Which I doubt it is.”
“Ha!” Ketzal shouts, snapping her fingers. “You’re curious.”
“I’m—I’m not—“ Eli splutters, which only makes Ketzal bend forward over her tea in a fit of laughter. Putting his tea down, he throws up his hands.
“Fine! I’m curious! You’re infectious.”
Ketzal chokes on her own laughter, and Eli shakes his head.
“It’s not that funny.”
“It is” she insists, face planted firmly on the table. The metal surface makes her sleep-deprived giggles reverberate through the whole room.
Eli shakes his head again and picks up his tea to take a sip.
Behind the mug, it’s impossible to see if he’s smiling.
* * *
Half an hour later, the lights are off. Two empty tea mugs sit, ringed with faint stains, in the sink. The ship has fallen asleep. Two of its inhabitants are asleep as well, tucked comfortably away and given over to dreams of treasure and discovery.
In the kitchen, a cupboard door creaks open.
Cautiously, an arm pokes out of it, then a head. Like an egg cracking open to expel a salamander, the cupboard spills a whole sprawling human figure onto the floor, one limb at a time.
They snap their gaze around the darkened room, gleaning what little they can from its shadows. Padding across the floor, they slide the door open. A knife-sharp wedge of light spills into the room, and they stand, a spindly silhouette, in the light.
Breek has a jacket at least a size too large for him on his shoulders and a paring knife in his hand. Wide-eyed, he looks around the hallway.
When no one jumps out from the bare walls to seize him, he seems to judge it safe enough.
The door slides shut behind him, and the kitchen is bathed in darkness once again.
* * *
It is 0800 hours and 12 minutes when Breek reenters the room. Peers inside. Frowns. Risking another backward glance into the hallway, he flicks on the light. He creeps into the kitchen, quietly opening a drawer and pulling out several cans—meat, and fruit, and potatoes. Enough to last a few days. He stuffs the food into his coat, looking around all the while, and silently pads away.
* * *
It is 0800 hours and 17 minutes when Eli walks into the kitchen and flicks the lightswitch.
The room, utterly contrary to expectation, goes dark around him. Eli blinks into it in confusion before flicking the switch again. The room flares up in friendly visibility. Eli scowls at the light switch for a moment, and finally shakes his head.
“We don’t need to save the ship’s battery!” He says, voice pitched a little higher than is usual for him. “We can leave all the lights on, all the time. I’ll just buy a new ship! I bathe in chrome and brush my teeth with silk!”
He stumps over to the counter, opening a drawer and frowning when he finds it empty.
“Could’ve sworn I just filled this.”
Grumbling at the delay of his breakfast, he walks to the side of the room, where the outline of a door is set in the wall by a panel of buttons. At one point, buttons had clear indicators of their function painted on them, but the paint has worn away, replaced by oily finger stains. Eli knows them by memory.
He jabs one, and the panel slides open for him. Rubbing his eyes irritably, he steps inside. The panel slides shut behind him, and the elevator descends with a rush of muffled mechanics.
* * *
It is 0800 hours and 19 minutes. Ketzal wanders into the kitchen, her hair tied in a messy purple pile on top of her head and a glowing datapad balancing on one hand like a waiter’s tray. She fills the coffeemaker and turns it on without glancing at it. Frowning down at the datapad, she makes her way, arm outstretched, towards a cupboard.
With a sharp crack and an exclamation of pain, her progress is jarred to a halt and she jumps back, rubbing her hip and taking her eyes off the datapad for the first time since her entry into the kitchen. An open drawer, all hard lines and sharp corners, stands in her path.
“Sheesh. How hard is it to close a drawer,” she grumbles, slamming it shut with her bruised hip and wrenching open the cupboard, retrieving a canister of dry milk and a mug. Clutching these awkwardly in her free hand, she makes her way back. The coffeemaker is burbling its last, the reservoir filled to the brim with hot brown liquid. Dumping a good amount of the dry milk into her mug, she returns to gazing at the datapad.
“Loris, colloquially known as Greyscape. Dry, rocky surface.” She reads. Coffee follows the dry milk, and she stirs the lumps in with one finger. “Mostly flat. Not a great place for a death trap.”
She takes a sip of the coffee and wanders back out the kitchen, leaving the canister of dry milk open and forgotten on the counter.
* * *
It is 0800 hours and 21 minutes. A slim figure slinks cautiously into the kitchen. Breek, glancing aside every few seconds, has a can of meat in one hand, and a marked lack of can opener in the other. Muttering to himself, he is quietly opening a drawer to search for one when returning footsteps sound in the hallway, and, cursing, he scrambles to duck behind the incinerator in the center of the room, curling his limbs up and out of sight like a startled spider.
* * *
It is 0800 hours and 22 minutes. Ketzal’s head pops through the door, and she bumps the light switch off with her half-empty coffee mug.
“You’re welcome, Eli,” she says, to no one in particular.
* * *
It is 0800 hours and 23 minutes, and Breek has gathered the courage to move from his hiding place. Gingerly feeling his way to the drawers in the dark, he resumes his search. Metallic shuffling and clinking sounds through the room as he shoves aside everything in the drawer that does not feel like a can opener.
The muffled sound of the rising elevator rumbles and screeches through the wall, and Breek shoves off from the counter with a curse. Something falls, hitting the floor and rolling with a loud clatter. Slipping a little, Breek flees. He is a dark shape in the doorway—and he is gone.
* * *
At 0800 hours and 24 minutes, the elevator door opens.
“Oh, for—,” Eli snaps as he is presented with the lightless room. He stomps meaningfully towards the switch, and the lights flare up again. Eli, arms full of canned food, turns around and stares at the floor.
It is covered with dry milk powder. An open canister lies innocently, apparently having been hurled at the tile and then left there.
“Why,” Eli asks the empty room, dumping his armful of cans on the table.
“Why.” as he sweeps up the mess and dumps the contaminated powder in the incineration bin.
“Why.” as he finds the lost knife also on the floor, lying on the drifts of dry milk like a sunbather on a beach.
And finally, “Why,” as his valiant search for the can opener is fruitlessly disappointed.
Having arranged the canned food in its proper place and scrounged a plastic meal packet that does not require a can opener from a cupboard, Eli leaves the room, shutting the lights off behind him with a decisive click.
* * *
At 1100 hours and 48 minutes, the door opens once more, and the lights come on. Ketzal and Eli both walk into the kitchen.
“Coffee is not breakfast,” Eli insists, shutting the door as Ketzal places her datapad on the table.
“I wasn’t hungry.”
Eli’s mouth flattens, but he doesn’t argue.
“I was thinking maybe soup for lunch?”
Eli nods, bending low to retrieve dry broth base from a lower cupboard while Ketzal reaches up for freeze-dried vegetables, meat, and spices.
“That’ll work. I still don’t know where the can opener went.”
“I didn’t do anything with it.” Ketzal says, holding up the meat packets in a gesture of innocence.
“I didn’t say you did. Things just keep disappearing. It’s unsettling.”
“Weird,” Ketzal agrees, pulling down the stovetop. The soup form a promising pile on the counter, and Eli goes over to snatch down the saucepan.
“So,” Ketzal says, “I’ve been taking a look at Loris, the planet that Ma-Rek’s map points to. If the surveys taken a decade or so ago are still accurate, it’s a sparsely populated planet. Carbon-heavy rock, mostly, with some caves and old mine shafts.”
Eli, filling the saucepan with water, turns toward Ketzal.
“Can I see?”
“Sure!” She says, tripping over to the table and tapping at her datapad. When it fails to light up at her touch, she frowns and makes a disappointed noise.
“It’s out of power.” She says. “I can show you on the cockpit computer”
Eli sets the pan on the stovetop, brushing his hands on his shirt.
It is 1100 hours and 50 minutes when the door slides shut behind them both.
* * *
It is 1100 hours and 58 minutes when that same door opens again.
Breek stands in the doorway. He glances around the room, takes in the abandoned cooking, and hesitates—but only for a moment. Looking back over his shoulder and finding no one in the hallway, he enters the room.
He digs the can opener from his pocket, treading softly to the drawer where he found it and replacing it where it was—or, at least, somewhere close enough.
He glances at the door again—still silent—and bites his lip. Finally, he goes to the sink, turning on the water and ducking his head under the faucet, gulping down greedy mouthfuls. He stands up, wiping his mouth.
Another glance at the door.
Gaining courage, Breek begins to look through the drawers, shuffling through the utensils. Losing that knife has left him all but defenseless, and he’s eager to get it back. He’s gone through two drawers without finding what he’s looking for when voices sound in the hallway—close, and coming closer.
Breek jumps at the noise, casting about the room for somewhere to hide. Fingers outsplayed as though to grasp any hiding place that presents itself, he takes the room in with wide eyes, silently mouthing every curse he knows.
Footsteps, just outside the door. No time. Breek’s eyes settle on the incineration bin, large and shiny and completely enclosed, sitting in the very middle of the floor.
Without hesitation, he leaps inside. A cloud of white milk-dust puffs up around his head for a split second, and then—
The lid is closed, and the door is opening.
“So, I’m hoping that there will be some clue once we reach the surface about exactly where the treasure—“
Eli, a mere step behind Ketzal, shoots her a look.
“—or the death trap, whatever he left behind to be remembered by, is, because I can’t find a single thing from up here. At least, not unless we orbit Loris until our fuel reserves run out.”
“Going in blind,” Eli says dryly. “fun.”
Ketzal either fails to notice the sarcasm, or intentionally ignores it. Her eyes are alight with adventure, and nothing will dim them now.
“I know! It’s gonna be so amazing!” She spins in the center of the room, and Eli steps around her overexcited figure on his way towards the stovetop. This time, he doesn’t bother to hide his smile. It’s only a small one.
“Right! Soup!” Ketzal says, once she sees what he’s doing. She comes over to the counter, prying the lid from the canister of broth while Eli rips open a packet of meat to reconstitute in the the simmering water.
He’s busy pouring it when a sharp, muffled sound makes him stop.
“Did you say something?”
Ketzal looks at him, questioning.
Eli frowns and goes perfectly still, straining his ears.
That is not the noise the incineration bin usually makes. Ketzal hears it too, this time, and she gives the canister raised eyebrows.
“Psssshhhttt,” the bin declares.
They look at each other.
“Oh no,” Eli declares, loudly, while opening the drawer and pulling the knife free of it. He holds it loosely in one hand, at the ready. “It looks like the bin is full again.”
Ketzal catches on, reaching up to take a heavy cooking pan from its hook.
“We should probably clear it out!” She says, holding her pan at the ready.
Eli takes a step towards the silent canister. “I’ll just press the button,” he announces, in the exact manner that any right-minded person about to press a button wouldn’t.
At this, the bin pops open, and a spring-coiled figure leaps free of it with a yowl and a cloud of dust.
With a terrifying yell of her own, Ketzal starts running towards the figure with her saucepan raised. Startled by the noise and searching for an escape route, the coughing stowaway spins in a confused circle, standing right in her path.
Even draped over shoulders too narrow for it and covered in milk powder, Eli knows that jacket.
He reaches out and snags a handful of familiar material, tugging the kid out of Ketzal’s warpath just in time to save him from another concussion. Ketzal flies past them both, skidding to a halt just in time to keep from slamming into the wall.
“Kid, I thought I told you not to be stupid,” Eli says.
Ketzal spins around. “Wait, we know him?”
“Ketzal, meet Breek,” Eli says. “The thief.”
“Oh!” Ketzal says, “The vampire kid!”
In response to this introduction, Breek tugs himself out of Eli’s grip and goes for the door. Eli, not particularly feeling like chasing the kid all over the ship, steps forward and grabs him again. Breek tries and fails to pull himself free, twisting around like a caught warp-rat until he’s facing Eli and shoving him away with both arms. The kid’s eyes are red-rimmed and wild, snapping from the knife in Eli’s hand to his face and back again.
He’s afraid, Eli realizes. Of Eli, of the knife, and more specifically, of Eli holding the knife. His grip on the kid releases of its own accord.
Breek staggers back, but doesn’t run. Ketzal and her pan are in front of the door, cutting off his escape. He squares his shoulders and raises his chin, going for a stolid, stubborn look. It’s ruined, a little, by the fact that he’s still covered in dust and coughing miserably with every other breath.
“M’not a vampire,” he mumbles, through dust-choked lungs.
“No, I mean—you know what I mean.” Ketzal lets he pan drop harmlessly to her side in favor of making a vague explanatory gesture.
“Kid,” Eli starts, “What are you doing? Stowing away on a ship that belongs to strangers? For all you know, we could’ve been the types who’d really have turned that thing on with you inside. Are you really that desperate to get off of—“
Breek glares at Eli with red, accusatory eyes.
“I’d do it again,” he snaps. “And—and you can’t kill me. Not unless you wanna never find Malek’s treasure. I know where it is, there’s—it’s impossible to find, unless you know.”
Eli is unimpressed.
“Yeah. Malek’s treasure, I’ll lead you right to it.”
“It’s Ma-Rek,” Eli says.
Breek takes a step back, eyes darting between Ketzal and Eli with painful wariness. “That’s what I said.”
Eli shakes his head.
“Stop digging while you can still climb out, kid. We’re not gonna kill you.”
“I’m not—“ he starts, defending his honor, but falters as Eli’s words sink in. He keeps his shoulders straight and his head up, thin and brittle as a dry sapling. “I’m not going back,” he says, instead. “I won’t.”
For a moment, Eli is ready to point out that, as a point of fact, Breek has very little ability to direct where he will or will not go; that, by stowing away and then letting himself be found before they made planetfall, he’d put himself almost entirely at Eli and Ketzal’s disposal.
But something stops him before he’s even drawn breath to speak. He looks the kid over.
Breek already knows all of that, he realizes. He’d already known he was powerless here; judging from the raw rage that has filled his every movement since the moment Eli’s first met him, Breek has been aware of his own helplessness for some time now.
Suddenly, Eli doesn’t want to be the one to remind him.
Instead, he turns to Ketzal, who is scrutinizing them both with the same thoughtful, curious expression that she turns on old manuscripts and artifacts.
“Well,” he says. “How do you feel about another member of this adventure party?”
She shook away the scholarly solemnity in the space of a second and grinned at him.
“I can stay?” Breek asks, surprise leaking past his bravado, if only for a moment.
“Sure thing!” Ketzal says. “Sit down, there’s soup. Want some tea?”
Watching the kid’s eyes grow a little wider with each word, Eli wonders when it was, exactly, that Ketzal’s easy friendliness had stopped surprising him.
Ketzal breezes past them both, hanging her pan back on its hook and turning down the now-boiling soup water.
Breek watches her, then glances at Eli, looking a little lost.
“You’ll get used to it,” Eli promises.
* * *
“I will be needing my jacket back.” Eli says, once Breek has gingerly sat on a chair. He looks for all the world like he expects it to be snatched out from underneath him.
“It’s not your jacket anymore.”
“It shouldn’t be anybody’s jacket, with all those holes,” Ketzal interjects, and is immediately met with two indignant sets of protests and a detailed outline of exactly why it was a perfectly good jacket, thank you, and how dare she suggest otherwise.
“Alright, all right,” she says, waving a set of bowls at them placatingly. “There’s some perfectly good soup ready, so hush.”
A small, fragile, unimportant thing, in the grand scheme of things. Soaring through such a small patch of space, locked tight in such a tiny swatch of time.
A ship, her walls built of iron ore dug up from deep below the surface of some distant planet—smelted and purified and hardened with carbon, cast and ground and riveted together to keep a few fragile lives safe, just a little longer, from the cold and the drift of the dark universe.
A ship, engineered over lifetime after brief lifetime by hundreds of thousands of thinkers, creatures with minds that could barely grasp what sort of thing a star might be, but who wanted to sail among those unfathomable giants all the same.
A ship that will be rust, and dust, and gone in just a few short centuries. A planet’s workday, a star’s lunch break. Inside it, an adventurer laughs away her fear of the unknown. A brittle boy slurps a spoonful of warm, salty soup. A man wonders, quietly, at a foreign feeling rising in his chest.
The stars look on, and do not comprehend.
The Last Chance will return.
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