In which Kraglin attempts to flirt, Horuz is Horuz, and space is big.
Kraglin clatters to a halt at the bottom of the steps that feed into Hangar Bay Z: out of breath, feeling like an idiot, and ten minutes late.
He’s surprised they haven’t left without him. But there they are, in all their scraggly glory: six Ravagers, crammed under the buxom swoop of a shuttle’s underbelly. Udonta’s at their centre. Horuz stands stiffly a few metres behind, chin jutted out and trying to look like he’s in charge. Horuz is the bearded goon with the face that turns into a ripe plum at the first hint of insubordination or humidity, the one who’d gotten his kicks out of bawling him out in the engine room on his first day. Horuz is also, Kraglin decides, an A-grade a-hole. That doesn’t stop him from staggering over and gasping out an apology. Horuz sneers at him, while Udonta sniggers under his breath.
“Aw, greenie, where’d you get lost this time?”
“I didn’t get lost,” Kraglin argues, propping hands on his knees and panting. “S'not my fault your dumb maps don’t work right.”
Udonta smirks, drawing giggles from the surrounding Ravagers. Bunch of fucking schoolchildren. “Nah, you’re just shit at reading them.”
Kraglin pulls himself up. “I learn better by experience, is all.”
“S'why you've been crew coming-on a month and you still can’t find the low hangar bay…”
“Quiet!” Horuz roars. Judging by the puce coloration and the accompanying spray of spittle, he’s been working himself up for some time. Kraglin’s unsurprised. Being put in charge of an uppity Udonta sounds more like punishment for Horuz than vice versa. And, judging from the manic energy in the Kree’s odd red eyes, he’s channeling his anger at the captain and bo’sun into making Horuz’s life as unbearable as possible.
It’s a noble cause. Kraglin pledges to support him every step of the way. “Can I fly?” he asks.
Horuz fingers curl like they’re practicing wringing off his head. “Shut the fuck up and do what I say,” he growls. “All of you, on the fucking ship. Now. And greenie?”
Kraglin snaps to mock attention. “Yeah?”
“I see your skinny ass anywhere near them controls, I’m gonna fillet it for a mid-afternoon snack.” Something about the way he says that tells Kraglin he’s not joking. Bravado cowed – until he can think up suitable revenge – he swallows and slinks after the rest. Whatever. Ain’t like he wants to pilot their stinky ships, anyways.
Onboard, he ends up sandwiched between an overweight Kronan and an A’askvarii girl with black-dipped tentacles. The only thing worse than being caught between a rock and a hard place is being caught between a rock and a sea-monster. But seeing as every other nameless mook in the craft has picked up on the weird vibes from Udonta – that, or they’ve heard about his demotion from Dagada, who’s been bragging to everyone he sees – and is straining to sit as far away from him as possible, Kraglin supposes it can’t be helped. He chooses Scylla over Charybdis.
“Hi,” he says to the A’askvarii. “I'm not allowed to tell you my name, but I gotta say, that dye-job’s pretty awesome.”
The A’askvarii’s hairless eyelids spasm, and her gill-like nostrils quiver. He thinks she might be trying to flutter them. “Thank you,” she purrs. Slithers an inch closer. Kraglin grins. He can still pull ‘em.
On his other side, the Kronan makes a belch-like scoff – sounds like two mountains grating together. “No fucking the new guy,” he says, arms crossed over his chest. His jacket’s open and several sizes too small, straining around a rubbly orange belly. “At least, not next to me.”
A’askvarii-girl’s gills flare as she brays out a laugh. “Next time then, sweetheart,” she tells Kraglin, and tenderly caresses his chin with a sticky tentacle-tip. Kraglin tries not to lean away.
“Sure. Just so you know though, I do the fucking –“ There’s a choke from Udonta. Kraglin scrambles to rephrase. “It’s just, y’know, what they say about A’askvarii gals and tentacles – not that you’re like that… Or, if you are like that, there ain’t nothing wrong with it, but heck, I ain’t really into it. That’s all.”
A’askvarii’s looking at him oddly. “Right,” she drawls. Retracts her tentacles and turns to bestow her attention on the Ravager on her other side. Kraglin glowers at his boots, cursing his luck, Udonta, and everything in between. The Kronan’s elbow digs into his side. His chuckle would’ve wobbled the belly of any other species, but the heavy, stone-cast gut remains unshakable.
“Well greenie, you sure fucked that one up,” he stage-whispers. Kraglin shrugs him off. Whatever.
Horuz ain’t the type to brief them down before they get to the shooting and stealing, so, after Udonta’s stopped wheezing and the A’askvarii’s ceased her jabbering and silence has fallen once more, the Kronan takes it upon himself to fill them in.
“Ain’t a big job,” he tells them, pulling up a dodgily-sketched schematic on his wristpiece. Even Kraglin, whose artistic skills are on par with those of a three-year-old, examines it dubiously. “We’ve been commissioned to retrieve the skull of a Cartel don – s’got some nice shinies lodged in it, apparently. Should fetch a pretty price as a… a table-piece or something. I dunno.”
Udonta’s head pops up. Kraglin disguises his laugh in a cough. He can just see it: the gem-studded skull of a gangster bobbing above Udonta’s dashboard like fuzzy dice.
“Anyway. Ain’t got no guards or nothing, so long as we don’t set the alarms off – just a bunch of old-fashioned traps. We got us a diagram from an inside source –“ The wristpiece is given an illustrative shake, one which blurs the fuzzy blueprint further. “- So it should be an easy in-and-out. Usual rules though, for greenie’s benefit…” A square orange hand, larger than a shovel-head, swaddles Kraglin’s entire shoulder. “Don’t touch nothing, and don’t be a fucking idiot,” says the Kronan, patting hard enough to level a lesser man. “Or don’t come back alive.”
Survive today and tomorrow, and he can start telling folks his name. That’s motivation, if nothing else is. Kraglin nods.
“Alright!” calls Horuz from up front. “We’re coming into orbit! Get yer space suits on!”
They can’t, for obvious reasons, dock on an alarm-rigged memorial asteroid that’s only twice the size of their craft. They can, however, circle the moon around which the memorial floats, matching orbit and velocity, and – as the Ravagers say – take a walk. Kraglin unbuckles himself along with the rest, and stands on his chair to reach the suit down from the roof compartment. It’s… crustier than he expected. Hopefully not with the remains of the last occupant.
“Might wanna check it for rips,” says A’askvarii cheerfully, as he attempts to subtly diagnose whether the lump of brown clinging to the suit’s inside pant leg is a chunk of exploded kidney or just the result of incontinence. “Or things could get a wee bit messy.”
No further explanation is needed. Swallowing, Kraglin holds his suit up and inspects the rubbery coating. How old is this thing anyway? In Nova systems, the corps have upgraded to single-piece headsets, which contain an internal air supply and cover the body in a transparent pressurized forcefield which, according to the rumor mill, feels comparable to a sensual full-body tickle. Fuck, with one of them things on you, you could go for spacewalks naked. Some ambitious young recruits have been known to.
Kraglin wonders what happens if he finds a tear. Does he sit this one out? Do they carry a patch kit? Does he get chucked out anyway, and hold his breath?
Horuz squeezes through the cockpit door, girth increased by the extra layer of rubber around his waist. His helmet’s off, so they suffer the full delight of his bloodshot stare. “Quit fuckin’ around, rookie. Hatch opens in one minute.”
Kraglin, running worried fingers around the suit’s scuffed elbow patches, gulps and obeys. He’s still struggling with locking the helmet into the pressurized seal when Horuz starts the ten-second countdown, and almost garrottes himself in his desperation to pull the hood into place. A’askvarii clucks her tongue – it sounds fuzzy over the internal comm – and takes over, batting his fumbling hands away. The suit clicks closed as Horuz says ‘zero’.
Then the floor drops out from beneath them, and there’s nothingness.
Space is an ocean in the sky.
That’s what they teach you in the slum academy on Hrax, which commandeers a smog-saturated space under the aqueduct once a week, using wrecked rocket parts for blackboards and dictating to their audience of grubby street-children from ancient, carbon-age books. But that’s only because these are the kids who ain’t never gonna afford a ship ride; the kids who are born and who die in the ghettos. They’re not planetbound – but they might as well be.
Kraglin isn’t one of them. Not anymore. He likes to think he never was: that he’s always been different, that he’s always had his eyes set on something bigger, something more. But nevertheless – out here, drifting through the deep, surrounded by nothingness in its purest and most absolute form, Kraglin’s mind swims back to those words, as hideously inaccurate as he now knows them to be.
Space is an ocean. He can only pray that it doesn’t drown him.
“Oi, rookie.” Udonta’s voice, scratchier than ever through the comm device. He sounds muffled, far-away. Unreal. “We’re moving out.”
Kraglin nods, forgetting that he can’t see it, and continues to watch the endless void. Space is so dark that it must have substance. If he could roll up his sleeves, run his fingers through it, surely he’d feel fibers running over his skin? Touch the silky black grain?
A gloved hand cuts off that train of thought. It hooks onto his elbow, squeezing hard enough to be felt through the synthetic second-skin: an aching anchor to reality. Kraglin is dragged forwards by a pulse of Udonta’s rocket-boots, drifting across the silent soundscape of far-off stars. The other Ravagers are ahead. The burning jets of their rocket boots glimmer like cat eyes. Distance is meaningless; the memorial satellite hovers at once close enough to cup in his hand and a thousand miles away. Kraglin’s mind is numb with wonder and awe. He shakes it away when Udonta speaks again, this time rough and quiet – “It gets better, y’know.”
Kraglin has to remember how to formulate a reply. “What d’you mean?”
“Space. This.” Udonta waves at the frozen, fathomless chasm. From the lack of Horuz and the Kronan’s gut-labored breathing, they’re on a private line. “Spend enough time in it, and it don’t seem so…” His voice trails off. Kraglin can’t see his expression through the black glass of the helmet, but he twists to face him anyway, moving like a swimmer in saltwater.
“Aw, y’know.” Udonta’s boots vomit another amber flare – although if he’s trying to drown out their conversation, his efforts are kinda redundant. Vacuum, and all. Kraglin smiles to himself.
“Scary?” he offers.
Udonta’s flightpath stutters. “I was gonna say big.”
Kraglin’s smile, safe behind the inch of solar-protected plexiglass, grows. “Mm-hm.”
The crackle of a comm-switch being flicked. “Hurry the fuck up, lovebirds,” Horuz snaps. “Or I take both your cuts.”
There’s a moment of silence – absolute silence, unbroken by the sputter of static from a comm. Then Udonta growls and shoves Kraglin's shoulder, sending him into a yawing spin that’s more dizzying than any rollercoaster. “Put your own jets on, rookie,” he says, pulling ahead. “I ain’t dragging you the whole damn way.”