Blame It On The Stars

Chapter 11

In which Kraglin goes tomb raiding, and the author overplays the Indiana Jones parallel.

The memorial is carved from cool white glass, frosted to opaqueness. Kraglin listens to the commands being muttered over the comm, then says “Gravitize!” feeling like an action hero in some cheesy Xandarian space-flick. The thump, as his jets switch off and his boots lock on, is soundless, but it reverberates through his entire body from head to toes. Kraglin pats himself down, making sure all limbs are attached – he’s stuck to a solid surface, which is something, but is also aware that said surface is still hurtling through the void with him attached to it. Everything’s hazy and uncertain, as if he might have lost a couple of vital organs along the way.

“Greenie!” Horuz shouts from ahead. “Next time you slow us up, we leave you!” And if space is vast and terrifying, the thought of being alone in it is infinitely worse. Kraglin runs over, the boots allowing just enough lift to fly for an extended stride before bringing him crashing down.

It’s… oddly liberating. He’s never had the chance to run through a meadow or a forest or any of that shit – conurbation kid, and all. But he imagines it might be something like this. Only, y’know, less bottomless abyss swallowing you from all sides.

For some reason, the Ravagers have waited for him rather than heading into the tomb. Kraglin sucks his cheeks, surprised. He’d have thought that they’d want to get this over with as fast as possible, before their presence was detected and reinforcements dispatched. When he reaches the small crowd, the large spacesuit belonging to Horuz waves him up to the front, then turns him by the shoulder to point at the tomb’s open mouth.

“Go on then,” he says, nudging him with the tip of his gun. Kraglin looks around the circle, but can only see his own reflection in the blank black slabs of glass. He can’t tell which one’s Udonta, but the Kronan at least is recognizable, and so he focuses on him.

“Um. I’m going first?”

The Kronan shrugs. “Sorry kid. Everyone’s gotta go first sometimes.” That’s what he says. What Kraglin hears, however – you don’t have a name yet; ergo, you’re expendable – is another matter entirely.

“Seriously?” he asks them. “I got two days before I’m named.”

Horuz leans in. “Then you’d better get a move on, if you wanna make it back to ship in time.” If you want to make it back to ship at all is unspoken, but then again, it doesn’t really need to be said. Kraglin holds his ground a moment. Then grabs Horuz’s plasma pistol – ignoring the warning snarl – and marches into the tomb. The Ravagers peel after him.

“Map’s on your wrist,” Kronan reminds him. Kraglin nods. It’s impossible to tell how far the different voices are through the comm – but Kronan’s unmistakably bringing up the rear. He just hopes they don’t have to retreat in a hurry. Starting off at a slow pace, he pulls up the schematics and rotates them until they start to coalesce in his brain. He thinks he’s got the knack when a palm claps down on his shoulder, preventing him from taking his next step.

“This's a shit plan, Horuz!” Udonta yells, yanking him back. “The kid can’t read a fuckin' map!”

“I can too!” Kraglin retorts. He windmills his arms to catch his balance, and frees himself from Udonta’s deathgrip with a duck and a twist. “What the fuck is your fuckin' problem?”

Udonta’s finger jabs the front of his helmet, glove-grip squeaking on the glass. “My problem is that you’re gonna get us all blown sky-high! Watch where you’re walking, would you?”

“I was, before you grabbed me –“

Udonta wordlessly points ahead of them. Kraglin follows the gesture, sees nothing but an octagonal corridor studded with asymmetrical crystals and a misty white floor, and turns back to relate his findings in as offensive terms as possible – to be met with a firm hand on the back of his helmet, which forces him to look again. “You dumb fuck,” Udonta hisses. “Don’tcha know a pressure pad when you see one?”

The section of floor ahead is possibly – possibly – a scant fraction of an inch higher than those around it. Kraglin jeers. “That ain’t nothing.”

The hand on his helmet delivers an open palmed slap. “Why don’t ya tread on it then, and see? Just give the rest of us who don’t wanna die enough time to get clear.”

A-hole. But he might just have a point. Kraglin scowls at him anyway, and takes several steps back, shuffling into the Ravagers behind him and intending to take the panel at a running jump. Once again, he’s halted, this time by Udonta’s groan. “You gonna leap without knowing what’s on the other side, rookie? Fuck. This's why I work alone.”

“Udonta!” snaps Horuz. “This’s a learning experience! Let the rookie learn!”

“Let him blow his legs off, more like.” Udonta’s helmet shakes from side to side, like he can’t believe how they’re all this stupid. “Look, it ain’t hard, kid. The wall’s not boobied – so you put your foot on it like so –“ He demonstrates, the stomp vibrating soundlessly through the airless compartment. “Then you say ‘gravitize’ whenever you move onto a new plane.” Udonta lifts his other boot, slowly turning horizontal, and waves his hands in a non-verbal ‘voila’. Kraglin half-expects him to bow. “Simple. Even you can’t fuck it up.”

High praise indeed. Kraglin can’t bring himself to thank him, but he knows good advice when he hears it, even hidden under a gruff tone. And Udonta’s the only one who’d spoken up. He nods at Udonta, sets his sole against the slope, and carefully picks his way up the wall. He hears the others follow, whispers of ‘gravitize’ filtering through the fizz of white noise. After scrutinizing the floor beyond, Kraglin judges it safe to take his weight and hops lightly down. There’s no dissuasion from Udonta, and no explosion. He waits a second to make sure, then releases his breath and starts to walk. He can do this, he reminds himself. Just two more days.

“Damnit,” one of them mutters. It sounds like A’askvarii-girl. “Figs said she was gonna chip me in on the bet if he didn’t make it.” Kraglin pretends not to hear. Udonta’s a solid presence at his back, acting as his eyes and communicating the hazards ahead through a system of prods, slaps and hard flicks.

“Slice field,” he says, pointing out a shimmer at neck-height. “Cut right through your suit – you too if you ain’t careful.” Kraglin nods and makes to duck under it – but is pulled back by Udonta’s grip on his bicep. “Careful, I said.” He checks behind him – the Ravagers are spread out, navigating their varying bulks through a section crisscrossed with alarmed wires. When Udonta deems they’re too distracted to care, he leans in and activates the private comm. “Look. They know you're gonna try and slip beneath – so what're they going to trap next?”

So that’s how this game works. Kraglin squats down, assessing the floor ahead of him – and spots the danger immediately. “There!” It’s another pressure pad, smaller than the first and only differentiated from its surroundings by a centimeter. He’s inordinately proud at having found it – and then prouder, when Udonta squeezes his arm and nudges him forwards.

“Git on with it, then.”

He slips his helmet under the forcefield, then gravitizes to the wall while still in a squat. It’s not his most graceful moment, and he suspects from the radio silence that Udonta is laughing at him from the privacy of his own suit. Least he has the decency not to broadcast it to the whole damn team.

Kraglin’s on a roll. He spots the next trap – a series of nozzles that will start spitting acid when anyone walks beneath them – all on his lonesome. Thinking of a way around it is rather more difficult – he can’t just gravitize his way through this one. He glances at Udonta and receives a stoic shrug. Alright. No help here. No problem. A quick inspection of the mechanism reveals how it operates – sensors are set besides every spout, directed at the floor. Unavoidable and deadly. But… not necessarily to them.

“Anyone got anything they won’t miss?” Kraglin sends down the line. It’s what Udonta’s been waiting for – he fishes in the pocket of his suit and pulls out two empty clips from a projectile-age rifle. Heaven knows why he’s got them, or from where, but at least they’ll come in handy now. Kraglin grabs them with a grateful grin, hidden by his visor. He lobs them, one after the other, approximately five seconds apart, skittering to the corridor’s end. The first one is vaporized. The second, though…

“Cool,” he breathes.

Udonta presses a third bullet clip into his palm. “Ready?”

Kraglin’s chest is loose and tight at the same time. His leg muscles tense in preparation. He realizes, through the rush of adrenaline, that he’s having fun.

“Hell yeah,” he growls, and throws the clip.

He hits the end of the corridor not three seconds later, Udonta on his heels. The A’askvarii is next line – she skitters to a halt just outside of the sensor’s range, and starts turning her belt pouches inside out in search of a suitably worthless sacrifice. The eureka hits at around the same time that the A’askvarii finds her scapegoat – a broken rubber pipe that looks like it’s been yanked off an M-ship engine, then stuffed in a pocket to avoid discovery. Kraglin turns on Udonta with a gasp.

“That’s why you collect all them little trinkets, ain’t it? So you’ve always got something to throw!”

Udonta’s black visor somehow manages to convey a deep-seated well of horror and contempt. “The hell is wrong with ya, rookie?”

Or, he could be mistaken. Kraglin sheepishly raises his hands. “Sorry. Note to self – don’t melt Udonta’s toys.”

“They ain’t toys…”

A’askvarii bashes into the wall besides them; they synchronously step out the way. There’s not much of a space between the edge of the acid-zone and the corridor’s dead end. With him, Udonta and the A’askvari, there’s only room for one more medium-sized Ravager, and that’ll be pushing it. Horuz, next in line, seems to come to the same conclusion as Kraglin about the likelihood of his gut receiving an acid-bath, and waves them irritably onwards.

“What’s his problem?” Kraglin asks, as Udonta and the A’askvarii start examining the wall. A’askvarii shrugs.

“He wants to be the one to lift the booty. As per fucking usual.” She locates the latch, a shallow diagonal slit that runs from the wall’s upper left corner to the center. It requires a specific key-card, coded no doubt to relatives of the deceased – but the A’askvarii isn’t dissuaded. One tentacle slinks around to unhook a strange machine from the back of her belt – “Forger,” she explains – while the others continue to map out the gash. Kraglin watches in genuine interest as she holds the machine over the slot’s furthest end, where the keycard would first be inserted. Six metal legs click out, bug-like, and suckers attach with an inaudible squish. The contraption’s thorax splits and a broad red beam sweeps out, passing the hole once, twice. It buzzes the A’askvarii’s comm in victory. There’s an ungainly arpeggio of clicks. Then the box shudders, and a perfect plastic replica pops from its top like a credit chit from an automatic transfer machine.

“Awesome,” says Kraglin, and means it. The A’askvarii effects an elegant shrug.

“Custom made,” she answers, tugging the card free and swiping it while her other tentacles pat the machine on its backside and encourage it to detach. “Nicked it off an arms dealer on Knowhere. Ain’t gonna find this baby anywhere else in the galaxy.”

Kraglin makes an impressed noise. The Ravager fleet looks rickety and rusted – especially to a kid brought up with Nova patrols zooming overhead like shoals of silvery minnows. But he’s starting to realise that what he mistook for age is actually sturdiness, and that for all of their worrying creaks and groans, nothing short of a Kree warship is going to bring their Galleon down. And as for the tech… If there’s one things Ravagers invest in, it’s the thievery of the future. Shame they rarely seem to utilize their spoils. And that they can’t be bothered to nick a fucking space helmet.

The door opens on silent hinges, revealing a wide corridor and a flight of downwards-leading stairs, each white glass plank suspended seemingly midair, unlit and swiftly swallowed by the darkness. One misstep and they plummet. There’s no landing in sight; heck, the fall could open into space itself.

Kraglin’s never been more excited.

Udonta steps aside to let him pass. “Light’s on your helmet, rookie,” he says.

Kraglin walks with more confidence now. He sweeps each step as he goes, head swinging like a pendulum, boot pressing down an inch before he sets his weight. The bright beam blinks off imperfections in the crystal, alerting him to the false step, the tripwire, the pressure-sensor with the infra-red laser that would intensify enough to cook skin and bone. He’s getting the hang of this. Whoever constructed this place meant to make it deadly to passing scavengers, but passable for anyone in possession of a map and the right set of keys. Their map’s shite and their keys are cobbled forgeries – but they’re Ravagers and they always get the prize.

They’re Ravagers, and he’s one of them.

There’s almost a skip in his step when he jumps from the last elevated platform and sees the ornamental diamond coffin ahead. This place has obviously been visited, and recently – there’s flowers bundled on a small alter, preserved indefinitely in the sterile atmosphere. A parcel of scented salts has been left besides a candle, in offering to an unknown god. Kraglin scopes the room as fast as his untrained eyes can. He turns up frivolity after frivolity, but as far as he can tell, none are rigged to go boom.

“We good to go?” he asks, just to be sure.

“We good to go.” Udonta hops down besides him, smacking him between the shoulders hard enough to smart but not enough to knock him on his face. Kraglin can only assume that’s praise. He takes the lead in bold strides, the pale circle from his headlight swooping across the array of treasures left in the skeleton’s name, and picks his way towards the great glass menhir. Kraglin hangs back – just to make sure no axes swing down from the ceiling and snip off his head. Doesn’t pay to be too careful. The A’askvarii brings up the rear. She whispers an awed curse as they pass a larger-than-life bust forged entirely of gold.

“Rich fuckers,” she says, rapping on its forehead, and Kraglin wholeheartedly agrees. Rich fuckers with crap security, who in turn are going to make them rich. It’s the circle of fucking life. This room is sealed and oxygenated – although all of them know better than to take their helmets off. Still, it’s enough for Kraglin to tell that there’s no hollow thunk from where the A’askvarii’s tentacles smack home. Damn thing’s solid as a Kronan’s hide.

Now, that’s an idea.

“Think your Kronan friend could carry it on the way out?” Kraglin suggests. “If we, like, made him a sling or something…”

Udonta, leaping up the steps to where the dead don’s immobilized in a cloud of white-blue ice, is the one to answer – “If it slows him down, we leave ‘em both. Focus on the job, rookie – s'worth more, anyway.” He examines the ice around the man’s stripped skull from all angles. From here, Kraglin can see the rainbows scattering through the air from where Udonta’s light refracts through the gemstones lodged in the bone. Man’s more mineral than animal, and Kraglin wonders how many of his shimmering modifications were made during life. “Although heck knows why captain issued a whole team,” Udonta continues, pulling a row of files from his belt and testing them one by one against the crystal egg. All make promising screeches, but not a single scar is left on the translucent surface. “I coulda cracked this one solo.”

That’s… a good point, actually.

Udonta must realize it; his shoulders hunch, and he jabs the last pick into the crystal with sudden ferocity. It snaps. One half goes sailing off at an angle, turning cartwheels through the glare of his and the A’askvarii’s headlamps, and the other remains in Udonta’s clenched fist. “Damn bitch don’t trust me no more.”

Kraglin and the A’askvarii decline to comment. Udonta snorts, tosses the other half of the pick, and stands so that his head’s on level with the dead man’s chin. “C’mon then,” he says to his empty sockets, giving the chrysalis a kick for good measure. “Let’s get this over with.”

He whistles. The arrow shoots from its sheathe, which has been lashed to the outside of Udonta’s suit for convenience. It slices into the rock like it’s cutting butter on a hot day. There’s a silence, broken only by the sweet high tone and the sound of sawing crystal. The arrow finishes its journey and returns to Udonta’s belt. For a moment, the column remains intact. Then, as if in slow motion, the don’s head tips on the bony vertebrae of his neck, bringing the top half of the coffin with it. Udonta has to jump out of the away to avoid a gristly squish. Somewhat improbably, the crystal shatters when it hits the top step, and the gem-inlaid skull bounces free. It lands grinning at the bottom of the stairs. The ruby circlet ringing its crown gleams brighter than fresh-spilt blood.

Kraglin stares at it. It stares back. “So that worked, I guess,” he says.

Udonta stoops to pick it up, shooting him an eloquent finger. Of course, that’s when the alarm goes off.

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