In which Kraglin meets Jora, has a crisis, and prays for an angel.
Kraglin’s first impression of the captain is that she’s old. His second impression is that this in no way sabotages her ability to strike terror into the hearts of Ravager novices, and his third is that this is a fact of which she is well aware.
“Who the fuck are you?” she barks when he steps on the Bridge, coat looking almost-ironed after a night spent pressed under his mattress. And then, before he can answer – “And the fuck’s wrong with your chest?”
Kraglin swallows air. He’s suddenly very aware of his heartbeat. “Uh, which one d'you want me to answer first…?”
He’s rescued by Isla; she stumps the length of the Bridge, clearing Ravagers from her path with a few well-placed elbows, and settles her arm around Kraglin’s hips. She can’t reach any higher, he supposes, but it still makes the squeeze she gives him awkwardly intimate.
“This ‘uns one of mine. Name’s Kraglin… Kraglin Obfon-something. Petty crime guy, good at spotting Nova patrols, pickin' pockets, and gettin' into trouble. Thrabba scouted him out a month back – I reckon he’s sharp enough to Nav.” The captain sniffs, unimpressed. Isla’s smile widens. “And he’s got his arm hoisted up like a goddam loon because Udonta shot him.”
That catches her interest. Jora gives him a proper look. Her eyes are folded between a thousand yellow wrinkles, but they’re as sharp and cold as sniper scopes. Kraglin straightens under them without meaning to, and is glad that the metal rafters aren’t low enough for him to crack his head on. Appraisal completed, Jora blows out her sallow cheeks and marches to take her seat: a throne of sculpted red metal that’s got pride of place before the massive glass pane. She folds into it with a barely-audible creak.
“He’ll do,” she tells the nebula drifting across her vision. “Give him the rundown. And tell him that if he smacks anyone with that arm he’s back on scrubs.”
Isla nudges Kraglin and winks. “You heard her. C’mon, Krags – let’s getcha set up.”
“Where’s Udonta?” Kraglin thinks to ask, once he and Isla are on the nav-platform. Three-dimensional starscapes stretch around them. The immediate holograms are bright as rocket jets, but they fade like the residue of a plasma blast before they reach five meters away, peach-golds and rich nebula-blues dimming back to black. They’re incarcerated in a cage of light; it responds to the flutters of Isla’s fingers, fracturing and reforming around them to isolate neighboring systems; zoom in, zoom out; plot routes for energy efficiency and time.
Isla crooks her pinky, exploding the nearest bright dot into a diagram of a solar system. The light splits around her digit as if it's a brown prism. “He’s cleaning the bogs,” she says. “Dagada’s revenge. Be grateful the Detonator couldn’t be bothered to track you through your medbay record, or you’d be right there with him.”
Kraglin tries not to let himself look disappointed. Isla sniggers.
“Aw, ya hoping you’d catch up with your girl Morlug if ya were on scrubs? How romantic! Date night uncloggin' the lavs in Horuz’s dorm – you poor fuckers.”
“I told you, we’re just friends.” It comes out stiff. Isla’s shove is teasing, but when she speaks, it’s serious.
“And that’s the way it'll stay. Sure, fuck her if you want – although knowin' Morlug, you might not have no luck on that front. Heck, you can fuck Dagada for all I care. But I got to tell you… Ravagers and relationships ain’t exactly made for one another.”
She doesn’t need to say anymore. Kraglin nods, and focuses on aligning their light-speed trajectory with the safebelt around the next star cluster.Of course. He’s only been part of the crew a month – it’s not like he’s looking to propose to anyone. But Isla’s words, however lightly spoken, are sobering. A dash of dark reality added to his jubilation at discovering a talent for course-plotting that even he’d doubted would manifest (not that he’s bad with maps or anything. No matter what Udonta says.)
If he stays here, he’s never going to settle down. He’s never gonna find someone to grow old with, if only because he’s unlikely to grow old himself. Kraglin no longer has any pretenses about his own mortality – the tube in his chest and his aching arm pay testament to that. And hell. He’s only nineteen. Nearly twenty, but nevertheless. He likes to fuck and hasn’t in quite some time (Udonta doesn’t count; he can’t remember it, and anyway, it was Udonta). He’s never held down a girlfriend for more than six weeks; he picks his nose sometimes when he’s alone; and the thought of commitment is as terrifying as the prospect of honest employment. But to not have that chance, to not have that choice…
Dammit. Kraglin hasn’t thought of his retirement cottage in over a fortnight. Now, for some reason, he can’t get it out of his head. His fingers shake where they’re dug into the hologram. There’s a nauseating lurch as the star map shrinks to pinpricks and whirls violently to the left.
“Woah, woah! Watch it!” Isla grabs his wrists, preventing him from fucking up further. “You’re lucky I disconnected us from the engine-feed. Sheesh, rookie. You coulda piloted us into a star!”
“Kraglin,” Kraglin corrects shakily. He stares at his hands, swimming over with bright speckles, and has the oddest sensation that they don’t belong to him.
What is he doing here? On a Ravager Bridge – the Bridge of the armada’s flagship galleon, of all places? Learning how to navigate? Enjoying himself? Under the supervision of Captain Jora herself? He’s supposed to be laying low, for fuck’s sake. He’s supposed to vanish into the hubbub of a satellite-port in under two weeks. Not… not make connections. Not make friends, not collect people who he’ll miss. He’d expected his time on the Eclector to be unpleasant: a trial-by-fire that would deliver him to his shiny, clean-wiped slate. Not a clean slate in itself.
Damn it all.
Kraglin clenches his fists, the signal for the holo-tracking program to disengage. He backs away from the platform, his arm bumping painfully into the tube as he hops off the step. Isla slides into the vacated place, scrunching her eyebrows in silent question. Her piercings glimmer under the flicker of a thousand resettling stars.
“Sorry,” Kraglin says uselessly. “I… I can’t do this.”
Isla looks confused. “It's just a little mistake, Krags. Nothing to fash yerself over. Heck, you shoulda seen me first time I nav’d. Captain nearly strangled me herself.” He can’t do this. He can’t shunt this conversation onto their usual plane of casual banter, telling her the fault of the student is the fault of the teacher, etcetera etcetera… He can’t.
“Loo break,” he forces out, and sprints for the exit.
Kraglin runs to the nearest bog-block, finds a cubicle designed for folks of his basic biological functions, and locks himself in. He’s breathing too shallow and too fast; the tube in his armpit whistles like a blocked nose and his eyesight’s gone all giddy. Get a hold of yourself, he thinks. No time for a mental breakdown.
But when is there ever? And hell, he certainly can’t go back on the Bridge in this state. Kraglin pushes his back against the door and slides down until he’s sat on his heels – he’s seen the state of these floors; he’s not far-gone enough to park his ass on that. Then he drops his head into his hands and refuses to cry.
He refuses to cry for ten whole minutes.
Then Kraglin wipes his eyes, stands, and blows his nose noisily on his sleeve. The toilet bowl in front of him is bare metal, grey and lidless, liable to freeze the asscheeks off of anyone who can’t hold a squat. It funnels into the engine core, delivering waste to the matter-converters – efficient, if stinky for the unfortunate soul who has to climb down and unclog the chute twice a year. While he’s here Kraglin figures he might as well put it to good use. He unzips, aims, and noisily pisses over stained dry steel. Then tucks himself back in, wipes his eyes again, and flushes.
…Perhaps that was the wrong order. Oh well. Kraglin’s got bigger things on his mind than pink-eye.
He’s got to leave the Ravagers, and soon. He’s already in too deep. The Eclector’s cramped holds aren’t registering as ‘alien’ and ‘dangerous’ any more. Home has become a cot in a bunk-stack, a pillow that’s as bereft of stuffing as his mattress, and a blanket that smells of sour milk. Purpose has become the steady splash and slide of his mop over the floor. Family has become...
Family has become…
Kraglin swallows stickily, and pulls up his fly. You don’t have no family, he reminds himself. Never have done; never will. What use is family anyway? Buncha folks who rely on you and slow you down in a fight. He doesn’t need that. He doesn’t want that.
Mind made up, Kraglin wipes his face once again before stepping out of the cubicle, just in case someone’s snuck in while he was distracted with Not Crying. Then he pushes open the door.
Or at least, he tries to.
Doors on the Eclector operate… weirdly. A couple are automatic: the hangar doors, the mess, the weapons stores. One particular hangar entrance is so hyperactive that it’s colloquially referred to as ‘the chomper’, due to an unfortunate incident involving a rookie’s fingers and lots of screaming. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the sliding gates of the cage lift – clunky, unwieldy mechanisms which require an application of approximately twice Kraglin’s bodyweight to shift. Then there’s the doors with locking panels. They’re immovable fire-proof slabs, designed to isolate single compartments or block off entire wings of the ship altogether in event of a hull breach; rugged, rusty, and as thick as the barricades between rooms. Kraglin likes those best. They swing open a sliver to show they’ve unlocked. Booting them the rest of the way is endlessly satisfying.
Only problem is, sometimes they stick.
He presses his palm to the scanner again. Again, there’s no buzz; no hum of warm mechanics. The door remains an immovable monolith. Kraglin, who had been operating under the assumption that this day could not possibly get any worse, squeezes his eyes tight shut and decides that the only option remaining is to bang his forehead on the panel until it either it responds or he knocks himself unconscious.
“Fuck,” he mumbles, rubbing his traitorously drippy nose. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
The bog block stinks of stale piss. It’s something you notice when you imagine that you’ll only be in there for the duration of a slash and a Not-Cry, but ultimately accept. When you face the possibility of being trapped until someone complains about the additional reek of rot, the smell becomes rather more repugnant.
Kraglin wants out of here. He wants out of here now. He’s had his sappy moment. He’s over it. He wants to march to his place on the Bridge and set to destroying whatever good rapport he and Isla have cultivated. He wants to fill his head with the dreams of a quaint and quiet life spent evading taxes on the far edges of galactic civilization, away from booby-trapped tombs and deadly bunkmates and excitement and adventure of every sort.
But the door remains unresponsive, to swearing and pleading alike. Kraglin inhales sour ammonia, presses his hand over his heart, and starts to pray.
“Dear God. Gods. Ancients. Creators, whatever. If you exist, I’d really appreciate not having t'haunt a toilet for the rest of eternity. Please, please, get me out of here. Scupper the ship. Make all mechanisms spontaneously malfunction. I really don’t care. Heck, send an angel if you wanna, just –“
The main entrance to the bogs slams open with so much force that, for a moment, Kraglin thinks his first suggestion has been taken seriously. Then there’s the sound of two voices – two very familiar voices – questioning whether they’ve already been through.
“I say we have,” says Morlug. Udonta, however, is adamant.
“Your nose drop off, girl? Get a whiff of that and tell me it’s seen disinfectant in the past decade.” There’s a brief silence. Then – “Shit, I think I broke the door.”
“Well, if you didn’t insist on kickin' every one we come across,” Morlug starts.
“It’s stress relief!”
“C’mon, I’m the one who’s been on scrub every other day since I first joined –“
“Only because ya don’t know when to shut your mouth!”
“Oh, like you’re one to talk!”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” whispers Kraglin. Then, out loud – “Uh, guys?”
“Hey, I treat Dagada the same way he treats me. You just treat him the same as you treat everyone else, then get pissy when he punishes you for it...”
“Udonta,” says Morlug quietly. Kraglin can imagine her eyes flicking along rows of empty cubicles. “Did you hear that?”
Kraglin clears his throat. “Guys? It’s me.”
“That,” Morlug says, somewhat redundantly. “Rookie? That you?”
“Yeah,” he says, through the wall. He can hear Morlug’s steps approaching, and gives the pad one last valiantly hopeful thump. “I think I’m stuck.”
Morlug doesn’t laugh. Much. He appreciates that.
He holds no such fond feelings for Udonta, who makes his opinion on the matter known loudly, uproariously, and without relent. Yeah. They’re not the nicest angels. Or the prettiest. But right now, Kraglin’ll take what he can get. He’s so grateful that, for a moment, all attempts at withdrawing from them are forgotten.
“Hey there,” he says to Morlug as he squeezes to freedom through the gap they’ve managed to pry, breath sucked in and arm stuck out perpendicular to avoid catching on his tube. “Haven’t seen you in a while. Forget to come visit me in hospital?” He ignores Udonta, who’s still sniggering as he leans on the mop wedged in the open door.
Morlug’s smile is shy and sweet. Her mouth, however is not – “Don’t flatter yourself, greenie. You ain’t all that.” Then she pauses, and admits – “I got stuck in a supply closet on the middecks over my lunchbreak.”
“See?” Kraglin tells Udonta. “Happens to everyone. Might be you next.” Any plan to trap Udonta in a loo cubicle is abandoned though, as the man strokes his glowing arrowshaft.
“Will it, now?”
Yeah, yeah. He’s good at threats. Kraglin grumbles and stands down. “Alright. You’ve had your fun. Can we get outta here and never talk of this again?”
Udonta and Morlug share incredulous gazes.
“Not likely,” says Udonta. As if Kraglin’d be that lucky. Udonta whips the mop free, the door jamming closed with a finger-crunching crash, and turns to the cleaning cart to find an out-of-order sign. Then pauses. Looks at Kraglin’s face. Frowns. “Rookie?”
Are his eyes red? Kraglin freezes. “What?”
Udonta stares at him a moment longer. Then shakes his head and buries his hands in the miscellaneous mound of rags and scrub-equipment they’ve piled their trolley with. “Nah. S'nothing.”
“Ain’t you forgetting something?” Morlug calls after Kraglin when he turns to leave. She looks sweaty and worn, her purple hair pinned under a black bandana with spaghetti-like strands drooping over her face. There’s a mop in each hand though, and she levels one at him like she’s sighting a shot. “I can’t keep calling you 'greenie' forever, can I?”
And this is exactly what he’d hoped to avoid.
Kraglin’s stomach sinks. “I… I don’t…” he starts. Morlug gives the mop head an expert flick; dirty water splatters his pantleg.
“Whassup? Forgotten your own name?”
“No, no, it’s just…” Squeezing his fists, Kraglin takes a moment to compose himself. He stands at his full height, shoulders spiked beneath the Ravager coat, and looks down his nose at the closest thing to a friend he has. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” he tells her.
Morlug lowers the mop. Hurt flits across her expression like the pulse of a quasar. But then she smothers it. Kraglin’s chest fills with gnawing worms, and he almost looks away. It’s wrong to see her like this: stripping away embarrassment and upset, replacing them with cold-forged anger, uncaring and harsh, layer-on-layer. But it’s also necessary. He hardens himself to it, as she does to him.
“Yeah?” she sneers, resting heavily on the mop handle in a way Kraglin remembers doing, barely a month before. Strange, how that day seems so long ago. “So that’s how it’s gonna be. You get one Bridge shift, and you’re too good to be seen with me.”
It’s not like that at all, Kraglin wants to protest. I don’t want to be a non-expendable. Not to you. Not to Isla or Udonta either, although they already know his name. Morlug at least is salvageable. So he just scowls and shrugs.
“Think what ya want.”
Morlug’s expression doesn’t crumple. She doesn’t swear at him, or even hiss – but the swing of the mop towards his chest speaks louder than words ever could.
His very tender chest. His very tender chest – which was, not two nights ago, busy being impaled on a radioactive arrow. Kraglin jumps back, already knowing he’s not going to be fast enough. The mop swings towards him, slow motion, promising agony.
Then it cleaves in two, neat as a guillotine-slice. The blood thundering in Kraglin’s ears was loud enough to drown out the first whistle. But he catches the second: a low trill that has Udonta’s arrow swinging like a boomerang mid-air and shooting to its sheathe. Kraglin, off-balance, stumbles over his boots and winds up ass down in a dubious-smelling puddle, cussing the demise of his last pair of clean pants. Morlug blinks the glow from her eyes. She stares blankly at the shattered mop handle. Then flings it at the trolley and storms out.
Kraglin watches her go. Udonta, stood to one side, watches him.
“That weren’t nice,” he says. Kraglin miserably draws his knees up to his chest, ignoring the dampness percolating his trousers.
“I ain’t nice,” he answers. “You might have noticed.”
Udonta concedes the point with a nod. “Alright. So yer a mouthy bastard. But you ain’t one hundred percent a dick. That?” He points after Morlug, who’s left an angry trail of splashes through the puddles on the floor. “Dick move.” Any other time, he might have been joking, but there’s no humor in his gaze now. Kraglin’s mind flashes, inexplicably, to the first time he was caught stealing pencils from the slum’s under-aqueduct school, and had been stood up in front of the class to explain his actions to a bunch of brats poorer than he was. He hangs his head. “Kraglin?”
Swallowing, Kraglin drops his mobile arm to fiddle with the clumpy knots in his bootlaces. “Yeah?” he mumbles.
Udonta leans on the jammed door, arms folded, and treats him to an inscrutable glare. “Ya want her to think you’re an a-hole? Fine. But don’t ever think that trick’ll work on me.”
The clamminess seeping through the seams of his leather pants is quite noticeable now. Kraglin shifts in discomfort. “Yessir,” he says, and means it.
Udonta studies him for another long breath, the pathetic wheeze of Kraglin’s tube all the more conspicuous in the silence.
“Get up,” he says eventually. Kraglin obeys, too fast, lurching like a drunk Knowhere-lizard. “Come here.” He does so. Manages not to fall over himself in the process. He stops a few paces in front of Udonta, still half-lodged in the mind of a naughty schoolboy, and tugs his belt up his hips to unstick a sodden wadge of fabric from his ass.
“What d’you want?” he croaks. Focuses on the prickle of stubble around Udonta’s deadly mouth, because it’s easier than meeting his eyes. Thankfully, Udonta tells him straight –
“For you to cut the crap and tell me what’s going on.”
Heck. That’s a demand and a half. Kraglin wouldn’t know where to begin. “So there was this necklace that the Cartel wanted…” he tries. Udonta clicks his tongue off his teeth.
“I don’t give two shits about your tragic past! Tell me what’s wrong now, so I can sort it out.”
It’s such a blunt declaration, so brutally simplistic and blindingly stupid. Anyone else, he’d dismiss it as meaningless words. But here, faced with Udonta’s unwavering glower, red ringing his pupils like the corona around twin supernovae, Kraglin doesn’t doubt for a minute that he will live up to this promise. Whether through cunning, fortitude, or sheer bloody stubbornness, Udonta is going to fix this.
Kraglin pares his dilemma down to its bare ores. “I want to leave,” he whispers. “But I want to stay.”
Udonta nods. “So, ya want me to make a hash job of convincing you? Or do I just take the choice away?”
Kraglin’s air stutters in his throat. The tube blows a soft raspberry. What the hell is Udonta saying? Is he actually trying to suggest…?
…Well, it would be kinda nice, wouldn’t it? Not having to blame himself for this. Not more vacillation, no more fretting over this whole fucking dulcarnoun of a dilemma. The path Udonta’s opened up for him goes against every instinct, but it gleams tantalizingly bright.
Desperate, he nods. And just like that, it’s over.
“You ain’t going nowhere,” Udonta says. It’s spoken with such certainty that Kraglin couldn’t disobey if he wanted to. The threat he tags on is half-hearted, said more out of habit than necessity – “And if you do, I’ll come after ya and finish the job.” He raps Kraglin’s shoulder, avoiding the worst of the damage. It’s still hard enough to make his chest-wound sing – but Kraglin is too busy sagging with relief to notice.
He ain’t going nowhere.
No more conflict. No more running.
He ain’t going nowhere.