Blame It On The Stars

Chapter 8

In which Kraglin tries his hand at butchery.

Kraglin’s lying awake a fortnight later, dreaming of home and listening to the rumblings of the greasy kid above him’s digestive tract. He’s got notches chipped into the post of his bed – Kraglin’s always been a knife guy, and his collection’s only grown what with the events of recent weeks. He has, at Morlug’s prompting, started to sew them into the lining of his clothes – skills with a needle are pretty much a requirement in this field; if you don’t suck it up and patch your gear you wind up threadbare. Kraglin has, with a little guidance, swiftly become a master. His fingers are just the right side of delicate, and he can thread a needle first time, every time. The knife pouches are made from scraps from the spare uniform vat outside the quartermaster’s stores; he’d begged and scrounged enough thread for three, and lifted the rest.

Not from his fellow Ravagers of course. There ain’t many rules on this ship – none at all, really, except ‘do what you’re told’ and ‘don’t piss the wrong person off’. But there’s always the Code, muttering away at the back of his mind: Steal from everyone. Except each other.

At the moment he’s training himself to sleep without getting pricked somewhere painful. And to remember where they all are before he strips down to shower. As it turns out, having a blade of A’askvarian steel slip out of your sleeve and impale your toe hurts like fuck, and will result in the ship’s doctor rolling his eyes, Isla laughing her metal-studded ass off, and precisely zero sympathy.

But whatever. Kraglin’s improving. He can hit targets from one hundred yards, so long as they ain’t bouncing about too much. Morlug’s started dragging him up to the simulation pods to train on their off-shits. (Kraglin, who had entertained the hope that ‘train’ was a delicate euphemism, had been proved wrong most succinctly by the fist that introduced itself to his nose the moment the door clanged shut). He hasn’t been scheduled for job duty yet, and he wants to make the most of the extra time to practice so that he doesn’t get offed the moment he sets foot in the field. The delay’s a relief, in a way – but only a superficial one. Because while his chances of dying are reduced significantly when he’s behind the Eclector’s shields, he knows there’s no escaping it forever. He’ll be called on any day now. Somehow, the wait is worse than the actual thing.

Kraglin hates waiting.

The notches on his bedpost mark out the day-cycles, a longer stroke every seven. He’s counting down – until he can desert, he tells himself, although he suspects it’s more for when he can start demanding to be called by his actual name. Because he does have one of those, damn it. Hell, as soon as that day arrives, that fourth stroke of seven, Kraglin’s sprinting to the comms rig and broadcasting out across the fleet: my name is Kraglin Obfonteri, and I’m pleased to fucking meet you.

He’s musing this through, hands clasped behind his head and socked feet propped over the bunk’s end-rail, when his wristpiece starts to flash. No noise. That’s odd.

Kraglin’s tempted to call it a fluke, seeing as he’s off-duty. But he ain’t sleeping – and, you never know, this could be Isla changing her mind about that whole not-fucking-each-other thing. Heaven knows, he needs to sleep with someone other than Udonta before jumping ship. It’s a matter of pride.

He rolls onto his belly, burying the winking screen under his quilt before it wakes his bunkmates, and squints painfully at the lit-up name.

Huh. It’s Figs. That’s unexpected.

He taps it once to answer, minimizing the volume, and presses it to his ear. “Whassup?”

“Need a hand,” says Figs shortly. She sounds hoarse. Like she’s been crying – although that’s ridiculous, because Figs is as brutal as her diet is fibrous, and tougher than old boot soles. Probably been bawling someone out, then. “No questions asked.”

“When did I become the guy who people trust with secrets?” Kraglin complains – after checking to make sure no one’s eavesdropping. Figs doesn’t laugh.

“Just get here,” she says. “I’m sending the location now.” His map pops up without prompting, dazzling him – the holographic fin of an engine slices his chin. Kraglin rubs bright specks from his eyes and locates the beacon, down in the M-ship hangar.

He’s being called to the M-ship dock. In the middle of the night-cycle.

And as far as he knows, they’re not due any operatives back until Udonta’s next job’s complete – which he doesn’t want to think about right now, if only because it’s due to make his life a whole lot harder. No. Something’s happening, and Kraglin doesn’t want to walk into it blind.

“Figs?” he asks. “What’s going on?”

There’s no answer. Then – “Varra’s dead.”

Kraglin hisses air through his teeth. “Shit. I’ll – I’ll be there. Right there. Give me a sec.”

“You’re gonna need a mop,” Figs tells him, blunt as always. Kraglin’s throat clamps shut. He ain’t squeamish or nothing. But he’s never had to sponge someone off the floor of a shuttle dock before, neither.

Fuck though. Varra. What the fuck’s happening?

He tumbles out of bed, ignoring the cussing and dodging the hail of boots. Varra. Big ol’ Varra. Varra the friendly fucking giant. Dead.

Heck, Kraglin hardly knew him. Not really. He’s only been on board three weeks, after all. But he’d seemed a decent guy; as decent as they came, out here. Sure, he’d been a bit… distant, after the party (although Kraglin doesn’t blame him, given that he can’t recall how much of a show he and Udonta put on). But things had swiftly returned to normal. Heck, he’d even switched his schedule to eat dinner with him on his break, not two day-cycles since.

And as for Figs…

He wonders how long she and Varra have shared that bunk stack. He wonders how long it’ll remain empty before they find some new rookie to fill it.

But that only leads to wondering about who’d slept in his cot before him, and that to who’d worn his boots and shouldered his jacket and stitched the lighter patch over the frayed knee of his pants, and who had wrapped rubber grips around the set of hand-crafted knives Morlug’d picked up for him from the Quartermaster. When a Ravager dies, they’re subsumed into the ship. Cannibalized. Literally, if canteen’s short on proteins. But it’s the property distribution that makes Kraglin queasy, rather than what they do with the bodies; there ain’t much sense in sending ripe meat out into the aether when it’s of no use to its owner, after all.

Soon as the corpse’s been stripped and the Quartermaster’s taken his pick, everything’s fair game. The clusters of personal effects that’re stowed in lockers at the far end of the dorms get ransacked first. Their contents are parceled off to whoever bids most for ‘em. Hidden bottles of moonshine are cracked open and raised in toast. Accessories get slipped up sleeves and into pockets. Gold teeth and cybernetics are pried out, and will rattle around some lucky scavenger’s pocket until they make it to the next port and sell them on to the jewelers and the black marketeers.

Kraglin drags his jacket on, stifling a yawn. All that a person is, is what they leave behind. And when you’re part of a crew, what you leave gets divided, tallied up, and funneled off to furnish a hundred greedy hands. Everyone here’s a patchwork person, himself included. Stitched together from hand-me-downs and things less honestly acquired. He’d like to pretend it’s a way to remember the dead, but he knows that’s just naivete talking. It’s pragmatism, raw and simple.

Dead men tell no tales, and wear no boots neither.

His own creak over the grill panels. He pauses to buffer the door, passing his hand slowly over the closing mechanism so that it squeaks to a close rather than slamming.

Will he get first dibs, if he’s on clean up? The thought’s a little sickening, but Kraglin steals himself to it – you wanna survive as a Ravager, you gotta act like one. And surviving’s what he intends on doing.

Kraglin knocks on a wall panel, then boots it the way Morlug’s taught him when it doesn’t spring open on demand. Heel inserted into hinge, just the right amount of pressure… Success. The slot pops. Kraglin fishes about until he locates a generic stack of cleaning equipment. He selects a mop, a brush, a pan and a bucket.

Then thinks of how big Varra is. Two buckets.

By the time he emerges, he looks more like a travelling tinker than a space pirate. His trudge to the lifts is solemn, the only funeral march Kraglin can afford to give. The effect’s thrown by the buckets clanking on his arms; but Kraglin imagines they’re drum beats, the heavy rattle of snares that accompanies the Nova Corps on their annual parade in memory of those lost in the Kree war. He waddles to the cage lift. The shaft gapes fathomlessly, ribbed with dim lights and blurry red depth markers. Kraglin mashes the button for the hangar level with his mop handle.

What could have taken Varra down, anyway? Plasma blast’s most likely; they don’t take size into account when they’re chewing through you. If you’re an unlucky enough biotic to get in one’s way, they’ll keep gnawing until their energy’s drained or they come out the other side. But if Varra was with Udonta when he got himself shot, why’s Udonta lugged the carcass back to ship? It can’t be for the pleasure of making Kraglin clean it up… can it?

The lift chugs down, towards the artificial gravity generators situated on the Eclector’s designated ‘underside’. It’s an ugly contraption but a functional one, a wire box suspended on five long chains. There’s one at each corner and one in the center. Each is lashed to a loop as thick as Kraglin’s thigh. The chains themselves are deceptively skinny, forged from some hyper-mobile Skrull metal that’s easy to cast and not likely to break. They wrap around a system of pulleys, attached in turn to massive, ancient cogs, which grind each other slowly to dust and every so often let a chain slip free and go snapping up to butcher anyone dumb enough to stick their heads into the open shaft above.

By the time he reaches ground level, the buckets have dug grooves into his forearms and his left foot’s jigging like he’s having some kind of fit. Kraglin heaves the mop into a more stable position, and pushes the door open before the lift has groaned to a halt.

“Figs?” he calls. He can’t exactly reach his wrist to activate the comm, and all these hangars look pretty much the same. “Figs? You around?”

“Don’t shout, you fucking doorknob.”

There she is – waving at him from the third hangar along. This part of the ship’s as spacious as the rest is cramped. Their voices echo off the walls and meet in the middle, harmonics twisting until they’re all but indistinguishable from one another. The corridor’s a wormhole of translucent pipes, crimped every ten paces by a fat rubber lip that circumferences the tunnel and trips the unwary. There’s no light panels down here. Only the flares from the engines: channeled through the tubes in bright, pulsing surges. Kraglin could walk without a stoop in his shoulders – but he’s become so used to ducking under doorframes that he hunches on instinct. He clacks carefully over to Figs, elbows out in the hopes she’ll notice his plight and offer to relieve him of at least one of the buckets. She just looks him over and nods.

“That should be enough. There’s a fire faucet on the dock, and I’ve got solvents on my ship if you need ‘em. Hurry it up though. I’ve cleared the hangar, but we gotta get him out before the next shift starts.” That’s in seventy minutes. Kraglin balks and picks up his pace, stepping into the sprawling, M-ship-cluttered dock. Then slows. Then stops completely.

“He’s, uh. He’s very. Whole.”

Figs shoots him an exasperated look. “And?”

It wasn’t a plasma rifle, that’s for sure. Those tend to leave a lot more… splat. Whatever’s offed Varra, is done so very quickly and cleanly. Even been kind enough to cauterize the hole on the way out. But it ain’t Kraglin’s place to comment on that. He dumps the buckets off, breathing through his nose and avoiding looking at the trickle of sizzled brain-matter that’s dripping into Varra’s eye-socket.

“I’m gonna have a hard time shifting him subtle-like, that’s all,” he says. Figs groans, stamps over and rips his jacket open – ignoring Kraglin’s squeak. She pulls out his favorite knife, the one he keeps over his heart.

“Well, why don’t you do something about it?”

The blade waggles in his face. Right. Butchering the first guy on board who’d spared him a decent word. No problemo. He can do this.

Kraglin takes the knife, wrapping fingers around the hilt that have already begun to sweat. He kneels besides the corpse. It’s eerie, seeing the big lug laid out like this. All pale and clammy as a wax replica. He’s cold and stiff in his leathers, and there’s a grey tint emerging from around his ears, spreading across the bridge of his nose. The backs of his hands are mottled purple. Kraglin shudders. If petrification is setting in this soon, he must’ve been doing some damn heavy lifting before he acquired his extra breathing hole. Which reintroduces the question – what exactly is he seeing here? A nasty, incriminating accident? Murder?

And where the hell’s Udonta, anyway?

That’s definitely his M-ship. It’s above them, dangling in its harness like an ugly orange chandelier. Isla had made him make good on her promise: after the Party Which Will Never Be Spoken Of Again he’d been over the damn thing with wire-toothed comb, thankfully, while Udonta was busy reporting to the captain (or doing whatever else it was first mates got up to when they weren’t stealing objects of considerable wealth and destructive ability and threatening Hraxian rookies with remote-controlled radioactive arrows). He knows the damn thing inside out.

The scrubbing had been a process as bewildering as it had been informative. Apparently, Udonta is messier than your average Ravager – an impressive feat – but manages to maintain a spotless collection of glass novelties on his control panel, and has several more tucked away in cupboards or under consoles. Kraglin’s slow progress had been observed by a thousand beady little eyes. How Udonta flies straight under their constant supervision, he has no idea. (Judging by the amount of dents pitting the M-ship’s exterior, Udonta doesn’t either.)

“So d'you, uh, want the coat?” he asks Figs. Because it’s damn good leather and there’s little enough of that going around. Figs fishes out a knife of her own – a fucking kukri, as long as her entire fucking arm; where she’s been stowing it is anyone’s guess. Then she looks him in the eye, and slits Varra open from chin to belly, jacket and all.

Okay. No salvage. Kraglin’s glad – it’s awkward enough wrestling clothes off normal cadavers once rigor mortis has set in, let alone when said cadavers are over seven foot tall and muscled like a titan on steroids. Plus, he likes to think it gives Varra a little more dignity. Although it’s rapidly proven that dignity don’t much factor when you’re being sliced small enough to be fit into two buckets.

Kraglin sits back on his heels, stained to the elbows with the contents of Varra’s large intestine, and looks despairingly at the overflowing vessels.

“This ain't gonna work.”

Isla would’ve called him a pessimist and kept right on shoveling. Morlug would’ve assessed the buckets, come to the same conclusion, proceeded to panic and, in attempting to hide her panic, panicked more. Varra… Varra would’ve made a joke. Something about how at least they’d be able to entertain each other, once they’ve been thrown in the brig and left to rot.

Figs just nods, and goes to find another bucket.

There’s cleaning equipment stowed in the hangar – of course there is, Kraglin’s stupid for not thinking of it before. But he can’t identify the wall hatches by sight like Morlug can, and he’s too embarrassed to ask how to bring up the respective map beacons. Figs returns, dragging an empty wheelie-bin, and proceeds to scoop handfuls of meat and tattered leather. The bones’re harder to cut through – Kraglin really has to saw. His knife’s already blunt along one edge. He knows better than to ask if Figs is going to pay for a new one.

It’s the smell they don’t tell you about. Not that Kraglin’s ever attended a lecture on Dicing Up Dead Bodies 101, but nevertheless. He’s smelt rot and he’s smelt guts, but he’s always been able to walk away. This… this is smothering. Blood and fluid and fecal matter, all cold and pungent, semi-congealed in death. He’s choking on it. Gagging almost. But the knowledge that if he chunders it’ll just be one more thing for him to clean keeps his lunch where it’s supposed to be. He lifts Varra’s head, gentler than is necessary, and scrapes gunky grey-matter of the chrome plaque beneath.

That wound is very, very neat. Neat enough to come from – say, an arrow?

Kraglin swallows, tasting acid. “Hey Figs. What am I looking at?”

“I said no questions.” Figs concentrates on lifting Varra’s liver – a floppy black sack which, from the way she’s straining, must weigh a good ten kilograms. It sails into the bin and lands with a resounding squelch. Kraglin winces, and returns to Varra’s half-dissected femur.

“We could do with a saw, y’know. Else this is going to take forever.” Figs hums in agreement. The blood splattered up one side of her chin makes her look more manic than ever, clotting between the green frills. She rises, shaking drops from her fingertips, and vanishes into Udonta’s ship. Kraglin works silently while she’s gone. He makes an effort to stop his gaze returning to that neat, penny-sized hole, but it’s not overly effective.

Not your business, he tells himself, when he catches his eyes wandering for the fourth time. You’ve got what, another three weeks, before you’ll be far enough from Hrax to buy a new identity and make your own way. Think of the retirement bungalow. Don’t get dragged into this.

But Varra’s dead. Varra’s very dead, and by Udonta’s hand – or whistle, at least. And the last time Kraglin saw them together, they had their arms linked at the elbow as they knocked back a shot. It… it doesn’t add up.

“So where’s Udonta?” he asks as Figs returns, a massive Kree melee weapon hefted over her shoulder. It’s got a toothed underside, and looks like it’d crack a thigh bone if dropped on it – good enough, he supposes, for the task at hand. Figs slants her eyes at him.

“Seeing Captain,” she says. Her voice is more clipped than usual, all consonant. “You ain’t all that great at this not-asking-questions shtick, are you.”

Usually I am, Kraglin wants to say. But usually, I don’t accidentally fuck folks who murder their best friends. That seems like a very good way to get on both Figs’ and Udonta’s bad sides though, and hell, after seeing this, that’s the last thing he wants. He settles for – “Just curious. And I keep most shit to myself, anyway.”

Figs sniffs in disbelief. “I shoulda bet on a week rather than a month. Fuck, greenie, how've you made it this far?”

Admitting that he asks himself the same question as he lays awake in his bunk would be far too telling. Kraglin wipes blood off his nose. Unfortunately, the sleeve he selects for this purpose is messier than the target, and all he achieves is a smear of coppery warpaint. “You start on his legs,” he says, shifting to give Figs access. “I’ll get his head off.”

“Fuck it up a bit first,” Figs orders. “He got sucked into the M-ship engine, remember.”

“Did he.”

Kraglin’s voice is flat. But Figs’s stare is flatter, and as cold as the void outside. “You were there,” she says. “You should know.”

Of course he fucking was.

She scoots her kukri over. When a quick examination of his own blade proves it to be well and truly dulled – a tragedy as great as the one leaking blood over his boots – Kraglin tosses it to skitter down the dock and accepts her offering. He sets the point against Varra’s cheek. It slices into the tightened muscle before he’s applied any pressure. Kraglin tries not to think too hard about what he’s about to do.

Sorry mate, he projects to Varra, wherever his spirit might be. And pushes the knife down.

They finish with five minutes to spare. Kraglin helps Figs unreel a fire hose, which lowers from the ceiling when she taps an order into her wristpiece, and scours the last remains of Varra from the dock with a squirt of pressurized foam. They empty the buckets into the bin, stack the rest of the grotty cleaning equipment, and wheel off to find an airlock. Figs doesn’t hang about to watch as the evidence gushes out into the abyss, shrinking to a pinprick in under a second. But Kraglin strains at the porthole until not even his imagination can pretend that he can identify the bloody bin that they’ve sent spinning across the stars.

“Now what?” he calls after Figs’ retreating back. Her boots plod to a halt. There’s a shuddering sigh.

“Now you go find Udonta and work on your fucking cover story.”

Kraglin is struck by the certainty, not for the first time, that the universe is steadily stacking its cards against him. “Do I have to?” he asks. It’s not a whinge. Not quite.

The look Figs shoots him withers any resistance. “Yeah,” she says. “This is your fault, after all.”

Kraglin blinks. This is news to him. “I didn’t shoot him.”

“You might as well have done.” There’s tension in her scaly brows, he notices. More lines around her mouth. Figs ain’t got enough Skrull in her to shapeshift, but stress ages her like nothing else, until her hide’s had enough rest to re-elasticate. Right now, she looks as wizened and ancient as he’s ever seen her. Kraglin, oddly, doesn’t feel his usual fight-or-flight response kick in when faced with her accusation. Only confusion – and a vague sense of pity.

Figs sighs again. It’s the tiredest sound he’s ever heard. “I’m going to bed,” she mutters.

Kraglin pictures Varra’s bunk, abandoned with his unwashed quilt bundled airlessly in the far corner, and closes his eyes. Apologizing is pointless. He didn’t have anything to do with Varra’s death – if anyone, Figs is the one who got him involved. She’s only looking for a blank face to blame. He don’t mind being that for her, so long as it doesn’t land him extra scrub shifts, or gory vengeance and the suchlike.

Well, there’s no hope of chasing sleep now. And anyway, he’s got a witness statement to prep. Kraglin bids goodbye to the rest of his night cycle and heads to find Udonta.

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