“What do you mean I’m not getting paid?”
Alberich was hunched over and sweating profusely as he slowly churned a great vat of curry with a ladle. The dark stains around his pits and neck had streaked straight through to the bottom of the red kurta he was still wearing, and he had long stopped worrying about the splashes of curry down his front.
Cael had upended his vat of rice on its hinge and was busy shoveling it out onto a metal tray.
“It was the only way to get you on the boat.”
“Are you getting paid?”
“Oh my God, I’ll split it with you.”
“Arey! How ‘bout some ghiza, already! We’re starving out here.”
Cael and Alberich had quickly fallen into the habit of speaking in commons when it was just the two of them. It gave them a little privacy as the language on the ship was similar enough to Sakhimi that everyone could follow each other’s conversation without too much difficulty.
Cael walked over the long service window and leaned over the counter.
“Zamdhima! One more minute! It’s coming.”
Working together, the two men heaved the tray of rice over to its groove in the counter. Alberich glanced over at the 30 hungry, square faces filing through the door. He struggled against the stench of cow dung and body odor as it overpowered the curry in the modest dining hall. The men had their own bowls and were already digging into the rice when Alberich and Cael went back to drag over the vat of curry. The men erupted into loud, only somewhat mocking applause as the curry was poured into tray before them.
“Arey! You didn’t fuck up the rice!”
“It’s a miracle!”
“You boys are angels!”
“Wait your turn!”
“The tables are over here! Leave some for the rest of us!”
They jostled for space along the counter like their own cows would to the trough. Alberich could see everyone was wearing the standard gray jumpsuits with neon safety strips that ran down the chest and limbs. It was the end of a long shift, and the suits were at varying stages of undoing and filth. Most were unzipped to the waste, some just hanging off the shoulders with the arms still in the sleeves, others held up with suspenders, and the sleeves dragging along the floor. Those who did have undershirts should have burned them a long time ago.
Cael sat back on the prep counter and reached for a bottle of wine he’d found in the kitchen earlier and hidden in the drawer. Not bad for their first day on the job. Their little stainless steel kitchen was a mess, most of which was there before they had even boarded the ship, but they could take a break before attacking it. They had all the time in the world, now.
Alberich leaned on the counter next to him, digging into his own bowl.
“This is actually very good; maybe a bit spicy.”
“Just wait a few hours.”
Cael just shook his head and took another swig. “You’ll be fine.”
“Look, we haven’t really had a chance to slow down and talk. I know when you offered to help back then, you didn’t know the whole story.”
“You got me off that planet. Don’t worry about owing me anything.”
“I’m just saying, if you want to part ways when we reach the next stop….”
“Why, because of that Lukas character? Nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”
The alarm went off just as he brought the wine to his lips again. It rang throughout ship, red emergency lights flickering over doors and along the walls. Cael, bottle still in mouth, looked over at Alberich who was frozen mid-bite. The men in the dining hall looked at each other in confusion before jumping up and running off, some to the safety of the sleep halls, which could detach as emergency transports and even had individual capsules that could be jettisoned if things really got hairy. Others ran back to the cattle. Though there were no alarms or flashing lights on those levels to spook the cows, protocol called for them to be watched over and defended if necessary. The two men were left staring out at the abandoned tables now littered with half eaten, turned over bowls of curry and rice.
Cael took in a breath. “Huh… well, that doesn’t m…”
“COOKS!” Barked a voice over the intercom. “GET UP TO THE FLIGHT KO THRI! NOW!”
Cael dropped his head and sighed.
Their footsteps echoed on the metal grating floors of the dingy hallways. They had to pass by the sleep hall on their way up and Alberich saw those same faces peering out at them with curiosity and suspicion. The boss was yelling before the two men had even reached the threshold of the ko thri.
“I KNEW I should have turned you away! Who works for FREE? That aalaa’ish you fed me about woman trouble! I should have my head examined!”
There were several other expletives that Cael and Alberich had trouble following, so they stood awkwardly and waited for the boss to finish venting. The cabin was dim with the red emergency lights holding a steady light instead of flickering. The pilot on duty was gazing up at a wall of screens in front of him. Each had images of their flight path and signal readings sinking back in three dimensions that adjusted themselves to the pilot’s point of view. He used the keys on the panel attached to his chair to manipulate the screens. It seemed to Cael like he was looking for something.
“So,” he started once the boss was out of breath, “what seems to be the problem?”
The squat man ran a hand through his thinning hair.
“Some asshole rogo’st is demanding to come on board and take the fat one into custody; said he’s some kind of murderer, sick in the head.”
Alberich threw up his hands, “Not true!”
The boss eyeballed him. “Not really my problem. He says he’ll open fire if we don’t comply. Didn’t sound interested in negotiating. THAT’S my problem.” The boss took out an old pistol from the waistband of his half zipped suit. Alberich caught a whiff of dung as two men came in from behind with electric cattle prods. The pilot looked over his shoulder nervously.
“Have you tried calling the authorities?”
“Of course, but we’re an entire day out from Bhara and a good week out from the Gate. We’re on our own.”
Cael also raised his hands. “Mind if I talk to him?”
The boss thought about it. “Be my guest. You do anything stupid and there’ll be no hesitation, samajhna?”
“Samajhata, yes, got it.”
The pilot showed him the microphone stretching out from the wall of screens on an adjustable arm.
“Hello, hello? Lukas? This is Cael. I believe we spoke earlier?”
There was only static in response. Cael exchanged glances with the pilot. He was about to turn back to the boss when the static cut out.
The voice that broke the silence was not male but a high, shaky female voice.
There was a sharp intake of breath as he recognized the voice.
“Ilya? …What are you doing there?”
“Just… he says to go to the airlock.”
“Are you okay? Did he hurt you?”
“I’m so sorry, Ilya.”
“He promises you’ll be safe if you give him Alberich.”
“What about you?”
“If… if you do as he says he’ll… take us home.”
Cael looked back at the men in the cabin. Alberich was by far the largest one in the room, and he looked the most helpless.
“Okay. We’ll meet him at the airlock.”
Alberich was shaking his head.
“Okay.” There was no relief in Ilya’s voice.
“No!” Alberich took a step back and the cattle prods were raised in readiness.
“Don’t worry,” Cael gently reached up and squeezed his shoulders, “I have a plan.”
The airlock located aft of the ship was moderately sized; only meant to allow passage for individuals and small containers. There was a small circular window built into the inner door next to the control panel. Cael was looking through it intently as Alberich, the boss and another 10 men waited behind him in the haphazardly stocked storage bay.
“So, what’s the plan?” Alberich asked.
“Um…” he looked back, “we’re going to rush him.”
“Ah. That’s not really a plan.”
A caution alarm went off and the lights flickered yellow as the outer door started to slide open. Cael turned back to the window to see the door open to complete darkness. The yellow caution light that held steady in the airlock illuminated nothing past its own walls. He couldn’t tell if he was seeing empty space out there or if there really was a ship with its own airlock on the other side.
The boss spoke up. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing. I don’t see… oh, hello.”
A shadow drift in from the darkness. Cael strained to catch defining facial features but he supposed there was a helmet or mask hiding them from view. The figure took a few steps forward.
“Okay, boys, get ready.” He hovered his hand over the panel, but the figure stopped suddenly as a white light flashed from its wrist. The figure looked down at its wrist, then back up in alarm. Before Cael realized it, the gray silhouette was gone. There was a slight vibration in the wall and suddenly stars were visible through the door.
“What?” Cael looked back at the men. “What just happened?”
“You tell us.” The boss frowned.
“Arey! Boss!” The pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom. “I need you back up here!”
The boss looked around. “You, you and you two come with me. The rest of you, make sure nothing comes through that door until I give the okay.”
Cael, Alberich and the two men with the cattle prods followed him has he ran back through the halls to the flight ko thri.
He shouted through the doorway as they reached the cabin. “What’s going on?”
“I found him, boss! He just lit up suddenly.”
“What’s he doing?” The boss crouched down and put his head near the pilots so he could see the screens properly.
“He’s skating around us.”
“Bozhe Waala! He’s dropping something on us!”
Cael pushed his way between them. “What! What is he dropping?”
They were answered by a series of muted explosions. The pilot pushed the ship in an attempt to maneuver away but it was much too large and cumbersome a mass, and Lukas’s ship easily continued so slip around them.
Cael jumped onto the microphone and looked to the pilot who opened the radio.
“We were cooperating! What happened! Why are you doing this? Ilya! Lukas! Somebody! Please respond!”
There was only static in reponse.
The static clicked off. “Cael?”
“Ilya! What’s going on?”
“He… he’s letting me talk to you, because he says it doesn’t matter anymore. He’s going to… he’s going to destroy the ship.”
All the men exclaimed at once. The boss grabbed Cael by the shoulder and tried to raise the pistol but Cael deftly stepped out of the hold and wrenched it from his grip. He held the gun up and dropped the bullets out of it to the floor. The boss stood back in a daze as Cael offered the emptied pistol back to him.
Ilya’s voice continued weakly, “He says it’s… too late… for everyone on the ship.”
Explosions continued to pop along the hull; sending vibrations through everyone’s bones.
“He says it’s infected with the Legion.”
Cael’s head snapped back to the screens. He grabbed the microphone.
“Are you sure? How can he know?”
“He says he knows! Cael, I can’t stop him! You have to get off that ship!”