With all of the storage containers and debris floating about, it was going to take a full day of clearing and maneuvering before the two shuttles could reattach to the ship. Even when they had adjusted their course back for the gate, there was a sizeable cloud of stuff hanging in the way. The men suited up in turns and, using cables to tether themselves to the shuttles, threw themselves wildly into the empty space to collect what goods they could. Anything else they could get a hold of they would toss out of the way, sending them off into the vast darkness.
The boss left the radio on in flight ko thri; enjoying the howls and jeers from his men.
“One, do, tiin, JUUUMP!”
“WOOOOOHOOhoohoohoooo…. Damn it!”
“Arey! Next time, try aiming!”
Cael was sitting in the copilot’s chair, head in hands, thinking.
“Look at him! He’s like a dying fish flopping around out there.”
“Damn it! Damn it!”
The boss had let the pilot take a break. He looked over and offered Cael a flask. “You did a good job, back there.”
“I don’t know, guys, I think we should throw him back.”
Cael took the flask, “They think we’re safe.”
“Do, tiin, AAHHAHAAaaiiiii…..”
The boss shrugged. “Well, I don’t know about your people, but WE’RE safe, thanks to you.”
“Watch it! Don’t get the lines tangled!”
He sighed and rubbed his face before taking another swig. “Only if I hold up my end of the bargain; burn out the Legion.”
“That again.” The boss scoffed.
“Hmm.” Cael took out his own flask and deftly transferred a snip of liquor.
“Trash… nope… broken.”
“One… Do… TIIN!”
The boss accepted back his flask and took another swig with an eye on Cael.
“AREY! What the hell! You don’t jump on tiin. It’s one, do, tiin, THEN jump!”
He leaned heavily over the arm of the chair and pointed. “You believe it, too, don’t you?”
Cael put his own flask away. “I’ve seen a few things.”
“Don’t tell me how to count!”
The boss laughed and shook his head. “Forgive me! Been out here a long time, myself; I’ve also ‘seen a few things.’ This aalaa’ish about demons….”
“The stories aren’t ALL aalaa’ish, and they aren’t demons.”
“Arey! Make way! I got a big one here!”
“Whoa! Bet you say that to all the girls!”
“So which stories are true, then? Not the one about being possessed by demons, then. How about the one where you start talking to animals? Eh? How about… the one where the infected change into demonic creatures? It’s all ghost stories.”
“I’ll get your mother to vouch for me!”
Cael slouched back into the chair. “Well, I can only tell you what I saw.” He fiddled with the cap on his flask. “I was moonlighting as a wreckage scavenger once. There were all of these destroyed fighters and transports and abandoned support craft just floating in a forgotten bit of space, from some,” he waved a hand, “long forgotten battle; so the pickings were good, and safe, I thought.”
“THIS ONE’S FOR YOUR MOTHERRRRR!”
“There was one transport that still had air pressure, which is actually awful when you think about the dead bodies left behind. Though they were mostly mummified skeletons by the time I got in there, so I guess it could have been worse. Creepy, though.”
The boss adjusted in his seat impatiently, “So, what, the bodies came back to life?”
Cael shot him an absurd look. “No.”
“THIS ONE’S FOR HIS MOTHER, TOOOOO!”
“Yeah, I kept seeing them darting about from the corner of my eye. I figured, maybe they were surviving by being little cannibals, you know? Feeding off each other… otherwise how could they have stayed alive so many years later?
“Anyway, after enough scavenging, recognizing the aftermath of electrical fires, sabotage, meltdowns… it all becomes old hat; and I had never seen anything like what was going on in this ship. Holes, just everywhere; entire sections of the walls were like lace, there were so many.”
“FOR HIS MOTHERRRRR!”
“Luckily, this particular ship was so basic it didn’t utilize any kind of gravity. They just needed you to strap in and hold on until they got you where you needed to go. You had grips and ladders leading everywhere, so I didn’t have to worry about falling through a floor or anything. And… I remember thinking it was weird that it was only the interior walls that were like this. I mean, what kind of explosion shoots a million little holes through everything, but then leaves the hull intact? But… I had been out there for a month already without incident, so what the hell, right?”
He finally uncapped the flask again and took a swig. “It wasn’t until I pried my way behind my first control panel that I saw just how many of them there were. I’m talking about a mass, a writhing mass of these bugs just spilling out of the wall. Then one of them JUMPED out at me and landed on my chest. I, naturally, screamed like a little girl and swatted it off, but then there was another and another one crawling on me; and that’s when I actually got a good look at them.”
The boss leaned in again. “Yeah? Did they have little demon horns? Did they… talk to you, or something?”
“You’re joking, but yes, or… close. They had mutated. Some had too many legs, some not enough, though… I don’t know, those could have just broken off. Some had a sheen that would reflect all kinds of colors under my flashlight while others were practically translucent. Some had these huge, HUGE wings, and they were all making all kinds of noises. Whistles and clicks, and hissing… and none of them had eyes, or if they did, they were too small for me to see, and they all had long elaborate antennae, feathered and… delicate. I got the impression they were trying to figure me out; crawling around, sniffing, chattering to each other. These roaches mutated into a dozen knew species, and I was completely swarmed, floating in the middle of the room. They clung to me and flitted around, kind of like the debris around the ship, now. I kind of froze, not afraid of them, exactly, but afraid if I moved too suddenly, I would freak them out.”
A voice broke in over the radio, “Then what happened?”
The Boss leaned toward the microphone, “GET BACK TO WORK!”
“You heard the boss!”
Cael fidgeted with the cap again. “They, um… freaked out. Well, I… they, one of them bit me; which was very startling. I made sure to have an extremely sturdy suit, since I was expecting to be on my own out there for a while. Couldn’t be worrying about brushing up against a jagged edge and tearing a life ending hole every five minutes. But, this bug bit right through to my arm, and, without thinking, I swatted it so hard I crushed it, obliterated it, really. The exoskeleton disintegrated into this shimmering dust; but there was also this slime… and I very quickly noticed that this slime was eating through the suit.
“So I started freaking out, which caused all the roaches to start freaking out, and then a LOT of them were biting me and drooling holes into my suit. I don’t remember exactly how I got back to my ship, aside from a lot of flailing and falling through walls, but by the time I made it to the air locks my suit was as lacy as the walls had been. My skin wasn’t looking to good either. I stripped right there and flew home in my underwear.”
“How do you know it was the Legion that did that to the roaches?”
“I asked around when I got back. That long forgotten battle? That was by design. It seems both sides contracted mysterious saboteurs and ‘gremlins’ that destroyed the ships bit by bit. Men started behaving irrationally, stop fighting; start colluding with ‘enemy’ until suddenly there was a third side in the war. You couldn’t tell who was a ‘spy’ for this third side until it was too late. Everyone who would talk to me swore it was the Legion.
“The whole war was abandoned. The two now former enemies worked together to isolate this new group infected by the Legion; and then, once it was over, just tried to forget about it. Those who would talk about it called it the Cursed War. Should have known there was a reason no one had hit that field up for scavenging, yet.”
The boss rubbed his head again, “Nice story. Not sure it really proves you had a run in with the Legion; and I have no idea how this helps you weed them out on this ship, if they do exist.”
“You’re right about that.” Cael slouched further down in the chair. “I have no idea what I’m going to do. If I didn’t have Ilya to worry about, I’d be tempted to forget all of it and find some opportunity to sneak away.”
“The first symptoms present themselves like they would with the flu,” Alberich had been forgotten, sitting quietly in the doorway. He spoke softly but his voice was deep and it resonated down the hall behind him. “Fever, aches, weakness… sluggishness; like any regular bug that goes around.”
The boss turned in his seat to look at him. “No one is sick on the ship.”
“But, then the body stops fighting it. The cells of the body… get tricked into creating more Legion like a virus; more and more, and the body runs itself down trying to fight it off as it… it inserts itself among the cells of the organs, glands, nerves, not replacing everything completely. It just seems to coexist with the host cells, the Legion seems to become a symbiont. At some point the body stops fighting, stops seeing it as something foreign to itself, and the person gets better; or he seems to anyway. … and then the man seems to get a lot better, healthier than before.”
“And how do you know all of this?”
When Alberich didn’t answer, Cael twisted in his seat and looked back at him. “Have you come into contact with them?”
He gave a thoughtful frown and shook his head slightly. “I don’t think so.”
The boss let out an exasperated sigh, “You don’t THINK so? Then how do you know so much?”
Alberich shrugged, “Thought it was common knowledge.” He gave Cael a look. They would need to talk later.
“Arey! Boss?” One of the men shouted over the radio.
The boss sat up and grabbed the microphone. “What is it?”
“Could you turn off the microphone? You guys are creeping us out.”
“I said get back to work!” He leaned back and flipped a switch on the arm of his seat.
Cael had practically curled up in the co-pilot’s chair as he watched Alberich. “Does… this… common knowledge say how to detect the Legion?”
“Um… yes! Ultraviolet light. The dead cells that get shed away, they’ll glow a bright yellow under UV light.”
Cael dropped his head back to look at the boss. “You wouldn’t happen to have one of those lying around?”
He stroked his bald spot absentmindedly as he thought.
“The, ah… filters. Water filters have UV lights in them to kill bacteria.”
“Well then,” Cael rolled out of the seat and stood with only a slight wobble. “What are we waiting for?”