A second meal and another long sleep later, Indrani made his way to the bathing chambers, a large blue-tiled room filled with an even, gauzy light that immediately made him drowsy again. As usual since he’d started his journey, he had no sense of how late it was, whether it was closer to morning or evening. The artificial gravity was still strange, left him feeling vaguely nauseous, his sense of self displaced just an inch to the left of his body. The bath was a welcome respite, the hot water soaking into his shrapnel-battered limbs, the stress leaching from his mind as the steam rose. The curate sighed, let his limbs float stick-like in front of him.
Then a sudden sound behind him. An unmistakable scurrying. Indrani pressed his mouth into a thin line and straightened himself, peering out over the bath’s edge. “H-hello?” The steam seemed thicker now, dauntingly impermeable. Silence, and then again, the scurrying of many legs across the tile, hard and clicking. Indrani sank into the water, blowing bubbles fearfully just beneath the surface. “Sun? Sun, are you there?” he whispered, peeking out of the water. “D-do you have other passengers?”
The sound of their name made them pull away from their current focus, studying their test plants’ soil acidity down in hydroponics. For about a decade, they’d dabbled with breeding a new variety of a certain flowering plant from the system they visited most often. Thankfully, Indrani hadn’t stumbled in there yet.
Sun had known Indrani was washing up, and had adjusted to the usual habit of not directly monitoring the bathing chambers when passengers were aboard. When maintenance was required, they sent in a remote-drone to take care of simple tasks — more of an autonomous tool than an extension of their body.
The hexapedal drone was still at its current task, scuttling along a line of vents in the floor, steadily checking each one and cleaning its filter before moving on to the next. Sun thought their gait and diligence toward their tasks made them pretty cute, but some humans had knee-jerk reactions to anything that looked like an arthropod.
They piped their voice over the chamber speaker. “Just you and the cleaning drone in there, Indy. What, did it scare you?”
“No,” he said reflexively, petulant. Malakar didn’t have drones; all the cleaning had to be done by hand, every repair manual. The curate was both impressed at the luxury and annoyed. “It just sounded like a bug of some kind. I wondered if you had an infestation,” he mumbled, the slight jab fading as he sank back into the water.
The drone skittered along the slippery floor and continued transmitting its readings back to Sun, who reviewed them smugly. He could cover it with all the bravado he wanted, but maybe Indrani was finally catching on that this was their ship and they ran the show here. He probably wasn’t going to dare leave the tub until the drone returned to its port — he’d just sit there, buck naked, with that self-important expression on his face. Not that they could see it. Not that they would want to see it.
Outside, a spray of ice crystals pelted their hull. They were skirting the edge of a solar system that had plenty of comets swinging around — they must have passed through one of the comas, tails of ice and dust the width of a gas giant. A large chunk smacked into one of their exterior sensors, wedging itself between two cracked panels. Sun glanced at the damage. Those parts will have to be replaced. Sun tutted and pulled the sensor back within the hull, turning it over with their limbs. The offending snowball melted to slush under their touch, forgotten over the course of the maintenance routine.
Indrani flinched at the sound of the small impact, a negligible buffeting that the ship probably barely registered. Still, the curate was uneasy; his initial voyage before the attack had only lasted four standard days, and he’d only just begun understanding what was within the norms for a ship to experience. The sound of the ship drones recalled a bonerat infestation the Temple had experienced a few years ago, one that eaten into their food supply but desecrated their Holy Catacombs as well.
Relaxation evaporated, the curate rose from the water and quickly dried off, intent on familiarizing himself more with The Sun to spare himself further embarrassments.
Outside the ship, the impacted debris rattled against the panels with a hiss and stilled.
Violet apple in hand, Indrani wandered through the ship’s halls, thoughts oscillating between the gate they were headed towards and where Mithraiya might be, what her next move was. Among the five High Curates, she was the boldest, and therefore the one worth worrying about. Savel, Orollo, Kalidan, and Akalim were clever in their own ways, but lacked a certain bravado, a certain hazardous daring. No, him and Mithraiya were the most likely to reach their Purpose before the others—
Something clattered within the walls to his right, sudden and loud. Indrani leapt sideways, stumbling into the far wall. He withheld the urge to shout for Sun, biting into his cheek. Just another drone, he thought, walking on with slightly more speed. Ahead, another large doorway in the hall glinted at him to be explored.
Where was he — ? Sun couldn’t help but glance at Indy wandering the halls, making sure he didn’t stray from the passenger level, but found their attention divided. They felt compelled to check in on odd places throughout the ship and hull, though nothing seemed amiss as far as they could tell. It disrupted their concentration; almost, for lack of a better word, like an itch.
Focus! “Hey, Indy. Just wanted to let you know that we’re almost clear of this system. Once we pass the heliopause, I’ll set us on a direct course towards the —” Sun had to remember not to affect a sigh “ — closest gate. Should only be a few days away at my — at my ship’s top speed.”
“Wonderful!” The curate called back, shouting unnecessary into the air. “Perhaps when you’re free, we can dine together again? Any time really; my sleep patterns have been discordant and I’ve found myself more often awake then asleep.”
Indrani placed his hand on the door of the next mystery room, sprung back a little when it irised open. Inside was a dim, remote room with a long table in the center. The walls were all unlit glass, black and reflective as mirrors. The curate swallowed a little and made his way inside, the insistent quiet of the room pushing heavily on his shoulders. He padded softly to the glass walls, peering into them to see if they held anything behind their opaque surface.
Maybe a display case of some kind? Pursing his lips, he rapped a knuckle on the glass, expecting to hear a hollow impact. Instead, the glass burst to life, polychromatic plasma light flashing across the glass, followed by the ear-splitting sound of symphonic music. Indrani yelped and scrambled backwards, upending himself over the table as the screen seemed to deepen like an opening portal.
Sun activated their hologram and rounded the corner, entering the cacophonous chamber. Indrani was still sprawled on the floor next to the table. Sun grinned and spoke aloud, voice elevated. “Volume down.” They squatted on their heels to reach his eye level. “I’m free now. I see you found my archives room.”
Indrani peeled himself off the table, scrambling to stand upright and appear at least semi-dignified. “Ah! Is that what they are,” he mumbled, brushing down the front of his tunic until it was relatively unrumpled. Around them, the room had taken on what must have been their current environment outside, leaving them and the table floating in a projection of vast, starry blackness, the distant glimmer of planets and passing ships.
“We don’t have anything so,” he flapped a hand in the air, “flashy as this.” Gaudy was the word he’d wanted to say; Malakar’s archives were a collection of ancient dataphials that all ran on various glass tablets, none of which utilized any 3D or holo tech. Indulging in the constant hedonistic advancement of technology was a distraction, one that pulled faithful Followers of their Paths.
“Very uh, impressive, Captain Sun. I’m sure you—” A loud scuttling sound interrupted the curate, knocking against the back of the wall screens.
There it was again, just a fraction of a second before — Sun stared, stood back up, and rounded the table to get closer to the source of the noise. Their consciousness raced, spreading their focus from this room, through the walls and the vents beyond. But they sensed nothing. Not nothing amiss, almost nothing, an unsettling fuzz where they should’ve been detail or metadata or anything.
They turned to Indrani, pointed beyond the starry projection to the screen. “You heard that, too?”
“Your drones, I presume?” Indrani said, a hint of irritation in his voice. If he didn’t know better, he’d have guessed Sun was using them just to scare him. “I’ve been hearing them quite a bit. Are they supposed to make such a racket?”
A rushing hiss vibrated through the room, jarring the computers and holoprojectors enough that the mirage of space they’d been standing in shuddered and disappeared, leaving them in the bare, open room. The curate inched closer to Sun, staring at the black screens along the wall, all of which had shut off simultaneously. “Are they…malfunctioning?”
Sun shook their head, eyes darting between the corners of the room. “Those aren’t my drones. There shouldn’t be any in this section of the ship right now, and I can’t —” I can’t feel them. This isn’t me.
They wheeled decisively towards the door. “I need to run a diagnostic. We may need to isolate this level until I figure out what’s happening. C’mon.”
Behind them, a panel hummed for a millisecond, and then shattered, the sound like a thousand crystal shards ringing out against one another. The lighting in the room and the hallway guttered out, darkness welling up around them. Indrani yelped and lurched to grab Sun’s arm, but missed and stumbled into further into the hall. Something cold whistled by him at an unholy speed in the dark, leaving a trail of frigid air in its wake.
“Sun!” The curate held his arms out in the darkness, feeling in the air for the Captain. “Sun, are you alright? What in Paragon’s name was that?!”
Fuck, it was alive. Something had gotten in and camouflaged itself and was alive, here, inside of them. Sun spared a tiny thread of concentration on speculation — the ice, the comet, the trace amount of organic compounds — but they had to focus on the hallway. The darkness that was nothing for Sun, even if it made Indrani vulnerable. Their senses extended beyond sight. But if they’d lost any sensory or motor control to — to whatever this thing was —
“Indy,” they called, projecting their voice down the hall, “I’m over here. Follow me!” Sun began checking every limb they had in the section, clicking their cameras to infrared. They watched the man start cautiously picking his way down the hall, through the miasma of atmospheric warmth. A shape moving behind him, an absence of accumulated heat, a void —
Indrani stuttered to a stop, felt the hair prickle at the back of his neck as something breathed a chill against his skin. The cold finally snapped into a solid shape in Sun’s cams, a terribly long serpentine shape that arched across the shadowed ceiling, ending in a splintered stellate head that was currently hovering just behind the curate’s back.
“Sun? I think…” A loud gulp. In the dark, the lithe serpent drew back slowly, it’s flowered skull suddenly widening and aimed directly at Indrani below. “I think there’s something here?”
With a click, a panel in the wall snapped back, and a mechanical limb flexed. As the serpent struck, the limb lunged out, splayed its digits, caught in its grip. Sun clamped on the creature like a vice, but it was already squirming, slipping away.
“FORWARD! MOVE FORWARD!” Sun called urgently. “End of the hall, turn left, elevator!” Too slow, even that speaking that short sentence felt too slow compared to grappling with that thing.
Indrani scrambled into a run, urged on by Sun’s voice ringing loud against the walls of the hallway. Behind him, the serpent’s body dissolved in Sun’s grip, the chitin of its body fragmenting until both snake-like ends shot out of their grasp in either direction. A frothing hiss, and both ends were gone, their bodies rapidly worming into impossibly small gaps in the walls and vents.
The curate was panting by the time he turned and saw the elevator, the light inside flickering madly. “Sun! Where are you! What is that?!”
“Here,” Sun’s voice came from behind him, catching him in a startled yelp. Sun’s avatar came at a brisk run from the other end of the forked hallway, and they hoped they looked convincingly shaken. “Come on!”
The two of them scrambled into the elevator, whose doors shut on the darkened hallway with a wheeze, and they descended without prompting.
Sun slumped against the corner of the elevator, affecting fatigue. They gestured beyond the door, towards the hallway that had extended outside the door. “I had to — manually lock down that side of the level. We can’t let that — that organism escape that level of the ship.” Too late, they were certain. Sun knuckled their avatar’s forehead. “Yeah, that had to be an organism of some kind. Never seen anything like it, though.”
They glanced down at their passenger. “How about you? You okay?”
The terrified curate glanced from Sun back to the door, his small panting body pressed into the corner of the elevator. “I’m — okay? I think? What WAS that? I — told you —you had an infestation!” He drew his knees up to his chest, eyes boring into the door as if expecting the creature to burst through any moment. “D-did you see it? Did it hurt you?”
Hell of a question. Sun managed a wry smile. “I’m fine. For now. I don’t think anything’s reaching us in here, anyway.” They put their hand to their chin, thinking through their options. The elevator shafts were pretty secure; had to be, to keep atmo from escaping the entire ship if a hull breach pierced one of the decks. But they couldn’t stay here forever.
“The ship’s sensors didn’t detect this thing as fast as it ought to. They have some way to cloak themselves from being spotted easily, something in their biochemistry. I don’t know if I — if the ship can root out the organisms by itself.” I’m going to need Indy’s help.
“Don’t you have any uh, defensive drones on this ship? Any w-weapons?” Indrani was clearly shaken, and the idea of watching Sun arm themself even more terrifying. Malakar was far out of the way of major star routes and they very rarely experienced any dangerous creatures or travelers. As a child, Indrani had witnessed a starving Eorian vagrant hold his Paragon’s at gunpoint. He’d been young, and had hid behind his favorite Paragon’s skirts, Paragon Burazet. His mentor had barely broken a sweat and the thief had jetted off with some fabbed food, some of their generators and a few items that had no spiritual worth. It had been frightening to observe someone so desperate. But in the end, they had been reasoned with.
Now Indrani was faced with something that seemed intent on eating him, if the cold putrid breath on his neck earlier was proof of anything. “W-hat does this thing even look like? It sounded enormous!”
Sun looked over the level diagram glowing from the panel by the door, watching the small blip that was the elevator crawl along its path. “It’s long. And slippery. Maybe it’s a kind of exomolluscine structure, absorbing moisture from the habitable levels.”
It could have reconstituted its body out of a tiny dormant state, tumbling within that iceball. If it was moisture the things were after, Sun had a real problem. They looked back up at their passenger and pointed at the diagram.
“I can have the cleaner drones go on the offensive on the passenger level. But we should close it off, handle things from the navigation level. You’ll be safer, and I can run a quarantine.” They pointed at Indrani now, looking at him levelly. “But you can’t run wild down there, Indy. Passengers are prohibited from being there under normal circumstances. It’s my space.”
The curate pressed his mouth into a thin, frowning line. “I’m not a child, Captain! I’m not some… wild animal! Of course, I’ll respect your space!”
Indrani folded his arms in front of him, brow furrowed in offense. Did they think him so untrustworthy? What had he done to give them such an impression? He couldn’t think of a single thing and that soured his panic into irritation. The elevator suddenly glided to a halt, the panel pinging it’s arrival at the navigation level. The curate sank into himself a little, glanced at Sun sheepishly. “I’ll, uh, follow you?”
Sun gave him an appraising look, then nodded. “Please do.” They softened their expression a little as they stepped through the threshold of the elevator. “Don’t be frightened.”
Indrani wanted to answer that he wasn’t frightened but the lie stuck at the back of his tongue.