The light airiness of the passenger level was missing here, closer to the heart of the ship, but the ambient warmth and muted glownodes should still provide comfort to any human who had been permitted down here. Hypothetically — for Sun had never dared let a passenger walk these hallways before. It felt too close, too intimate, and Sun felt a prickle of anxiety having Indrani here, even with his naiveté about the vehicle on which he traveled.
But nothing felt fuzzy down here, no invaders this deep into the core. That was something. Sun navigated down the small hallway, stopping at a door that pulled open as their avatar approached. Beyond it was a chamber lined with consoles and screens, punctuated by a heavily fortified door on the far end.
“Have a seat,” they said, glancing at Indrani as the two of them entered the room.
Indrani tugged at his collar, pulling the zipper at his throat down as sweat started beading at his neck. The air was minimally warm, but his body heat had spiked from his panicked sprint, sweat dampening a diamond through the fabric on his back. He wondered how Sun could be so collected, body undisturbed by the attack; they hadn’t broken a sweat at all.
The curate sat as instructed, eyes wide as he took in the nav room. The chamber was aglow with readouts and star charts, gauges and calibrators of all kinds, some layered into impossible geometries. He felt anxious just looking at the graphs and matrixes, tucked his feet up on the chair unconsciously to make himself smaller. Sun wasn’t kidding; the room felt dangerous, miscalculations just a single wrong digit away.
“You…run all of this?” A hesitant pause, realization inching up to the forefront of his mind. “By yourself?”
Sun settled the avatar onto another chair, taking some comfort in the hologram’s realism as they glanced mildly at him. “I do all right. The system’s more intuitive than it looks.”
A glimpse and a nod at the nearby screen, which bloomed to life. For Indrani’s sake they called up a hallway’s camera feed, one from the passenger level. The hall was overrun with cleaner drones, crawling over one another trying to pin down and contain one of the organisms. Even vastly outnumbered, the creature slipped and slithered through any crack within the net of hexapedal legs. Sun flipped through different light spectrums with the camera. On infrared, the creature’s low temperature made it almost impossible to detect at all. Insects banding up against a ghost.
“It barely gives off any heat,” Sun murmured. “It doesn’t want heat. It’s hunting for water.” Sun glanced at the perspiration forming in the hollow of Indrani’s throat. Anything to avoid looking at the door.
“It’ll burrow anywhere it senses moisture, but maybe we use that against it.”
Indrani peered hard at the screen, fingertips tapping his lips in thought. “What happens when it gets to the water? Is it dying and needs to drink? Or…nesting?”
The curate stood, glancing between the various screens and feeds and then at Sun, who seemed to be studying him. An audible gulp. “Can I help somehow?”
“I think so,” Sun nodded. They pulled up a map of the passenger level, with controls for atmo balance and ventilation at their command. “We suck all the humidity out of that level, it’ll go for any big bag of water we bait it with. And if the bait takes it to an airlock — ” They clapped their hands emphatically.
Indrani’s smile had widened, confidence building as Sun explained the plan. A pause, his face falling. “If the bait takes it. The bait as in…me?” Surely, they were confused; there was no way Sun was thinking of sending him back out there with that thing.
“That’s right,” Sun said patiently. “You’ll have protection, of course, and a fresh space suit, and I’ll be keeping an eye on you the whole way —”
“Oh no, haha, no,” Indrani waved his hands in front of himself, chuckling nervously. “You’re joking, no? No? No, I can’t go out there. I can’t! That thing will gulp me down in a flash! I’m very hydrated right now!”
The curate stood, started backing away from Sun to pace in a circle. “We just need to think of a-another way, right? There has to be!”
Sun still had their hands out, palms up. “I really think this is the most efficient way to do this. And the faster we do this, the better.” As Indrani passed the door in his orbit, Sun shook their head. “If the organism continues to breach through the decks and hit this level, it would be very, very bad.”
Indrani leveled a wounded glare at Sun. He felt cornered into his own cowardice with only one way out. Sun’s way. The curate slumped, biting his lip before gesturing angrily, “Fine. Fine! If you’re so sure then…I’ll do it!”
He stalked over to Sun, squinting suspiciously. “What’s so crucial with this level anyway? A loss of water can’t be that troubling to a ship this large.”
With less than a meter between the two of them, Sun took a step back. Too close. Everything about this was too close.
“All of the most essential operations for running a passenger vessel happen here. Powering the engines, storing matter for the fabber — ” another step back, “ — and recycling water and atmo for the passengers and crew. You can’t just replace water you lose in the middle of a voyage, it’s rare.”
Sun raised their eyebrows empathically. “Or contaminated.” They furtively scanned the short, sweaty man, checking the body language and heart rate. They had to be certain he wouldn’t try touching them. They were running out of room. Sun tipped their head a little. “Thank you for doing what’s necessary to keep this ship going.”
Indrani crossed his arms, all stubborn, scrawny angles, but was temporarily pacified by Sun’s preemptive gratitude. He was going to perform a necessary, nay, a life-saving gambit for the entire ship and all onboard. Perhaps it was only the two of them, but maybe… maybe this was the Path: he could prove himself to Sun, that he was worthy of their support, worthy of being followed. This ploy would build their confidence in Indrani, and by proxy, his Path and Purpose. Of course he needed to do this. It was fated.
The curate brought his hands akimbo, grinned knowingly at Sun. “Of course! It’s why I’m here, after all. This was meant to be!”
“Sure thing,” Sun nodded tolerantly. “There’s a fabber back out in the corridor, Indy. Let’s get you suited up.” Just don’t shit in it when you face that thing again.
It didn’t take long to get Indrani in a sealed spacesuit—or for him to lose his brief bravado. The curate scrubbed at his face, trying to will his focus to the forefront of his mind.
“So, once more. I lead the creature to the airlock. Throw the water pack in. You trap it and jettison it…Right?”
Sun allowed themself a second to internally cuss up a storm. “You have to make sure it enters the airlock. No matter what. So if it wants your water more than the pack’s water, you’re going in the airlock, too.”
They gestured to the safety display emblazoned on the wall, as it could be found in virtually every hallway of the ship. “Look for this color on the wall. That’s for vacuum safety. In the airlock, it marks the emergency breather pack, the suit tether, and some handholds. Grab literally anything painted this color, and you’ll survive an open airlock.”
Sun gave him an appraising look as he stood before the elevator doors. “You can do that. It was meant to happen, right?”
Indrani poked at the orange symbol on the wall, lips pursed, clearly unconvinced but resolutely withholding his doubt. “O-of course,” he chuckled weakly, adjusting his helmet. “I’m…I’m ready.”
As Indrani began his ascent back to the passenger level, Sun shed the holoimage once more and expanded their focus over the entirety of their ship, their greater body. A few spots of unsettling un-sensitivity crawling within their hull, but nothing had breached the passenger level. Not yet.
If this was going to work, they had to be thorough. Sun targeted the decks breached by the organisms and began all-systems emergency vents. Any of the decks that had airlocks saw them open, flushing away the atmo inside. Any that didn’t were strategically pressurized, forcing the invaders forward, to the collection point.
As they did it, Sun flinched instinctively. At any other time, such an extensive vent would be flagged as a catastrophic error, something that needed immediate correction. But the fuzzy spots were moving, or fading away to normal readings. Sun recalled a passenger describing the sensation of the “pins and needles” that came from blood flow returning to a limb under pressure. Any discomfort was worth the revival of a sluggish limb to your control.
But Indrani wasn’t one of their limbs. They only hoped he would just hold it together for a few more minutes and get the job done.
The elevator opened with a hiss into the main hallway. The lights were still flickering on and off from the damage done by the organism. Indrani peeked his head out of the elevator doors, squinting hard down each direction. He vaguely hoped he’d see the creature so he had an excuse to smash the ‘close’ button and descend back to Sun’s side. But nothing moved. Just silence choking the hall like a toxic haze. He let out a hard exhalation, a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Okay, Sun,” he whispered into his comms, trying to steady his breathing. “I’m here.”
He stepped into the corridor, whole body whipcord taut. On his back was a large container of water shoved unceremoniously into a pack. Even as he attempted to move without jerking the liquid around, it sloshed loudly behind him. He squeezed the straps tightly, tip-toeing towards the designated airlock Sun had pointed out to him. The flickering lighting was giving him a headache, so he pinched his eyes shut for a moment, grunting a little.
And then a rattling ahead, something hard and hollow clacking against the metal of the ship. Indrani froze, a cold pit forming in his stomach. “S-Sun? Is that it?”
They glanced deeper into the corridor, cameras set to infrared, something dangling from the ceiling but with a neutral heat signature. They clicked back to visible spectrum. A cleaner drone was suspended from wires torn out of the ceiling, deactivated and haplessly swinging in midair, clanking against the ceiling panel. As Indrani inched forward, they checked on infrared — not a moment too soon.
“They’re on the move,” Sun whispered evenly but firmly through the suit’s comms. “They’re in the walls two chambers behind you. Go forward, now.”
“No no no,” Indrani whined as he lunged into a sprint, fear prickling up his spine. He was being hunted, tracked, he could feel it like a sixth sense; this was how it was on natural worlds, primitive planets unaltered by civilization. How did anything survive with this sort of fear coursing through their veins like acid, turning his insides into a hollow, nauseous pit.
Indrani rounded a corner into an alcove and slammed his back against the wall. The water splashed loudly in the container and the noise seemed to echo louder than even his heaving breaths, his heartbeat knocking in his ear. “I-is it coming, Sun? I can’t see anything.” The curate peered out to look in the direction he’d come. “I can’t hear anything either.”
“Keep going,” they pressed, more firmly. The invaders were crawling through the walls, deadening Sun’s sensors. “One chamber. You’re almost there.”
A clatter rumbled down the hall as the creatures shifted from the ventilation system to right behind the walls, breaking up panels and letting them drop to the floor. Like subterranean creatures burrowing beneath the ground, or a pod of fish rising to breach the surface of the placid water.
The cacophony of destruction jarred Indrani from his hiding spot, sent him sprinting down the hall. There was more hissing and clanging behind him, vibrating growls bursting through the seams of the walls. Panting, he finally saw the flickering red light and the bright orange symbols of the airlock door. Indrani sucked in a breath, pushing himself in this last stretch, the creature’s hiss turning into a sizzling roar at his back.
Indrani skidded to a halt and tore the water pack off his back, flinging it into the airlock unceremoniously. It hit the door with a loud spatter, the lid bursting off with a pop, its content splashing onto the ground. The curate was already running away down the adjacent hall. “There! Is it in, is it in!?”
The organism had undulated down the wall, picking up speed towards the point he had thrown the pack. At that moment, like a braid of cables, it split, one twisting section sliding into the airlock and gorging on the spilled water, expanding in size. The other half was fixated on the remaining prize.
“It wants you,” Sun murmured. “You have to get in the airlock, too.” One of their limbs snapped out of the walls, over the head of the man, extended toward the remaining organism.
“You have to trust me, okay? I’ll protect you.”
There was a choked pause as Indrani ran. It wanted him. Him. Could he survive another stint out in the vacuum? Could Sun really protect him? Indrani pinched his eyes shut, panting hard, the fog of his breath steaming the inside of his helmet. He couldn’t do this, he couldn’t risk his life, not when he’d just gotten his first lead to fulfill his Purpose, now that he’d just met Sun—
His footsteps slowed, petered out until he stopped. He breathed hard, doubled over with exhaustion.
“…okay.” He clenched his fists at his sides, teeth sunk into his lip. “I trust you.” He forced the words out of his throat, disbelief throttling his breath. He didn’t believe what he was saying, but he needed to say it, to start somewhere, even with a lie. His gaze locked on the ground in front of him, not looking up at the mechanical arm above, not looking ahead. “I trust you, Sun.”
He took a slow step, then lapsed into a jog, keeping his eyes on the ground in front of him; one step at a time, one stretch of walkway at a time. He built his speed up into a sprint, arms pumping as he aimed for the glow of the airlock, the sounds of splashing and hungry hisses. “I trust you, I trust you, I trust you—” he muttered the words to himself like a mantra, like he could will that trust into existence with sheer repetition.
The creature’s head was in the airlock, its black body streaming out down the hall behind it, plated scales curling in the air almost weightlessly. He rounded the corner into the airlock, smashed himself against the wall. Its dark mouth split open into a toothed star, sucking up every ounce of liquid it could get. Filaments spread out from the hole of its mouth, puncturing into the wall panels like heavy roots. Terror clogged his lungs, two fists clenching the air of his chest. “Sun! Sun, I’m here! I’m in!”
“Grab on!” Sun yelled, and released the airlock controls.
No sooner had the last word sounded than the chamber drowned with a piercing howl as the atmo rushed through the ever-growing aperture. The organism recoiled against the pull of vacuum, but Sun was ready in the hallway, limb extended and ready to grab it, squeeze it, press through its flesh. Its anti-sensory aura was more suffocating than ever, numbing Sun’s perception and forcing them to watch from their camera’s visual spectrum as they grappled with the slippery organism. Their instincts screamed at the loss of feeling and the breach of pressure, but their focus was on Indy, flailing like a ragdoll from his handle grip, so close to the gelatinous filaments tearing through the wall panels.
The diminishing atmo muted the creature’s shriek, but it tore through Sun all the same. It seized in their grip as ice crystals bloomed within its writhing body. With one final twist of their limb, it snapped, then shattered into thousands of glittering obsidian pieces.
The sound died completely. At full vacuum, the remaining fragments drifted listlessly through the airlock, into open space.
Senses prickling, Sun glanced toward the emergency handholds.
Indrani floated weakly in the airlock, fingers curled in a death grip around one of the safety handles. The sudden silence left only the sound of his heart hammering in his ears, his rasping breath echoing in his helmet. He found the strength to tilt his head towards the open chamber, the creature’s fragmented body, a constellation of shining diamonds. “…Sun? Is it…gone?”
The mechanical arm extended soundlessly towards him, hooking two slender digits around a fabric loop on the arm of his suit.
“It won’t hurt you now,” Sun spoke quietly. “I’ve got you.”
Sun used the arm to tug at Indy until he loosened his grip and allowed himself to be gently pulled out of the airlock and into the silent hall. Inching along the walls and ceiling were a dozen cleaner drones, moving deliberately but almost nonchalantly towards the site of the depressurization. Just another mess to clean up.
“They’ll blast out what’s left,” Sun continued, rolling the arm down the hall in its mechanical track, Indy floating limply in their grip. “I’m taking you to decon and giving you the full cycle. Won’t be as relaxing as the baths, but once everything’s clear I’ll free up some water for you.”
“Thank you, Sun,“ Indrani said, his voice polite but clearly taxed. The violent decompression and sudden immense pull on his arms had definitely sprained his wrists; and his fingers tingled numbly in their gloves. He felt like some small nursling held by the scruff in its parent’s jaws, feeling both immeasurably weak and equally cared for in the mechanical claw’s grip.
He marshaled what was left of his strength, his adrenaline sapped from his body as quickly as the atmo from the ship. “Is The Sun alright? Not too much damage, I hope…?”
The creature’s burrowing had torn panels from the walls and ceilings, and any hallway on the level left untouched by it had suffered warping from the decompression. Repair wasn’t impossible, but it was a long, dull task ahead of them. “I’ve got quite a few days of cleanup ahead of me,” Sun attempted cheerfully, with mixed success.
They had converted a chunk of the hallway into a makeshift airlock between the decompressed area and the intact sections of the passenger level. Indrani and the limb reentered the warmly lit corridors with a soft hiss. Sun’s avatar waited for them at the door to Indy’s chamber.
The claw set Indy down carefully, but the curate still managed to stumble a little, dizzy with the rush of the chase. He gave his best consolatory smile to Sun as he passed. “I’ll be ready to help with anything, Sun! Just let me know.”
He plopped onto his bed, clutching his left arm to his body surreptitiously, trying to hold it casually, as if he were simply cold. He was embarrassed by his fragility, even more so for how weak he appeared to Sun. Then again, skirting Death’s grasp often left claw marks on your mortality, and Indrani had already dodged the reaper’s hand twice now. Indrani glanced at Sun, hoping they didn’t insist on sending him to the medbay. “I think I might sleep now, Sun. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Sun eyed the arm, automatically running through the logistics of seeing to it before they gave up and nodded at Indy. “Sure. Call me when you wake up.”
The door whispered shut, and Sun waited for a moment, collecting their thoughts and prioritizing the mountain of tasks ahead of them. They were somewhat grateful to Indy for his willingness to let them go, and to put himself lower on that pile. All the same, that arm’ll kill him once the adrenaline wears off, Sun thought, chuckling.
It was nearly a minute before they realized they were still using their avatar, standing in the hallway, emoting to no one.