Chapter 1: Prologue
There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself—
- Emily Dickinson
Red slammed into the ground at a few hundred miles per hour, and the force blasted through Keith’s body like a hammer blow. For a few agonized seconds, he imagined his bones powdering and his organs imploding and his skull splitting against the inside of his helmet like a ripe melon. The cockpit lurched forward. It flipped upside down; the gravity pulled at Keith’s molars and hair. Right side up; pain seared up his spine. Sideways, upside down. Constant rattling as Red tumbled through unknown landscape.
The viewport was blank and slate gray. The lights in the cockpit flickered strobe-like, epilepsy-inducing, turning all movement choppy and unreal. Keith caught staccato glimpses of his hands gripping the long-dead controls. The holoscreens, when they flared into existence, had staticked displays and nonsensical figures. The alarms were rough, scream-like, lurching in and out of hearing mid-blare. Sometimes Keith imagined he heard voices sputter through the coms line, but the sounds were less than fragments of words, and Keith had enough mental capacity to spare a despaired thought that he didn’t know if they were shouting for him or shouting for help.
The tumbling movement stopped in a sudden, concussive lurch. Keith’s body strained one last time against the seat harness, settled back, was still. The lights powered down with a humming pop. The alarms gave one more strangled warble before they finally fell dead.
Keith stared into the darkness and watched it swirl faintly—a trick of the eyes. For a few seconds, his body cycled through the sense memory of what had just happened. Then the fluid in his ears settled, and the lingering dizziness faded into pain and faint nausea. The metal of Red’s hull pinged and groaned. Keith’s breathing was hard and desperate and rattling, and it filled the black cockpit until it crowded everything out, until even Keith wasn’t there anymore, and it was just the sound of air slamming against lung tissue against tongue against teeth against metal and back again. He was alive. He was alive.
At which point, he passed out.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
- Emily Dickinson
The best part of the desert, always, was the quiet.
After long enough, the solitude gained a sideways sort of sentience. A presence marked by the absence of presence. Keith knew that didn’t make sense, but he’d always harbored a fondness for things logic couldn’t quite get its teeth around. Hence the long trip via stolen hoverbike into the soft red-orange sagelands north of the Garrison. Hence a quiet settling, like dust, into an abandoned shack just within range of a clear tone that produced no sound except for the precise way it buzzed Keith’s prefrontal cortex. None of it was logical; none of it had so much as met logic. But Keith was swimming in illogic at that time; it was his damn bread and butter.
Keith found out how to live among the lizards and the crowds of sagebrush and the occasional trips into the nearest town to liberate cans of soup and jugs of water from the dusty little convenience store. The surviving part was easy; Keith’s physical body felt so far away from him, he didn’t hear it complain so long as Keith provided the absolute basics. He often thought to feel guilty for that, and sometimes he made himself vague promises to return to his body and its quiet animal needs sometime in the future, when things were settled.
Otherwise, he floated. He drifted across the landscape on the stolen hoverbike and chased shadows the hawks left behind. He listened to the precise buzzing in his prefrontal cortex and imagined himself as a homing pigeon listening to the Earth’s humming magnetic field and knowing exactly where he was meant to go. When the hoverbike felt too fast and lacking detail, he walked for miles in one direction, slept during the day when the heat was most unbearable, traveled at night under the watch of stars and a snowdrift moon. He spent days like that, and in the course, he studied the shape of solitude. He learned it by touch and smell and taste, so well that after the first few months, he could have given its description half asleep and burred with heat exhaustion.
Once, he made the mistake of trying to name it and give it a familiar face. He recognized the profanity of his actions almost immediately. The universe loathed duplicity; it would no more tolerate two Shiros than two Keiths. So Keith banished the mirage-Shiro back into quiet shimmering heat and half-recalled conversations and contented himself once again with memories and the marrow-deep knowledge that somewhere, Takashi Shirogane’s heart was still beating.
Despite the first mistake, solitude and quiet weren’t half bad companions. But Keith took care not to abuse them after that.
Keith didn’t wake up so much as the darkness changed texture. Slippery and damp to crushed velvet soft. Keith blinked and felt the air sift through his eyelashes.
He should have taken stock of his body and Red’s state, but instead he got caught listening to the thin sound coming from outside Red’s hull. It sounded like sharp wind funneling down a narrow channel. Its presence accentuated how few other noises existed.
The cockpit was canted at a slight angle; Keith could feel how his body had slid sideways and pressed harder against the backrest than it should have. Keith decided that ‘down’ was somewhere behind and to the left. Good. When he undid his straps, he wouldn’t immediately topple out of his seat. Keith flexed his fingers experimentally and found them in working order, though his right pinkie twinged in a way that suggested a fractured bone. Keith started a mental list of concerns and scratched that down. He moved through the rest of his body with care, taking note of each bruise, each subtle internal pain. A sharp pang in his left side suggested a broken rib; the tenderness of the skin under the seatbelt suggested yellow-green bruising.
When Keith reached his legs, he got the mental equivalent of slamming into a wall he’d missed until that second. He paused, breath stuck in his throat.
He palmed his thighs again and noted the numb, tingling sensation running through muscles that felt somehow tight and heavy. Keith bent, ignoring the sharp jab of the broken rib. His hands ran over the familiar smooth material of his suit and the shape of thighs, knees, calves, even ankles and feet. Whole. No pain, not really. But everything was numb. Everything was heavy. It was as if his lower half wasn’t quite attached to him.
Keith straightened with the distant awareness that his heart had begun creeping up his throat. He brought up both hands to cover his eyes and press the tears back into their ducts. He didn’t need to check to know his coms were down, but he did it anyway out of stupid hope. They didn’t so much as give him static.
Inhaling, Keith tilted his head toward the cockpit’s ceiling—even if he still couldn’t see anything—and pressed against the mental space where Red usually resided. It was like coming into a shared home only to find the lights off, the dishes abandoned in the sink, the bed covers undisturbed. It was like standing in a dim hallway, lit only by a slab of orange streetlight, and hearing nothing but settling dust and a dripping faucet and always, always his own treacherous breathing. She wasn’t there. Offline. Dead? No, Keith didn’t have the capacity to consider her dead because that would leave him alone in her cooling corpse. Offline, then. When he got back to the castle ship, he would wake her up and she would feel guilty for blinking away, but he’d reassure her it hadn’t been her fault.
The castle ship. The others. The last thing Keith had seen before the Galran ship had slammed him out of the sky and sent him hurtling toward the ground was the castle ship’s particle barrier faltering and the other four lions launching themselves against a barrage of drones. Even if they escaped the attack unscathed, it would take them time to find Keith. Allowing that the Galra didn’t find Keith first.
Keith’s body shuddered abruptly, whether out of panic or going into shock, he didn’t know. He crushed his eyelids shut and waited for it to pass.
Keith managed to unbuckle his seat straps and remove his helmet before he had to rest again. His movements were shrouded in molasses, and a faint pain in his chest made it hard to breathe properly. He tried to decide how long he had before the injuries caught up to him and sent him unconscious, and then how long after that until he died. Without treatment, he decided on a day or two. With treatment, possibly a week. He had emergency food and water stored in the back of the cockpit that would last him almost a month, but the internal bleeding would catch him long before dehydration and starvation. There was also an Altean first-aid kit. Coran and Hunk had long ago repurposed the first-aid supplies for human use, and Keith knew of at least one pill that would theoretically slow the bleeding, another that would decrease the inflammation currently making Keith’s joints and head pound. There was a pot of ointment that always did wonders for bruising and bandages that through some technology—nanobots? Keith couldn’t remember—was supposed to do preliminary work on healing broken bones. A whole treasure trove back there. None of, as far as Keith knew, did anything for damaged spinal cords.
(Nerves frayed. Signals dulled. Did the Alteans know how to restitch something like that? Keith had never thought to ask. Stupid.)
Keith palmed his thighs again. His legs continued to respond sluggishly. Keith dropped his hands and gripped the edge of his seat. The darkness remained absolute, so everything was understood through touch and hearing. The wind outside maintained its single fluting note. Keith licked his lips and whistled back the note from his desert winds at home. The tones meshed in and out of harmonization until Keith ran out of air.
He slowly braced his hands on the armrests. He had no idea if moving would complete the damage and leave his lower half fully paralyzed; he understood that as a distinct possibility. He also knew if he didn’t try to travel to the back of the cockpit, he might die slumped in that seat. His team needed time if they were to find him alive; Keith could give them time. It was all very straightforward.
Keith tilted himself toward the direction gravity pulled him. For a second, he teetered, then with a surprised “Umph,” he slithered out of the seat. He did land on his feet, and for a second he thought he’d be able to stand. But his legs continued to act like wooden things not entirely attached to him, and a moment later, he’d toppled to a gently angled floor. He rolled a half a yard before he stopped and gasped against the metal floor. The broken rib hacked against his innards, his back was on fire, the bruises and smaller fractures whined in a chorus, the nausea became a hard pressure at the base of his throat. But when Keith bent his right knee and curled up his fingers, they both responded, and that pressed him up against the edge of a sob. He shut his eyes and focused on panting through the pain.
He only moved once the pain settled, like sediment, into a churning, low throb. He’d been planning to do an army-style crawl, dragging his legs behind him, but after a half-minute’s struggle, he realized that he couldn’t achieve that sort of efficiency. His back roared at the slightest pressure; his innards pulsed. Keith knew he was crying now; he could feel the damp streams running down his cheeks, but it felt far away. He focused on rallying himself enough to use the floor’s angle to scoot himself a few inches closer to the emergency supplies. It was slow, painful, dirty, undignified, and the sounds Keith made reminded him of a tattered gray coyote taking refuge under a porch.
At some point, some inexplicable out-of-time point, Keith realized that he had rolled limply against the back of the cockpit. He lifted his hand and slapped at the wall. The emergency supplies were kept in a small metal locker, with a small lat—
A concussive thud rattled the hull. Kieth’s hand lurched and lost the wall; he inhaled so hard the spittle caught in his throat. He curled up, unthinking, ducking his head under his arms. Silence passed in hard, clinking seconds. Keith’s breathing whooshed against the metal floor and up into his face, into his ears; he was going to start hyper—
Keith flinched again; the rib bit into his—
“Stop!” Keith heard himself scream. “Stop stop sto—“
Silence. No, not complete silence. The wind; always the wind. And Keith’s breath was still rattling against the floor in stutters, punctuated by heaving gasps and sniffs. But the hull was silent. For ten seconds. Thirty seconds. A minute.
Lifting his head was laborious. Keith blinked into the crushed velvet darkness and its blotchy after-image colors. He panted once, twice, then shut his mouth and tried to quiet his breathing so he could listen. The hairs on the back of his neck rose inexorably one by one. The wind scraped against the hull outside. Keith felt attention on him. Heavy and inevitable.
Keith’s breath rushed out in a high, needling whine and he began panting again, teeth bared, throat and lips sandpaper dry. The thuds crowded close together: BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM. Like footsteps. Like something walking across the hull of Red’s cockpit. BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM. Like heavy boots against a rickety staircase, stumbling from drunkenness. BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM. Like someone smashing a fist against a locked door and demanding to be let in, you little brat.
Keith cried, and he vomited without warning, and consciousness abruptly left him, like a hoverbike drifting over red-orange soil.
A hand touched his shoulder.
Keith saw red smudges cross the darkness. A pressure on his shoulder, now it moved to his cheek. Light. Warm. Real.
Keith thrust his eyelids open then hissed and slammed them shut again at the sudden light. But he’d seen the familiar glow of the helmet and he’d seen the face. Hunk.
“Mgm,” Keith tried.
“Yeah, there you are.” Hunk’s hand pressed against his cheek. “We got you, bud. Don’t worry. You’re okay.” Hunk’s voice was tight and watery, and Keith wanted to reach out to him to assure him everything was fine. Even if it wasn’t. Keith knew something had gone wro—oh, right. Legs.
“Hnmm,” Keith croaked. No, that was wrong.
“What readings are you getting?” someone asked. Tinny voice. Ah, right, over the helmet speakers. Coran. Portable health scanners. Keith squinted his eyes open and, indeed, saw Hunk’s face thrown in sharp angles by a green holoscreen projecting from a thin metal rod. One hand was still on Keith; a calloused thumb stroked at his temple.
“Not good,” Hunk said in his flat, past-scared voice.
“Legs,” Keith mumbled. Hunk glanced at him, alarmed.
“Was that Keith?” a new voice asked. Allura.
“Yes.” Hunk inhaled shakily and dismissed the holoscreen, leaving his helmet lights as the only illumination. “I just sent you the readout. Couple of major problems. Biggest is a spinal injury in the lower back.”
“Legs,” Keith croaked. “Legs are numb. Feel wrong.”
Hunk gazed at him solemnly, his thumb finally pausing and pressing gently against Keith’s skull. He exhaled before he said, “Keith says his legs feel wrong.”
Silence. The wind sang its note.
“But he can feel them?” Coran asked. Keith nodded.
“Yeah, he says he can,” Hunk relayed.
“All right,” Allura said. A shuffle. “All right,” she repeated. “We’ll get a pod ready.”
“Allura, can the pods fix—“
“We’ll get the pod ready.” Allura’s voice was like a whip, and Hunk’s mouth tightened.
“Wilco,” he murmured. He focused his attention on Keith, and Keith could see the central question rising to his lips.
“Don’t need to worry about moving me,” Keith muttered. He scraped up a raw smile. “Already scooted myself all the way from the chair.”
“Typical,” Hunk said fondly. He brushed Keith’s bangs away from his forehead then sighed and shifted position. “All right,” he said. “Let’s do this. Want something to bite on?”
“Just keep talking,” Keith murmured. He could feel his energy draining; his breath was growing short.
“Yes. How long have I been down here?”
“You don’t know?“
“Passed out a few times.”
Hunk grunted and eased one arm under Keith’s shoulders, the other—much more hesitantly—under his knees. Keith inhaled sharp enough to sting his throat, and Hunk froze. Keith waved at him to do it quickly.
“Six vargas since we lost communication with you and Red,” Hunk said. “Here, can you get your arms around my neck? Perfect. So, about four and a half hours.” He stood in one smooth motion, scooping Keith up bridal-style. The legs were a dead weight. Keith whined and ground his molars together. His hands tangled into Hunk’s thick hair and held on for dear life. It couldn’t have been comfortable, but Hunk still dropped a perfunctory kiss to Keith’s hairline. “You’re doing good, buddy,” he said. “Hang on, okay?”
Keith pressed his forehead against Hunk’s shoulder and nodded. The nausea was brimming again, but he tried to breathe through it. Hunk started walking, keeping his movements even and steady. It was a feat considering the tilted floor. Keith clenched his eyes against the pain and panted, “The others?”
“Fine. Lance is in the pod for a bit, but he’ll probably be out by the time we get back. Shiro and Pidge are cleaning up the last of the ships.”
“Pretty good. I was planning. For in case you needed. Weeks.”
“Nah,” Hunk said warmly, approaching the cockpit doorway. “We weren’t gonna leave our Galra behind. Turns out you’re kinda useful.”
“Glad to—“ Keith grunted as another wave of pain ran across his back.
“You know how I’ve always, always told you you’re a shit liar?”
“The one thing Shiro. Never managed to teach me.”
“Thank god, honestly. I don’t need two people able to convince me they’re not about to keel over.”
“What about Pidge?”
“I figured out her tell. It’s in the shoulders.”
Hunk was easing his way toward the cockpit doorway, and that was when Keith remembered. His entire body seized, and he yanked his face from Hunk’s shoulder.
“Hunk!” Hunk froze at the fear in Keith’s voice. “There’s—there was something out there.” Keith fumbled his arm from around Hunk’s neck, trying to activate his bayard. “It was trying to get in. We need to—it might attack.”
“Okay, okay,” Hunk intoned, hefting Keith closer. “Okay, Keith? Hey, Keith, can you put the bayard away? Just for a minute. Keith—thank you. All right, Keith?” Hunk peered into Keith’s face. “I was just out there, okay buddy? There’s nothing.”
“No, there was something thudding at the hull. It wanted to get in.”
“And I completely believe you,” Hunk soothed. “But whatever it was, it’s gone now. Probably local wildlife. Or rocks falling. I swear to you, nothing attacked me on my way in. And if something attacks us on our way out, I’m going to protect you. Okay?”
Keith blinked, verging on tears again, but what Hunk was saying made some sort of sense. And Keith trusted him, right? Hunk was team; Hunk was family.
“I’m not crazy,” Keith said weakly. “Something was trying to get in.”
“I know.” Hunk said. “I know.” He glanced at the cockpit’s entryway. “You ready?” Keith nodded.
As soon as Hunk left the safety of Red’s cockpit, the wind that Keith had been hearing for the last few hours made itself known as a physical force. It blasted the pair of them, forcing Hunk to stagger before he found his balance again. Keith squinted through his wildly flapping hair and realized that Red had been lodged at the bottom of a narrow chasm; that explained the sheer velocity of the wind. Mountains reared above them; Keith got a peculiar, sick feeling in his gut knowing he and Red had toppled down those. No wonder he’d been so thoroughly fucked up.
Yellow was perched as close to Red as Hunk had managed; her feet were braced on either side of the chasm; her wide head was lowered toward the pair of them. As soon as Hunk drew near enough, the ramp extended from her mouth. Hunk hurried up the ramp, only jostling Keith slightly, and the force of the wind cut off again.
Inside, the cockpit was warm and softly glowing, and Hunk laid Keith on a pallet that Keith recognized from the med bay.
“Okay?” Hunk asked once Keith was settled.
Keith nodded, tight-lipped. Hunk brushed a thumb against his cheek one last time before he hurried to the controls. Keith let his eyes slide shut as the cockpit began to rumble. The last thing he saw before slipping away was a holoscreen showing Allura in the bridge and Hunk’s figure silhouetted again the holoscreen’s light. And something crouched in front of Yellow’s viewport. Something—only no. Keith must have imagined it because a moment later, the viewport was clear.
“I’ve got him,” Hunk was saying. “Going to grab Red and get out of here. ETA ten dobashes.”
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Far safer, of a midnight meeting
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.
Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter In lonesome place.
Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.
The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O’erlooking a superior spectre
- Emily Dickinson
As a symptom of living in the middle of nowhere, trips to somewhere were a trial. Trips to town were like bashing his way into full sunlight after days spent in total darkness. He avoided eye contact; he took pains to find paths that encountered the least number of people; he left with a peculiar rattle in his chest that spoke to searing loneliness and his complete inability to confront it.
The shack had its share of housemates. Scorpions and spiders cycled through the place en masse. A family of spiny lizards lived under the sink, clans of mice crept through the walls, and several cactus wrens took advantage of the shade provided by the shack’s eaves. In the spring, nests appeared up there, and more than once, Keith woke up to the sound of just-born peeps. But these inhabitants preferred to ignore Keith, and Keith was content to ignore them, too. However many crumbs he left behind, he was still predator-shaped; he understood how these things went.
There had been the week that Keith had discovered a ragged, gray coyote taking refuge under the porch. Its side had been scruffed and rusted red, and it had shown Keith yellow teeth and black gums when Keith lay flat on his stomach in the soft soil to find the source of the high whining he’d heard the night before. Keith and the coyote watched one another, eyes glinting, until Keith scrambled to a stand and headed back into the shack. He reemerged with two pie tins; one full of water and the other with half a can of vegetable beef soup. He scooted both tins under the porch, ignored the coyote’s throaty snarls, and went to work on his hoverbike. Its innards periodically had to be cleaned of the red-orange dust, lest it jam up mid-flight.
Keith returned to the porch that afternoon to find both tins empty and the coyote sequestered further under the house. It snarled again when Keith appeared, but Keith liked to think its heart wasn’t into it. Keith refilled the tins and let the coyote be.
This continued for several days, until the coyote no longer snarled at the sight of Keith, but instead watched him with an inscrutable and wholly animal expression. When Keith tried reaching out a hand, the coyote flinched back into the darkness. It watched him with pale, luminescent eyes, and Keith didn’t need to speak coyote to understand that he had been granted reprieve, but this sort of nonsense wouldn’t be tolerated again. Two days later, the space under the porch was empty. The heavy sense of bereavement that lingered in Keith’s stomach for days afterward suggested he’d just lost the only friend he’d managed to make in a long time.
The sounds of the desert became a sort of companion. The wind whistled in a specific key; long after Keith left the shack, he could still produce the note. The birds, mice, and lizards had their own pattern of scuffles. The coyote yelps every night spoke to some ongoing family drama that Keith had no way to interpret. The buzzing in his prefrontal cortex never went away. There was the hum of the hoverbike, the clatter of Keith’s own movements, the occasional music from the ancient radio when Keith found a clear frequency, and, on rare occasion, rain producing an absolute din on the tin roof. These were the sounds of Keith’s world, and he knew them intimately. It meant that aberrations stuck out like rusty nails.
Keith first felt the presence five months after arriving to the shack, lying on the couch and dozing his way into proper sleep. He felt a prickle on his skin that indicated someone’s attention. He was not alone. He had a few seconds of contemplating this before his brain registered it as wrong.
Keith lurched to a sit, breath clogged in his throat, and gaped at the empty shack. Sunlight filtered dustily through rotting blinds. Keith strangled his mouth open and groaned, unthinking, “Shiro?” The wind whistled back. And, more quietly, Keith said, “Dad?”
Common sense slammed back into him. Keith exploded from the couch, knife in hand, and hunted the shack’s halls for signs of an intruder. He went so far as to venture into both the attic and the cellar, and he scraped out every dusty corner he could find. He finally had to conclude that the shack was empty. He scoured the land around the shack, checked that his hoverbike was still present, searched for tracks or fabric caught on sagebushes or any indication at all that someone had visited him. If the land had clues, it didn’t reveal them.
In the end, Keith sank onto the shack’s front steps, knife dangling between his legs, and blinked with sleep-crusted eyes into the setting sun. He tried to decide if he had finally cracked, smothered by the sheer loneliness and heat exhaustion. He wondered if he’d inadvertently created another person out of the solitude again; he hadn’t meant to do it. Maybe the solitude was stepping forward of its own volition. Keith wondered if that was dangerous.
When the sun had set, Keith went into the shack and packed food, water, maps, the radio, and his notebook. He swung himself onto the hoverbike, picked a direction, and blasted off so quickly, he left behind a long ribbon of dust.
He spent days and days exploring canyons with the radio blaring at all times, even if it was only static. All through the stretches of blistering days and cool nights the presence didn’t appear to him. That trip was when he first found the markings showing something about a lion, something about a war. It felt like real progress, and that night, the buzzing in Keith’s head was sonorous and clear as a song. Keith celebrated with a can of chicken noodle and a large campfire.
But he didn’t return to the shack for a long time. And when he did, he eyed the layer of undisturbed dust with flat distrust.
The experience was almost rote now, which might have implied some worrying things about Keith’s lifestyle. The gentle waking, the hiss as the pod depressurized and the glass lifted, then tilting forward into empty space. Shiro caught him this time: strong arms and a broad chest. Keith slumped against him and brought up a hand to grip at his arm.
“Hey there.” Shiro’s voice was low and rough. Even through the sleep fug, Keith noted that he sounded terrible.
“Here, here,” someone else said. Pidge. A blanket appeared around his shoulders, and Keith hummed to show his gratitude.
“Gonna help you down, okay?” Shiro said. Keith nodded and let himself be manhandled into a sit. He realized that he had Lance on one side, Pidge on the other, and Shiro crouched in front of him, loosely gripping his wrists. Hunk, Coran, and Allura weren’t present. Neither was Slav, but he rarely chose to camp out on front of pods, anyway.
“We’ve been taking shifts,” Lance said, as if he’d glimpsed the question in Keith’s mind. “You actually just missed Allura; she’s gonna be disappointed.”
“She needs to sleep,” Shiro said. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Keith, and his grip on Keith’s wrist wasn’t loosening. Keith stared back and realized, with a small start, he could see quiet, guilty terror lurking under Shiro’s baggy-eyed expression. Keith turned slightly and saw similar wary expressions on both Pidge and Lance. He was on the verge of asking what was wrong when he remembered. Keith dropped his head to stare at his legs, sprawled as they were.
“Coran said you had a slipped disc,” Shiro said. Keith lifted his head. So Shiro had opted to be blunt about this. Good. Keith wouldn’t be able to handle a lot of euphemisms and diagonal explanations, and Shiro knew that. “The pod should have fixed the worst of the damage," Shiro continued. "At the very least, the bone and tissue should be whole and in alignment. Theoretically, the spinal nerve is healed too. But that part’s still uncertain. Neural pathways are apparently tricky, even for Altean tech.”
Keith stared at Shiro, felt Pidge and Lance stone-still on either side of him. Then, deliberately, he looked down at his foot and rotated the ankle.
“Help me up,” Keith ordered.
But Keith was already using Shiro to lever himself up, and Shiro scrambled to make sure he didn’t fall. The blanket slid from Keith’s shoulders and puddled at his feet. He managed to get himself upright with his hands braced on Shiro’s shoulders and Pidge and Lance’s hands hovering around him. Keith pulled away from Shiro. He swayed. He steadied. He shuffled forward, and he didn’t fall. Keith braced his hands on his thighs and felt the corded muscle underneath the skin and fat. It wasn’t heavy and tight like it had been before; there was no doubting that. But Keith couldn’t be sure that it felt entirely, completely normal. That he couldn’t sense a brush of numbness beneath his hands. Still, when he bent his knees, his legs responded. It was enough for now.
Keith lifted his head and eyed the other three. “Seems okay,” he said.
Lance exhaled and muttered something that sounded like “Idiot,” before he stepped forward and wrapped a hand around the far side of Keith’s head, fingers tangling in Keith’s hair, knocking his forehead against Keith’s temple. Pidge’s arms wrapped around Keith’s torso and she buried her face in the side of his chest. Shiro just placed a hand on Keith’s shoulder and squeezed.
Keith completed the full post-healing examination with Coran a few hours later. Coran did him the service of shooing everyone else out—“Especially you, Number One. I know you’re still twitching to find out how many cycles you can go without sleep, but please try that experiment when I’m a tad less busy. No arguing! Off!”
“How many days has it been since Shiro slept?” Keith asked warily as Coran slid the med bay’s door shut and turned with a quiet hmph.
“Nothing substantial since the battle, and that was at least a—it’s called a week?—yes, a week ago.” Coran tugged on a pair of gloves. “He says he’s been doing micronaps, and far be it from me to claim expertise on human biology, but that sounds like a load of jarta if I’m being completely honest.”
Keith smiled quietly. Coran’s bustling, loud chatter was a relief following all the quiet, solemn stares and constant offers of food and water. Usually, Lance would be taking up the role of distraction too, but even he seemed shaken and subdued. It didn’t speak well to Keith’s state.
“Well then,” Coran said, calling up a holoscreen. Keith could see a diagram of his own body slowly rotating among the graphs and readouts. The injuries were outlined in red. “The broken ribs and internal bleeding are all sewn up and put proper,” Coran said, tapping at the holoscreen. “Inflammation around the brain is gone. Bruising and fractures mended.”
“I was a mess,” Keith murmured.
Coran glanced at him. “That’s putting it extremely mildly, Number Four,” he said. “We were all frightened for you.” Keith blinked heavily, wondering if he should apologize. But Coran had already turned back to the holoscreen. “Obviously, the central question is your spinal injury,” Coran said. A tap, and the screen presented a blowout of Keith’s lower spine. One of the vertebrae was visibly out of alignment. Something in Keith’s stomach went cold at the realization of what, exactly, the crash had done to his body.
“Lance has informed me that human doctors refer to this as the L2?” Coran said, pointing at the vertebrae.
“Lumbar two, yeah,” Keith murmured. He spared a thought to wonder how Lance knew the names of the different vertebrae.
“Right, and L3 and L4 took damage as well, though not as severe.” Coran said, his finger tracing the curve of Keith’s digital spine. “Lots of tissue damage, lots of inflammation. All should be taken care of.”
“But the spinal nerve,” Keith said.
“But the spinal nerve,” Coran agreed. The holoscreen winked out and Coran studied Keith with his hands behind his back. “I won’t choose the gaki for the runda beast here, Keith. Spinal injuries are always variable. It seems that the worst of the damage is taken care of, which is excellent, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to keep an eye on you. Some physical therapy might be in order. Everything below your waist is affected. That includes certain organs’ automatic functions.” He coughed lightly. “My point is, we need to be prepared for any consequences.” Keith kept his expression blank and nodded once. Coran smiled, though it looked strained. “Now then,” he said. “Let’s perform some mobility tests and see where we are.”
Red had been hauled to the castle by Yellow and deposited in her hangar. When Keith shuffled his way there, he found her still blank and offline, sprawled on the floor. Keith stared at her and realized that his eyes were hot. A faint numb, stabbing sensation in his legs that had been growing since this morning was creeping its way into painful.
Keith dragged his forearm across his eyes and turned to find Shiro hovering at the hangar’s doorway. The bags under his eyes had faded somewhat, but the quiet, guilty devastation was still readable.
“Hi,” Keith croaked. “I thought you were sleeping.”
“I slept.” Shiro didn’t move. Waiting for an invitation to come in, Keith realized. “Hunk and Coran think they should have no trouble getting her online again,” Shiro continued, nodding at Red. “But Coran wanted you to be present. He was afraid Red might—“ he paused and almost grinned. “Well, you know how she can get.”
“Yeah,” Keith breathed. He eyed Shiro then blurted, “I’m sorry.”
Shiro’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re sorry?” he echoed. “I’m—Keith. What are you sorry for?”
Shiro's cool, competent film was rapidly scrubbing off. The underside was raw, red, ugly, and Keith would rather die than let Shiro take on that burden. He couldn’t allow Shiro to think this mess was his fault. He couldn’t.
“I let myself get blindsided,” Keith said patiently, turning to fully face Shiro. “I got tunnel vision. I didn’t see the Galran ship coming. If I’d been more patient, more careful like you’re always trying to—point is, it’s my fault you had to fight while down one lion, and it’s my fault you’ve now got a team member who’s not going to be at full capacity for a while.” He inhaled. “I’ve fucked everything up, and if you need to find another person to be Red Paladin, then that’s—“
Shiro charged across the room, and Keith cut himself off with a cold flush. The next second, Shiro’s arms were around him, and Keith’s face was buried in Shiro’s shoulder.
“Don’t talk like that again,” Shiro said. “That’s an order.”
Keith blinked once, hard, then felt the lingering hotness in his eyes surge forward again. He tucked his face further into Shiro’s shoulder and shuddered. “There’s definitely lingering nerve damage,” he said in a muffled voice. “Worst of it is in the left leg, especially the quad. Dexterity is down. There’s numbness. Coran is putting together a physical therapy program. He said I might get back to where I was before. But I think he was trying to be optimistic.”
“That’s fine,” Shiro murmured.
“My legs and back hurt,” Keith plowed forward. “After walking around for a few hours. Shiro, that’s not normal.”
Shiro was still for a breath then pulled away enough to look Keith in the eye. “Then we’re going to help you,” he said. “All of us. We’ll help with your therapy, and if you need to adjust your fighting style to account for this, we’ll do that too. Red won’t care; she never picked you for your body. You’re no less capable, Keith. You’re no less the Red Paladin.” Keith could feel the tears as hot streams down his cheeks as he gripped Shiro’s wrists. “You’re hurting now?” Shiro continued. Keith nodded weakly. “You should sit, then.”
Shiro hooked an arm around Keith’s waist and helped him to the far wall, near where Red was sprawled. He eased Keith to a sit then slid in beside him. Keith palmed his left thigh, but the pain wasn’t completely muscular.
“What does it feel like?” Shiro asked.
“Heavy,” Keith said dully. “A little stabbing. It's weird, not like any pain I'm used to.”
Shiro nodded and said, “I get that. I have phantom pain in my arm; that gets weird, too.”
Keith turned slightly and eyed the metal limb. “You’ve never said.”
“Didn’t seem relevant.” Shiro shrugged, eliciting a spark of annoyance in Keith.
“Well you should have,” Keith snapped. “Someone could help.” Shiro eyed him, almost amused. Keith scowled back. “What?”
“You’re actually scolding me.”
“Yeah, ‘cause sometimes you’re a complete meathead.” Keith faced forward, glowering and wiping at his eyes again. “Every so often, I remember that the golden jock boy persona had a grain of truth to it.”
Shiro laughed and crept an arm over Keith’s shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll talk to Coran about it. But honestly, it doesn’t happen all that often. And when it does, it’s not too bad.”
Keith huffed but let himself be tugged into Shiro’s side. Several quiet seconds passed.
“We were all really scared for you,” Shiro said in a low voice.
“That’s what Coran said.” Keith inhaled. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, I know.”
They fell silent together, listening to the constant, faint hum of the ship. Shiro was a steady presence at Keith’s side, and a small, greedy part of Keith was glad to have Shiro to himself for a little while.
Keith’s eyes roamed thoughtlessly over Red, examining the minute chips and burns from constant battle. He reached the top of her head, where the cockpit was. For the first time, he saw the scatter buckshot of dimpled metal and deep scores. Uneven and pitted as the moon. Like something had been trying to bash its way through the hull.
Keith’s heart launched into his throat and stuck there.
“It looks like claw marks,” Hunk said, straightening. He, Keith, Shiro, Lance, and Pidge were gathered on top of Red’s head, examining the pitted surface.
“Galra?” Shiro asked.
“Nah, that makes no sense,” Lance said. He was perched on the edge of the head, his legs dangling over one softly glowing eye. “If there was a Galra trying to get in, and they couldn’t, they would have hung around and then jumped Hunk when he showed up.” Lance tilted his head toward Keith. “I’m going with Hunk; it was probably a local animal who wanted some lunch.”
“What kind of animal is able to make marks like this?” Keith asked. He ran his hand along a long, slashing gouge. It must have been at least two inches deep. “The lions shake off blasters and drones all the time without getting scratches like this.”
“Look, we’re in space, dealing with the infinite possibilities of the universe,” Pidge said from where she was sitting cross-legged across from Keith. “Obviously, you were unlucky enough to land on a planet with one of the few animals able to tear up ancient Altean metal. Simple.”
“Not like it could get in,” Lance added. “You weren’t ever in real danger.”
“Didn’t sound like that from inside,” Keith said. He watched the others exchange subdued glances. They were still treating him with fingertips, three days after the fact. It wasn’t unexpected; every time someone was hurt beyond the usual small bruises and fractures, everyone else got jumpy. The last time it had happened, Pidge had stumbled in from a battle with the white of her bone jutting from her elbow, and for days afterward, people had seemed incapable of leaving her in a room alone. But no one had ever broken a spine before.
“Does Red remember anything?” Shiro asked, thoughtfully running a finger around a scuffed dip of metal.
“I’ve asked her,” Keith said, shrugging. “Nothing. She was disconnected entirely.” A faint, annoyed rumble rippled beneath Keith, and he placed a hand on Red in acknowledgment.
“And Allura and Coran?” Lance pressed.
“Said it was probably animals, too,” Keith said. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “What the hell, you’re all probably right. I should probably let this go.”
“Well, hang on,” Hunk said, frowning and placing his hands on his hips. “We’re not trying to shut you down, Keith.”
“It’s just, if you don’t think it was some local wildlife, what did you think it was?” Pidge asked. Keith fell quiet, aware of the four sets of eyes on him. He didn’t know how to explain the sense of watchfulness; the sense that something had seen him. When he tried to follow the thought, it frayed apart.
“Dunno,” Keith said, looking away. “I just have a bad feeling.”
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
It struck me—every Day—
The Lightning was as new
As if the Cloud that instant slit
And let the Fire through—
It burned Me—in the Night—
It Blistered to My Dream—
It sickened fresh upon my sight—
With every Morn that came—
I thought that Storm—was brief—
The Maddest—quickest by—
But Nature lost the Date of This—
And left it in the Sky—
- Emily Dickinson
The buzzing, resonant note crackled over the desert like charged air before a storm. There wasn’t much escaping it; even in town, it hummed at the base of Keith’s skull and made his teeth blur. Sometimes, Keith imagined the tone falling silent; he imagined how the sudden stillness would be a relief, a cutting of a cord. And then he imagined himself utterly unattached; no Shiro, no Garrison, no foster family to hold him to a modicum of accountability. Better that the tone keep him in one place. It was doing him a favor, in its own way.
Sometimes Keith climbed to the top of the shack, sat with his arms wrapped around his shins, and listened. The tone was like a rope through turbulent waters; all he had to do was hold onto it and follow its path, hand over hand. He’d fall asleep up there and have strange dreams of emerging from heat-shimmering hydrothermal vents into a black ocean that watched him with eyes distant and hard as stars.
During one of these dreams, he woke up with a violent shiver. It took Keith several addled seconds to register his body slumped awkwardly across the roof, rusted tin roof biting into his left cheek, right hand numb from where it was lodged under his torso, head pounding, stomach roiling, skin flushed and aching.
Keith hauled himself up to a half sit and groaned at the throbbing across his temples. He found that he had to breathe through his mouth; his nose was clogged tight. Crawling off the roof was an ordeal; Keith’s entire body felt shivery and aching; his muscles were jelly. He managed to stumble his way into the shack, collapse on the couch, and drop into fevered sleep.
The second time he woke up, he had no idea where he was for a solid minute. Only when he saw his board of maps and notes did he recall. Kerberos. Shiro gone. Garrison lying. Steal a hoverbike, follow the tone buzzing his prefrontal cortex, find carvings about lions. Right.
Keith managed to scrounge up a bottle of water and an expired bottle of Ibuprofen. The sight of cans of soup lined up along the kitchen counter made him want to retch. He chugged the water, swallowed two pills, chugged more water, then found an empty basin to keep beside his couch.
This ritual lasted almost a week. Keith barely ventured more than a few feet from his couch unless it was to relieve himself. His lips were constantly dry, his brow constantly overheated and damp. He ate too little; he could feel his muscles withering away with the lack of nutrition, but it was already a chore not to regurgitate the little he managed to get down. He knew Shiro would be disappointed and worried, but, Keith thought a little viciously, Shiro wasn’t here to witness. No one was, so no one could scold him for not entirely caring enough. Solitude was good in that way.
He survived, was the point. He battled his way through the chills and the nausea and the headaches. It crescendoed one rainy night when Keith churned on his couch in a terrible half sleep filled with the buckshot rattle of rain hitting the tin roof. That was when the solitude thickened into a presence again. Even through the fog of fever, Keith could sense it. It didn’t approach him this time, just stood on the other end of the room and watched him. Keith tried to croak at it to go away; it ignored him. Then Keith fell into another tight, hot dream—something about accidentally running his hoverbike into someone and killing them, though it was always unclear if the face belonged to Shiro or his dad or someone else entirely.
And when Keith woke up, the presence was gone, and the fever had broken.
Keith watched, panting, as the gladiator disappeared through a hole in the floor. Once he was sure the gladiator was gone, he collapsed slowly to his knees and let his bayard dissolve away. Even the collapse was unwieldy, uneven somewhere in the musculature. Still panting, Keith slid into a sideways sit with his legs splayed to one side. Carefully, he lowered himself so he lay on his side, one arm extended above his head, flushed cheek pressed against the cool floor. The floor’s chill stole through his damp shirt and produced goosebumps along his torso. He closed his eyes and breathed.
No, that was a mistake. All that happened then was an agonizing, second-by-second mental review of the gladiator’s staff whipping toward Keith’s chest, of Keith’s brain knowing immediately how to react, of Keith’s legs shuffling a little too heavy, a little too slow, a little too uncoordinated to avoid the wallop to his chest. Keith had barely registered the hit before the staff whipped around from the other direction to crack against his ribs. Things had fallen apart after that. They had fallen apart very quickly.
Keith snapped his eyes back open, scowling. He was going to have to sneak into the med bay to grab some bruise ointment. Once his body felt like one coherent unit again, he’d do that. Until then, patience yielded focus. Or something.
As Keith lay on the floor flipping through his mental catalogue of appropriate Shiro axioms, he became aware of a dull scratching sound under the eternal humming of the ship. After a moment, he decided that it came from the wall near his head. One of the mice, no doubt. Keith hoped they didn’t glimpse him through the vents; the last thing he needed was for them to tattle on him to Allura. Keith shifted his head slightly and eyed the wall warily. “Hey,” he called out. “If we keep this to ourselves, I’ll share my foo—“
Keith’s heart exploded against the inside of his ribcage. His breath stuck in his chest and swelled to impossible size. For the first time in recent memory, his body didn’t slip immediately into attack mode. He lay frozen on the floor. As if lying still enough would camouflage him. As if—
Keith heard himself cry out as he squeezed his eyes shut. Both hands were wrung into such tight fists, the joints ached. Keith waited for it to find him and drag him out from his hiding place under the bed, where it would smother him with a broad, stinking hand—
He waited for the next impact.
Silent. The wall was silent.
The pad of footsteps, barely audible from the outside hall, made Keith jerk so hard that it popped the breath right back into him. He took a heaving inhale and exhaled unevenly. The footsteps paused, the training room door slid open behind him, and Pidge’s cautious voice said, “Okay there?”
“Unh,” Keith wheezed.
Pidge’s alarm was palpable as she hurried into the room, rounded Keith’s head, and sank to her knees beside him. She reached out a hand but didn’t touch him, instead letting her hand hover just above his shoulder.
“Keith?” she asked.
“Fine,” Keith gasped. He glanced at her but then fixed his eyes on the smooth, blank wall behind her. Unmarred. Not so much as a hint of buckling. Pidge followed his focus and turned; she eyed the wall for a few seconds before returning to Keith.
“What happened?” she asked. Keith blinked at her and shifted slightly. He ignored the bloom of pain across his lower back and down his legs.
“I uh—“ He licked his chapped lips and struggled through the fog of panic warping his thoughts. “I need to get out of here.” Pidge’s eyebrows rose, but a moment later, she scrambled to her feet and held out a hand. Keith took a moment to rally himself before he gripped her hand and let her haul him to his feet. The pain stabbed across his lower back and legs, and he had to refrain from yelling. Instead, he let Pidge drape his arm around her shoulder and start shuffling them toward the door.
“Sorry that it’s not literally anyone else doing this,” Pidge said, glancing up at him. “They could give you more support.”
“It’s okay,” Keith said as he glanced behind him. The room, of course, remained cool and blank and undisturbed. Still, the panic didn’t relent until the training room door had slid shut, and he and Pidge were safely in the hallway. He tried to move quickly without being blatant about it. Control. He needed to keep control of the situation.
“Were you training with the gladiator?” Pidge asked. Her tone wasn’t exactly accusatory, but there was a strained tone nevertheless. Keith’s eyes skipped over her face before he looked behind him at the training room door. Some primal part of his mind made note that if the door opened, he’d have to grab Pidge and run.
“I needed to see,” Keith said, facing forward again. That was true, at least.
Pidge adjusted Keith’s arm. “And?”
“I was working on level three and, uh.” He bit his lip. Pidge waited, unusually patient. “Couldn’t do it.” He glanced at her, and the expression he found made Keith want to hit something very fast and very hard. Instead, he focused on keeping his feet moving, on putting as much distance between him and the training room as possible. “Actually, I’m glad you’re the one who found me,” he continued. “Anyone else would either lecture me or blab about it.”
“You’re assuming I’m not going to blab?” Pidge asked archly.
“Yes, because I’m asking you not to, and we’re friends, and you’re good at secrets.”
“All true,” Pidge allowed. She huffed. “Fine, but if I find you doing that again, all bets are off.”
“Understood.” He didn’t voice the fact that there was no way in hell he was going in the training room by himself for a very long time. “Pidge,” he said. “D’you have a datapad on you?”
“Can we look at something?”
Pidge paused and examined him with a flat look. But she did shift them to the edge of the hall and help Keith into a sit. The training room door was around a corner and out of sight; hopefully, if anything emerged from that room, Keith would hear it first. Pidge slid down beside him and produced a datapad from one of her pockets.
“What did you need?” she asked as she powered it up.
“Schematics for the ship,” Keith said, absently kneading his legs. Pidge didn’t move, her eyes fixed on Keith’s motions. “Pidge.”
“Keith, you’re hurting and you’re acting weird and why do you want to see schematics of the ship?” Pidge demanded. The datapad lowered into her lap. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, okay?” Keith snapped. “Something—I don’t know if I’m going crazy or not, so please, I’m asking, just pull up the fucking schematics.”
Pidge bristled, but she jabbed at the datapad a few times. She shoved the datapad into Keith’s hands and stood. “You do whatever. I’m helping you stretch.”
“What?” Keith peered up at her.
“Coran showed us all the physical therapy exercises, remember?” In a vindictive, businesslike manner, Pidge crouched at Keith’s feet, took his right ankle, and began gently rolling it from side to side. Keith watched her for a few blank moments until she glared at him. “Well?”
“Uh.” Keith looked down at the datapad, which showed a rotating model of the castle ship. “I need to see where the training room is in the ship.”
“Easy enough.” Pidge started rolling the ankle up and down. “Here, put it on holoscreen so I can see. I’ll talk you through.” Keith obliged, and a second later, the image from the datapad flickered into miniature 3D in the air in front of him. “Ok, so see that widget at the top of the screen?” Pidge asked. “Tap that; it’ll produce a menu.”
After a few minutes, Pidge had guided Keith to a blueprint of the castle’s fourth floor, on which the training room was clearly labeled. Keith’s heart sank when he saw that the training room sat on the edge of the floorplan. On the other side of the far wall was empty space.
“Well?” Pidge asked as Keith stared at the projection. She had moved on to his other ankle.
“I don’t know.” Keith slammed the datapad into his lap with a sharp motion. “I just—“
“I heard something,” Keith said, not meeting Pidge’s eye. Her hands fell still. “Coming from this wall.” He traced the outer edge of the training room on the holoscreen.
Silence passed for several seconds. “Okay,” Pidge said at length. “And it wasn’t just the ship making noises?”
“No, I know what those sound like.”
Keith gave a bark of laughter. “It was loud. Big. Thudding.” Like something trying to get in, though Keith didn’t say that.
“Debris hitting the ship, then,” Pidge said. “Happens all the time.” Keith didn’t answer, didn’t look at her. “Keith—“
“Can you get me to my bedroom to pick up my suit?”
“And then to an airlock.”
“Keith, what the hell?”
“I need to look at the ship’s outer hull.”
Pidge growing agitation abruptly fell away, and Keith finally forced himself to look her in the eyes. She was watching him with an expression he recognized from the many, many times he’d been in her workshop while she struggled with a buggy program. Some strange alchemy of indignant and frustrated and determined and flat out curious. Suddenly, Keith was doubly glad that Pidge had been the one to find him; no one else would give him that expression at his announcement that he needed to make an impromptu inspection of the hull. Anyone else would probably be already busy telling him why it was an ill-advised idea.
“Can I ask,” Pidge said at length, “what you expect to find?”
“I’m not sure,” Keith admitted. “But I need to make sure that…that whatever I heard, it wasn’t just in my head.”
Pidge nodded sharply. “Honestly, I get that,” she said. “Okay.”
“I’ll help you check it out.”
Keith shook his head. “I wasn’t asking you to—“
“Too bad, I’m offering.” Pidge sounded almost cheerful now. “Now, I like space walks as much as the next guy, but first, I propose we visit the bridge.”
“What’s at the bridge?”
“Are you sure this isn’t hurting you?” Keith asked.
“Hate to break it to you, but you’re not that much bigger than me,” Pidge replied. She paused to heft Keith higher on her back. “Just hold on.”
“Doing that,” Keith replied, tightening his hold around Pidge’s shoulders. It had been a while since he’d ridden piggyback, but he had to admit, it was faster and less painful than walking would have been. They managed to make it to the bridge without running into anyone, and the bridge itself was mercifully empty. Pidge backed up to Keith’s control chair and let him slide down into it.
“What’re we doing here, again?” Keith asked. Without thinking, his hands returned to kneading his legs.
“Data,” Pidge said, bounding up to the central console and activating it with a touch. Schematics and graphs popped into existence. “The castle is constantly gathering information about its surroundings. Temperature, particle streams, radiation levels, gravitational forces, and—useful for us—physical impacts.” Keith watched the holoscreen display shift at a dizzying rate. “I can check the log and see if the ship picked up any impacts on the hull in the last hour.”
“Huh.” Keith raised his eyebrows. “Did Coran and Allura teach you this?”
“Uh.” Pidge paused and glanced back to give a catlike grin. “Slav, actually.”
“Yeah, turns out that when he’s working in here, he’s okay with me watching.” Pidge shrugged one shoulder. “The only bummer is I can’t talk much because apparently, my voice’s soundwave frequency is in a very unlucky range. I mean, if I talk in a really squeaky or really low voice, he’s cool with it, but I can only do that for so long before my throat hurts. I try to only ask questions if I’m lost.”
“That sounds annoying.”
“Eh, it’s okay. Slav talks out loud a lot, and I’ve been learning some really cool stuff from watching him. Like this.” Pidge turned back to the holoscreen. “All right, so we’ll focus on the starboard side, right next to Blue’s hangar.” One of the holoscreens shifted into an image of the ship and zoomed in on a section of the hull that, Keith assumed, had the training room behind it. “I’ll color code it,” Pidge said. “The redder it is, the more physical activity it’s seen.” She tapped a few times, and the image shifted. Pidge froze. Keith inhaled sharply.
The patch of bright red on the digital ship was splotchy and uneven, and with the color, it bore an unfortunate resemblance to a blood stain. For several seconds, the only sounds in the room were the soft beeping of the console and the underlying hum of the ship.
“Uh. Huh.” Pidge jammed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and rattled her fingers against the console. “Okay.”
“You didn’t believe me,” Keith said in a blank voice.
“You said it might have been in your head,” Pidge retorted. She cleared her throat. “Okay, let’s zoom out. Maybe the ship’s been getting a lot of battering today.” Keith could feel his heart walloping against his ribs as Pidge gestured to shift the image back to the entire ship. The pair of them remained silent as they studied the projection. The ship was, indeed, stippled with faint patches of pink, especially around the nose. But the red patch on the side was as livid and unmissable as a bruise. Whatever Keith had heard, it had hit the ship with more force than a stray meteor.
Pidge turned around and studied Keith with a tight expression. “We might need that spacewalk after all,” she said.
Sneaking to their respective rooms to fetch their suits and then to a convenient airlock was slightly more nerve-wracking than Keith had expected. The numb, stabbing pain in his legs didn’t help anything either. But Keith did his best to shove it down for now; he needed to see this through. He could worry about the pain later. Pidge didn’t seem thrilled at Keith pushing himself so hard, but in the end, her curiosity won out.
“Will someone be alerted when we open the airlock?” Keith asked as Pidge input the commands for the airlock to begin its exit sequence.
“Normally yeah,” Pidge said. She grinned at him. “But I might have slipped in a couple lines of code a while ago that can block alerts. I just need to activate them.” She shrugged. “It’s mainly in case the castle gets taken over by an enemy force again. But it’s useful for sneaking around, too.”
Keith pursed his lips. “You’re scary,” he said.
“That’s my goal, sunshine.” Pidge stepped back from the pad as the airlock door hissed open. “Let’s go.”
When they emerged into space a few minutes later, Pidge pulled up her suit’s holoscreen, which had a miniature version of the ship’s impact map.
“Looks like the red spot is this way,” Keith said, pointing above their heads, and Pidge nodded her agreement. They used their jetpacks to move along the hull, their hands lightly brushing against the metal. Keith kept expecting his helmet coms to suddenly blare with someone indignantly asking why an airlock had been opened and what the hell they thought they were doing. But Pidge’s code must have worked because besides the noises from Pidge, Keith’s coms remained silent.
They had just maneuvered around one of the ship’s major engine vents when Pidge blurted, “Oh scheisse.”
“What—“ Keith cut himself off when he saw. The patch of pitted, scratched metal was a few yards wide. The damage had a palpably violent edge that made Keith’s stomach churn. In a moment, he became vividly aware that he and Pidge were exposed out here in nothing but their suits. His bayard materialized in his hand almost without thought. He looked up and realized, with a wash of bleak humor, that Pidge had her bayard out too. Her eyes met his; her breathing was audibly faster.
“It looks like—“
“Like the damage on Red’s hull, yeah,” Keith cut in. They watched one another warily for a moment before Pidge turned her attention to the damage again.
“God, look at the depth of those gouges,” Pidge breathed.
“All right,” Keith said. “I’m taking a quick video of this, and then we’re getting back into the ship.” He hesitated and added, “Watch my back.”
“Already on it,” Pidge said; her bayard flared green.
Keith fumbled to turn on his helmet’s camera function then, once he was satisfied it was recording, drifted closer to the damaged site. From this vantage point, he could see how much the hull had buckled, and he tried to imagine what could hit the ship with such force in such a small area and then disappear.
His thoughts were interrupted by his helmet coms opening with a slight hiss of static.
Keith froze. In his peripheral, Pidge stiffened too. She looked back at him with wide eyes, her clenched teeth bared in a clear ‘oh shit’ expression. Keith made a frantic cutting motion across his throat. Maybe if neither of them answered, they could get off on plausible deniability. Over the coms line, Shiro gave a heaving sigh.
“I know you two are outside the ship, you don’t—“
“How?” Pidge burst out. “My coding was airtight!”
“What coding?” There was a long pause. “Guys, I can see both of you right now. With my eyeballs.”
Keith and Pidge blinked at one another before they whirled toward the nearby thruster that also served as the Blue Lion’s hangar-slash-tower. Shiro was visible as a tiny figure in the large window; he had his helmet in his hands. Beside him stood Lance, who waved and managed to make it look sardonic.
“Were you spying on us?” Keith demanded.
“We weren’t spying,” Lance’s voice said, a bit fainter than Shiro’s. “Shiro was helping me with Blue when we looked out the window and saw you two chilling on the hull. Did you guys smash a transport pod into the ship or something?”
“This wasn’t us,” Keith snapped.
“We were investigating a potential danger to the ship,” Pidge added.
“On your own?” Shiro asked. His voice had slipped into something warier. “What sort of danger?” There was a stretch of silence. Shiro sighed. “Get to airlock three as quickly as you can,” he ordered. “We’ll talk once you’re inside.”
Allura was silent, her hands folded over her mouth, as she watched the video Keith had captured. The paladins and Coran were ranged behind her on the bridge; only Slav had declined to appear. When the video ended, Allura turned and eyed Keith and Pidge.
“While I wish you hadn’t gone about this so underhandedly, I can appreciate your…investigative spirit,” she said.
“We just didn’t want to waste your time if it turned out to be nothing,” Pidge said, grinning toothily. Allura pursed her lips, but she didn’t seem inclined to keep scolding them.
“Here’s what I don’t get,” Hunk said. “This is on the outside of the ship. In space. Where there’s no air. Did someone in a suit sneak up on us?”
“Not necessarily,” Keith said. “The weblums do perfectly fine in space, remember?”
“When we were all separated in that wormhole, I met some fuzzy little guys who were also floating around in a vacuum,” Pidge said. “I think a lot of species have figured out how to survive out there.”
“A few hundred, in fact,” Coran said. “It’s not an entirely common evolutionary trait, but it’s certainly not unheard of.”
“Cool,” Lance nodded. “So we’ve got something that can handle the freezing vacuum of space and is apparently strong enough to dent and scratch up the hull of a superadvanced spaceship. How worried should we be, exactly?”
“Allura, what do you think?” Shiro asked, leaning against the top of his chair. “That damage isn’t exactly insignificant.”
“It’s not,” Allura agreed, turning back to the holoscreen. “We’ll have to repair it; there’s no sense in letting it sit and run the risk of it getting worse. One hard entry of a planet’s atmosphere could widen those gouges considerably.” She looked to Coran. “Coran, I’d like you to increase the ship’s biological and physical impact sensors. Let’s see if we can’t find this thing and get rid of it. The last thing I want is for it to fall into one of the thrusters.”
“Consider it done,” Coran said cheerfully.
“Excellent.” Allura glanced over the paladins. “To answer your question, Shiro, I’d say that this is a concern, but it’s not unexpected. In space travel, it’s quite common for creatures to latch onto large ships. They tend to scavenge the ship’s waste products. There are several species that are known to do this; we tend to generally refer to them as clingers.”
“So, not life-threatening?” Pidge asked.
“Not necessarily,” Coran said. “A clinger is dangerous in the sense that it could ruin any number of the ship’s systems. I once saw a whole imperial battleship become useless because a kipa beast fell into one of the main engines. Nasty if it happens in the middle of a battle or a wormhole jump.”
“What sort of clinger is able to scratch up the hull of a ship?” Keith asked, frowning.
At this Allura paused, and a flicker of doubt crossed her face. “To be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen damage like that. Coran?”
“Not from the usual clinger species, no,” Coran admitted as he stroked his moustache thoughtfully. “But, it’s a big universe. Very possible we’ve stumbled across a new species, unknown to Alteans.” He grinned at Keith and Pidge. “Back in the old days, that would have earned you the right to name it.”
“Grendel,” Hunk said. Everyone turned to stare at him, and he shrugged, nonchalant. “Jaws? Lance, c’mon, you know more monster names than me.”
“Eh, I’d need way more info before I could baptize this thing with its true monster name,” Lance said, grinning. “Although, we could go with someone simple and classic like Predator.”
“Xenomorph,” Shiro offered.
“Okay, Shiro?” Hunk jabbed a finger at him. “Don’t even joke about that. I’m dead serious.”
“He almost stopped being my friend because I made him watch that movie,” Lance faux whispered.
“It was horrible,” Hunk snapped. “I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks.”
“Fair enough,” Shiro said, but there was a definite curl of a poorly suppressed smile around his lips.
“What about Red?” Keith asked, his voice a touch too loud. The expressions from the others—except for Pidge—were blank.
“Red?” Shiro asked.
“The damage on the ship’s hull looks just like the damage on Red,” Keith pressed. “From that planet? It must be the same creature that made it. It…I think it followed us somehow.”
Allura clasped her hands together and leaned forward. “I don’t think that’s likely,” she said in a gentle voice.
“The wormhole jumps, mainly.” Allura glanced at Coran as if for backup. “We’ve jumped at least twice since the planet. Wormholes are dangerous; seething storms of gravity and tangled spacetime. No biological organism could survive traveling through a wormhole without the protection of a ship.”
“If an animal can survive space, why can’t it survive a wormhole?” Keith demanded. “You said yourself; the universe is a big place. You don’t know what evolution’s come up with.”
“Perhaps you’re right, but the likelihood seems incredibly small,” Coran said apologetically.
“But they sounded—“ Keith trailed off. The expressions from Allura and Coran were cautious and indulgent, like he was a small child who hadn’t learned the basic rules of the world yet. They weren’t going to believe him.
Keith bit his lip, struggling to keep himself calm. Allura and Coran were speaking of this thing like it was an especially nasty rat when Keith’s knew it was something larger and more looming and much, much more dangerous. But the mood in the bridge had lightening so rapidly, and that left Keith sensing that he’d come off as unhinged if he pressed the matter.
“Sounded what?” Shiro asked.
“Nothing.” Keith slumped back into his chair. “You’re right.”
There was an awkward pause until Allura stood and straightened her skirt with quick, efficient movements. “Well then,” she said. “Now that we have that cleared up, I think we all have other work to be doing.” There was a general murmur of assent.
As people started splitting off, a bump against Keith’s shoulder made him look up to find Pidge with her head tilted, her eyebrows furrowed. It took him a moment to remember that she’d seen him in the training room. She’d seen how rattled he’d been. Keith gave a tiny shrug and smiled back to show he was fine. Or, he tried to smile. He wasn’t entirely sure it came out right. Based on the way Pidge’s eyebrows drew closer together, it didn’t come out right at all.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
Just as a warning, there's some discussion of child abuse in this chapter. Nothing explicit, but enough detail that it might be an issue for some.
The Soul has Bandaged moments -
When too appalled to stir -
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her -
Salute her, with long fingers -
Caress her freezing hair -
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
The Lover - hovered - o'er -
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme - so - fair -
The soul has moments of escape -
When bursting all the doors -
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings opon the Hours,
As do the Bee - delirious borne -
Long Dungeoned from his Rose -
Touch Liberty - then know no more -
But Noon, and Paradise
The Soul's retaken moments -
When, Felon led along,
With shackles on the plumed feet,
And staples, in the song,
The Horror welcomes her, again,
These, are not brayed of Tongue –
- Emily Dickinson
After discovering the first set of carvings, Keith spent an obsessive amount of time searching for more, documenting them, cataloguing them, and doing his best to puzzle out their meaning. So far, he’d gleaned something about a large lion, something about a massive conflict, and some other idea. Something that seemed to be staring him in the face but that refused to coalesce into anything understandable.
One night, after several days cooped up in the shack with several art history books he’d liberated from the town’s library, Keith decided he needed to look at the carvings in person again. He packed his supplies before setting off via hoverbike to the familiar path that led to the outcropping. When he arrived at the closest set of carvings, the last of the natural light was slipping away. Keith unpacked his lanterns and set them up in the soft soil at the base of the boulder outcropping. He pulled out his pad of drawing paper, settled down between the lanterns, and started sketching.
The motions were almost familiar at this point. This was Keith’s third time sketching this particular set of carvings. He figured it was like art students copying the work of great masters. At some point, by recreating the figures and scenes with his own hand, something new would hopefully reveal itself. Keith had tried taking charcoal rubbings of the carvings, but it wasn’t quite the same.
Keith worked as a gibbous moon rose overhead. The soft, distant yips of coyotes filtered through the air. Bugs swarmed around the light of the lanterns, which in turn drew the small, darting shapes of bats. The air was cool and silken smooth against his face and hands. The single, buzzing tone rippled through Keith’s mind like gentle rain on an otherwise still pond. And for once, Keith felt entirely content.
Keith sketched until his hand ached. At that point, he set aside his pad and pencil and flicked off the lanterns. In the faint, silvery light of the moon, the carvings loomed above him. Keith let his eyes wander over the images, not focusing on anything in particular. The sequence was familiar by now. A large lion crouched with its tail flailing. Small figures engaged in something that could be a fight or a dance. Other symbols that had no discernable meaning but that repeated themselves over and over again throughout the outcropping. They blurred and shifted in the low light, and for a moment, Keith imagined them moving of their own accord.
The presence was unobtrusive when it appeared. Keith didn’t move when it seemed to settle down on his left side. He swore he could feel faint warmth, like sun-warmed water lapping against his skin.
He cleared his throat. “Hi,” he rasped.
Nothing. Obviously. Keith gnawed at his bottom lip. Well, if he truly was losing his marbles, it wasn’t like anyone was here to judge him for it.
“Do you have something to do with the sound in my head?” he asked. “With these carvings?” He shrugged one shoulder. “Too many coincidences, right? I figure it all has to be connected.”
“I’m trying,” Keith continued. “I know there’s something I’m supposed to be figuring out. I’ll get there.” The presence didn’t respond. Keith sighed and peered up at the carvings again. “Though if you’re in the mood to give me a hint, I’m not going to say no.” The presence didn’t seem to react, and finally, Keith turned his head. For a split second, he thought he glimpsed a vague shape. Like an afterimage come from staring at something bright for too long. But the effect faded, and Keith was looking at sand and sage painted in faint moonlight.
Keith stared at the spot for a long moment before hauling himself up. He fetched his ratty sleeping bag from one of the hoverbike’s saddlebags and lay it out on the sand. He climbed in, making sure his knife was in easy reach.
He drifted toward sleep quickly. And it was while he teetered on the cusp of true sleep that he became dimly aware of something massive crouched over him. It carried the sharp, salty scent of an ocean. Or the distinct smell of imminent snow. Keith couldn’t decide. He sank into sleep, cool and insistent as an undertow, before he could think much more about it.
He dreamed once again of hydrothermal vents in deep, deep oceans. Of yellow stars like eyes.
Over the next few days, Keith did not move through the castle so much as he crept.
He did his best to always have someone nearby. When he had to move through the castle alone, he did it with his blood humming just under the skin of his fingertips and his ears roaring with how closely he listened every creak and groan of the ship. What had once been benign sounds of the ship settling like an old house had become hairspring triggers for his fight or flight response. He was hyperaware of the sluggish pain in his legs that would hinder him in a fight. Sleep was almost impossible.
The others noticed his behavior; he knew that. At the very least, during the mind-melding exercises, the other paladins caught broad glimpses of his low-lying fear. None of them outright mentioned it. But Hunk did come up to Keith after breakfast one day to remind him that he always had a standing invitation to hang out in Hunk’s workshop or in the kitchen while he worked. Lance seemed to make it his central goal to goad Keith into the mindless, familiar squabbles that gave Keith a few minutes of distraction from himself. Allura started doing more office work in public spaces, where Keith could easily sit in the couch opposite her and settle into her absorbed silence. And Keith couldn’t prove it, but he suspected she’d asked the mice to organize themselves into a rotating watch; Keith rarely found himself without at least one of them perched on his shoulder or curled up on top of his head. Coran got in the habit of asking Keith to help him with small, odd jobs around the castle. Shockingly enough, even Slav approached Keith one afternoon to present, with some ceremony, a small slip of paper with various equations scribbled on it.
“These are some of the luckiest numerical constructs in this reality,” Slav told him, clearly pleased with himself. “I’ve spent many rotations compiling them, you know. So long as you keep them nearby, they should decrease your chances of horrible death by at least 36 percent. Though if you recite them every 284 tics, that will improve to 37.5 percent.”
All of it meant more to Keith than he could properly express. Even if none of them entirely understood what was making Keith so wary, they were doing their best to make him feel secure. That counted for a lot.
When the time came to fix the damage to the hull, Coran informed Keith that he was exempt from helping. Keith wondered if the exemption was because of his injury or because they were afraid of how Keith might react to being exposed on the hull. He didn’t ask.
But, as the others suited up near the airlock, Keith found himself grabbing his helmet and slipping down the hall and into Blue’s hangar. He swore he could feel Blue’s faint burr of curious attention on him as he crossed the hangar and settled down in front of the wide window facing the damaged section of the hull. He set his helmet at his side and switched on the coms so he could hear the faint murmur of his team’s conversation.
The four of them emerged from the airlock a few minutes later: Lance in front, Shiro taking up the rear. Based on the scattered words Keith caught from the helmet, they were discussing whether to expect a new album from some popular singer when they returned to Earth. Keith had never heard the singer’s name, but that wasn’t unusual. It didn’t matter, really. Just hearing his teammates’ voices, whole and cheerful, made something in his center uncoil ever so slightly.
Progress on the damaged hull was slow; most of it seemed to involve spraying a silvery foam that filled in the gouges. But the progress was also steady, and soon enough, the metal looked smoother than it had at the beginning.
It was strange to watch his team from this vantage point, Keith decided. They looked so small. The castle was in deep space at the moment, far from any planets or moons, and the nearest star was only slightly larger than its companions. Behind Shiro, Hunk, Pidge, and Lance rose the endless vacuum of space studded with small pinprick stars. Anything could come out of that void, Keith thought. Anything at all.
Some nudge of sympathetic agreement radiated from behind Keith, and he turned. The Blue Lion hadn’t moved; her eyes hadn’t so much as gleamed. But Keith still got the sense she was watching him with a faint air of empathy.
"Thanks," Keith murmured before he faced forward again, drawing his knees up to his chest. The entire time he watched, nothing on the hull moved besides the five paladins. Keith knew this because he didn’t let himself look away again.
After a few hours, the paladins agreed to take a break, filed back toward the airlock, and disappeared into the ship. Keith didn’t move. He didn’t know what he was expecting. For the creature to emerge once it thought the coast was clear? For some answer to spring from the half-repaired damage?
When the hangar doors opened without warning, Keith’s heart lurched, and he would have scrambled to a stand had his legs cooperated. As it was, he only managed to pitch sideways and almost fall. In the doorway, Lance watched him with raised eyebrows and his helmet dangling from one hand. Keith saw his eyes flick toward the red helmet sitting by Keith’s knee.
“Were you snooping on us?” Lance asked.
“No,” Keith snapped. Lance’s eyebrows crept closer to his hairline.
“Listen,” Lance said. “You know I think Blue’s the best, but I kinda doubt you came in here to talk to her.”
Keith deflated and slowly eased himself to a sit again. “I needed to make sure,” he murmured.
“That it didn’t attack you guys!” Keith could feel his face flushing. “I know, it’s paranoid of me, but—“
“It’s not paranoid.”
Keith lifted his gaze enough to see Lance striding toward him. Lance settled on the floor so he was facing Keith, his back against the window and his legs splayed in front of him.
“It’s not like it didn’t cross my mind,” Lance said. “I can’t speak for the others, but I was keeping an eye out the whole time.” Keith grunted noncommittally. Lance tilted his head. “This whole thing has really left you feeling off kilter, hasn’t it?” Keith pressed his lips together. Lance’s tone wasn’t pitying, which Keith appreciated. But there was clear concern. Some part of Keith still had no idea how to deal with that. Lance settled his head against the window with a soft tump. “Hey, not Iike I can blame you,” he said. “I mean, hearing the same scary banging in two completely different parts of the universe? It’d give anyone the creeps.”
Keith lifted his head sharply. “You think the thing from the planet is what damaged the ship?”
Lance eyed him. “Look, you weren’t wrong. The gouges on the ship and on Red look really similar.”
Keith worried at the edge of his jacket. “What about Allura’s point about the wormholes?” he asked.
Lance made a face. “Eh. I get the Alteans were a super advanced race with vast knowledge of the universe, but they didn’t know everything. They couldn’t have. You had a valid point; how do we know the universe hasn’t produced some freaky species that could survive clinging to the hull of a ship while it went through a wormhole? Heck, that’s probably way down on the list of crazy things the universe has done.”
“Maybe it wasn’t clinging to the hull,” Keith said. Lance glanced up at him sharply.
“Meaning?” he asked.
“Maybe it…I dunno, wedged itself into one of the engines or vents and was shielded somehow.” Keith palmed his legs; he worked to keep his hand steady. “Maybe it has a way into the ship itself.”
“That’s what you’re scared of,” Lance said. It wasn’t phrased as a question. Keith glanced at him wearily, and Lance’s shoulders set. “Okay, you know what?” He shot to a stand. “There’s way too many question marks surrounding this whole thing. Let’s try and get rid of a few of them.” He offered a hand to Keith, who stared at it blankly.
“C’mon, mullet,” Lance said, rolling his eyes. “We’re going to go talk to the genius ferret.”
Slav had laid claim to several of the castle’s stern-side workrooms, which Keith had long understood were not to be entered unless under direct invitation.
“Seriously,” Keith protested. “He doesn’t like the color red. At all. He’s said that whole range of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum is begging for disaster.”
“Just let me talk to him,” Lance insisted. “I think I’m his favorite after Shiro; he likes blue.”
“That’s so typical,” Keith protested. “You can’t get special treatment from Slav and Coran.”
“They can’t resist my natural charm,” Lance said, grinning cheekily back. It was such a stupid, typical Lance thing to say that Keith knew for certain he was trying to be distracting. Keith huffed, but he fell silent and let himself be half-carried down the hall.
When they reached Slav’s main workshop, it was hard to find him at first amid the small mountain range of stuff. As far as Keith could tell, the scattered piles mostly consisted of items scavenged from the castle’s storage units and bought from various markets. If there was an order to the piles, Keith couldn’t fathom it.
“Hey Slav?” Lance called into the workshop. “You in here? We need help with something!” He led Keith down the walkways between piles. Both were careful not to disturb anything. Slav didn’t take well to his items being knocked out of arrangement, and as Keith saw it, there was no reason to cause the guy unnecessary distress when he’d already endured literal torture.
They did find Slav eventually, perched on a small mound of pillows and bent over a datapad. He didn’t seem immediately aware of their presence, and Lance had to cough to make him lift his head. As soon as Slav’s eyes fell on Keith, they narrowed.
“You might have warned me the Red Paladin was coming in here,” Slav said by way of greeting. “He always increases the potential for entropic disaster by at least 74 percent.” Keith grimaced at Lance with a ‘told you’ expression. Lance retaliated with a ‘he’s got a point, doesn’t he?’ expression, followed by a waving hand that said, ‘whatever, just let me do the talking.’
“Okay, but what about me?” Lance asked, turning back to Slav. “Do I cancel out any of Keith’s, uh, potential for entropic disaster?”
Slav paused as if considering this. “The effect would be more pronounced in a reality deriving from the 54th fractal,” he said slowly. “But it’s not unmeasurable in this reality, either.” He slid his attention to Keith then abruptly pointed at him with three hands, which Keith found excessive. “Don’t say any words longer than two syllables.”
“Super,” Lance chirped. “Slav, we need some help.”
“You do,” Slav agreed. “In any number of areas. The zip lines are still utterly ludicrous.”
“Not that,” Lance said. “You know when we had that skirmish in the 395th quadrant and we lost Keith for a bit?”
“I remember,” Slav said, nodding impatiently. This surprised Keith somewhat. He’d always assumed that Slav didn’t pay attention to the ship’s events if he could help it.
“Do you know what planet he was stranded on?” Lance asked.
“Of course,” Slav said, tapping at his datapad. “I was the one to add it to the ship’s database. It had been unknown to the Alteans.”
“Shit, right, I forgot you’re also our resident planet taxonomist,” Lance said, brightening. “Perfect. What can you tell us about it?”
“Very little,” Slav admitted. “We didn’t spend much time with it, if you’ll recall.” His datapad emitted a flickering projection. A small, lumpy body rotated slowly above their heads.
“That’s where I crashed?” Keith asked, wrinkling his nose.
“What, not impressive enough for you?” Lance smirked. Keith didn’t want to admit as much, so he stayed quiet and continued to scrutinize the projection.
“It’s a class 5 rocky celestial body,” Slav rattled off. “Circling star 5935 in the atli zone. Quite small; extremely thin atmosphere largely composed of nitrogen. Minimal tectonic activity, which suggests it’s on its way to tectonic death in a few million years.”
“Does it have any life?” Lance asked. Slav gave him a strange expression.
“My scans picked up traces of microbial activity near some of the hydrothermal vents,” he said.
Lance tilted his head. “But not macro life? Nothing multi-cellular and big?”
“Certainly not,” Slav said. “Any large animals would have appeared on my scans.” Keith could feel his extremities growing cold. He inhaled sharply and dug his fingernails into his palm to keep himself focused. “Why do you want to know this?” Slav continued. His tone was now outright suspicious.
Lance looked to Keith. Keith inhaled again and said, “You know about the clinger? It roughed up the ship a few days ago.”
“The Princess mentioned it to me, yes,” Slav said. “She wanted to know if it was a serious hazard. I told her its chances of causing fatal damage are, in this reality, 24.6 percent.”
“That seems high,” Keith said, frowning.
“We are in space,” Slav said dryly. “I think I’ve officially been banned from telling you the likelihood of us dying horribly in any given moment, but I can assure you, the fact that this ancient thing keeps up alive from second to second is a statistical miracle.” Keith and Lance exchanged a look, and Keith shrugged. In an existential way, the statement rang with some truth.
“When Keith was on this planet,” Lance said, gesturing to the projected image. “Something attacked the Red Lion. We thought at first it had just been local wildlife. But if you’re telling us there was no local wildlife, then…” Lance trailed off. “See, it left marks on Red that we think look really similar to the more recent damage on the ship’s hull.”
Slav’s eyes widened in understanding. “You want to know if they came from the same source.”
“Got it in one,” Lance said, grinning. It didn’t quite touch his eyes.
“I have video of the hull’s damage,” Keith said quickly. “And the damage to Red is still there; you can look at it yourself.”
“Mm,” Slav hummed, not seeming to hear. He was looking into the near distance, expression focused. Abruptly, he set down his datapad, launched himself from the pillow pile, and attacked the nearest mound of items.
“Slav?” Lance ventured.
“If what you’re insinuating is true, then that changes everything about our chances of survival,” Slav declared.
Keith glanced at Lance. “Uh,” Keith tried. “So, you think this thing has been following me? Us?”
Slav’s head popped back up. “What did I say about words longer than two syllables?”
“Considering the known factors,” Slav said, returning to his work, “there’s a 38 percent chance that the two instances of damage came from the same creature. And if it’s true that something that can survive wormholes is stalking us, that greatly increases our chances of dying horribly. I’ll have to risk gathering data so I can improve my calculations. Red Paladin, send me your video as soon as possible.”
“Sure,” Keith said, nodding.
“You need to rearrange everything before you can start that work though, right?” Lance said. “Could we help? To make it faster?”
“Absolutely not,” Slav replied.
“Right. Should we leave you to it?”
“That would be preferable.”
“Cool. Keith?” Keith nodded and followed Lance back toward the workroom door. He glanced around at the piles and wondered, with some trepidation, if Slav would need to rearrange all the items. But even if Slav didn’t finish this task for another few days, some part of Keith felt bolstered. It was nice to have someone so ready to agree with him.
“Well,” Lance mused as they stepped back into the hallway. “Pretty good results, I think.” He grimaced at Keith. “We should have believed you from the beginning.”
“No, it’s fine,” Keith said. He crossed his arms, tucking them close to his body. When he looked up, he found Lance still watching him.
“What?” Keith asked.
“The ship’s got really good defenses. You know that, right?” Lance said. “We’re as safe here as we ever can be.” He paused and grinned ruefully. “At least pretend to believe it, yeah?”
Keith nodded. “I can try that,” he said.
Keith spent that evening in Pidge’s workshop. The two of them sat in the far corner of the room; Pidge was working on some program that, theoretically, would be used to improve their coms system. Keith was sharpening his Galra blade with his back to the wall and a clear view of the whole room while he explained the day’s events.
“Good on Lance,” Pidge said as she typed. “I think if you and I had gone to Slav, we would have given him an aneurism.”
Keith hummed his agreement, sliding the whetstone down the blade. The task was rhythmic and steadying; Keith needed that right now. Pidge’s typing paused, and he could feel her attention on him like a heavy weight.
“I’m fine,” Keith said without looking up.
“You’ve been jumping at shadows,” Pidge retorted, unimpressed.
“Not jumping very well,” Keith muttered. Pidge’s sigh was too heavy for someone her size.
“Are you sleeping at all?” she asked.
“Pot, kettle, black.”
“Not great, no,” Keith said. “It’s…hard.”
Keith licked his lips, and when he spoke, his voice was low. “The last few days, I keep being reminded of the months I spent with this foster family in Minnesota.”
Pidge stopped typing. Out of the corner of his eye, Keith could see Pidge’s hands hovering over the keyboard, waiting. He focused on the steady rhythm of his whetstone against his knife. He’d told this story once to Shiro already; he had the practice. He wanted to tell Pidge now; he trusted her. It just wasn’t a good story to hear.
“I lived with this husband and wife,” he said. “She was okay. He…he had this habit of getting smashed every few nights. And he was a mean drunk." He paused. "The best thing was to stay away from the house entirely, but it was hard to make friends who wanted me to sleep over, and the library was only open so late. The next best thing was to hide in my room and lock the door, but even then, the locks were old and cheap and you could force them open with the right angle and enough force.”
Pidge still hadn’t moved.
“Once I figured out that the locks were basically useless, I spent a lot of nights under my bed. He didn't always think to look under there. If I jammed myself against the wall, he had a harder time reaching me, and sometimes he gave up. At night, I spent a lot of time listening for the sound of him coming up the steps. It was the kind of listening that uses your whole body, you know? Everything sets you off. Really not great for sleeping. But I preferred to be tired than for him to catch me off guard. I preferred to at least know he was coming.” Keith exhaled. “Now, I keep feeling like that again. Like I'm jammed under a bed, listening with my whole body, waiting for the sound of someone banging their way up the steps. I hate feeling like that. I thought I’d left that version of me behind. But Shiro once told me you can't help but carry all the past versions of yourself. I guess he was right.”
Keith realized that his hands were both limp and inactive in his lap, and he realized that an arm was winding around his waist. Pidge’s head pressed against his shoulder. She was trembling.
“You didn’t deserve that,” she said. Her voice was tight with either rage or sorrow; Keith couldn’t tell.
“Thanks,” he murmured.
“When we get back to Earth, I’m gonna hack into whatever systems I have to and fuck up that bastard’s entire life.”
Keith made a startled, coughing laugh.
“Thanks,” he said again.
“No, I know.”
Pidge huffed and tightened her grip around his waist. “Well, you have us now. If you can’t sleep, come find me. I’ll keep watch.”
Pidge glared up at him in a way that brooked no argument. Keith sighed and settled back, letting his cheek tilt against the top of her head.
That night, as Keith perched on his bed with his legs crossed and his knife at his side, he toyed with the possibility of taking Pidge up on her offer. But some part of him felt like he’d be admitting defeat if he did so. Which, yes, he knew that didn’t make much sense, but very little of this situation made much sense. He did manage to fall asleep in the end, slumped over awkwardly with his Galran blade loosely cradled in one hand.
He was in his shack, which wasn’t unusual. He sat on his couch and stared across the small room at his board of notes, but it was wrong, because whenever Keith tried to focus on a single part, he realized it was made entirely of smudged scribbles. Nothing sensical at all.
“What did they tell you?”
Keith turned his head sluggishly to find Hunk perched on the couch beside him. Hunk grinned, but something about it looked wrong.
“You know?” dream-Hunk said. Keith blinked, and he realized that it was in fact Lance sitting beside him.
“She told me to get the dress,” dream-Lance said solemnly. “You need the cone.”
Keith blinked again, and he realized no one was sitting beside him, and he was alone in the shack. Except not, because some shimmering, sideways presence stood at the shack’s doorway, and however hard Keith tried to turn his head in that direction to see it, he couldn’t manage. Dread billowed through him like ink through water. He needed to turn his head. He needed to turn his head.
The roof of the shack splintered above him, and as Keith ducked his head against the rain of wood and tin shards, he knew jaws would dip down to shred him apart and—
He was coming up the stairs. He was coming up the stairs in his heavy, black boots, and all Keith could do was remain as still and silent as possible beneath his bed and hope he was too sloshed to think to look under there because otherwise there would be a broad, calloused hand gripping Keith by the shirt collar and hauling him—
Keith lurched awake, arm snapping up in a ready position. He had three seconds to blink around his bedroom when the room shuddered again.
Keith didn’t think. He threw himself forward. Landed awkwardly on his feet. Stumbled. Fell hard enough to send pain rippling up his arms. Thrashed himself back to a stand. Dove for the bedroom door.
The door opened seconds before Keith’s fingertips touched the panel, and he barely managed to stop himself from slamming into Shiro. Shiro caught Keith by the shoulders and gripped him tight.
“Keith?” he said. “I heard—“
“OUT, OUT, OUT!” Keith screamed, and shoved Shiro backwards. Shiro seemed to resist for a half second before he abruptly relented and grabbed Keith by the upper arm to haul him from the bedroom.
BOM BOM BOM BOM
The door slid shut, and the thudding dimmed slightly. Keith felt himself be roughly shoved behind Shiro, and he heard the pulsing thrum of Shiro’s Galra arm activating.
(art by rymyanna)
The pair of them stood, strained, as the thuds slowly started to become sparser. After a half minute, they seemed to have stopped altogether. Shiro’s arm remained raised, his face thrown into peculiar shadows by the purple light. When another minute passed in silence, Shiro exhaled carefully and lowered his arm. He turned to Keith, who had his back glued to the wall.
“Are you hurt?” Shiro asked.
Keith shook his head. His numb, throbbing legs didn’t feel like they would support his weight for much longer. Slowly, he slid to a sit. Shiro moved to sit beside him, close enough that their shoulders pressed together. His hand abruptly came up to wrap around Keith’s head and tug it toward him so he could press his lips to Keith’s temple. His breathing was hard.
“Okay,” Shiro murmured. “I get why that frightened you so much.”
Keith still couldn’t seem to speak, so he huddled against Shiro and stared, unblinking at his bedroom door. He kept half expecting the metal to buckle from something large and hungry slamming against it. The only things keeping him from tearing down the hall was the pounding, numb weakness in his legs and the fact that Shiro was beside him. Shiro was a good fighter, better than Keith. So long as he was standing guard, Keith let himself close his eyes and try to steady his breathing.
At some point, when he trusted himself to speak, Keith croaked, “Nice to know someone else can hear it.”
Shiro shifted to eye him. “None of us claimed you made it up,” he said.
“But it’s different now that you’ve heard it,” Keith pressed. Shiro was silent as an answer.
At that moment, the door to Pidge’s bedroom slid open, and a familiar thatch of brown curls stuck out.
“Are we under attack?” Pidge asked groggily. “I heard banging.” She seemed to take another second to register Shiro and Keith’s positions, and the grogginess burnt away to be replaced by subdued worry. “Keith?”
“The clinger,” Shiro answered for Keith. “It was banging at the hull outside Keith’s room.”
“I’m fine,” Keith grumbled. He realized, then, that Pidge had grown strangely still.
“Pidge?” Shiro said. Keith could feel him stiffening.
“Our bedrooms are in the inner castle,” Pidge said. She picked over her words with terrible delicateness. “Keith’s room is nowhere near the hull.”
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
The wind tapped like a tired man,
And like a host, 'Come in,'
I boldly answered; entered then
My residence within
A rapid, footless guest,
To offer whom a chair
Were as impossible as hand
A sofa to the air.
No bone had he to bind him,
His speech was like the push
Of numerous humming-birds at once
From a superior bush.
His countenance a billow,
His fingers, if he pass,
Let go a music, as of tunes
Blown tremulous in glass.
He visited, still flitting;
Then, like a timid man,
Again he tapped- 't was flurriedly-
And I became alone.
- Emily Dickinson
One of the worst days in the desert was when Keith thought he had killed himself.
He didn’t actually want to die, was the thing. There had been a precarious handful of hours directly after hearing about the Kerberos mission’s failure, after having the phrase ‘pilot error’ pounded into Keith’s brain like a pickaxe. But then, while perched on the Garrison roof, Keith had come to his senses and concluded that of course the Garrison was lying out of its ass, of course there had never been a pilot error, of course Shiro was still alive. Keith locked onto that last idea and let it drag him forward.
It was a useful guide rope. Between Shiro and the reverberating tone from the desert, Keith didn’t have much of a chance to sink back into the writhing headspace he’d occupied in the hours directly after the Kerberos announcement.
So when Keith almost killed himself, it was a complete accident. A case of discrete elements coming together perfectly. One, a low food and water stock from several days spent exploring a network of canyons north of where he’d found the carvings. Two, a hoverbike with a thruster that jammed unexpectedly right when Keith was maneuvering a series of narrows. Three, the sheer laws of physics that sent Keith and his bike straight into a wall of rock.
He had been lucky only to fracture his collarbone.
Walking, although painful, wasn’t impossible. And the hoverbike was scuffed and crumpled in a few spots, but at least it still hovered, even if it couldn’t transport him anymore. Keith thought he might be able to fix the bike once he had access to the right tools. The tools stowed in his shack. The shack that stood a good 40 miles away. By hoverbike, the distance was a matter of a few hours. Walking with a fractured collarbone and the bare minimum of food and water was a matter of—not making it, if Keith was being honest with himself.
Keith spent nearly an hour resting in the shade of the canyon, studying his two protein bars and half canteen of water. He wetted his lips with the water and felt the moisture evaporate almost instantly. He examined the waves of red-orange sand at his feet and considered what would happen to his corpse out here. What happened to any corpse, he supposed. Desiccation and scavenging and scads of heavy bluebottle flies.
It was the thought of the bluebottles that did it. If Keith could lay claim to any true annoyance about the shack, it was the way that the bluebottles buzzed and thudded stupidly against dusty windowpanes; there was something desperate and cringing about their attempts at freedom. Keith encouraged spiders’ presence in his shack precisely for the bluebottle flies. And he’d be damned if he let those things get the last word on him.
So Keith tore his undershirt and bound his collarbone as best he could, packed his remaining food and water, set his hoverbike to neutral so he could push it along, and began walking. The first stretch took place in the canyon’s shadow, which made it bearable. As soon as Keith emerged onto the vast expanse of desert, his resolve wavered. Keith was a survivor; he had to be. But after all, he was a single, soft, human thing, and the desert was vast and arid and indifferent. It barely deigned to acknowledge him when, after a hard inhale for strength, he nudged the hoverbike forward and continued walking.
Keith opted not to think about his food and water situation for as long as he could manage it. He focused on placing one foot in front of the other. He had to hope that if he did this enough times, he’d eventually look up and find his shack waiting for him.
He rested around noon, curling up in the hoverbike’s shadow and using his jacket as a pillow. He managed to doze through the pain in his collarbone, and when he woke up, the sun was setting. He walked through the night, occasionally pausing to barely dampen his mouth with contents of his flask. When dawn arrived, he took advantage of the dew that settled on the sage and cacti. He kept walking, and he did not think about the sheer distance of 40 miles.
The presence coalesced sometime around the third day, after the first protein bar had been finished. Keith had licked the wrapper and felt the pinch around his middle like a vice. He blamed his lightheadedness for the presence; it only ever snuck up on him when his head wasn’t on quite straight. He didn’t let himself look over; he knew he wouldn’t see anything, anyway. But it was there; the prickling on Keith’s neck and arms couldn’t mean anything else.
While the presence kept pace with him, Keith’s wandering memory struck on an old book from one of his foster homes. It had been part of those novelty book series that covered alien abductions and the loch ness monster and spontaneous combustion and astral projection. Keith had devoured those books as a kid, sprawled on the living room floor with the musty, yellow pages a few inches from his face. A page from one of those books floated up in Keith’s mind; it had included a picture of a lone mountaineer on a snowy peak, and the header had said, ‘Third Man Factor.’
It was a simple enough idea. In extreme circumstances, people reported sensing another person with them, even if they were alone. Sometimes the invisible person helped them or encouraged them. The book had mentioned, in a perfunctory way, that most scientists agreed it was a matter of the brain cobbling together an impression from random firing neurons. But most the text had given the impression that higher powers were the much more likely explanation. Keith supposed that living alone in the desert left his brain susceptible to conjuring invisible companions. He wouldn’t put it past himself.
The presence was useless as far as helping Keith survive. But it never left him. That was the thing. Keith fell asleep feeling it hover somewhere nearby, and he woke up knowing it hadn’t budged. When he moved, it moved. When he paused, it paused. He didn’t try talking to it. But every so often he’d mentally reach out and check that its sideways sentience was still there.
It always was.
It took Keith, Shiro, and Pidge only five minutes to run to the bridge, flip on the intruder alarm, and bring everyone stumbling from their bedrooms. Slav was the last to show up, and once he did, Coran activated the bridge’s panic settings. The group listened, silent, as the bridge’s four entryways shut and sealed with a hiss of hydraulics.
“All right,” Allura said once the final door had fallen silent. She rounded on Shiro. “Report.”
The report didn’t take long, and when Shiro had fallen silent, Keith looked wearily around at his team’s stunned, pale faces. Allura turned to Slav, who was wringing four of his hands and staring hard through the large window into star-studded space.
“Slav,” she said, making him jump slightly and turn to her. “I recall asking you about the chances of this clinger finding a way into the ship. You gave me an extremely low number.”
“0.4 percent,” Slav agreed miserably. “Assuming this is a large, solid organism, it should have trouble entering an air-tight ship.”
“Well, it seems that this creature found a way to beat your odds,” Allura said in an even voice. There was something about Allura’s demeanor, something about the stiff, tight way she held herself, that suggested she was trying very hard to keep her composure. She looked around at the seven of them, eleven including the mice, and placed her hands behind her back. “To summarize, we have an unknown entity aboard the ship. We have little to no idea of its intelligence, its abilities, or its intent. We need data.”
“That would be the worst course of action,” Slav protested.
Allura’s eyebrows shot up. “And why is that?”
“Gathering data requires one to directly interact with the object of study,” Slav said, “therefore vastly changing all conditions surrounding the object, thus altering the object itself, thus changing the data, thus rendering the entire endeavor useless! The only way to avoid that is to obtain data from a reality where you haven’t interacted with the object at all, and I am still decapheebs away from managing that.” He shook his head vigorously. “If we try to interact with this creature in any way, we’ll ruin our calculations.”
“Okay,” Hunk spoke up. “But if the clinger is in the ship, and if it’s dangerous, and if we don’t try to learn about it and confront it somehow, what does that do to our chances of dying horribly? In this reality?”
Slav made a face. “Definitely increases them,” he said. He made a disgruntled sound. “Gathering data may be a necessary sacrifice.”
“I agree,” Allura said, and Keith caught her giving Hunk a grateful look. “I want Slav, Coran, and Pidge to start combing every bit of this ship’s records from the last few cycles. All sensors internal and external, all visual feeds, everything. I want to know how this thing got into my ship, what it’s capable of, and what it’s going to do next.”
Hunk half raised his hand. “Someone’s going to have to go on a supply run,” he said. “We can’t hunker down in here for very long without food and water and stuff.”
“Yes, true.” Allura nodded sharply. “You, Shiro, and Lance will do that. Everyone, let them know what you need before they leave.” She paused. “Stay together, and if you encounter this creature, do not engage.”
“Understood,” Shiro nodded.
As the two teams came together, Keith remained where he was, perched in his control chair. Everything in the room felt distant somehow, shrouded behind faint fog. A light headache was beginning to jab at his right temple. His back throbbed. And he knew, logically, he was terrified right now. Somehow, it wasn’t reaching him.
“Keith?” Keith lifted his head enough to realize that Allura was approaching him. She had two mice on each shoulder, and when she kneeled beside him, Chulatt and Plachu scampered down her arm to cross over to Keith’s chair. They clambered into Keith’s lap and squeaked at him until he stiffly lifted his hands to stroke a finger down each of their backs. The small, warm, fluttering bodies tugged him gently toward the present. He squeezed his eyes shut briefly and exhaled.
“I apologize,” Allura said. Keith peeled his eyes open and looked up to her.
“For what?” he asked.
“I dismissed your concerns,” Allura said. Her voice was steady, but her expression spoke to subdued distress. “I should have given this more attention. I was so sure it was a harmless clinger, that it would never find a way into the ship.”
“You don’t need to—you have a lot on your mind.” The words were like marbles fumbling from Keith’s mouth; he wondered if he was imagining the numb heaviness of his lips and tongue.
“Don’t,” Allura said, an edge of sharpness hidden beneath the softness of the word. “I made a mistake. Let me own up to it.” Keith nodded dumbly, and Allura studied him for several seconds. “How are you?” she asked.
Keith tried and failed to come up with the right word. Something as banal as ‘fine’ would be insulting Allura’s intelligence. “Scared,” he finally said in a small voice. “I didn’t think it would get in the ship, either.”
Allura inhaled deeply. “It’s not going to touch you, Keith. I promise.”
Keith didn’t know whether or how to reply.
A sharp squeak from his lap made Keith realize he’d stopped his stroking. He resumed with a small, involuntary smile. When he glanced up, he realized the smile had crept onto Allura’s face, too.
“Here.” She lifted her hands and pulled Platt and Chuchule from her shoulder. “Let them keep you company.”
“Thanks.” Keith watched the four mice scuffle briefly with one another before settling down in a small, pastel pile in his lap. The fog cleared by a few more degrees, and that gave Keith the presence of mind to lift his head sharply. “Princess,” he said. “Lance and I talked to Slav yesterday.”
Allura lifted her eyebrows. “And?”
“You know the planet where I crashed? Where something attacked Red? Slav says there’s no large animals living there.” Allura’s expression remained neutral as she processed the implication of Keith’s words. Then she gave a sharp nod.
“Thank you for telling me.” She stood in one smooth motion, laid a hand briefly on Keith’s shoulder, then hurried toward the console where Pidge, Slav, and Coran were working.
Shiro, Hunk, and Lance took nearly an hour to gather supplies from around the ship. Pidge set up a holoscreen with several live video feeds from each of their helmet cameras as well as from any hall cameras that could see them. Keith watched the feeds with one hand gripping his knee and the other buried in the warm, grounding pile of sleepy mice. But he never saw a hint of the creature, not so much as a flicker of movement. The trio returned to the bridge unmolested, and as they started to unpack the floating crates of supplies, Keith slumped back into his chair and scrubbed hard at his face.
“You okay?” Hunk’s voice asked, and Keith started and yanked his hands from his face. Hunk was standing over his chair, a box in his arms.
“Fine,” Keith said. His voice was rough.
“Aw, he was worried,” Lance sang out from across the bridge, where he was helping Shiro and Allura unload one of the crates.
Keith scowled. “You know where you can stick your—“
“Hey, okay, we can do this later.” Hunk craned his neck at Lance. “We’re doing this later, McClain!” he called out. Lance waved cheerfully. “Here.” Hunk returned his attention to Keith. “Breakfast.” Hunk pulled a water packet and a silver wrapped package from his box. “It’s those energy bar things from that one moon we shopped at,” Hunk said. “You liked them, right?”
“Yeah, they taste like cashews,” Keith agreed, accepting the food and water. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” Hunk patted Keith’s shoulder and moved on to offer breakfast to the three working on the console. Keith watched him leave and wondered if he was imagining that everyone was treating him like he might tumble apart at any minute. They might have a reason; the dull terror still thumped through Keith like a rising fever.
Once breakfast had been distributed and the supplies stored in a corner of the bridge, everyone slowly coalesced around the console where Slav, Pidge, and Coran were working.
“Any updates?” Keith heard Allura ask, and he stopped sipping from the water pack to listen.
“Well, we can confirm that this thing is inside the ship,” Coran said. “Look at the ship’s internal physical impact sensors.” He pulled up a 3D ship schematic that, exactly like Pidge’s map, had physical impact highlighted in red. Keith could see that the floors of the bridge and main living areas were shaded faint pink; the walls and floor of the training room were splashed in deeper pink. And in the space above Keith’s room was an angry knot of bright red. Keith’s heart plummeted.
“Is that the vent?” Hunk asked, squinting at the screen. “Is this thing crawling through the vents?” He suddenly looked around the bridge. “Please tell me the vents into this room are closed off, too.”
“They are, they are, not to worry,” Coran said, waving his hand. “My grandfather knew what he was doing. But yes, Hunk, I believe you’re correct.”
“Vents make total sense,” Pidge added. “That’s how I snuck through the castle when it was taken over by Sendak.”
“Did you guys notice this?” Lance asked. Everyone turned to watch his finger trace the space around the red knot on the map. “We can see where this thing was in the vent, sure, but we don’t see any hint of its movement beside that.” Lance was right; the red knot above Keith’s room was isolated; no trails of pink hinted where the creature had come from and where it might have wandered afterward.
“Well that’s…unusual,” Coran said delicately.
Allura made a low sound. “It’s supernaturally light on its feet, then,” she said. “Wonderful. Well. We’ll have to take note of that. Good catch, Lance.” She placed her hands on her hips. “What else? Do we know how it got in?”
“Er.” Pidge and Coran shared a brief glance. “Not so much?” Pidge admitted. “We’ve been checking all the ship systems that have any connections to the outside—there’s a few vents that we open when we’re on planets with atmospheres. But nothing’s been breached, far as we can tell. I mean, here’s the thing, if there were a hole or breached system, we’d all know because the ship would be screaming at us about loss of air and pressure in that part of the ship. At the very least, we’d start noticing we can’t breathe anymore.”
“Exactly,” Coran said, nodding. “The ship has remained air-tight for the last several cycles, Princess. Not even microbes should be able to slip in.”
“What about the airlocks?” Shiro asked. “Pidge had that code that suppressed their alarms.”
Pidge flushed bright pink, and Coran glanced at her with mild amusement. “I had Number Five disable that code directly after our group meeting,” he said. “But just to be safe, I’ve also ran through the airlocks’ cameras for the last several cycles. None of them have been in use by anything besides ourselves.”
“Well then,” Allura said in a stiff voice. “I suppose next you’re going to tell us it must have walked through the hull.” Pidge and Coran gave her identical hesitant looks. Allura’s face collapsed. “Oh quiznak. Are you telling me it must have walked through the hull?”
“I mean, if we’re using process of elimination…” Pidge trailed off and adjusted her glasses uneasily. The bridge plunged into cottony silence.
“Okay, no,” Hunk said abruptly. “Nope. No. There are rules to the universe, Pidge. Particles can only move through walls at the subatomic level; that’s basic physics. Nothing our size, nothing that made freaking dents in our super advanced alien ship, can walk through walls. That’s not allowed.” Hunk glared around like he was waiting for someone to argue. Slav, blithe as anything, lifted a hand.
“Actually,” he said. “There is a possibility, however miniscule, that all the subatomic particles of an organism could simultaneously move through the wall in the quantum mechanical realm, thus also moving the organism in the macroscopic realm. In fact, if we’re near a massive body such as a black hole, it could be warping the laws of physics enough to—“
“Slav?” Lance cut in.
“Are we near a massive body like a black hole?”
“Not that I know of.”
“And without that, what are the chances of, uh, all the subatomic particles of this thing blipping it through our hull?”
“Well. You’d have several million zeros before reaching any integers.”
“Right. Then I think Hunk’s point was mostly rhetorical.”
“Ah.” Slav blinked. “Yes, I’d have to agree.”
“Okay,” Shiro said, briefly pinching at the bridge of his nose. “Let’s back up a little. We’ll concede to Hunk’s point that we’re probably not looking at a breach in the laws of physics.”
“Thank you,” Hunk said primly.
“Which means we need to think about how, logistically, something that big gets into the ship.”
“Well then we’re back at the airlocks,” Lance said, crossing his arms. “Because if it punched a hole into the ship, we’d know about it.”
“Airlocks, okay,” Shiro nodded. “Coran, how certain are you that the camera feeds of the airlocks haven’t been tampered with?”
Coran tugged at his moustache. “Excellent instinct, Number One, but Number Five has already seen to that.”
“I ran it through my programs to make sure the video is clean,” Pidge agreed. “Standard procedure at this point. So, maybe the footage is doctored and I missed it, but honestly, I doubt it.”
“Fine,” Shiro said. “When were the airlocks opened?”
“When Keith and I snuck out,” Pidge said.
“And when we did hull repairs,” Hunk added. “We made two trips out. And that’s it.”
“That’s—“ Shiro paused. “Six times the airlocks were open. That’s six opportunities for this thing to have snuck in.”
“Uh, okay, first problem,” Lance said. “I think we’d have seen it trying to tiptoe in behind us.”
“Could be super small but massively strong,” Pidge mused.
“I know how to settle this,” Coran announced, turning to his console. “We have those airlock cameras, remember?” Everyone except for Keith crowded around the holoscreen as six different video files popped into existence. Coran ran through the videos of Keith and Pidge first. Even with eight pairs of eyes watching, nothing out of the ordinary stuck out. Next came the footage of the four paladins exiting the ship to do their first shift of repairs on the hull. Nothing. Then came the four returning to the ship for their break, and that was when Keith felt the blood drain from his face. The footage played out, and Coran was about to move on to the next video file when Keith squawked, “Wait.”
They all turned toward him; Keith saw various versions of confusion and concern on their faces, and that bewildered him to the point of horror. “Did you not see that?” Keith demanded. He leaned forward, and the only thing preventing him from springing to a stand were the four small, sleeping bodies in his lap.
“See what?” Allura asked.
Keith blanched. “Are you kidding me?”
“Keith,” Shiro barked. “You need to explain.”
“I need to—right. Go back,” Keith ordered. Coran obliged and restarted the file. The camera’s viewpoint was directly inside the airlock, looking down on the space from a high angle. They all watched the outer airlock door hiss open and Pidge’s green helmet float into view. She was followed by Hunk, then Lance, then Shiro. “There, pause,” Keith said. The screen froze on an image of five heads crowding into the airlock. It took another several seconds before Keith finally heard Shiro inhale sharply. His scar was stark against a white, white face.
Lance slapped his hand over his mouth. “Five,” he said, voice muffled. “There’s five. Fuck.”
“None of you caught that?” Keith demanded, his voice swiftly climbing in volume and pitch. “You were all there, it was right next to you! And it’s right here, in pixels. Am I the one going insane or is it all of you?”
“I don’t—“ Shiro snapped his head toward the screen again. “I didn’t think it was—“ He trailed off again. He sounded the most lost he’d been in a long, long time. In any other situation, Keith would have been shaken by that. Right now, suffocating fear obliterated anything else.
“I—“ Hunk faltered. He swallowed. “I think. Maybe. When we were coming in. I registered that there were five people in the airlock but I didn’t—It’s almost always five of us doing maintenance.” Hunk’s voice skimmed close to disappearing. “I didn’t catch that five people was unusual.”
Lance abruptly jerked out of his preternatural stillness. He dropped his hand from his face and spun toward Keith. His expression was one of naked dismay. “I knew you weren’t out there with us!” Lance garbled. “Of course I knew that; I found you in Blue’s hangar literally a minute later. I knew but—in the moment—“ He fell silent for several seconds as if struggling for the right words. “You watched us come in,” he burst out. “Did you see anything?”
Keith’s jaw worked. “Of course I didn't—“ He stopped. “Oh,” he whispered.
“Oh, what?” Lance demanded.
“I…” Keith licked his lips. “I think I saw five people on the hull when you guys were doing repairs. But I didn’t think twice about it.” He ground his eyes shut. “Shit.”
“Yeah, there might be a good reason for that,” Pidge said in an admonishing tone. Her eyes were still glued to the holoscreen. “Take a closer look at this.”
Everyone dragged their gazes back to the screen. Keith’s body trembled in fine seismic waves as he focused on the fifth figure on the screen.
And he couldn’t.
He tried again.
“Is anyone else—?” Allura trailed off.
“Yes,” Shiro said. His voice was toneless. “It’s like those optical illusions from Earth. The ones that are either two faces or a candlestick.”
He was right. It was as if the fifth figure blurred between existing and not existing. One moment Keith saw empty space behind the Shiro in the video, the next moment, he saw a definite figure. He struggled to keep the figure in place for long enough to catch details. He didn’t see anything like a doppelganger of himself, which was something of a relief. No paladin armor, no dark gray eyes, no long hair. No features at all, actually. The face, as far as Keith could tell, was a faintly textured mass. After another few seconds, Keith realized that the figure was only vaguely humanoid in shape—and that left a lot of wriggle room for what could be considered humanoid.
“What in the fresh hell,” Lance finally said.
Pidge turned to Slav. “Please tell me you know what this is.”
Slav winced slightly at her voice, but he seemed mostly absorbed by the image on the screen. He didn’t speak for several seconds as he gently tapped four hands’ worth of fingertips together. He finally turned to Pidge.
“I have never seen this before,” he said in a prim voice.
“And your best guess?” Pidge pressed.
Another wince. “I will…need to think carefully before I can presume to offer a single explanation.”
“What about your top three?” Coran asked.
Slav hesitated. He held up one finger. “Another reality bleeding into this one.” Another finger. “A place where timespace is bending in on itself and bringing us a ripple of someone from the past or present.” A third finger. “A creature that…somehow…er. Does not act according to our classic understanding of physics.” He chanced a glance toward Hunk at that. This time, Hunk didn’t look incensed so much as he looked defeated. No one spoke for several heartbeats.
“Can—“ Allura faltered. “Can we look at the other footage?”
They did. They watched the last two video files, and they rewatched the first few files. None of them, despite everyone’s efforts to pay close attention, yielded the same blurred figure.
“Okay,” Shiro finally said. He stood with one hand caged over the lower half of his face, the other hand braced on his hip. “So we know when it came in. And how. This is. This is progress.”
It didn’t feel like progress, but Keith didn’t voice as much.
“And apparently you can’t—notice?—you can’t notice it unless you’re paying attention,” Lance said bleakly. “What if it’s been walking past us and we haven’t seen it?”
“What if it’s in here right now?” Coran asked. They all automatically peered around the bridge as if expecting to see a flickering, blurred, humanoid figure with a blank face watching them from the corner. Nothing revealed itself. But of course, that might not mean anything.
“Oh god,” Hunk whispered, covering his eyes with a hand. “This is like when the castle malfunctioned but worse.”
“No, listen, if it were in here and meant us harm, it would have attacked already,” Pidge said pragmatically. She leaned forward in her chair. “It doesn’t seem like it can just walk through walls. It had to wait until an airlock was open. It’s good at making loud noises and denting up metal and scaring the bejeezus out of Keith—sorry Keith— but it hasn’t hurt anyone. Not yet. And okay, it’s good at disguising itself. So? Plenty of animals use camouflage. This is basically like…like a big leaf bug.”
“Pidge,” Lance said. “Pidge. We love you. But that—“ he jabbed at the image of the faceless humanoid blur that flickered in and out of existing—“is not a leaf bug. That is…is something eldritch.”
Pidge’s face screwed up and flushed bright pink. “Well sorry for relying on logic so I don't freak the hell out like the rest of you are doing,” she barked. “My bad, guess I’ll just run around bawling; I’m sure that’s going to fix everything right up!”
“I’m not bawling, I’m stating the truth!”
Pidge’s mouth clapped shut, and once again, everyone turned to stare at Keith. “Fighting won’t do anything,” Keith said in a voice that was lightyears steadier and clearer than the muddied, panicked pit of his brain. “What we need to do is start combing through the castle’s other sensors to see what, exactly, it’s been doing since it boarded. And what it’s doing now. And where it is. So we can find it. And take care of it.”
Keith’s stint as the leader of Voltron had been brief, but some of that commanding presence must have lingered because everyone nodded in immediate agreement, even Slav. Keith buried his knuckles into his thigh and hoped no one could see him shaking.
“I hope you know,” Slav said nearly four vargas later, “that your quark sensor is still using Gulliga’s Law as its base algorithm. You do realize that’s a massive hole in your security system? Large enough for a Galra fleet with just the right cloaking mechanism to slip right through?”
“Yes, well, it would have to be an extremely specific cloaking mechanism,” Coran replied stiffly from the other end of the console.
“And you’ll just hope they don’t use it one cycle?” Slav said, waggling a finger. “When an army decimates this floating museum just because you couldn’t see them coming, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Floating museum!” Coran bristled.
“That’s quite enough,” Allura said. Slav returned to his console without a word while Coran huffed and tugged several times at his moustache.
“Quiznak,” Coran blurted a half second later. “This is useless.”
“I’m sorry, Princess, but at some point, when you’ve run every single sensor in the ship through ten different processing systems, and you still find nothing, that’s when you need to stop feeding the judi and rethink your approach.”
Allura’s expression tightened, and she glanced back at Pidge, who had abandoned the console for a datapad so she could curl up at the foot of Keith’s chair while she worked. Shiro sat beside her, asking questions and trying to help her direct her thinking. Keith leaned over both their shoulders, though he mostly just watched. Listening to Shiro and Pidge’s low murmurs quieted some of the muddy panic running through him. Lance and Hunk had retreated to the far end of the bridge with mats and a couple of blankets to try and recapture some of the sleep they had lost. Based on the low whispers Keith kept hearing from that corner of the bridge, they weren’t managing all that well.
“What?” Pidge lifted her head and peered over her glasses, which were close to falling off the tip of her nose.
“Any progress?” Allura asked.
“No,” Shiro answered, straightening and scrubbing his face with both hands. “This thing doesn’t seem to exist.”
“Except it does,” Pidge said blearily. “But except for the airlock footage and Keith’s vent—” She trailed off into a massive yawn that cracked her jaw. “Yeah, nothing.”
“Unless,” Slav spoke up. “This creature is using a cloaking mechanism that takes advantage of the loophole in the Gulliga’s Law algorithm.”
“It’s not using quiznacking cloaking!” Coran barked.
“Gentlemen,” Allura snapped.
Coran jabbed at Slav. “He started it!”
“Your ancient castle started it!”
Allura stiffened, and her complexion darkened slightly. “Slav,” she said. “Have or have you not already reprogramed the sensors to account for the loophole?”
Slav blinked several times. He cleared his throat. “Yes.”
“And have they turned up anything new?”
A long silence. “No,” Slav admitted.
“Then I’ll thank you not to antagonize my advisor over it.”
Allura turned away with a sharp exhale. “Slav, you’ll continue working with the sensors, but Coran is right. This isn’t getting us anywhere. The rest of us need a new approach.”
When no one spoke for several seconds, Lance’s voice—not sounding even a little bit sleepy—piped up from the back of the room. “Are you suggesting we do reconnaissance?”
Allura shared a look with Shiro. Shiro sighed and lifted a shoulder. “We need intel,” he said. “And if the sensors can’t manage, we need to do it the old-fashioned way.”
“Agreed,” Pidge said, flopping up a hand.
“Agreed,” Coran echoed.
“Yeah, he’s right. Reluctantly agreed,” Hunk’s voice called out.
Keith realized that everyone was watching him. He blinked. “Looks like that’s a majority agreement,” he said.
“Yes,” Allura said. “And I still want to hear what you think.”
Shiro twisted around and frowned gently at Keith. “Because you’ve had the most experience with this thing,” he said.
“Correct,” Allura said. “So I’m asking: do you think reconnaissance would be too risky?”
Keith screwed up his face. “I…it’s probably risky,” he said. “But the alternative is we stay in here and cower. Not much of a choice, is it?”
Allura nodded sharply, as if Keith had voiced her own thoughts. “And do you think your injury would permit you to join us?” she asked.
Keith didn’t think before the lie slipped from his mouth. “Yes,” he said. “I can do it.”
Perception of an object costs
Precise the Object’s loss —
Perception in itself a Gain
Replying to its Price —
The Object Absolute — is nought —
Perception sets it fair
And then upbraids a Perfectness
That situates so far —
- Emily Dickinson
Keith could feel the presence crouched a few arms’ length away. He imagined something faintly bestial in the way it watched him, the same animal-like, indifferent attention he remembered from the ragged coyote. Not that Keith could see it. Not that he could see anything. The last thing he’d seen before his sweat-crusted lashes had rasped shut was a sage plant’s lacy shadow stretching over a miniature dune of soft red-orange soil. Keith supposed he was all right with that being the last thing he saw before he died. In order to preserve it, he did his best not to let his eyes open again. It wasn’t hard. Easiest thing in the world, really.
While Keith waited to die, the breeze slipping over his dry cheek like a hot, steady exhale from a massive jaw. The soft sandpaper grit of the soil beneath his palms was wide and warm as a flank. The sunlight brushing against his closed lids felt gentle as fine, downy fur. So it seemed almost natural when, abruptly, Keith knew something was leaning over him and examining him with wide, yellow eyes. From this vantage point, Keith realized the animal-like attention was not entirely indifferent.
What are you doing? the presence asked, and Keith had to resist the urge to groan. It was talking to him now. Typical.
“Dying,” Keith told it, hoping its curiosity would be sated and it would leave him alone. He didn’t want his last moments on Earth spent conversing with a vivid hallucination.
Keith didn’t answer. The pressure in his ears built.
Why? it asked again.
“I ran out of food and water,” Keith replied. “And my home is still eleven miles away.”
Water, the presence echoed. It fell silent. For several heartbeats, Keith wondered if it was gone. He was about to open his mouth and ask when it spoke again. That wasn’t very smart of you. Keith was caught so perfectly between irritated and relieved that he failed to come up with a retort. I’ve been watching you, spark, the presence continued. You’re no forest, but you’re not stupid.
“That makes no sense.”
The presence ignored him. You cannot die here.
“Fucking watch me.”
No, I prefer not to. I suppose I could keep waiting after you’re gone. But I’m not rock. I’m not that patient. And you’re the most promising creature I’ve met in eons.
“Is this normal?” Keith snapped. “For dying people to invent hallucinations so they can have one last nonsensical conversation?”
You’re not dying.
“Who made you the boss?” There followed a delicate silence that Keith, somehow, recognized as irritated confusion. The presence then seemed to shake itself like a vaguely annoyed cat.
Water, it said. I know water very well.
I’m sorry if this is uncomfortable. You’ve done so well, spark. It won’t be much longer.
It’s voice—not really a voice, but Keith had no other word for it—seemed louder this time. Somewhere in Keith’s skull, the constant, buzzing hum in his prefrontal cortex shifted its frequency by a fraction. If the hum had been eroding a riverbed into Keith’s mind up until now, this was a sudden surge that overflowed the banks. It was like someone had flicked open a switchblade into his brain tissue. Keith’s mouth tore open, but no sound managed to wrestle out. Which made sense because he suddenly knew he was on the pebbly bottom of a deep, cold river. Keith writhed and scrabbled for purchase, but the current tugged him along with the brisk surety of an animal carrying its offspring by the scruff of the neck.
Keith had no idea how long the water conveyed him, but at some point, he felt himself scuff up against soft soil that billowed into the water and settled into his hair and clothes. The switchblade in his brain snicked back shut, and the buzzing tone retreated to its usual winding path. A moment later, Keith was blasted by the hard scrape of desert wind, and finally, he wrenched open his eyes. He sat up with a convulsive lurch.
He sat in a puddle of dark, damp soil. Moving jerkily, Keith thrust an unbelieving hand into the soil beside his hip. The cool, gritty texture made him shudder. Slowly, he lifted his head and saw a long trail of dark soil disappear into the horizon. When he turned, he started when he found his hoverbike, on its side and spackled with mud. And when he craned his neck even further, he saw his little shack staring back.
Keith faced forward again. He inhaled and exhaled carefully, buried his fingers into the dirt until he could pull up a handful of rich, dripping mud. He brought it to his face and inhaled. It even smelled real. Letting his hand fall, Keith probed the buzzing in his skull. It was as featureless and still as a frozen lake. Keith tried to find the sideways sentience. If it was present, it wasn’t making itself known.
So Keith did the only thing that seemed to make sense and, on legs shaky with dehydration and near-starvation and definite heat stroke, struggled to his feet. He turned toward his shack. He only hesitated a little before he went inside.
Keith stripped himself of his dust-caked clothes, stood in the kitchen naked and guzzled half a gallon of water, and refrained from consuming half his food supplies. He managed to limit himself to two cans of soup. Then he half fell onto the couch, buried his face into the back, and tilted into sleep like a rock plummeting off the face of a cliff.
When he woke up a day later, he ate and drink a bit more and peered outside. The soil was dry as ever. No hint of dampness. Keith retreated into the shack and tried to keep himself calm.
A half hour later, Keith found himself keeping pace with Lance while Allura moved ahead of them. Every step send a dull thud of pain up Keith’s legs and spine, but the others didn’t need to know about that. Instead, he kept glancing behind him to be sure nothing stalked them.
“Entering fifth annex hall,” Allura said into the coms. The three of them slowed as they approached where the hall made a hard right. Allura paused and held up a hand. Keith and Lance stopped obligingly. Allura did something with her holoscreen, tilted her head, then peered around the corner. By the way her shoulders relaxed, Keith knew this hall was seemingly empty, too.
“Fifth annex hall clear,” Allura said into the coms.
“Okay,” Lance said as he hefted his rifle. “Sorry if this sounds less than optimistic, but is this not a massive waste of our time?”
“I suppose you think it is,” Allura said without looking behind her.
“I do, actually,” Lance said. “This thing travels via vent and can basically make itself invisible. Sweeping the rooms and halls is like the most unproductive game of hide and seek ever.”
“We’re not really expecting to find it,” Pidge’s voice piped up over the coms. “We’re basically acting as a mobile sensory array. Our suits are gathering as much data in as much detail as they can and sending everything back to Coran and Slav. Hopefully, we’re picking up things the usual sensors are missing.”
“And we’re only doing the halls and rooms as a preliminary measure, in case we can catch it out in the open,” Allura added. “You’re correct in that the vents are the next stop.” Allura paused at the first doorway in the hallway. “Entering guest bedroom 044.”
Lance glanced back at Keith. “You do know it’s going to have to be you and Pidge crawling through the vents? None of the rest of us will fit well.”
“You’re, like, an inch taller than me,” Keith protested. “You could do it.”
Lance shrugged. “I’m ranged weapon, dude. We need the melee folks in tight quarters. Besides, cheer up, it might be fun. Like those indoor playground tubes. But deadlier.”
Pidge’s voice crackled over the coms again. “I still say we get everyone in the bridge, seal us in, and gas the rest of the ship.”
“Pidge, we have no idea which gases are toxic to this thing,” Hunk’s voice sighed. “You think about that?”
“Well we can try out a few different ones.”
“And what if one of those gases is, like, pure Adderall to it? You think about that?” Hunk pressed.
“Engine room three clear,” Shiro’s voice said in a tone that, somehow, also managed to be a reminder to Hunk and Pidge to concentrate.
Allura opened the bedroom door in front of them. The first dozen times they'd done this, Lance had thrown himself into the room, rifle raised, like he was Black Ops. Now, the novelty seemed to have worn off because the three of them went through the basic precautionary entrance before satisfying themselves that the bedroom seemed empty. They still took cursory glances under the beds and in the closets to be sure.
“You know, Lance does have a point,” Hunk’s voice said. “Maybe it’s actively avoiding us. In which case, it doesn’t matter how many halls or vents we check or how good the sensors on our suits are. It’s a big castle. We’re not going to find it if it doesn’t want to be found.”
“I hate to say it,” Shiro said. “But that’s true.”
“Well,” Keith said as he followed Allura and Lance back into the hallway. “Then we’d need to give it a reason to be found.”
“Meaning?” Allura asked, glancing back with a furrowed brow.
Keith met her gaze. “We’d need to lure it out.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Keith saw Lance give him a strange look. Allura pursed her lips and turned forward again.
“If it comes to that,” she said, “you might be right.”
“How would we lure it anywhere?” Hunk wondered out loud. “We’d need bait, right? Maybe it likes food g—“
“Group One,” Coran’s voice cut in. “We’re picking up strange readings from all three of your suits.”
Allura stiffened, and her staff flared as it extended to its full length. “Keith, Lance,” she barked. “Stay close. Try to get a visual on it.”
“We’re coming to you,” Shiro said over the coms. “ETA three dobashes.”
“Affirmed,” Allura said. “Coran. What are the readings indicating?”
“Do you not have a visual?” Coran asked.
Allura, Lance, and Keith looked around the empty hall. “Negative,” Allura said. “Should we be?”
“I…I’m not—Slav, what does the newest batch of data look like?”
“Same as before,” Slav replied, his voice high. “Princess, we’re picking up an extremely faint quintessence signal and equally faint heat signatures and capacitance readings. I’d be tempted to call it an aberration but… well.”
“Yes, I take your meaning,” Allura said. Keith could see her eyes almost blur as they scanned the hall. “Still no visual. Keith? Lance?”
“Nada,” Lance croaked. His rifle was up, but Keith could tell he badly needed something to point it at. Keith understood; his muscles were practically jumping with adrenaline that had nowhere to go. This was standard from countless missions. What was not standard was the metallic taste of fear crowded into his mouth. This wasn’t like fighting Galra drones, or even like fighting a druid. This was an enemy that blatantly refused to follow any of the usual rules.
“Remember how it slid in and out of focus on the video,” Pidge’s voice said. Her voice was low, like she was trying to be comforting. “Maybe sort of unfocus your eyes. Try and see it in the peripheral of your vision.”
“Yes, good reasoning, Pidge,” Coran agreed.
Keith inhaled and tried to follow Pidge’s suggestion. The hall blurred slightly as he loosened his gaze. He imagined the hall was one of those dizzying mosaic images, and if he tilted his head just the right way, a 3D image would coalesce into existence.
“Nothing.” Keith glanced back at the other three. “This isn’t working.”
“Two dobashes,” Shiro’s voice panted.
“Are you sure you’re picking something up, Coran?” Lance asked.
“Certain,” Slav snapped.
Something small and hard pinged in Keith’s brain. Not right, it murmured. Keith blinked at the others. Allura moved in small shuffles. Lance kept shifting his grip on his rifle. And the third—
Keith made a wordless, gasping sound and stumbled backwards.
“Get away, get away!” Keith babbled. “Lance, Allura, get away from it!”
“What the hell?” Lance cried.
“Get away from what?” Allura demanded.
Keith wanted to scream his frustration as he tried to grapple with the three figures standing in front of him. He couldn’t tell who the imposter was. He couldn’t tell.
“What’s going on?” Hunk’s voice demanded.
“Do you see it?” Pidge asked.
“I…it’s here, and I can’t—“ Keith exhaled a sob.
“Keith, you need to calm down,” Shiro said in a low, firm voice. Keith blinked through the tears obscuring his vision. And in that shifting and blurring of his vision, Keith saw one of the figures fade out of existence before snapping back.
Keith didn’t think. He lunged forward.
Distantly, he heard Lance and Allura’s shouts of confusion as they scrambled out of the way. And he heard Coran, Shiro, Pidge, and Hunk demanding to know what had happened. But his focus was on the figure fading in and out of focus.
Keith hadn’t lunged forward with enough strength; he knew this milliseconds after he moved. His legs were stiff and painful beneath him, and for all that he’d tried to push the pain away for the last few hours, it still fell on him in a hard wave that addled everything. He saw the useless arc of his bayard’s blade. How it fell short of the figure he’d been aiming for. And for a breathless moment, he saw it shift and change shape. It was bizarre; it was as if he now saw two things at once, somehow occupying the same space without necessarily overlapping. First, he saw a face. A human face. A familiar human face. The same face Keith remembered, with stomach-jerking, visceral detail, from a house in Minnesota. Hovering behind, within, around that face was something hulking and looming with teeth. Rows and rows of yellowed, curved teeth.
The next second, it ducked away and was gone.
Keith grunted when he hit the floor at an awkward angle. His legs and back throbbed, and his shoulder flashed white with fresh pain. People were shouting his name; a thin, strong hand grasped his upper arm.
Keith couldn’t gag out the scream that crowded against the back of his teeth and lips. It filled his throat and mouth in a cold rush and it was going to choke him with broad hands smelling of cigarette smoke and breath stinking of booze and he was going to kill him and he couldn’t scream. He didn’t know what was happening. Someone—Lance?—was shouting profanities. Someone else was urging him to stand up, but Keith couldn’t, he didn’t know how to explain that he couldn’t. He could only lay uselessly on the cold floor and suffocate on the scream lodged like a chunk of ice in the back of his throat and pressing against the soft palate of his mouth and wait for the hand to grab his shirt collar and drag him into the open.
Keith made a sound in his chest. A long, desperate groan.
Arms hooked under his legs and shoulders to haul him into the air. He felt his face press against someone’s shoulder. Allura’s voice rumbled against him.
“Still no visual,” she declared. “But we have audial confirmation.”
BOM BOM BOM
“I can’t fricking tell if it’s getting closer or farther!” Lance ground out. “Or where it’s even coming from. Should I just start shooting?”
BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM
“Don’t engage!” Shiro’s voice shouted. “We have no idea what it can do. Do. Not. Engage!”
“Agreed. Princess, get yourselves out of there!” Coran said. “Everyone, back to the bridge now!”
Allura was silent for several heartbeats. “Confirmed,” she grunted. “Lance, come on.” The ceiling began to blur above him. Keith ground his eyes shut again and listened to the banging echo down the hallway.
“Puta madre,” Lance blurted, followed by, “Uh, Allura? You seeing this?”
“Seeing wha—oh, quiznak.”
“What?” Shiro demanded. “What are you seeing?”
“Galra,” Allura bit out. “It was the Galra the whole—“
“Wait, what?” Lance cut in. “That’s not a Galra.”
“I’m looking at it right now!”
“And so am I,” Lance shot back. “That’s a—for fuck’s sake, I think that’s a xenomorph.”
“Okay, whatever you guys are seeing, I don’t think you should trust it,” Pidge snapped. “Get out!”
A long silence. Then jostling as Allura began to run.
The others were talking. Keith knew that; he could hear their voices in the form of a low, constant hum. But they were gathered around the central console on the other end of the bridge, and he was here, among the mats and blankets, trying and failing to ignore the numb, thudding pain seizing his legs and lower back. Everything about him felt raw: nerves-exposed, scraped-clean raw.
Keith flinched but didn’t raise his head. He recognized that tone. He’d heard the same tone years ago, in the Garrison, when he had been suspended for talking back to an instructor.
Shiro settled down in front of him. Keith knew if he lifted his head, he’d see Shiro giving him that careful, compassionate look. He kept his head down.
“Your legs hurt.” It wasn’t even a question. Keith lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “Can I stretch them out for you?” Shiro pressed. Keith hesitated before nodding once. Strong hands settled around Keith’s left ankle and gently rotated it before pushing it back to stretch the calf muscles. Keith inhaled but otherwise didn’t move. Neither spoke as Shiro worked, carefully easing the worst of the stiffness from first one leg then the other. Keith let the motions relax him in increments, so when Shiro had finished with the final hamstring stretch, it felt as if Keith’s brain and mouth could handle words again.
“Thanks,” Keith rasped. Shiro nodded; his hands remained lightly splayed on Keith’s leg.
“You ready to talk?” he asked. “Or do you need more time?”
Keith hesitated as he picked at a loose thread in a nearby blanket. “I need to apologize to Allura and Lance.”
“Going catatonic on them? Having to literally be carried out?” Keith made a face at Shiro. “Don’t play dumb; it doesn’t suit you.”
“You also saw the thing when no one else did.”
“And then whiffed.”
“Because you have a spinal injury,” Shiro scoffed. “Come on.” He levered to a stand. “The science heads are bandying theories about what this thing is; you should listen in.”
“I’m not going to understand them.”
“Don’t play dumb; it doesn’t suit you.”
Keith eyed Shiro blandly then slapped his hand into Shiro’s. “Asshole,” he stated. Shiro hauled him up with a grin.
The hum of voices dropped off as Keith and Shiro approached, and the only thing stopping Keith from doing a 180 was the knowledge that if he did, there was a good chance Shiro would bodily drag him back.
Allura was the one to break the silence. “How are you feeling, Keith?”
Keith shrugged. “Fine,” he said. “Thank you for getting me out of there.”
Allura’s eyebrows rose delicately. “And I suppose I was supposed to abandon my only Red Paladin.”
Lance leaned forward and said in a loud whisper, “She’s messing with you, Keith.”
“I am not messing with anyone,” Allura loud whispered back, but the smile she flashed at Keith was conspiratorial and warm. Keith grinned back.
“All right.” Pidge clapped her hands. “Back to the eldritch abomination in our ship. Keith, want a rundown of what we’ve been discussing?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Nope.” Pidge adjusted her glasses. “The good news is that your, Lance, and Allura’s suits were able to pick up some data from the creature.” Pidge jerked her thumb to the console where Slav was working. “Slav ran the data through a bunch of programs. It’s no wonder our ship’s sensors couldn’t catch it; as far as we can tell, this creature only barely physically exists.”
Slav’s head snapped up at his name. “Barely,” he echoed. “If I had to describe it, it’s essentially a loose cloud of particles that somehow is holding itself together as a cohesive unit. Very strange. Very strange; I doubt any of you can properly appreciate how unlikely this is.”
“We’re doing our best,” Hunk said gamely.
Slav made an unconvinced sound.
“So, is it alive?” Keith asked.
“Excellent question,” Coran said. “Depends on your definition of ‘alive.’”
“I think it is alive,” Pidge cut in. “It’s just completely different from anything we’re used to.”
Keith frowned. “How so?”
“Back up,” Lance said, waving a hand. “First things first. Keith, you should know that Allura and I definitely saw it. After you’d sort of…spaced out. When we were running down the hall, I looked back. It was there.”
“He called to me, and I looked as well,” Allura added. She leaned forward. “Keith. I need you to describe for us what exactly you saw.”
Keith swallowed. “Teeth,” he said. “A lot of them. Huge. It—whatever this thing is, it’s a predator. I can say that much.” He didn’t mention the face from the house in Minnesota. That felt too personal.
Allura nodded. “Interesting,” she said. “It makes sense, I suppose.”
“How?” Keith asked. “You saw something different, right? I gathered that much.”
“Yes.” Allura glanced at Lance. “I saw a Galra. No one I knew. But there was no mistaking it.”
“And I saw uh.” Lance cleared his throat. “Basically, I saw a xenomorph.”
Keith stared. “You’re talking about the aliens from that old movie.”
“I am.” Lance broke a weak smile. “It was, I will admit, massively trippy.”
"So...does everyone see what scares them?" Hunk ventured. "Is this a boggart situation?"
"I mean, on the list of things that scare me, movie aliens aren't all that high," Lance said, frowning. "If this thing really wanted to freak me out, it should have taken the shape of my third-grade gym teacher or something."
“I don't think you see what you fear,” Pidge said. “I think you see what you expect. Allura, you admitted you’d started to wonder if this was the work of the Galra infiltrating the ship, so that’s the shape it gave you. And Lance, you were comparing this whole experience to that movie. Makes sense right? Something hunting people in space? And so that’s how the creature appeared to you. And Keith.” Pidge peered at him, almost smiling. “You’d been hearing this terrifying banging, so you were thinking of something huge and toothy, right?”
Keith stared at her, his jaw working. He’d also been thinking of black boots pounding up a wooden staircase, of a large fist slamming against a locked door. He didn’t say as much.
“Sure,” he said.
“So you see?” Pidge enthused. “I bet it’s like optical illusions. Those work because your brain fills in what it thinks should be there. We’re all scared of this thing, so we expect to see something dangerous, so that’s what we see. In the airlock, it took on the shape of a person because we subconsciously expected a person. It’s a positive feedback loop, a self-fulfilling prophecy!” Her eyes were bright.
“See, I can buy this,” Hunk said. “But I’m still confused about what its actual shape is.”
Pidge threw up her hands. “It’s a cloud of particles, Hunk. Behind all the teeth and claws, it’s probably just a blob or something.”
“Wait, that makes no sense,” Keith said. “A blob or something doesn’t create inch-deep gouges in a metal hull.”
“I—“ Pidge frowned. “Ah.”
Several tics of silence passed. Slav cleared his throat. “The Green Paladin was insinuating that the creature simply changes its appearance, like a disguise. Perhaps the effect is more complete than that. Perhaps it actually becomes what the viewer expects. Not a simple façade. But a physical transformation.”
“But Allura and I were looking at it at the same time, and we saw different things,” Lance protested.
Slav waved two hands. “And a light particle can act as a particle as well as a wave. Perhaps the creature can be many things at once.” Keith thought of the strange overlap of the man’s face and the ragged-toothed creature.
“I think that sounds right,” he said slowly. He met the others’ eyes. “Let’s think about this. I heard banging. I imagined it to be something massive and dangerous, something powerful enough that it could tear through Altean metal to hurt me.” He looked to Slav. “You’re saying the force of my fear, of my belief that I was in danger, actually gave this particle cloud thing the ability to damage Red and the ship?”
“Put simply, yes,” Slav said grimly.
There was a long silence. “We could literally imagine this thing into something unstoppable,” Shiro said in a low voice. He frowned. “Is this a tool?”
“Not a tool I’m interested in wielding,” Allura said in a stern voice. “It sounds ludicrously high risk. My objective is to neutralize it.”
Lance raised a hand. “I’m all for corralling it toward an airlock and flushing it out.”
“And then what?” Shiro asked. “It’ll just sneak back in when our guard is down.”
“So you want to kill it?” Lance asked.
“Can we kill it?” Hunk said. “We literally have no idea what hurts it. Apparently, the cold vacuum of space and the inside of a wormhole isn’t enough.”
“Maybe if we eject it right next to something with a large gravitational pull, it will be sucked away and we can escape,” Coran mused.
“Shouldn’t we at least try to talk to it?” Pidge asked. “It might be intelligent.”
“It might,” Allura allowed. “But the fact remains that it has damaged the Red Lion and the ship. Damaged them badly. It’s not safe, and the well-being of this crew comes first.”
The discussion continued from there, but Keith wasn’t entirely paying attention. He was too busy absently watching Slav’s flickering holoscreens and thinking.
In the end, they realized that the ship’s cycle had reached the Earth equivalent of almost eleven at night. Allura quickly decided that everyone needed to get some food and then bed down for the night, saying that they would be able to think about things much more clearly with some rest. There wasn’t much arguing with that logic.
So the seven of them—excluding Slav, who said something about meals only slowing him down—took a simple dinner of the dried rations brought in from the kitchens. They decided to keep a two-person rotating watch. Allura and Pidge took the first shift while the others bedded down in the collection of mats and pillows and blankets arranged in the far corner of the bridge.
Keith found himself sandwiched between Hunk and Shiro, and he wondered if there had been some unspoken strategy in placing him between the team’s two largest people. He chose not to ask.
Instead, he tried to focus on relaxing enough to find sleep. It should have been easy with the reassuring presence of the team around him, with Allura and Pidge sitting side by side by the main console speaking in voices too low to be properly heard, with the susurrus of mutters from Slav, with the familiar hum of the ship and the faint glow of the running lights. But Keith’s legs pounded numbly and his eyes remained painfully open. He didn’t think he could have closed them if he tried.
As Keith lay there, he picked out the patterns of breathing surrounding him. And he realized that the faint, buzzing snores normally heard from Hunk were absent. Keith shifted his head to look at Hunk. As if sensing the attention, Hunk shifted his head too, enough for Keith to see that his eyes were open.
“Hey,” Keith breathed.
Hunk’s lips twitched into a grin. “Hey,” he murmured back. “You too, huh?”
Keith huffed. “Somehow,” he whispered. “These aren’t the best circumstances for sleeping.”
“Well.” Hunk was lying on his back, and he looked down to where Lance’s head rested contentedly on his chest. A bit of drool was dribbling onto Hunk’s shirt. “That’s not stopping this one, I guess,” he said.
Keith snorted then turned carefully. Behind him, Shiro was curled toward him with his arms crossed and his brow furrowed. Not exactly relaxed, but the pattern of his breathing convinced Keith that he was truly asleep. Beyond him, Coran seemed to have drifted off as well.
“Yeah, just us, besides the watch,” Keith said as he turned toward Hunk again.
Hunk heaved a sigh, making Lance’s head bob gently. “So?” he said. “What’re you thinking about?”
“How weird our lives are.”
“Crosses my mind every day, dude.”
Suddenly, Keith found himself deeply glad that he didn’t have to face this alone. That it wasn’t even an option. The feeling burst through Keith’s chest, and he leaned forward with a heavy sigh and buried his forehead against Hunk’s arm.
“You know what I realized?” Hunk asked.
“What?” Keith muttered.
“This particle cloud thing.” Hunk shifted to look at Keith. “You were scared enough that you gave it the ability to scratch up Red and the ship.” He grinned slightly. “But you weren’t scared enough that it could actually get in.”
Keith stared. “I…I hadn’t thought of that.” He frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’re braver than you believe,” Hunk said cheerfully. “And stronger than you seem.”
Keith wrinkled his nose. “You just quoted Pooh Bear at me.”
“Geeze. You know that reference, but you didn’t know what a xenomorph is?”
“Look, it’s not like I had any control over what media I was exposed to as a kid.”
Hunk made a soft sound like a laugh, and a moment later Keith felt Hunk’s arm come around his shoulders. Keith shifted closer until he could rest his head on Hunk’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it,” Hunk said. “That movie is awful. You’re not missing much.”
“Good to know,” Keith murmured. Hunk’s broad fingers came up to wander across Keith’s scalp, and Keith let his eyes, finally, drift shut.
Keith woke to the sound of low voices. He shifted against Hunk and lifted his head slightly. There, on Lance’s other side, lay Pidge. She was curled up under a blanket and had her head pillowed on Lance’s stomach. Lance was still passed out, and Hunk’s gentle snores seemed to indicate he was finally asleep. Keith turned and spotted Shiro sitting up with his arms wrapped around his shins. Allura knelt in front of him. At Keith’s movement, both looked in his direction.
“Keith?” Shiro said softly. Keith carefully extracted himself from under Hunk’s arm and crawled over to Allura and Shiro.
“Hey,” Keith whispered. “Are we switching the watch?”
“We were discussing who ought to accompany Shiro,” Allura said.
“Well, me, obviously,” Keith said. “No point waking up anyone else.”
“You sure?” Shiro asked.
The two of them left Allura to bed down beside Coran and moved to the central console. Slav, Keith realized, was curled up on several pillows underneath his console; his many limbs twitched in a way that made Keith wonder what he was dreaming about.
“Finally.” Keith turned to find Shiro sitting in one of the main console’s chair. He was also watching Slav. “I was starting to worry that he’d keep going until he passed out for a full cycle.”
“Aw.” Keith grinned. “You do care.”
Shiro rolled his eyes, unimpressed. “Being annoyed by someone and caring about their wellbeing aren’t mutually exclusive. You of all people should know that.”
Keith huffed a laugh and took the chair beside Shiro’s. “You got some sleep too,” he said. “That’s good.”
Shiro made a vague sound in reply that made Keith think he didn’t want to talk about it. So Keith settled for silence, letting the hum of the ship and the faint noises from the others fill in the space between them.
“Keith?” Shiro said. His voice pinged against the walls.
“Today, when you encountered this thing in the hall. How did you know something was wrong?”
“Uh.” Keith scrubbed his face briefly. “It was subtle. I remember noticing that there were three other people with me. And my very first reaction was: this is right. And on the heels of that was the idea that no, it wasn’t right. But the second reaction was a lot more subdued. It took a few more ticks for that second idea to become loud enough to properly hear.”
Shiro nodded slowly. “When we came in through the airlock,” he said. “When it followed us in. I think I knew the creature was behind me.” Keith eyed Shiro but said nothing. Shiro inhaled abruptly and pulled at his mouth. “It happens sometimes,” he said. “That I get hallucinations. And I’ve gotten a lot better at distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not real. There’s a…weird way that hallucinations interact with their surroundings. You can pick up the signs if you know where to look. And I remember I was standing in that airlock, and I knew someone was behind me. I turned.” Shiro gazed at Keith. “I saw it. Not the way Hunk and Lance described it. They described a flickering awareness. I knew, for a fact, there was one more person in that airlock than there should have been.”
Keith licked his lips before he said, “You thought it wasn’t real.”
“It was vague at the edges,” Shiro said in a flat voice. “It was…different from my usual ones. But logic said that it shouldn’t have been there. So I ignored it. And when we all were in the ship, I turned around, and it was gone. I thought—“ Here Shiro cut himself off with a hard sound that might have been a laugh. “I congratulated myself for not reacting. For hiding it so well. I didn’t even register that it might have been real until we looked at the camera footage.”
“I’m going to have to tell Allura,” Shiro interrupted. His expression was bleak.
“Yeah, probably, but Shiro, it was a mistake.”
“I let that thing into the ship.”
“By mistake.” Keith slid from his chair and grabbed Shiro’s upper arms. “Shiro, it was a mistake. Let yourself have mistakes. You’re not that much better than the rest of us, trust me.”
The snort seemed to escape Shiro before he could help it. He leaned forward until his forehead bumped up against Keith’s shoulder. “I haven’t been sleeping great lately,” he muttered. “Things haven’t been, uh, entirely even-keeled.”
Keith hummed and rubbed briefly at the back of Shiro’s head, his fingers scraping against the short hairs of his undercut. “And you didn’t mention this to anyone.”
“I told Black.”
“Anyone who isn’t a very old robot lion and who might have a better concept of things like sleep.”
“I’m telling you now.”
They didn’t move for a long while, and Keith listened to the steady rush of Shiro’s breathing. When Shiro straightened, Keith didn’t move back to his chair but settled himself on the floor by Shiro’s feet.
“How are your legs?” Shiro asked apropos of nothing.
“Fine,” Keith said. It wasn’t a complete lie; they were better than usual. Keith toyed with the laces on his boots and blurted, “I didn’t just see a toothy monster in the hall today.”
Shiro was silent for several beats. “Okay,” he said. “What else?”
“Him.” Keith stared hard at his boots. “The guy. The one who used to beat me.”
Shiro inhaled, hard, and Keith didn’t have to turn around to know Shiro’s fist was clenching. He hadn’t reacted well when Keith had first shared the story back at the Garrison.
“Right,” Shiro said stiffly.
“Isn’t it stupid?” Keith asked. He laughed humorlessly. “I spent, what, three months in that house? And now, years later, billions of lightyears away, after I’ve survived battling freaking Zarkon. After everything. That’s what my brain comes up with when it has to give shape to something terrifying. A bullying asshole who’s probably going to die of liver failure is on par with a monster able to tear through a super advanced ship’s hull. It’s—“ He blinked when he realized something damp had just dripped off the end of his nose. He grunted and wiped his forearm across his eyes. “It’s stupid,” he said lamely.
Shiro’s hand landed on his shoulder. “It’s not,” he said gently. “Things like that stick with us. Especially when we’re young. This isn’t a shortcoming, Keith.”
Keith shook his head. He didn’t know what else to say that wasn’t helpless and angry, and Shiro didn’t seem to want to push him. He probably understood.
So they sat, and they didn’t speak.
They remained like that for almost two vargas. At one point, Keith heard Shiro give a jaw-cracking yawn above him.
“You can sleep,” Keith said without looking up. Even his whispered words seem to crack through the silence like a shot.
“That defeats the whole point of a watch,” Shiro protested.
“You don’t sleep enough. If you can sleep now, go for it.”
However, nearly a half hour later, Keith realized that Shiro’s breathing had changed. When he peered up, he saw that Shiro’s head was resting against his hand and his eyes were closed, his lips parted ever so slightly. Keith debated waking him up for a moment before deciding to let it be. He’d been serious; Shiro getting more than a few hours of rest in one night wasn’t something to be taken lightly.
Keith turned to the quiet bridge and realized, with a small start, that he was the only person awake. His stomach flipped, and he almost lifted a hand to shake Shiro’s leg. Only he didn’t, and he didn’t know why. He sat on the bridge’s cool, humming floor and listened. It was the sort of listening that used the entire body. The sort that made him almost vibrate. The bridge offered him nothing, though. Why would it? They were still on lockdown. The creature hadn’t managed to follow them in. Keith knew that.
He knew that.
Did he know that?
Keith shot to a stand, his heart fluttering.
He turned slowly and stared at Shiro’s slumped form.
Keith looked over to Slav curled up on his pillows.
He peered across the room at the small pile of sleeping bodies. He counted the mounds carefully.
Was that right?
Five Paladins. Two Alteans. One Slav. That was—
No, not right.
Keith lurched toward the pile of sleeping bodies because he knew who Shiro was and he knew Slav, but the pile was indiscriminate. He juddered to a halt over the person nearest to him. An orange moustache. Coran. That was Coran. Next to him, a mane of white hair and mice nestled in the crook of a dark neck. Allura. A brown face and broad chest. Hunk. Lanky frame and old jacket. Lance. And a small person with a chestnut tousle of curls. Pidge.
Keith dragged his eyes past Pidge. The ninth figure squatted there, hulking and low to the ground. It lifted the shape that might have been its head, and it looked at him with a familiar human face.
Keith made a gurgling inhale through parted lips and slammed his lids shut.
Like it had been a cue, the bridge’s alarms blared. Keith’s eyes snapped back open. He stared at the empty spot where the creature had been. Voices—first sleepy and confused, then distressed—rose behind him. He barely understood them until a hand jostled his shoulder, and Keith almost jumped out of his skin. He whirled to find Lance’s face inches from his.
“What, are you deaf?” he snapped. “Those are the proximity alarms. We’ve got a Galra fleet coming in fast; we need to get to the lions!”
Just wanted to pop in and thank everyone who's been reading and/or commenting. It's really wonderful of you guys!
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
His mind of man, a secret makes
I meet him with a start
He carries a circumference
In which I have no part —
Or even if I deem I do
He otherwise may know
Impregnable to inquest
However neighborly —
- Emily Dickinson
Keith didn’t venture from his shack for a full week. He didn’t think he could physically do it; the memory of nearly dying was like a barbed hook lodged in his gut, and if he moved in the wrong direction, it tugged at his innards. So he stayed. He slept too much. Ate and drank with anxious intensity. Sat on his roof to watch the sky shift above him. He didn’t go to the nearby town to pick up more supplies, and he didn’t wash his muddy clothes, and he didn’t do anything with the mud-spattered, still-broken hoverbike except cover it in a moldy old tarp. He felt suspended in time and space, as if he disturbed anything, it would come collapsing on top of his head.
For several days, he entertained the notion that this was all a vivid hallucination, a last-ditch firing of neurons of his dehydrated, sun-addled brain. Maybe his body was still collapsed eleven miles from the shack, under the lacy shadow of a sage plant, and each second in real time felt like a day here. Maybe Keith would fall asleep and never wake up. That idea kept him from proper sleep for two nights before he passed out on the couch and, miraculously, emerged from his sleep unscathed.
Then Keith wondered if he had managed to drag himself those last eleven miles on his own, and the business with the river and the yellow-eyed presence had been a heatstroke-induced hallucination.
These were perfectly valid explanations, completely reasonable, and entirely wrong. Keith knew this. It was just that a buzzing in his skull and a sideways presence were one thing, and a river springing out of the desert was quite another.
The presence, in any form, didn’t coalesce during that week. Sometimes, Keith would feel a prickling on the back of his neck as if someone were watching him, but when he turned, he’d find nothing. The sonorous tone didn’t change at all, and Keith had no idea if that was reassuring or infuriating. Sometimes, he’d stand in front of his shack, turn toward the long note like a pointer hound, and listen for something inside the tone he’d been missing. A word or a sensation or a pair of wide, yellow eyes. Nothing ever came of it, not even when Keith lost patience and called it rude names.
Keith was forced to break his stasis when he realized his water supplies were running low. Dehydration was still too fresh an experience to risk going through again. So Keith dragged the tarp from his hoverbike and, with tardy franticness, began trying to fix it. He’d somehow forgotten that without the hoverbike’s aid, he’d have little chance of traveling to the town and back with his supplies.
As he eased apart the hoverbike’s innards over the next few days, he wondered what would happen if he couldn’t get it work again. He’d die, for one. He also got the sense he’d lose a companion of sorts. The hoverbike was important. It had carried him across the desert from the Garrison, it bore him into town for food and water, it allowed him to explore the desert properly. And he had smashed it into a canyon wall. It had been an accident, but looking back, it seemed like a callous thing to inflict on something that been so loyal. Keith had never named the hoverbike. He knew people liked to do things like that; name their bikes and cars and computers. Keith had never seen the point. Now, he almost wished he had.
He did get the hoverbike working in the end. It juddered more than he recalled, but when he took it on a test run around the shack, it accelerated and decelerated on command, made turns when Keith asked it to. Keith ended up puttering through the sage around the shack with one hand on the hoverbike’s warm, humming flank and wondering if he’d have coaxed it back faster if he'd had a name to invoke. In the semi-fugue state he’d been living for the past several days, it seemed only a mildly ridiculous thought.
With the hoverbike functional again, Keith made short work of loading up his usual saddlebags and radio. He left the same time of day he always did: several hours before dawn, when the air was cool and the sky was still crushed blue velvet painted with stars and moonlight. Keith made it about a quarter of a mile before he slowed his hoverbike and twisted around in the seat. His shack was just barely visible as a silhouette. Keith stared, drinking in the sight of it, before achingly, in starts and stops, turning forward again. He shifted his hoverbike into gear. He glided forward several yards. He yanked the controls, skidded 180 degrees, and shot back toward the shack. His mouth was open in a soundless cry, and the cold air whipped against his teeth and tongue and the soft palate of his mouth. He tumbled off the hoverbike almost before it had time to stop and pounded up the creaking, dilapidated steps onto the porch, and slammed his forehead against the peeling, faded siding and breathed. Dust and wood fragments tickled his nose, but he didn’t move.
He’d heard even less of people naming houses, but he should have named this place. Names had power, and he should have used that power to make the shack inexorably his. If Keith had done that, they wouldn’t have been separated so easily. If he’d named it, he could leave now knowing he’d come back alive.
As the sun crept over the horizon, Keith crouched on the shaded porch and considered what he had to his name. He had a shack, a hoverbike, and his blade as his best, most vital friends. Practically family, at this point. He had his fellow tenants—the cactus wrens and the mice and the spiders and even the goddamned bluebottle flies—as his neighbors and acquaintances. He had the wind, the desert, the sun, and the rain as his governing body. He had the nearby town as his neighboring country full of foreigners better left untested. He had a precise, endless note buzzing his prefrontal cortex and telling him where to go, even if he couldn’t reach that place yet. He had its mirage-like twin stepping into the real world to keep pace with him and make rivers spring from deserts and watch him with wide, yellow, animal-like eyes.
He had the memory of Shiro tucked in next to his heart and the knowledge that he was still alive lodged hard in his teeth.
He had the solitude. He had its silence. He had its sideways stepping sentience.
And he had himself. In pure spite of everything. However poor a companion. He always had himself.
Keith stumbled through the zip lines and the speeder in a daze. He hadn’t said anything about the creature, and everyone’s attention was fixed on the approaching fleet. He kept glancing over his shoulder as if he’d find the creature crouched behind him. Watching. Waiting.
“That’s the one thing you can always count on out here,” Hunk’s voice grumbled over the coms system as Keith settled into the seat in Red’s cockpit. “Perfect timing. Really. Just impeccable.”
“It’s like someone upstairs gets bored sometimes and just likes seeing us scramble, I swear to god.”
“I’m venting!” Hunk shot back. “We’ve got Galra on one end and some space boggart on the other. It’s not ideal, dude.”
“Look,” Shiro replied, his voice tight. “I get it. This is bad timing—“
“No, didn’t you hear?” Pidge asked blandly. “It’s impeccable timing.”
“—but we’ve got a job right now. Let’s worry about that first.”
Hunk huffed but fell silent as the five lions emerged from their hangars and moved into formation. The Galra fleet hovered a few thousand miles away, though was visibly closing the gap with every second. Red’s viewport flickered and presented Keith with a blown-up view of the fleet. It wasn’t the largest they’d come up against, but the size of those cannons might make up for it.
“All right,” Shiro said. “We’re going to do the standard divide and conquer. Lance and Keith, focus on covering us from drones. Pidge and I are going to take down the ships themselves. Hunk, focus on dismantling the cannons. Let’s go.”
The five lions dived toward the fleet, and Keith tried push away the subtle, niggling feeling that he wasn’t entirely alone. He focused on the task at hand: getting rid of the drones so the others could do their jobs. For the first few minutes, it worked. Keith wound his way through the drones half on instinct, losing himself in the speed and dexterity of his lion. Every so often, he would catch glimpses of bright flashes from the ships that suggested Shiro, Pidge, and Hunk were getting their jobs done, too.
“Keith, check your two o’clock,” Lance’s snapped, and Keith managed to nab the drone that had been screaming toward him.
“Thanks,” Keith said.
“No hay problema, mullet,” Lance sang back, and Keith rolled his eyes as he performed a tight barrel roll and shot down three drones that looked as if they were aiming at Green.
“Tch. Show off,” Lance scoffed.
“Nothing stopping you from—“ Keith stopped.
“Nothing stopping me from what?” Lance paused. “Keith? You okay, bud?”
Keith licked his lips, steeled himself, and turned in his seat to sweep his gaze across the cockpit. It was a small space; not exactly many places to hide. But he thought he’d seen movement. He swore—
Lance’s tone made it sound as if he’d been shouting Keith’s name a few times already. Keith jumped and turned to face his readout screens.
“Yeah, I’m here. Sorry. I’m here.”
“Be more here!” Lance barked. “You can’t space off on me right now; I can’t handle these drones on my own!”
Keith blinked hard and thrust Red’s controls forward. Lance was right; he couldn’t afford to give in to the paranoia, not now. He’d worry about it once the Galra were gone.
“Keith? Lance?” Shiro’s voice called out. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Keith mumbled, and took out a handful of drones to accentuate the point. “My bad. Sorry, Lance.”
Lance grunted in response. “I’m supposed to be the one with trouble concentrating, dude. Seriously.”
This time, when Keith caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, he recognized it as too solid to be a figment of his imagination. He knew: his was not the only body here. He turned, already half expecting what he saw.
The figure didn’t so much appear as gradually slide into focus in the center of the cockpit. Keith had no idea how he’d missed it. The part that was probably meant to be a face turned toward him, and Keith’s body seized. Teeth. Yellow, jagged teeth as long as his hand. A familiar male face. The faintest whiff of breath laced with too much alcohol.
Without thinking, Keith slammed the controls to open the cockpit hatch. His helmet sealed shut as the metal groaned and the cockpit depressurized. Keith gripped onto the seat and didn’t allow himself to so much as blink. He needed to see for himself, needed to witness the creature be dragged into empty space by the force of the escaping air.
Except it didn’t happen.
The creature squatted in the middle of the cockpit, not budging. It watched him, and it didn’t so much as sway, and it wasn’t right.
Keith jerked toward the control panel and dimly realized that the others’ voices had been clamoring for his attention. He yanked his head back up; the creature still hadn’t moved.
“Keith, is your hatch open?” Allura was saying. “Our systems say it’s open. Keith, are you there?”
“I’m here,” Keith managed. “I opened the hatch. It’s—“ He faltered, watching incredulously as the creature stared at him almost as if in challenge. This wasn’t working, and he couldn’t fly effectively with the hatch hanging open. Grinding his teeth, Keith pressed the series of buttons that would close the hatch and repressurize the cockpit.
“Keith, what the hell is going on?” Pidge demanded.
“The creature is in here,” Keith said in a clipped voice. The creature shifted slightly as if it knew he was talking about it.
The coms rang with static for a solid ten seconds.
“You’re certain?” Allura’s voice asked.
“I’m looking at it right now.”
“Keith, you need to get back to the castle,” Hunk said. “You need to—“
Whatever Hunk had been about to say was interrupted by the sound of crunching metal and low “oof” from Pidge.
“Fine, fine,” Pidge snapped. Through the viewport, Keith could see Green turn and blast down a drone. “It caught me by surprise.”
“Okay. We’re going to disable the fleet just enough get to out of here as fast as we can. Allura, can we wormhole away?”
“Yes,” Allura said. “Preparing it now.”
“Keith, get back to the castle,” Shiro said. “Everyone else, double down.”
The cockpit rang with the beep that meant the space had been fully pressurized. Keith didn’t move. He and the creature continued to gaze at one another until, between one heartbeat and the next, it blinked out of existence.
The heavy sense of its presence did not.
Keith knew, distantly, that he was shaking. That the cockpit’s interior was starting to churn without actually moving. That his breathing was coming in fast and hard, and that people were calling his name over the coms and he couldn’t think, he couldn’t move, he was trapped.
Suddenly, Keith gasped as a sensation like a warm rush of air flowed over his head and shoulders. For a moment, he thought it was the creature finally attacking him. But no, that wasn’t right. Because it smelled like warm stone and burning wood and ozone, and it felt like a stream of sunlight finally breaking through the cloud cover or a billow of heat from a good campfire. Like the first heat of sunrise after a long night spent waiting, listening. The cockpit lurched, and through the viewport, Keith saw the image of the battle shift and blur. The warm presence settled over Keith; he got the impression of crouching beneath something large, something with a heaving flank and bared teeth and yellow eyes with the seeds of stars inside them.
“Red,” Keith rasped. He received the strangest feeling of warm fur butting up against his cheek. An unbidden thought landed in his mind: She hadn’t been around to protect him last time. She would do it this time.
The castle ship appeared in the viewport, and Keith gripped at the chair. With Red’s solid aura surrounding him, he could think clearer. Keith took a steadying breath and considered his options. He would be in the ship soon. They others would come, he’d open the hatch to join them, and—what then?
“We’re done here!” Shiro’s voice barked over the coms. “Everyone back to the ship.”
Keith listened as the other four streamed back to the castle ship, picking off stray drones that tried to follow them. As soon as the last of them disappeared into their hangar, the ship juddered as it formed the wormhole and disappeared into it. Keith still didn’t move. Red’s energy continued to circle him with inaudible growls. The creature’s heavy presence eddied but didn’t leave. The voices of the others echoed over the coms; it took Keith a moment to realize most of them were calling his name.
“Yo, Keith, you dead? Answer!”
Keith inhaled sharply. “I’m here, Lance,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Are you okay?” Hunk asked. “Can you see it?”
“Um.” Keith scrubbed at his face and scanned the cockpit again. At first glance, it seemed empty. But when Keith’s eyes swept over the small space a second time, his attention caught on a blur of color crouched in a far corner.
“Yeah,” Keith breathed. “I can see it.”
“We’re on our way,” Shiro said. “What’s it doing?”
“It’s. Watching me. Just watching.”
“Don’t let it out of your sight,” Shiro ordered. “And don’t get close to it. Just hang on, Keith.”
“All right,” Keith murmured, still watching the creature. It bore the man's face like a horribly realistic mask. The face blurred into yellow teeth and back in a way that made Keith's stomach flip. He got another ghostly sensation of warm fur, this time beneath his fingers. He tried to focus on that.
“If we can get Keith out and keep that thing in,” Pidge was saying, “then we’ve got it trapped. That’s a good first step, right?”
“Won’t work,” Keith said distantly.
“Why not?” Pidge demanded.
“The minute we open Red’s hatch, it’ll be gone.”
“It’s that sneaky?” Lance demanded. “Seriously?”
“It is,” Keith said. “It got into the bridge. I saw it right before the alarms went off.”
The idea was formulating now, swiftly growing larger the longer Keith considered it. Red must have caught glimpses of it because her growls grew disapproving. Keith shook his head imperceptibly and laid a hand on the control panel. This was an opportunity, he told her. It had its dangers, but they needed to take advantage of it for the sake of the team. And he trusted her; she wouldn’t let anything hurt him. Red vacillated before Keith caught a complicated cocktail of frustration and pride and deeply reluctant acknowledgement that he was speaking some truth.
“That’s impossible,” Allura was saying. “How was it in the bridge? We were on lockdown. The only time that room was open was when we returned from the scouting mission. And I checked. I counted. Shiro, you did too.”
Allura made a huffing sound. “Coran, the sensors would have told us if it was in the bridge with us, correct?” Coran’s silence practically radiated reluctance. “Coran.”
“I have to admit,” Coran said slowly. “That its readings are so faint and hard to distinguish from background noise that, theoretically, it could have sequestered itself in some far corner and slipped our notice.”
“So what you’re saying is the lockdown was useless,” Hunk said.
“Keith, we’re here,” Shiro said. “Open up, we’ll—“
“Change of plans,” Keith said. His voice was steady now; his eyes were glued on the creature.
“I’m not opening the hatch.”
No one spoke for several seconds.
“Um, hello?” Lance snapped. His voice was too high to be properly sardonic. “Have you lost your freaking mind? What, we’re supposed to leave you in there with that thing?”
Keith inhaled and licked his lips before he said, “Yes.”
A split second of silence before the coms line burst with angry retorts. Red’s presence curled a little tighter around him. Keith was glad for that; he felt as if he was a few notches away from shouting that he was lying, of course he’d open the hatch, of course they shouldn’t leave him in here.
“Hold up, quiet!” Shiro barked, and the coms line fell silent again, though Keith could all but hear the others barely biting back words. “Keith,” Shiro said. “You have a good reason?”
"Pidge already said it. We have this thing trapped. We can't open the cockpit, otherwise it'll escape. So. We're both going to stay in here until you guys figure out how to get rid of it."
The silence over the coms practically dripped with disbelief. "Hang on," Hunk said in a flat voice. "Can we get the video feeds up? I gotta say this to his face."
"One moment," Coran said. A second later, three holoscreens popped up in front of Keith. Hunk and Pidge were crowded into one screen, Lance and Shiro in the second, and Allura and Coran in the third.
“All right." Hunk cleared his throat. "No."
"No?" Keith echoed.
"No. We're not doing that. That's a stupid, stupid idea. No."
Keith couldn’t stop the slight curl of his lips. "Hate to break it to you," he said. "But I'm the one with control over the hatch."
"Point taken, but that doesn't stop this from being a stupid, stupid idea," Hunk said mulishly.
“Seconded,” Lance said. He glanced over. “Shiro? You don’t like it either. I can tell.”
Shiro’s lips pressed together before he said slowly, “I don’t like it, no. At this point I’m still deciding how much I don’t like it.”
“Look, not to be the black sheep, but I think it makes sense,” Pidge said. Hunk shot her a dark look; she scowled back. “Come on! Keith is right. We have it trapped in an airtight space; it can’t go anywhere. That was half the battle. Now, all we need to do is figure out what we're going to do with it.”
“Oh, yeah,” Hunk said. “And in the meantime, Keith will just be trapped with a shapeshifting monster that gets more dangerous the more scared we are of it. No freaking biggie!”
“Then we need to stop being scared of it. Listen.” Pidge placed her folded hands in front of her mouth. “For the hundredth time, if it wanted to hurt anyone, it would have already done that. It’s been at least fifteen minutes, and it hasn’t touched Keith. At all.”
“Maybe it’s not hungry yet,” Lance said darkly.
“Paladins,” Allura cut in. The coms line fell silent, and Allura inhaled deeply as she braced against the console. “Keith,” she said, looking directly into the camera. “I need to know. Will this work?” Keith opened his mouth, but Allura held up a hand. “I need you to answer me with the full understanding that if you are wrong and you die or are incapacitated as a result, you will leave Voltron crippled, severely undermine our mission to defeat Zarkon, and abandon millions of lives to slavery and conquest.” She paused for a beat. The others had stricken expressions. “Now,” she said in a low, hard voice. “Will. This. Work.”
Keith pressed his lips together and glanced behind him. The low, hulking mass was still crouched in a far corner, watching him. He faced the camera again and mentally tangled his fingers in Red’s warm fur.
“Yes.” It felt like a deadbolt being slammed shut.
Allura straightened. “Coran, Slav,” she said. “Give me a good plan for how we can dispose of this creature without harming our Red Paladin.”
“Princess, you can’t—“
“Hunk, I am the commander of the Castle of the Lions, and you’ll find that, as a matter of fact, I can.” Allura folded her hands behind her back. “Now. Let’s set up some ground rules. I want a rotating watch. Someone is to be with Keith and the Red Lion at all times via video feed. Hunk, do you approve?”
Hunk opened his mouth and closed it before muttering, “Yeah.”
“Excellent. Keith, are your emergency supplies fully stocked?”
“Haven’t touched them,” Keith said.
“Good. That means you have at least sixty cycles’ worth of food and water. Take care to ration them. I hope that this all will be over within a few cycles, but it’s better to count on the worst.”
“I have a request,” Shiro said.
Shiro looked at Keith through the camera. “If something happens in there,” he said. “If it seems like it’s going to attack you. I need you to get out. I’d prefer that the creature be loose in the castle than for you to be injured or worse.”
“Agreed,” Allura said. “Keith, that is a direct order from both your commanders. Your safety is priority. Do you understand?”
“But what if—“
“Oh my god, just say yes,” Pidge snapped. “Look, I’m supporting you here, but if things gets ugly, of course you hightail it out of there.”
Keith blinked. On the feed, Lance snorted. “Yeah, what she said.”
“Right. Agreed,” Keith said.
“Good,” Allura said. “Anything else?” No one spoke. “In that case, decide who is going to stay with Keith, and then the rest of you come to the bridge so we can decide how we’re going to end this once and for all.”
Hours later, Keith found himself almost wishing the creature would attack him, if only to finally break the tension. Instead, it had opted to remain entrenched in its corner. Its mask of a face never wavered from Keith; its low, bulky body didn't so much as shift. Disconcerting wasn’t a deep enough word to capture the way Keith’s spine kept crawling under the weight of its attention. He tried not to stare at it for too long. He tended to fail.
Keith knew that he only had to say a word and the others would drop this plan, which was exactly why he kept his mouth shut. He kept reminding himself: he didn’t want this thing in the castle where it could cause serious damage. Better to know exactly where it was, better that if it suddenly became dangerous, he be the only one hurt.
Red, for her part, hadn’t budged for the entire time either, and Keith had the distinct impression that she was more than ready to try ejecting the creature again. The only thing preventing her from doing as much was Keith’s request that she refrain as well as the fact that the creature had yet to do anything worse than be deeply unsettling. Still, every few minutes, Keith would feel her attention fix on it again and give a low, mental growl of dislike. It was comforting. Keith appreciated knowing someone else was there with him, watching his back.
Keith glanced over at his holoscreens. He had two video feeds running, one connected to the bridge and the other to the datapad of whoever was babysitting him at the moment. Right now, it was Shiro. He was curled up at Red’s feet; Keith could see the walls of the hangar behind him.
“Sorry, you seemed like you were zoning out,” Shiro said. And Keith couldn’t afford to zone out, not in his situation. Shiro didn’t say as much, but Keith knew how to read between the lines.
“I’m fine.” Keith rubbed at his eyes.
“Sorry, that’s probably hypocritical of me.”
“Well.” Shiro shrugged. “I fell asleep when I was supposed to be keeping watch.”
“Aw geeze,” Keith groaned. “I was letting you sleep.”
“And then you saw that thing, and you were by yourself.”
“I got good at dealing with weird shit by myself when I was in the desert,” Keith said blandly. It was the wrong thing to say; Shiro’s lips tightened, the way they always did when Keith mentioned that year. “Don’t give me that look,” Keith ordered.
“The guilty one. I was fine.” Shiro’s eyebrows quirked up. “I was. It was quiet.”
“Did I ever tell you about the cactus wrens?” Keith cut in. “There was a nest of cactus wrens in the eaves. They’d wake me up every single morning. The babies were so loud. Always hungry.” Keith realized he was babbling slightly, but better that than checking behind him every half minute. “And there was this big spider who lived on the east window,” he continued. “It wove these webs that always caught the light when the sun rose. I liked the spiders; they kept the bugs away.” He considered mentioning the coyote, but something about that felt too intimate. “And I always liked it when it rained. I liked the sound of it on the tin roof. Afterwards, everything would bloom for a few days.” He shifted in his seat. “And all that open space. Sometimes I’d gun the hoverbike and go as fast as I could. Just go.”
Shiro was quiet for a beat. “You stole that bike from the Garrison, didn’t you?”
“Where else?” Keith said. “I used your access code to get into the storage facility.”
“Frankly, I should have foreseen that when I shared it with you.”
“I mean, I put that hoverbike to good use. It was basically the only reason I survived out there.” Another flicker in Shiro’s expression. Keith bit at his bottom lip, mentally slapping himself.
“It wasn’t that bad,” he insisted. “I kept busy trying to figure out the energy source and—it wasn’t bad.” Keith blinked, and he honestly couldn’t tell if what he was saying was entirely true.
Shiro opened his mouth as if about to say something. A split second later, his eyes widened and a strangled inhale rattled over the video feed. The video shook as Shiro scrambled to a stand. Keith sprang from his chair too, whirling toward the spot where he’d last seen the creature, his bayard already activated.
“Keith, get out of there,” Shiro shouted. “You need—she’s in there.”
Keith didn’t answer; he was too busy gaping stupidly at the empty corner where the creature had been a minute ago. Keith backed up against the console, sword raised, his eyes darting around the cockpit. He could feel Red bunch up around him, could feel the impression of muscles and tendons coiling, ready to burst forward in a flurry of claws.
“Keith, open the hatch now. She—“
“Who’s she?” Keith interrupted. He couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see it.
“Haggar,” Shiro snapped. “I saw her; she’s in there!”
Keith blinked and glanced over to find Shiro’s face, pale and stricken, on the holoscreen.
“Shiro,” Keith said. “Do you think. Maybe that wasn’t actually Haggar?”
Shiro stared at him. When his expression fell, it was almost painful to watch.
“Oh,” he breathed. Then, “Oh god.”
“I’m such an—“
“No. Stop. It's okay.” Keith took a hard inhale and turned to face the cockpit again, his sword raised. “I can’t see it,” he said in a flat, careful voice. “I need your help to find it again.”
“I—yeah. Yeah, of course.”
Keith took another long breath and tried to relax his vision, to see things out of the corner of his eye instead of looking at them head on. The cockpit remained empty.
He heard Shiro made a low, frustrated sound. “You don’t think it could have found a way—“
The word erupted from Keith before he knew he was saying it.
“No! Not again! Not again, you bastard!”
Keith wasn’t listening. He was barely thinking as he lunged forward, arcing his sword through empty air. Fine, Keith couldn’t see it. But this was a small space, and at some point, he had to hit it.
The sound seemed to come from everywhere, seemed to spring up from Keith’s own brain. The cockpit was quickly filling with a formless, thick presence that reeked of alcohol and cigarette smoke, growing larger and larger with every second. It was going to choke him out. He gave a wordless yell and swung another frenzied arc. His legs and back throbbed.
BOM BOM BOM BOM
“Shut up!” Keith screamed. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!”
“Keith, you need to get out! You're just making it stronger right now!”
Keith ignored him. “Why?” he bellowed at the cockpit that was somehow empty and suffocatingly crowded at the same time. The stench of alcohol made his eyes water. “Why did you do that to me?” Nothing. “You didn't have any right to hurt me! You didn’t have the right!”
Keith exhaled hard two, three more times and, with a shout that came out more as a sob, struck out again.
His sword shuddered to a halt.
Keith could hear Shiro’s voice as if from down a long tunnel, but his attention was arrested by the sight of his bayard blade buried, seemingly, in midair. It was only when Keith tilted his head that he saw the face from the house in Minnesota. Keith’s teeth bared in an open-mouthed snarl, and he shoved the sword in deeper.
The figure collapsed.
Keith choked on an inhale out of sheer surprise and staggered back. He saw him. The man. He was hunched over, hands splayed over a wound in his gut. He stared blankly at Keith before, a second later, he dissolved into a shapeless mass of shimmering, discolored air.
“Keith?” Shiro’s voice was low and tremulous. Keith turned his head slightly and saw Shiro staring at the creature through the holoscreen. Shiro licked his lips and spoke slowly. “I see Haggar still. But she’s wounded now. You?”
A long pause. “Uh. It was the guy. But now it’s a shapeless blob?”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“You and me both.” Keith stared at the shimmering mass of air. When he spoke again, it was with a bizarre amount of confidence. “But I don’t think it’s going to try that again.” He stepped forward. The confidence surged in his chest. “You hear that?” he growled. “You’re not going to try that again.”
“You don’t get to drag him in front of me again.” His voice rose. “You don’t get to sneak around and bang things and pull up my worst memories and act like you’re something big and bad when you’re just this. Just a shapeless mass who can’t even be anything without people around. I’m not scared of you anymore. You get that? I’m not scared of him, and I’m not scared of you!”
Keith felt something hot trailing down both cheeks. He was panting. His legs and back pounded, heavy and numb. His grip on his bayard made his hand ache.
“Keith.” The word was unbearably soft, and it made Keith want to cry harder. He heaved an inhale that made his whole frame feel like it was about to shake apart. “Keith,” Shiro said again. “Do you want me to come in there?”
Keith did. He wanted Shiro so badly, his sternum ached with it. He wanted solid arms and kind words and a warm presence. He wanted all of them, all the people stuck outside the cockpit whom he’d started to consider family without even meaning to.
“No,” Keith heard himself say. He winced but wiped at his eyes nevertheless. He had a job to do. He needed to see this through. “No,” he said again. “I’m fine.”
“You’re really not.”
“Yeah, well.” He didn't finish.
Shiro didn’t look in the least bit happy, but there must have been something in Keith’s expression that made him reluctant to argue. He nodded. Keith exhaled and nodded back. After a moment of hesitation, he let his bayard dissolve away.
I tried to think a lonelier Thing
Than any I had seen —
Some Polar Expiation — An Omen in the Bone
Of Death's tremendous nearness —
I probed Retrieverless things
My Duplicate — to borrow —
A Haggard Comfort springs
From the belief that Somewhere —
Within the Clutch of Thought —
There dwells one other Creature
Of Heavenly Love — forgot —
I plucked at our Partition
As One should pry the Walls —
Between Himself — and Horror's Twin —
Within Opposing Cells —
I almost strove to clasp his Hand,
Such Luxury — it grew —
That as Myself — could pity Him —
Perhaps he — pitied me —
- Emily Dickinson
The worst part of the desert, always, was the quiet.
After long enough, the solitude gained a sideways sort of sentience. A presence marked by the absence of presence.
The silence hummed around Keith as he sat on his rickety coffee table, staring hard at his work board. There was no denying it at this point. Every way he worked it, every angle at which he approached it, the carvings told him that something was coming in a matter of days. At his best guess, an arrival of sorts. He would have to be ready for anything.
Keith heaved himself to a stand and left the dim mustiness of the shack to stand in the sunlight and sage and red-orange soil just outside. He thrust his hands into his pocket, closed his eyes, leaned back, and inhaled hard. The sunlight bathed his face; the note in his head burbled and sang like a creek.
He could be wrong, he considered. Sure, the carvings seemed to be giving a day and time based on astral positioning, but Keith could have misinterpreted it at so many stages. Maybe nothing would happen. And then what? Keith supposed he would have to keep trying. Keep hacking at this puzzle for as long as he could stand it. He wondered if he would spend year after year out here, surviving and constantly chasing carvings and invisible presences and never seeing Shiro again. Keith considered his possible future, rolled out before him like an empty road through empty landscape. His heart seized despite himself.
He opened his eyes and stared into the staggering blue bowl of the sky. “I’ll be fine,” he said in a soft voice.
Quiet rang back.
The worst part of the desert, always, was the quiet.
“Welp,” Pidge said as she settled down with the datapad. “Our greatest minds have conferred about what happens when you stab a shapeshifting cloud of particles.”
Keith, who was curled up in his seat again, propped his chin in one hand. “Any conclusions?”
“Not a one,” Pidge said. “Slav suggested it might now exist in a Schrodinger’s Cat situation of being dead and not dead all at once, but I don't think I'm buying that. It's still acting like itself, after all.” She shrugged. “And for the record, we have no idea why it would be able to resist being pulled out of your cockpit but is also capable of being stabbed?” She waved her hands. “It’s a unknown organism that seems to operate based on our expectations of it, and also has a very, very loose relationship with, you know, the laws of physics. I’m going with that.”
“Anyway, what’s it doing?”
“It went back to lurking in its corner,” Keith said. He gathered himself mentally before glancing back to the discolored mass of air. It was hard to tell with something lacking anything resembling a face, but he thought it looked back at him. For all of Keith’s earlier proclamations, he couldn’t claim the sight didn’t make his heart palpitate. But that fear now felt dulled under the overriding sense of exhaustion. “Hasn’t moved,” he said. “Hasn’t disappeared again. Still looks like a big amoeba.”
“Man, I wish I saw an amoeba,” Pidge complained. “For me, it’s like a cross between giant cockroach and Cthulhu.”
“All the tentacles.”
Keith raised his eyebrows. “How Freudian do you want to get with that?”
“Ew, shut up.” Pidge wrinkled her nose, but Keith could see her grinning.
“I need to keep myself entertained somehow,” he said.
Pidge’s expression sobered. “Yeah, fair. I have some of my movies and books uploaded to the castle system if you want entertainment.”
“I think I’d rather just talk.”
Pidge hummed and stretched her arms over her head. “I can do that. What d’you wanna talk about?”
“I don’t care,” Keith said, bringing his knees to his chest and resting his chin on them. “Anything.”
“Ugh, Lance would be way better at this.” Pidge rubbed at her nose thoughtfully. “Oh, okay, speaking of which. Wanna hear about the time Lance, Hunk and I got lost during our field survival week?”
“Everyone gets lost during field survival week.”
“Uh, no, we ended up wandering off the map completely. Stumbled into a town four miles north of the park.”
Keith’s eyebrows shot up. “Four miles? Did you lose the map?”
“More like we trusted Lance when he claimed he’d found a shortcut to our next check-in point.”
As Pidge launched into the full story, Keith let himself be drawn in by her voice and moving hands; she even did funny voices for Lance, Hunk, and Iverson. It was a bit bombastic for her, and Keith quietly suspected she was putting on a show to distract him. He found that he appreciated it more than he was willing to voice. He let her segue into another story about the time her family had gone camping near Lake Superior and she had accidentally run through a bush of poison oak, which led into a description of the times she and Matt had explored the small creek near their neighborhood to catch frogs and crawdads.
“—and sure, there were bugs there too, but I liked the frogs enough to brave it. Plus, Matt called me a scardey cat if I didn’t go, and honestly he knew exactly what buttons he was pushing because I always followed him in this flurry of righteous fury.” Pidge paused and shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose, glancing sidelong at Keith. “Look, I’ve got more of these unless you’re bored out of your skull.”
“No.” Keith shifted in his chair. “This is nice.”
Pidge huffed a laugh, and her eyes darted to the far corner of the cockpit. The flash of unease was quick, but Keith caught it.
“It hasn’t moved, has it?” Keith asked, glancing back as well.
“No, no,” Pidge hurried to assure him. “It’s just…very unnerving.” She sighed and ruffled at her hair, causing the chestnut curls to stand up. “I know I’ve been all for you staying in there with that thing, but honestly? I’m starting to doubt if I’d be able to do it myself.”
“To be fair, I’m not seeing the masses of tentacles.”
“Come on. You know what I mean.”
Keith sighed. “If this thing had snuck into Green’s cockpit instead, I’m sure you’d have done what needed to be done.”
“I wouldn’t have gone into Green,” Pidge murmured thoughtfully. “It follows you.”
Keith’s shoulder slumped abruptly. “Yeah,” he admitted, the exhaustion deepening. “Yeah, that’s what it feels like.”
“Maybe it imprinted on you back on that planet,” Pidge mused. “Maybe it likes having someone—“ She abruptly straightened and frowned. “Huh.”
“I’ve just had a very, very weird idea.”
“So? This is a very, very weird situation. Spit it out.”
Pidge pursed her lips before speaking slowly, picking her words out carefully. “If we can assume it’s sentient in some way, that means it wants something. The questions is: what does it want?”
“I can ask,” Keith said blandly.
“Ha ha. My point is, it used to live on an empty planet, right? Why would it leave that planet and hitch a ride to our ship? What does it want that the planet didn’t have but we do?”
“People. We have people.”
“Still not following.”
“Okay, remember that it’s basically a cloud of particles that can’t be anything unless it’s being observed or interacted with. So, imagine this. Our weird little particle alien over there is stranded on a planet with no life except some microbes. It just…exists because there’s nothing interacting with it in a meaningful way. When wham bam, here comes a giant metal lion with a thinking person inside. So this particle ghost goes up to Red and starts making loud, scary bangs. You react. You’re interacting with it now; it changes. It becomes something big and scary. And maybe that’s what it really wants, in the end. Something to interact with. Something to define it. Maybe it likes being defined, so it imprints on you. Then it hops onto Yellow and arrives to a ship with twelve whole brains to interact with, but it likes you the best. Who knows, maybe you being part Galra means you sense it better than the rest of us. Maybe it appreciates that, so it sticks with you as much as it can.”
“I don’t—“ Keith screwed up his face.
“Sorry. That’s a little out there, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s…” Keith trailed off and glanced toward the creature’s corner again. “Sounds kind of sad. Is there a way to find out if you’re right?”
“Uh. Maybe? I’d have to ask the others.”
“I think you should do that,” Keith said, still not taking his eyes off the creature.
And he couldn’t be sure. But he thought that, even as he watched, he could see five blurred extensions emerge from the discolored mass. Almost like a head and four limbs. Almost humanoid.
Over the next several hours, Keith chewed on Pidge’s theory, examining it from as many angles as he could, trying to decide if it felt right. Something about it caught at him. Because really, had the creature ever actually hurt him? Scared him, sure. But that, in a way, had been Keith’s own doing. So far, all it had done was…exist.
He was still mulling over it when the guard outside changed and Lance’s voice rang over the video feed.
“What’s up, mullet? Is the xenomorph giving you trouble?”
“Don’t call me that,” Keith said blandly, glancing over at the feed. He found Lance peering at the far corner of the cockpit. Keith looked too. He was convinced now: those were legs and arms, and the nub on top had to be a head of some kind. If Keith squinted, he could almost imagine a textured mass resembling a face. It wasn’t the familiar face from Minnesota, though. For that, Keith was grateful.
“Ugh,” Lance said, pulling Keith from his thoughts. “I reiterate: creepy as hell.” He made a dismissive sound. “Anyway, we won’t dwell on it. Have you eaten yet?”
Keith blinked at the question. “Why? What time is it?”
“Well past dinner, dude. Don’t you have a clock in there?”
“Well, yes but.” Keith didn’t finish that thought, somehow reluctant to admit that the idea of leaving his chair and thus getting any closer to the creature made his chest tighten. Sure, it was less threatening now, but what if it turned back into his abuser? Keith was so tired of dealing with that. No, better to stay in his chair and get a little hungry.
“Okay. Well.” Lance cleared his throat. “The rations are in the locker back there, right? I’ll keep an eye on ole’ nightmare fuel while you grab whatever you need.” Keith pressed his lips together. Screw Lance and his ability to read a situation. “Keith?”
“I’m fine,” Keith snapped.
“You need to eat.”
“I can hold out for a few more hours.”
“Water, then. You need some water.” This was true, but Keith remained silent rather than acknowledge it.
Lance scoffed and tilted back his head. “God, you’re such a fucking donkey. If you die of dehydration—“
“I’m not gonna die of dehydration. I’m just not thirsty.”
Lance’s incredulity was palpable, but to his credit, he didn’t push the matter. Instead he tilted his head forward.
“Okay, whatever. Let’s just talk, then. How’re you holding up?”
“What?” Keith scowled at the screen. “I’m fine.”
“Yeah, and I’m Iverson’s favorite student,” Lance scoffed. “Come on, dime.”
“Tell you what?”
“Uh, how you’re feeling? You cannot possibly be as chill as you’re pretending to be.” Lance raised his eyebrows as Keith’s scowl deepened.
“Maybe I am,” he snapped.
“Maybe we’ve literally had mind melds via space magic and I like to think I know you by now and I can say that’s definitely not true—”
“Well maybe I don’t want to talk about—“
“—and maybe Blue is worried about you.”
That knocked Keith right off whatever indignant retort he’d been building toward. He squinted at Lance, who now had an edge of uncertainty in his expression.
“Blue?” he echoed. “Your Blue?”
“My Blue, yeah,” Lance said. He frowned and looked off to the right. “Look, she’s been poking me all day. Won’t leave me alone until I talk to you.”
“The lions chat, don’t they?” Lance shrugged. “Apparently Red is on a hair trigger right now.”
“Yeah, I know, because she has a thing in her cockpit—“
“Because of you, dummy. She’s on a hair trigger because she’s worried about your mental state right now. And Blue’s picking up on that, and she’s telling me because she thinks I should try to help.”
Keith shook his head, still frowning. “Why would Blue care?” he asked.
Lance’s expression grew incredulous. “Why would she—why wouldn’t she care, Keith? She cares about everyone. That’s part of her whole deal.”
Keith exhaled and pinched at the bridge of his nose. “Sorry, I just.” He dropped his hand and mindlessly started to massage his left thigh. The pain wasn’t unbearable, but it had started creeping forward again. “I guess I have weird feelings toward her, sometimes.”
“You do?” Lance shifted closer to the camera. “What sort of feelings?”
“You don’t want to—“
Keith looked over, but Lance’s expression seemed genuine. Keith inhaled and shifted in the seat. He switched to massaging his other thigh. The pain swelled and ebbed in time with his heartbeat.
“Well. You know, I was out in that desert for a while.”
“A year,” Lance said, nodding.
“Right. And…and I was in a bad place after Shiro disappeared and I was kicked out of the Garrison. Not really—there wasn’t anywhere to go. But there was this…sound isn’t the right word. Vibration. Tone. Feeling. Somewhere out in the desert. So I stole a hoverbike and followed it because, hey, I’ve had worse ideas.” Lance didn’t speak, just waited. Keith lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “I spent a year trying to find the source of that sound, trying to figure out what it was trying to tell me. And while I was trying to do that, I started feeling like something—someone—was following me. Like if I just turned at the right moment, I’d catch someone standing there.” He paused. “It was Blue. I put it together when we found her hiding spot; the sound was deafening in that chamber. But as soon as you touched her particle barrier, it went away. Just disappeared.” He paused, remembering how his entire skull had rang with the silence. It had almost felt like a loss. “That was when I knew for sure that we’d found what we were supposed to find. Her broadcasting had worked. I should have been thrilled—or, I mean, I was. But once I fully understood what the Voltron lions were and what they could do, I felt—“ He hesitated. “The whole year I was in the desert, she only talked to me once. And that was when I almost died, and she saved me by making a river spring into existence in the desert, and I thought I’d officially lost my senses and—” He looked down at his lap. He could feel his cheeks and ears flushing. For almost half a minute, the only sound from Lance was his breathing and the slight rasp of his clothes as he shifted.
“You wished she’d talked to you more,” he finally said. His tone wasn’t accusatory; it sounded almost clinical.
“She probably couldn’t talk more,” Keith blurted. “She was in hiding, and I’m not the Blue Paladin, I get that. And she definitely saved my life, so it’s not like I have any right to complain, but—“
“But you had just lost your best friend, and you were by yourself in a shack for a year,” Lance said. “And you were lonely.”
Keith didn’t even realize his eyes had started welling up until something hot dripped down his left cheek. He wiped at his eyes impatiently.
“I’m used to being alone,” he muttered. “I should have been fine.”
“But you weren’t.” Lance’s voice was oddly patient, oddly steady. “Keith, I know you’re half alien or whatever, but you’re human, too. Humans are social. We need company.”
“I’m used to dealing with things on my own. I should have been fine,” Keith repeated. He didn’t know if he sounded at all convincing. Probably not. He wiped at his eyes again, this time pressing the heel of his hand deep enough into his sockets to produce soft flashes of color. “She could have communicated with me earlier,” he muttered toward his lap. “Yeah, I appreciated the quiet. I needed that after everything at the Garrison. But at some point, you can’t tell anymore what’s real and what your brain is making up. It’s like being in solitary confinement. And she could have said something to let me know that the…the other person I kept feeling was real and not me going slowly insane. She could have been more there.” He clenched his eyes tighter. “And now this is happening. And it’s too familiar. Vague presences you can’t be sure are real. Not knowing whether to trust your own senses. And no, being stuck in here with this thing isn’t…it isn’t good. But if I say that, they’ll force me to open the hatch and it’ll escape and it’ll be wandering the castle again and I can’t do that. I can’t try and function normally feeling like I’m back in that fucking house in Minnesota. Like I need to sneak everywhere in case he hears me and decides I’ve annoyed him enough for him to smack me around. I’m done with that; I’m not that kid anymore. So we need to get rid of it. But it’s hard. It’s really freaking hard and—“ It was as if his rush of words had slowed into a trickle. He breathed through an open mouth. He hadn’t removed his hands from his eyes, and the colors splashed across his eyelids in dull fireworks.
“Keith?” Keith took a shuddering inhale. “Keith, buddy, can you look at me?”
Lance gave a soft huff of a laugh. “Fair enough. Okay, I’ll just talk to the top of your head, yeah?” Keith didn’t answer. Lance made a low humming sound. “First thing,” Lance said. “Blue’s sorry about how she handled things on Earth. She’s a giant robot, you know? She didn’t understand you needed company that badly. She was just happy that you heard her and were investigating. She’d have done things differently if she’d known.”
“You…are you talking to her right now?”
“Eh. It’s like we’re shouting at each other from down a long tunnel. But I’m getting the gist of what she’s saying.” A pause. “Aaand that’s definitely a purr. Yeah, she’s sorry.”
Keith sniffed and lifted his head slowly. He thought, dimly, that he really shouldn’t be having yet another breakdown with the creature a few paces away. A warm push against his cheek assured him that Red had been watching the whole time. She practically radiated stern approval; it almost made Keith crack a smile.
“Hey, there he is,” Lance said cheerfully when Keith had fully raised his head. “Welcome back.” Keith snorted and wiped both hands down his face.
“Shut up,” he muttered without an ounce of heat.
“Nah,” Lance said. “I need to make my second point. Which is that you went through a lot of shit on your own.” He seemed to falter for a moment, and Keith realized that he’d never mentioned the house in Minnesota to Lance before. He winced; this probably hadn’t been the best time to let something like that slip. Lance cleared his throat and seemed to rally himself. “And I’m sorry that this is reminding you of all those times in your life. But there is one massive difference this time.”
“Well, you’re not alone, are you?” Lance grinned, though there was something heavy around his eyes that Keith wasn’t accustomed to seeing. “We’re right here with you, every minute you’re stuck in there. Everyone is working their butts off to figure out how they can get rid of Mr. Nightmare Fuel over there. We care about you, Keith. We care a whole lot. You’re not alone, I swear.” Keith stared at him. Lance’s grin turned hesitant. “Sorry, was that a little too schmaltzy?”
“Shush.” Keith braced his forehead against one hand and looked sidelong at Lance, his mouth curled up in one corner. “We’re having a bonding moment. Don’t ruin it.”
“Aw, and I get to be awake for it this time.”
Keith coughed out a half laugh. Lance to his credit, remained quiet as Keith composed himself.
“Thanks,” Keith finally said.
“Hey, no problem. Also, I promise, if I could hug you through this video feed, I would.”
“Noted.” Keith sighed and ran a hand thoughtless hand through his hair. “Rain check on the hug.”
“Well, first you have to not die of dehydration,” Lance said. Keith wrinkled his nose, but any arguments from earlier had died away. “Keith,” Lance said, his voice low again. “I promise. I’m going to watch your back. You need those rations.”
Keith inhaled hard, braced his hands against his chair’s armrests, and nodded.
The next handful of hours passed quietly. Keith had gotten his rations without incident, and he had to admit, getting food and water in his system helped clear his mind immensely. For the rest of Lance’s shift, they didn’t talk all that much. Keith mostly thought about what Lance had told him. For the first time, he gave true, full thought to his time in the desert. Lance had a point: Keith had been incredibly, achingly lonely. He’d just been exposed to the stability of having a true friend through Shiro, and then Shiro had been taken violently away from him. No wonder the rebound had been so harsh. No wonder that year had passed in a near-dream state.
Hunk took on the watch after Lance. Keith heard the pair of them exchange hushed words, but they were too far from the camera for him to interpret them. Keith watched Lance clap Hunk’s shoulder, nod at Keith, then disappear through the door of Red’s hangar with a yawn.
“Hey,” Hunk said. The screen wobbled as he adjusted the datapad. “Still awake, huh?”
“Is it late?”
“Do you not have a clock in there? Almost three in the morning, Earth time.”
“Oh.” Keith frowned. “You seem awfully perky for three in the morning.”
“I took a power nap,” Hunk said, shrugging. “You, though. You should sleep.”
“You know those alien caffeine pills Coran put in our first-aid kits?”
“Yeah, I’m not sleeping anytime soon.”
“Damn. I mean, I get your logic. Doubt I’d want to sleep in there either. But you’re sort of useless to us if you accidentally ascend to the astral plane.”
Keith snorted, ducking his head briefly. Even Red glimmered with subdued humor.
“No, but seriously,” Hunk said. “Are you okay?”
Keith opened his mouth, paused, closed it again. He shifted in his seat and bit back a wince at the low pulse of numb pain in his legs. He wasn’t alone. He wasn’t.
“Borderline,” he said. He hesitated and pressed forward. “The creature hasn’t done anything for the last few vargas, which is good. But my legs and back are really, really hurting, and I’m somehow wired and exhausted all at once because of the pills, and the creature could still attack at any moment, and I can’t really relax, even with you guys and Red looking out for me, and it’s not—“ He huffed. “It’s not ideal.”
“That’s an understatement,” Hunk murmured. When Keith looked up, Hunk’s face was pure sympathy. “All right,” Hunk said. “What do you need from me?”
Keith tilted his head. Absurdly, his first thought was to ask for a hug. But of course that was impossible. He shrugged instead.
“Knowing you’re there is helpful.”
Hunk’s eyes narrowed like he was about to say something, but he seemed to think better of it. Instead, he nodded. “Can I sing?”
Keith blinked at him. “I—uh, yeah. Yeah, that’d be good.”
Hunk’s lips quirked into a grin, and he began to sing. Keith didn’t recognize the tune, and a moment later, he realized he didn’t recognize the language either. Polynesian or Hawaiian, maybe; Keith couldn’t be certain. But Hunk had a low, warm voice, the tune was soothing, and Keith felt his shoulders relax despite himself. He tilted his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. He didn’t exactly doze, but something in his core slowly, steadily, began to unwind. He didn’t know how long he stayed like that, Hunk’s voice dipping in and out of hearing. But it was as close to sleep as he was going to get, and he was grateful.
When the scuffle came from the back of the cockpit, it took Keith a few extra milliseconds to register it. Once he did, he wrenched his eyes open and turned, already groping for his bayard.
Hunk’s singing cut off. “Keith?”
Keith didn’t answer as he stared at the creature, his mouth slightly open.
“Hey, Keith, what’s wrong?” Hunk’s voice was tight with worry. “It hasn’t moved, right? I can still see it.”
“No,” Keith murmured. “Hasn’t moved. It’s…it’s changed.”
It had a face again, though this time it didn’t resemble the man from the house in Minnesota. It looked, somehow, like a face used for dummies or anatomy illustrations, places where the face was a placeholder more than an actual feature. Expression smooth. Skin a middling beige-brown. Eyes blank. Not feminine or masculine. No discernable ethnicity, or every possible ethnicity. Keith couldn’t decide. It blinked, and the motion seemed deliberate. Unpracticed. Alarm coiled tighter and tighter in Keith’s gut.
The longer he stared, the more Keith realized that looking at the figure gave him the disconcerting sensation of watching a glitchy picture in real life. The general humanoid outline remained in place, but the details slid in and out of place without moving, like those optical illusions that seemed to shift and rotate if one stared at them too hard. Keith saw freckles that appeared when Keith concentrated on the bridge of its nose but disappeared as soon as Keith took in the face as a whole. Hair that sifted from blonde to brown to silver, from curly to straight to short. Eyes that became blue, then dark gray with monolids, then almost black with thick lashes, but as soon as Keith stopped focusing on them, they became blank and baseless again. It was as if the creature was pulling from every face in Keith’s memory bank and mashing them indiscriminately together.
“Changed how?” Hunk insisted.
Keith shook his head slowly without taking his eyes off the creature. “I don’t—“
He cut himself off when the creature shifted, when it lifted one of the blurred, shifting appendages that was clearly meant to be an arm. Keith tensed, but nothing happened. The creature kept its arm raised, elbow bent 90 degrees, palm out, almost like a—
Keith tightened his grip on the chair and said in a steady voice, “I think it just said hello.”
Hunk was silent for a long moment. “I’m sorry?”
“Did you not see…?”
“All I’m seeing is some kind of formless shadow beast staring at you.”
“I’m seeing a…I guess it’s supposed to be a person. A person-shaped thing. And it has its hand raised, like it’s saying hi.”
“Like it’s saying hi?” Hunk snapped. His voice was taking on an edge that meant he was starting to panic. “You’re just interpreting—Keith, it’s probably just moving without knowing what it’s doing. Or worse, trying to trick you. Just ignore it; that’s worked so fa—KEITH!”
Keith had just stood from his chair, mind racing. He sensed it meant something that the creature was presenting a human face, one that wasn’t marred by past trauma. And the raised hand; surely it had pulled the meaning of that gesture from Keith as well. Surely it was trying to say something. Pidge had said the creature might be actively searching for interaction. Alright, then. Keith could work with this.
“Sorry, Hunk,” Keith said before he took several steps toward the creature. It still had its hand raised; its blank face stared at him unblinkingly. Red’s presence sharpened into a barely-audible snarl edged in fear. He could feel her trembling with the urge to yank him back, but she also knew that he didn’t want that. He tried to broadcast assurances that he would be fine; he could tell she didn’t believe him.
“Keith, I swear to god, this is not the time to be all impulsive and ask-questions-later,” Hunk bawled. “Get away from it, now!” Keith took another step. “Keith!”
“It’s fine,” Keith murmured; he had no idea if he was talking to Hunk, Red, the creature, or himself. Probably all of them. His heart was pounding, and his legs were heavy in a way that told Keith that if things went wrong, he might not be able to maneuver himself well enough to fight back. He paused and weighed his bayard in his hand before taking another step. And another. Until he stood no more than a meter away from the creature. Its eyes blinked, again with a deliberateness that made Keith’s heart leap. Slowly, its hand fell back to its side. Hunk had fallen silent, though Keith could hear his hard breathing over the coms. Red was utterly still. Waiting.
Keith brought his gaze up until he met the creature’s eyes. They shifted from blue and wide to dark brown and narrow without Keith registering the actual change. Keith inhaled through parted lips.
“Hi,” he said. His voice was soft and cracked, and Keith highly doubted the creature comprehended his words, and maybe this whole thing was an entirely misguided speculation that was going to get him killed in a few seconds. Still, Keith had to try. If he could communicate with it, he could try and work with it.
The creature didn’t say anything back. But for the first time, its outline truly flickered. The next moment, its shape had shifted completely until it no longer resembled a person at all. Suddenly it was something that, unless Keith was mistaken, looked very much like a familiar ragged, gray coyote. The coyote watched him with amber eyes; its ears high and alert. Its yellow teeth and black gums were slightly bared, but it didn’t look as threatening as it looked uncertain. Keith realized a grin had twined across his lips.
“Oh,” he breathed. His grin widened. “Right.” The coyote blinked. Keith steadied himself before he extended a hand. Hunk had started speaking again; Keith was dimly aware that he sounded close to tears. “It’s okay, Hunk,” Keith said without taking his eyes off the creature. “It’ll be okay.”
Keith’s hand lightly touched the top of the coyote’s head. He registered something buzzing against the pads of his fingers. Something warm and churning. Something like touching light.
The creature’s eyes fixed on Keith. Another blink, and the space beneath Keith’s fingers seemed to tighten and coalesce into rough fur covering a fine-boned skull. Keith pressed the pads of his fingers against the new surface. It felt real. Keith supposed it was real. His own perception, his own expectation, made it real. He wondered when the creature had last been given such definition.
That was a new voice. Keith blinked and pulled his hand away, turning toward the holoscreens. His eyebrows shot up when he realized that behind Hunk stood the others, all staring with the same expression of stunned horror.
“Uh,” Keith said. He glanced back at the creature; it stared back, apparently unconcerned. “Hey, guys. I’m fine.”
“Obviously not!” Lance snapped. “You’re trying to give the xenomorph head scratches or something!”
“It’s not a xenomorph,” Keith said. He was surprised at how steady his voice sounded. “Not really.”
“Yes, we know that, but that doesn’t mean you should be petting it!” Hunk retorted. His eyes were red-rimmed, and Keith felt a stab of guilt. He’d scared Hunk badly.
“Pidge,” Keith said. “I think you were right.”
“About what it wants.” He looked to the others. “It wants interaction. Which means, basically, it’s lonely. It can’t help that we’re scared of it. I don’t think it’s actually trying to hurt us.”
The silence was long and deafening. Shiro was the first to stir and look over at Pidge.
“Any of that sound viable?”
Pidge’s lips became a thin line as she adjusted her glasses. “Slav and I talked about it. We agreed it’s pretty likely—“
“Seventy-eight percent likely,” Slav cut in.
“Right. Pretty likely that it’s seeking interaction with sentient things. That it likes existing as something. And maybe it’s not lonely in exactly the way we experience it but…” She shrugged and wrinkled her nose. “It might be the best translation.”
Shiro raised his eyebrows and glanced at Allura. She lifted her chin in return. “I’m willing to accept this theory if three of you think it’s true,” she said.
“I do,” Keith said, and Pidge nodded. Slav grunted his affirmation.
“Fine,” Coran said, crossing its arms. “We can assume that this creature only desires company. What next? We should allow it to roam the ship freely?”
Allura’s eyes tightened. “It’s still an unknown factor,” she said. “We can’t control it. I don’t know if that’s tenable.”
“I don’t think it is,” Shiro said flatly. “We can’t run the risk.”
Frowning, Keith returned his attention to the creature, which didn’t seem to have registered a word of the discussion. It still resembled a coyote, crouched low, its ragged tail curled around its paws. It stared implacably up at Keith with amber eyes. In a way, it almost looked trusting.
Keith exhaled. “I have an idea,” he said.
I'll be posting both parts 10 and 11 tomorrow, since part 11 is just an epilogue. So we're in the home stretch! Thank you yet again to everyone who's been reading and commenting. I'm blown away by the response this fic has gotten :D
Chapter 10: Chapter 9
Sorry this got posted kind of late. Real life got very busy today
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
- Emily Dickinson
It was a single, sudden thought that landed in Keith’s head seconds before the Blue Lion dove into the wormhole.
I’m not going back there.
As the massive, churning black space loomed before them, Keith braced against the cockpit wall and tried to decide how he felt about that. He imagined his hoverbike and the shack growing decrepit and dusty with disuse. The mice and spiders and lizards growing bold enough to scamper across the floor whenever they pleased. The wind whistling its eternal note with no one to listen. The way the moon shone snowdrift white against a perfect backdrop of crushed blue velvet. The aching beauty of an empty, red-orange landscape. The strange mix of comfort and disquiet at the knowledge that you were the only person for miles and that nothing, truly, kept you in place.
And he took stock of what was around him now. The loud, undeniably real presences of the three Garrison cadets. They were like fireworks, like riots of flowers sprung forth after a sudden rain. The warm, reassuring sensation of Shiro by his side. Keith still found himself glancing over every so often to make sure he was actually there; it was like having the sun back. The low hum of the Blue Lion’s mechanics. It was somehow familiar and completely alien all at once. If Keith concentrated he could imagine it was an echo of that single buzzing tone that had carved a groove into his mind for the last year. Except now, if Keith placed his hand against the cockpit's wall, he could feel that tone send quiet vibrations along his bones and muscle and tissue. Visceral. Graspable. Real. It had all been real, and it was real now, and Keith hadn't realized how much he'd doubted himself before.
Keith gripped the back of Lance’s seat and realized that his chest was tight with some cocktail of regret and relief and wistfulness and sheer, wild joy.
He thought again, I’m not going back there.
In the next heartbeat, the wormhole had swallowed them up.
Olkarion’s northern hemisphere was undergoing its annual monsoon season when they arrived. Allura had commed Ryner ahead of time, so when the castle ship arrived to its usual landing strip, she and her retinue were waiting for them underneath what appeared to be floating vegetative umbrellas. When the team emerged (sans Slav; he had chosen to keep track of the castle’s functions), there was a flurry of greetings and hugs, as the ship hadn’t visited Olkarion for almost half a rotation.
Not that Keith was part of that. He was still confined to Red’s cockpit with the creature, and could only watch the events through his holoscreen. Keith’s video feed ran through Pidge’s helmet camera, so he was seeing everything from her perspective. At the moment, she was pulling away from a long embrace with Ryner and babbling happily about some theory they had once discussed that, apparently, Pidge had finally managed to turn into a prototype.
Inside the cockpit, Keith sighed and propped his chin on his knees. A flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye made him turn his head slightly to find the creature sniffing at Keith’s pile of provisions. It then sat to scratch at its ear with its hind leg. When it had finished, it looked up at Keith and gave an animal grin that was all yellow teeth and black gums.
It had started to truly venture from its corner as of that morning. Keith would have been lying if he claimed he hadn’t spent an hour or two tensely watching it. Coran had been on watch at that time, and he too had kept a weathered eye. But the creature hadn’t done much except investigate the room several times over and occasionally park itself in the middle of the cockpit to watch Keith before doing another circuit of the room. The strangest thing about that had been how normal it looked.
Now, Keith watched the coyote yawn to show off a shockingly pink tongue before it lay down and curled up, tucking its nose into its tail. Keith blinked and looked at the holoscreen again. He knew it looked exactly like the coyote that had been under his shack for a reason; it could only take the form of something that already existed in the viewer’s mind. But some part of Keith absurdly felt as if the creature knew what that coyote had meant to Keith. How he had latched onto it so thoroughly in the few days he’d known it. Assuming it had any control over its form, maybe the creature was trying to extend an olive branch.
On the holoscreen, Ryner was ushering everyone toward the large block of metal and twining branches that represented the Olkari seat of government, such as it was. Within a few dobashes, everyone was seated in a wide room that acted as a parlor of sorts. Attendants brought in trays of food and tea and placed them on a low, wide table. Everyone sat on cushions on the floor and loaded up their plates before the discussion began.
“Sorry, Keith,” Lance called out. “We’ll save some for you.”
“Ah,” Ryner said, straightening. “That’s right; I knew I was neglecting to do something. Pidge, might we divert from your helmet’s feed with the Red Paladin?”
“Yeah of course.”
Ryner nodded, and with a wave of her hand, Keith saw a new holoscreen appear at the far end of the table. The image on his screen blinked several times before the angle shifted, and Keith was no longer looking at the room through Pidge’s helmet camera but from the holoscreen Ryner had just constructed.
“Man,” Hunk breathed. “I’m never gonna get over how effortless that always looks.”
“Stay with us longer than a few cycles, Hunk, and we’ll be happy to teach you everything we know,” Ryner said.
“One day,” Hunk said cheerfully. “Pidge and I will hang out here for an extended nerd vacation.”
“You bet your ass we will,” Pidge agreed, and high fived him.
Ryner smirked before turning her attention to Keith. “Greetings, Keith. I hope you’re well.”
“Well as I can be, thanks.”
Ryner nodded and leaned forward, her arms crossed and her elbows resting on the table. “I hear there’s a unique specimen in there with you. I’m eager to hear the details. You’ll all have to start at the beginning for me.”
They did. Keith told most of it, describing his crash on the planet, the banging, the subsequent days of feeling watched, the discovery that the creature really had followed him to the castle, and all that followed. The others chimed in when needed, but mostly they let Keith steer the story. While Keith talked, he was consistently aware of the creature perched just in his periphery.
“Which leads to our current situation,” Allura said when Keith had finished. “We have a creature that is entirely unknown to us, and while I’m loathe to destroy it, I’m also not interested in letting it have the run of our ship.”
“Naturally,” Ryner said. “It can be hazardous, even if it’s perfectly benign.” She hummed in thought and peered at Keith’s screen. “Is this creature out of view of your camera?” she asked. “I’d be curious to see it.”
“It’s right here,” Keith said. He pointed. “See?”
“Oh.” Ryner squinted. “My goodness, I didn’t even register it. Hm. That is strange. I keep seeing something, but then it dissolves away.”
“Try looking at it from the corner of your eye,” Shiro suggested. “Just stop focusing on it.” Ryner was silent for a moment as she followed Shiro’s advice. Her eyes suddenly widened.
“By the Lord,” she blurted.
“Is everything all right?” Coran asked.
“Yes, I—yes.” Ryner shook her head, though her eyes remained glued to the creature. “My apologies, I wasn’t prepared.” She grinned, almost absently. “It’s beautiful.”
There was an awkward pause from the others.
“Well,” Shiro said. “That’s not the…standard reaction.”
“Yes, yes, of course. You’ve all been seeing dangerous and frightening forms,” Ryner nodded, flapping a hand.
“And you?” Pidge asked. “What are you seeing?”
“Well.” Ryner’s grin grew. “I might be mistaken. But that looks very much like a olapa. They were a tree-dwelling animal in our high mountain regions. Very shy, but very clever.”
“Why the past tense?” Lance asked.
“They went extinct a few decapheebs ago,” Ryner said. She sighed. “Another victim of the Galra. Strip mining of the mountains destroyed their habitat. We didn’t have the resources to exert any conservation efforts.” Ryner’s eyes drifted back to the creature. “But here it is.” She tilted her head. “How interesting. I suppose I think of this creature as a fascinating, rare discovery, so my mind is projecting the closest thing it can think of: a final survivor of a long-dead species.” She laughed lightly. “Goodness, it’s like being part of a psychological study.”
“It really is,” Hunk mused. “Like a weird Rorschach test.”
“I’m glad you feel so positively toward it,” Allura said. “We’re hoping that your people can take this creature off our hands. I’m sure some enterprising researcher of yours would appreciate studying it and better understanding it.”
Ryner nodded slowly. “I think you’re correct,” she said. “Yes, Princess, we’d be happy to accept this creature. The fact that it can escape observation so easily might be challenging, but I’m sure we can build an effective facility.”
Allura’s relief was palpable, even if Keith wasn’t physically in the room. “Thank you, Ryner,” she said. “Once again, you’re coming to our rescue.”
“Only paying back your own rescue,” Ryner said, grinning. “Give us just until tomorrow’s sunrise; I think we’ll have something ready.”
The next morning, Keith was directed to fly Red to a facility a few miles north of the castle ship. The others followed in Blue. Keith could feel Red’s relief at getting out of the hangar as well as the prospect that soon, the intruder would be out of her cockpit. He let her perform a few barrel rolls, and he couldn’t help but smile at how her mental space sparked like a firework.
When they arrived at the facility, a group of Olkari was waiting for them. One, an older male named Kalin, introduced himself as the director of the research facility. He informed them that a construction crew had redesigned one of the laboratories to include an airtight enclosure that, hopefully, would be able to contain the creature.
“But how do we get it from Red into this lab?” Pidge asked.
“I believe we have an idea,” Kalin assured her. “Although it will require some cooperation from the Red Paladin and the Red Lion.”
“Tell him we’re ready to do whatever they need,” Keith told Pidge over the coms.
The solution, it turned out, was to bring Red into a large hangar space where a large transparent containment unit waited. Kalin explained that they hoped Red could place her mouth hatch inside a docking collar, and that the creature could be transferred from her cockpit to the containment unit. Keith agreed, and after a few tries, was able to maneuver Red into the docking collar. While Keith waited for the research team to ensure the connection was airtight, he watched the creature lick their small brown paws with studied focus.
“All right, Keith,” Ryner said over the coms. “We’re ready for you.”
“We’ll be right here if anything goes wrong,” Shiro added.
“Thanks,” Keith said as he stood. He hesitated for a moment before striding over to the creature. They didn’t move, but their eyes fixed on Keith. He inhaled and, like before, placed a hand on their head. Again that sense of touching something churning and light-like. Again, the coalescing into something solid and real.
“These are good people,” Keith murmured to the creature. “You’ll be okay here.” The creature gave him a deliberate blink. Keith sighed as he pulled his hand away and turned back to the control panel.
The hatch popped open with a rush of fresh air; the creature jerked their head up and stared toward the back of the cockpit. They shimmered and blurred; Keith saw something move like quicksilver, and then they were gone. Keith stared at the spot where they had been with tight lips before he spoke into the coms.
“I think they left,” he said. “Did they make it into the containment unit?”
“One moment,” Ryner said. Keith heard a low buzz of conversation before Kalin spoke.
“Yes, yes, that’s a definite signature. Seal off the docking collar now.”
Keith heard a low rumble from outside. A moment later, Pidge said, “That’s it. Keith, you can remove Red from the collar and get on out here.”
Keith did so, his excitement rising despite himself. He maneuvered Red’s head out of the collar and extended the jaw ramp before he all but ran out of the cockpit. He barely made it halfway down the ramp before someone slammed into him, almost knocking him back.
“Lance—?” he started
“Making good on that rain check, dude,” Lance said cheerfully. Before Keith could respond, Pidge reached them and elbowed Lance aside so she could throw her arms around Keith’s chest. Hunk and Shiro were right behind, and soon Keith found himself surrounded by arms and grins and demands that Keith never do that again. Keith melted into the sensation; he couldn’t help it. When they finally made it down the jaw ramp, Keith was pulled into a hug from Allura and yet another from Coran. He felt flustered and stupidly happy, and even the way his legs shook ever so slightly couldn’t dampen that.
When Keith had emerged from his reunion, he finally saw the containment unit in person. It resembled a large, glass bowl. It was also seemingly empty. Beside the unit, Kalin and his two assistants were bent over several datapads while Ryner watched.
“You were right,” Kalin said to Coran. “These biosignature readings are almost nonexistent. Any other situation, and I’d assume these are simply static noise from the sensors.” He shook his head. “I can’t blame you for not being able to track it in a large ship.”
“Well,” Coran said, grinning. “That does help my ego some.”
“But it is actually in there?” Lance asked, eying the unit skeptically.
“Oh yes, I’m certain,” Kalin said. “There was a definite change into the readings as soon as the Red Lion’s hatch opened.”
Keith let his gaze wander over the contained space. “Oh,” he said, and almost smiled. He gestured at a blurred figure in the center of the containment unit. “It’s right there.”
Everyone’s heads snapped to where Keith had pointed. Hunk, who was closest to it, let out a muffled yelp. Gradually, like silt settling into place, Keith saw the creature’s outline tighten into a coyote again.
“Well,” Kalin finally said. His voice sounded strained, and Keith wondered what he saw. “Yes, it’s right there indeed.” He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. “Excellent. Always good to have visual confirmation.” He looked to the others. “We should be able to handle things from here. I’m sure you all have matters to attend to.”
“Well this guy,” Lance said, throwing an arm over Keith’s shoulder, “needs to attend to a shower.” He grinned at Keith. “Wasn’t going to mention it, but you’ve got that armor stink.”
“Shut up,” Keith said, but he was grinning.
They chose to spend another few cycles on Olkarion; Keith suspected that after the stress of the last few days, they could do with some time on a friendly planet among allies. After Keith had showered and slept for nearly twelve hours, he was told that he should feel free to take things easy until they left. Keith tried to follow that advice. He really did. But the niggling in the back of his mind made that hard.
Finally, Keith relented and found his way to Ryner’s office in the administrative building. She greeted him warmly, and when Keith made his request, she agreed to escort him to the research facility herself.
When the two of them arrived at the laboratory where they were keeping the creature, they found a young Olkari working at a holoscreen. She jumped when the door opened and turned in her chair. Her eyes widened when she recognized her visitors.
“Madam Ryner,” she exclaimed, standing. “And the Red Paladin. I wasn’t expecting—“
“We failed to send notice, Eitha, not to worry,” Ryner assured her. “Please, continue your work.”
Eitha nodded and sat back down. “You’re here to see 1103?” she asked.
“1103?” Keith echoed.
“Yes, that’s the designation we’ve given it.”
“Huh.” Keith ran a hand down his face. “Yeah, I was hoping to see them. Is that okay?”
“Of course.” Eitha gestured to the far side of the lab, which consisted of a transparent wall. Beyond it stood a large enclosure filled with vegetation. Somehow, that made Keith relax. They hadn’t trapped it in an empty prison. He approached the wall and scanned the vegetation. It took him several minutes to see anything, but suddenly, he found himself staring into a pair of amber eyes surrounded by tawny fur. They watched one another silently for a long while. Keith almost half expected the creature to shift into the familiar face from the house in Minnesota. Except they didn’t. The creature just sat there, eyes fixed on him like Ryner and Eitha weren’t even present. It was strange to look at this thing and, instead of terror or disquiet, feel some uncomfortable mix of pity and sadness.
“How are they doing?” he asked without looking away. “Have you found out much about them?”
“We’re just working to establish baselines right now,” Eitha said, coming up to stand beside Keith. “Its physiology is completely new to us. The Green Paladin and Mister Slav were hitting on the right idea when they suggested it doesn’t entirely follow our classic understanding of physics. It really acts more in line with laws found in the subatomic realm. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Keith nodded absently. In the enclosure, the creature finally broke eye contact. They shook their head and looked away to sniff delicately at a branch.
“If you don’t mind me asking, Eitha,” Keith said. “What’s your role here?”
“I’m 1103’s primary handler,” Eitha said with a touch of pride.
“And what shape is 1103 for you?”
Eitha blinked and glanced into the enclosure. She seemed to struggle with how to answer for a long moment. “You might think if it as strange,” she said. “But I see an Olkari.”
“It’s not all that strange,” Keith said. “I think that’s good. I think it means you see them as someone you can eventually understand.” Keith inhaled and looked to Eitha and Ryner. “Can I make a request?” he asked.
“Please,” Ryner said.
“I know that this creature has a lot of unknowns. So it’s not like you can just release them into the wild because you have no idea what they might do.” He paused. “But the Olkari were the ones who made me realize that everything is connected. Which means we have something in common with this guy. I mean, they took a human shape and waved at me. I think that means something. But even if they’re not intelligent in a way we understand, they still want things. They want company; they want interaction. They were stuck all alone on a lifeless planet. And I wouldn’t want them to finally escape, just to land in a place that isolates them again.” He looked to Eitha. “I guess what I’m asking is that you do your best to find a way to communicate. If you can’t manage that, just interact. Just…just be kind.”
Eitha looked solemn as she nodded. “Yes, I can do that.” She hesitated as if something had struck her. “Actually, I’ve been calling them a…a nickname in my head. Riri. It’s a bit of a diminutive name in our language. It’s what we used to call my brother when he was small.”
“Good,” Keith said. He looked back to the coyote, who was watching the three of them like they had just realized they had been given a name. And who knew? Maybe they could pick up on things like that. Keith wouldn’t be overly surprised.
They left the next day. Keith spent a long time at one of the large windows, watching the planet grow smaller and smaller until it disappeared entirely. Even after the ship had entered deep space, he didn’t move from his spot until Coran’s voice echoed over the intercom, announcing that everyone was to meet on the bridge for training.
Keith heaved a sigh as he stood and made his way to the door. It was time to get back into his normal schedule.
Well. As normal as schedules ever got around here.
Nearly a week later, Keith and Shiro were on maintenance duty together. Just as he had been for the last week, Keith found himself hyperaware of every noise he and Shiro made in the echoing halls. More times than he could count, he thought he heard a whisper of footsteps behind him and glanced back, only to find empty hall. Once, as he was turning forward again, he caught Shiro watching him with an unreadable expression. Keith’s face warmed.
“Sorry,” he said. “I thought—“
“No, I know,” Shiro said. “It’s fine. I get it.” Keith hummed and didn’t quite meet his eye.
When the entered Keith’s room, Keith clambered onto his bed and peered at the vent set into the wall.
Shiro looked around the room. “You have a flashlight in here?”
“In the desk; top drawer.”
While Shiro rummaged through the drawer, Keith pressed his fingers along the edge of the vent the way Coran had described. The grill came away with a quiet pop, and Keith set it on the bed at his feet. He accepted the flashlight Shiro handed him and shone its pale blue light into the dim vent.
“Hm,” he said.
“What d’you see?”
“Scratches,” Keith said. “Coyote was definitely in here.” He strained for a better view, but he was a hair too short for it. “Can I get a boost?” Shiro climbed onto the bed and made a cradle with his hands. Keith stepped into it and hoisted himself up by a few inches. “Let me know when your arms get tired,” Keith said.
Shiro snorted. “The Galra arm is literally doing all the work; it can hold you for a few minutes.”
“Show off,” Keith said fondly and shone the light into the vents again. From this angle, he could see similar damage to what he had seen on Red and on the hull. Dimpled metal and deep gouges. The sight should have made Keith’s stomach sour, but instead it elicited a strange hollowness. “Well, the vent is definitely going to have to be replaced,” Keith said. “Coran’s not going to be thrilled.”
“We’ll help him,” Shiro said as he lowered his hands and let Keith step back onto the bed. He levered himself to his tiptoes and peered into the vent. “Oof. Yeah, it really did a number. No wonder it freaked you out.”
They remained silent as Shiro replaced the grate. When he’d finished, Shiro settled down into a sit on the bed. After a moment, Keith followed suit.
“So,” Shiro said, looking out at the room. “Want to talk about it?”
Keith bit at his bottom lip. “About what?”
“Keith. Come on. You’ve been quieter than usual since we left Olkarion.”
Keith tangled his hands in his lap and shrugged lightly. “Just busy. Trying to focus on my physical therapy. Coran thinks I can try some light sparring in a few cycles.”
“Okay,” Shiro said neutrally. Keith sighed.
“I’m fine.” Beat. “Okay, look, maybe I got weirdly attached.”
Shiro shifted, running his metal hand thoughtfully up and down his thigh. “You wish we could have let it stay with us.”
“I get why we couldn’t let them stay,” Keith burst out. “I’m not stupid. I mean, you saw them as Haggar. It wouldn’t be fair to make you live in a ship where Haggar might pop up at any moment. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been entirely comfortable with it either. Sure, in the end their shape was pretty benign. But what if they caught me by surprise, or I was in the middle of a flashback, and I saw…saw him again?”
“It wouldn’t be healthy.” Shiro’s voice was wound tight.
“Right. That’s…I can’t stand seeing that face ever again. I can’t stand being scared like that ever again.” He made a low, frustrated sound. “It’s not like Coyote would do it on purpose; that’s just how they are. And they were stuck by themselves somewhere remote, and then they finally found people. I get that. And I feel a little bad that I let them become someone’s research project.”
“The Olkari respect life,” Shiro said gently. “They’ll treat…Coyote well.”
“I know.” Keith dug a hand into his hair and bent over, almost double. “I know.”
Beside him, Shiro shifted. Keith felt his warm, broad hand land on the back of his neck and squeeze gently. When Shiro spoke, his voice was almost painfully fond. “You’re a very empathetic person, Keith. You know that?”
Keith frowned. “You’re thinking about Hunk.”
“You both can be empathetic. You’re just quieter about it.” Keith remained silent, unsure what to say. “Except when it comes to you mother henning me,” Shiro added. “Then you’re very vocal.”
“I’m just saying. You were so scared of this thing,” Shiro said gently. “It basically stalked you. It took the shape of your abuser. You have every right to hate it. And instead here you are, pitying it.”
“’Them’,” Keith said without thinking. He lifted his head slightly, and Shiro slid his hand from Keith’s neck to land on his upper back. Keith looked at Shiro. “Nobody should be called an it. Use ‘them’.”
“Okay,” Shiro said. He was smiling. “Case in point.”
Keith exhaled hard and clasped his hands between his knees. He looked into the middle distance before speaking. “To be completely fair though,” he said. “I did stab them.”
Shiro laughed and tugged Keith closer; his lips briefly landed on Keith’s temple. “To be completely fair,” he said. “I think that was good for you.” He paused. “And they weren’t hurt, were they?”
“Not sure. Don’t think so. But I think I’ll try to apologize if I ever see them again.”
Funny, but Keith realized he was being completely serious.
Adventure most unto itself
The soul condemned to be –
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.
- Emily Dickinson
Life went on. Gradually, Keith regained enough strength and mobility in his legs to put up a fair fight against the gladiator. The pain was still there sometimes, some days more than others. But Keith was managing. And the others went out of their way to accommodate and help him. He let them because he was doing his best to remember he wasn’t alone. Not anymore.
The message from Olkarion came almost three months after they had left. Coran approached Keith one evening after dinner and told him that the castle had received a personal communication for him from a certain Eitha. Keith hurried back to his room so he could open the message on his datapad.
It was a video. When Keith started it, he saw Eitha sitting in an office, her arms crossed on the desk. She looked directly into the camera.
“Hello, Keith,” she said. “Ryner said I could call you Keith, and that I wasn’t being too familiar. Anyway. I have an…update for you concerning Riri.” She cleared her throat. “Two days ago, we had a mishap in the facility. The power source was disturbed by a major solar storm, and most of the labs went dead for a few vargas.” She exhaled hard. “Riri escaped,” she said. “Not surprising, is it? Their sealed door apparently became unlatched, and that was all they needed.” She glanced away as if in thought. “They have a search team trying to find them, but I doubt anything is going to come of it. You know as well as I do how well Riri can hide in plain sight.” She tilted her head. “I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this. I think...I'm mostly all right with it. Is that irresponsible of me? I mean, there could be severe ecological implications of an invasive species. But there's only one of them, and as far as we've observed, they don't seem to reproduce." She paused. "And it’s like you said, Keith. They were alone for a long time. And now, they’ve got a whole planet full to bursting with life. So many animals and people to interact with. I suspect they’re happy right now, wherever they are.” She looked back into the camera. “Anyway, I wanted to inform you of this. I thought you had a right to know. I’ll keep you updated in case anything else happens.”
The video blinked out. Keith stared at the blank screen for a long, long moment, mouth slightly open. Then, without warning, he started to laugh.
“What’s the joke?”
Keith looked up to find Hunk leaning into his room.
“Nothing, nothing,” Keith coughed out, wiping at his eyes. “I’ll tell you later. Did you need something?”
“Nah, just wanted to let you know we’re all in the living room right now. Didn’t want you to feel left out.”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Keith said. “Thanks.”
Hunk nodded and left him. Keith looked back to the datapad, an absent grin still in place.
When Keith finally left his room and padded down the hall, he could hear people shouting. When he entered the living room, he found Lance, Pidge, and Allura sitting inside the circle of couches with Lance’s homemade playing cards in hand.
“Accept it, Lance, she had a better hand than you,” Pidge was saying, grinning toothily.
“I’ve been playing this game way longer than her, though,” Lance groaned. “How is this possible?”
“Don’t feel too badly,” Allura said with a sly smile. “I regularly played lobstones with one of the best strategic generals on Altea.”
“Ugh, fine.” Lance slapped down his hand of cards. “Next round.”
Lance was leaning against the couches beside Hunk, who seemed to be deep into a cleaning project. All around him were various mechanical parts laid out in neat rows; he was wiping at a long metal rod with an oily cloth. Shiro sat cross-legged on the couch above Hunk and Lance’s heads, his datapad laying forgotten in his lap as he listened to whatever Hunk was saying about the internal workings of his device. Coran and, surprisingly, Slav were present too, seated at a table and surrounded by various holoscreens.
“No, no,” Keith heard Slav say. “The zip-lines absolutely must go. On this is have to insist.”
“There’s updating the castle’s systems and then there’s eliminating an important cultural—“
“Do you even know the chances of those zip-lines failing in the middle of an emergency?” Slav interrupted. “At least in the sixtieth percentile.”
Coran grunted. “If we get rid of the zip-lines,” he said, “then we’re keeping the lions’ paint jobs. I don’t care if the hues could be more effective; they’re within your parameters already, and they don’t need to change.”
Slav’s eyes narrowed before he tapped at a holoscreen. “Deal,” he stated.
Keith left them too and crossed the room to clamber into the couch pit. Lance glanced up and scooted to the left, making room for Keith between him and Hunk. Keith settled into the space with a murmured thanks.
“Anyway,” Hunk said. “One of these days I’m going to finally get hold of whatever alchemy they do to make this alloy.” He held up the thin metal rod. “Because this stuff can resist every sort of corrosion known to both alien and man, I swear.”
“Okay, but here’s the real question,” Lance said without looking up from his cards. “Can it resist Pidge’s tongue?”
“Nothing resists that, Smurf boy,” Pidge chirped.
Keith crossed his arms and settled his head against Hunk’s shoulder. On his other side, Lance leaned against him slightly. Keith’s legs were extended so they almost touched Pidge’s thigh. Absently, she reached down and squeezed his ankle, like a reassurance that they were both there. Shiro’s hand ruffled Keith’s hair and then stayed there as a comforting weight. Keith shut his eyes and let the flow of conversation and the closeness of the others wash over him.
He could feel Red as a low, content hearth fire in a corner of his mind. And if he really concentrated, he almost thought he could feel Blue as the softest smell of impending rain or the briny whiff of a far-off ocean. Her presence, somehow, was still identifiable. Entirely familiar. A faint tone that lapped through his mind like an old habit.
Keith dozed. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but soon enough, he was dreaming.
He was in the shack. He could hear the high, thin note of the wind and the faint chirps of cactus wrens roosting in the eaves. He moved, almost drifted, toward the front door and pushed it open to find the rolling hills of red-orange sagelands.
A ragged gray coyote waited for him, sitting prim and upright like a sentry.
Keith and the coyote watched one another for a long moment before, with a flick of its ear, the coyote stood, turned, and began to trot away. Keith followed. In the way of dreams, the walking seemed to take forever and no time at all. At some point, Keith thought he caught the scent of saltwater and the feeling of something large and looming and animal above him. But mostly it was just him and the coyote. Separate but somehow the same.
Suddenly, the desert ended. In front of Keith stood a thick wall of foliage, stirring with life. The coyote looked back at Keith with steady amber eyes. It trotted forward and disappeared into the foliage with a wave of its tail. Almost an invitation.
After a beat, Keith followed.
And that's a wrap! Thank you once more to everyone who's been following this story as it's been posted and leaving such kind comments. It's made the months of stressing over this story feel completely worth it.
And now, on to Season 3!