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According to the Academy of Flight and Extraterrestrial Vessels (AFEV) there are six official classes of spaceship: cruisers, fighters, battalions, freighters, frigates, and starliners. The first three are primarily Military issue, the fourth and fifth are trading staples, and the last are listed wholly for private sector use.

In accordance with regulations of the AFEV and the Military, any spaceship must be taken out of use after fifty-five years of service, regardless of upkeep and condition. After fifty-five years of service, a ship is regulated to the private trash dumps (or as it has become more popular in the last fifty years, the governmental recycling centers) or one of the manufacturing companies for dismantling.

The starliner Fuck City, known as 'Andy' to its crew, has approximately one hundred fifteen years of service. It has not graced any dump, recycling center, or manufacturing company at any point in its excessively long life because 'Andy' is not like any other ship transporting cargo to every charted edge of the Confederate Republic (and if the rumors are true, quite a few of the uncharted ones).

'Andy' is a Living Ship. It is the only Living Ship on record. Not even the Ship fully knows the when or where it came about.

As a Living Ship, 'Andy' is subject to a slightly different set of rules and regulations than a fully mechanical ship would be. In fact, Andy is treated much like a highly improbably Citizen, and as such, enjoys many of the rights and freedoms as its more humanoid counterpoints. Rights including the choice of its working companions and of work meeting its needs and abilities.

'Andy' has never worked for the Military or any formal part of the Confederate Republic, beyond a single experience during its twenty-third to twenty-fifth years of service, of which there is no official record of beyond a single notation in the AFEV shipping logs.

(A personal note of caution: Do not ask the Ship about these years of service. It rarely turns out well for the inquirer. See also: incident reports from Louisiana and Kentucky Quadrants.)

Instead, 'Andy' has moved through the private sector, working as either passenger or cargo transport. Currently, 'Andy' works small cargo transports with the occasional passenger jump.

'Andy' is a massive starliner with a quantum drive unlike most ships currently in service. This is highly unusual, especially considering the age of the Ship. Also unusual is the Ship's prickly consciousness and the small size of its current crew of four men: Matt Mixon, Stu Ross, Ryan Morgan, and Kyle Johnson. All four men have connections (albeit slim) to various anti-Republic groups.

It is the advice of this reporting official that Fuck City or 'Andy' should be closely monitored. There is a high probability of anti-Republic leanings – and possible actions – within this combination of Ship and humanoids.

- Official Report 97.52.0193

|-|

Andy is a super-massive, super-awesome starliner equipped with a kickass quantum drive that jumps through space and time unlike anything that has yet been manufactured within the entire scope of the known galaxy. He is also a prickly, grudge-holding asshole.

"We need to stop at New Chicago, Andy!" Matt insists. They have this argument every time a job or whatever takes them anywhere near the Illinois quadrant. This time is at the tail end of a very long line of jobs that, while successful, had been seriously draining for all involved. "Stu has a feed on a trio of scientists looking for transport. Easy job, easy pay – practically a vacation!"

"I'm a Ship, Mixon. Not a fucking hourly rate employee," Andy snaps. "I have no use for a vacation."

"Well, man, the rest of the crew is human, and I, for one, could sure as hell use the break," Matt says. He flops down on the pilot chair and plants his feet on the steering console. "Trust me on this one, mi amigo. Fuck City needs the break."

"Are you seriously trying to tell me what to do again?" Andy sighs, the sound reverberating through the Ship's speakers. More specifically through the speakers located in the pilot chair and console, where the vibrations throw Matt's feet to the floor. "We've had this discussion, Mixon."

"Whatever, dude. We're going to New Chicago." Matt swings his feet backup onto the console. "Stu's already sent the confirmation that we're taking the job." He grins widely up at the ceiling. "You wouldn't want to give yourself a bad name, now would you?"

There's a soft fizzle sound, like the sound made by opening one of Stu's rare and extremely contraband soda pops, and then Andy appears on the bridge next to Matt's seat. Well, not Andy 'cause Andy is totally the entire fucking Ship, but Andy's preferred holographic projection of himself. It's a hot little number – tiny, compact little dude with long red hair and pale, pale skin – that Matt appreciates more than he should considering how often he has to interface with the dude to pilot.

Matt doesn't stop himself from staring though. 'Cause, fuck, at least he isn't drooling like that time Andy decided to try out a smoking hot, female, supermodel body.

"Mixon, did any of you bother to look into these scientists before you agreed to transport them?" Andy demands, hands on his hips. They're nice hips, too, especially since Andy seems to have an aversion to wearing anything except very flimsy cloth shorts that are barely hanging onto his hips. "They could be working for the fucking government for all we know. Matt!"

"Dude, you are such a fucking tease," Matt says. He grins cheekily as Andy levels a glare at him. "Your batteries not charged enough to replicate a full outfit?"

"One day I will figure out a way to strangle you with two hands of my very own, Mixon," Andy promises.

"Sure thing, man. I'll keep that in mind." Matt shrugs. He's practically one hundred percent positive that Andy would never try to kill him. It isn't like the Ship hasn't had a million and one chances in the last ten or so years. "Anyway, of course we checked them out! Do you honestly think that we'd let anyone with government leanings on board?"

"St. Jacob's," Andy reminds him.

Matt shrugs again. Sure it sucks that they'll never be able to go back to either the Louisiana or Kentucky quadrants, but what were Matt and Kyle supposed to have done? Turn Andy over to a bunch of crazy space rednecks? Yeah, right. Then they'd have been tossed into the Pen when Andy proceeded to commit mass homicide once his crew had been tossed off. Right. "You really need to get over that, man. Totally ancient history."

Andy raises an eyebrow. "It's been six months."

"Like I said, ancient history." Matt swings his feet to the floor so that he can punch in the coordinates for the rundown space station outside of New Chicago where they're scheduled to meet the latest in a long string of passengers. He knows that Andy doesn't need him to do this all manually, but Matt has to do something to maintain his credibility as the Ship's pilot.

Also, Matt knows there's a faster way to New Chicago than the course he just plotted, and he can't help himself from poking at Andy even just the little bit. "We're just picking them up, jumping to wherever they need to go for a few days for some experiment or something, then we're dropping them off. Easy-peasy."

Andy's hologram winks out of existence as Matt finishes punching in the numbers, but not before he gives him one last scowl. "Fuck, Mixon, stop trying to do my job. I'm better at it."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever, Professor, just take us where we need to go," Matt laughs as the coordinates seemingly alter themselves into a faster, more streamlined route.

|-|

"Dude, you should stop fucking with Andy," Kyle says. "Every time you piss him off, he drops the temperature in the maintenance bay. I'm too fucking young and too fucking beautiful to die from hypothermia."

Matt rolls his eyes. "Dude, you should grow some balls. I haven't done anything."

Ryan slides up to the table, pushing the refilled bowl of popcorn across it. "Except force him to make the jump to New Chicago, thus making sure that we will all be living in near-arctic temperatures until we pick up our cargo and leave again."

"Didn't we agree that you were going to sweet talk him into it? Not piss him off into one of his fucking sulks?" Stu asks. He deals out the cards. "Deuces wild, motherfuckers, and Morgan, keep your butterfingers off the cards."

Ryan flips him off. But he wipes his fingers off before picking up his hand. "You and your fucking cards, man."

|-|

Andy is a Class Three Venian Cross Starliner. He has six decks - One contains the bridge and weapons; Two and Three contain crew quarters, living areas, and mess; Four contains the labs and the medical bay; Five contains engineering and maintenance; and Six is the cargo hold. He is capable of self-sustaining a full crew of thirty for six months minimum without docking, and can outrun any other ship yet produced.

(If asked, Andy will point out that the Class Three Venian Cross Starliner was actually modeled after him, considering that particular make was first manufactured seventy-years after Andy's first year of service.)

Because of his size, most docks - space or planetary - forgo the usual up-close-and-personal inspection process for a faster, more complex, impersonal scan. Andy hates being scanned. Not as much as he hates being boarded, but being scanned is up very high on his 'Do Not Like' list.

"They're going to scan me," Andy mutters. He appears on the screen closest to the pilot's chair, and he's glaring at Matt. Though if Matt were being uncharitable, he'd say Andy was more pouting than glaring.

"Dude, you scan us all of the time," Stu reminds him. Stu, like the rest of the crew, is lounging around the bridge trying to act like they've important work to be doing. "You're totally obsessive compulsive about scanning."

"No one asked your opinion, Rossman." Andy transfers his glare to Stu and the station he's pretending to working on. "And I do a periodic scan of every level every two hours; you don't seem to have a problem with that when we're being invaded."

"Eh," Stu shrugs. "Anyway, my observations are free-of-charge to my friends. I can't let my genius go to waste, after all."

"As amusing as Stu's delusions of grandeur can be, we've an incoming wave from the station security," Kyle breaks in. "Perhaps we can act like professionals for a few minutes, hmmm?"

"Sounds unlikely." There's another fizzing-pop sound, and Andy's holographic shape takes form in his customary spot next to the pilot's chair. He's wearing a shirt this time, and Matt has a feeling his attempt to hide his pout wasn't very successful. For a hologram, Andy's glare packs a whole lot of heat.

"Try anyway," Kyle deadpans. "Or they'll do a scan and a full-tactical search."

"Luckily, we're going to avoid that wholly terrifying possibility all together," Matt says. Full-tactical searches involve large smelly men who take too much pleasure in attempting to intimidate the crew, which tends to piss Andy off. And that never ends well. Matt sits straight at the pilot's station; around him the rest of the crew does as well. "Patch them through."

"You do realize that you have a station of your very own, right?" Ryan gripes from what would be the primary communications station if they weren't on a sentient Ship. But he hits the button anyway.

"Station 7-2-5, New Chicago. Reason for docking?" A bored sounding middle-aged woman asks. "How long?"

"Passenger pick up," Matt says. "Two days, three tops."

"For a pickup?" the lady asks. She looks up from her paperwork with a raised eyebrow. "Awfully long pick up."

Matt grins. He hates it when they end up at the rundown, back-galaxy stations where every little peon hotshot wannabe has to give them issues. There might be more government involvement at the larger stations, but it is so much easier to slip in under the radar. "The crew also needs a little R & R; it's been about six months."

"You don't have an R & R clearance for this quadrant," the lady tells him. Like Matt doesn't already know that. And like it ever really matters. R & R clearance paperwork is only needed for stopping on one of the Primary Planets, where the sheer mass of people and machinery means anyone who doesn't stick to their schedules causes a backlog of movement for the entire system.

Andy had calculated the time differentials once: for a Primary Planet, a five minute shift of one schedule could cause a twelve hour lag for everyone else. For a remote space station, such as 7-2-5, New Chicago, a five minute shift actually sped shit up.

"Hence the passenger pickup," Matt tells her. Her expression hardens; obviously Matt is going to have to pull out the big guns. He really, really hates dealing with back-galaxy hotshot wannabes.

He grins for a couple of seconds longer, and then he sighs and rubs at the side of his face. "Look, I'll be honest with you. Work has been a little scarce with the new regulations, and we've been taking every above board job to come our way."

"And you haven't been doing the proper background checks," the lady accuses.

"AFEV regulations call for a surface background check that anyone with basic net access and half an IQ could do," Andy scoffs. "We abide by all AFEV standards, and we respect all of our clients' rights to privacy."

"I'm sorry," the lady snaps. "I'm authorized to speak with the Captain of the ship only. Who are you?"

Andy grins. It isn't the easy going one Matt had used to attempt to lure himself into the lady's good graces, but a creepy, creepy nasty one that makes Matt's skin crawl. Andy is good at that - too good. Stu really needs to stop watching old school Space Pirate vids.

"I am the Ship," Andy informs her.

She snorts. "Cute, but I'm not in the mood."

"Ma'am, not to tell you how to do your job, but have you actually read anything about this Ship?" Matt asks quickly before Andy can say anything to have them impounded or anything else so completely not what they want.

The lady on the screen huffs up and glares at Matt and Andy (Stu, Kyle and Ryan are all out of range of the viewing screen, lucky bastards); a deep, unsettling tingle starts up around Matt's stomach, and he's pretty sure it isn't indigestion.

"I don't care if this was the private vessel for a Republican Senator, young man," she snaps. "Every ship that wishes to dock at this station must go through the same identification procedures."

Matt sighs again. "We aren't asking you to bypass procedures..."

"Having one of your crew men act as the 'voice of your ship' is in clear violation of every procedure I have ever come across!"

"Look, lady," Stu interrupts, poking his head around Matt to look her in the digital eye. "How many life form reading have you registered?"

The lady hrumphs and glares. But answers, if a bit reluctantly. "Five. Four humans and one alien."

"How many sets of heartbeats?" Stu continues.

"I don't know what you lot are trying to pull..."

"How many heartbeats?" Stu asks again.

The lady glares some more. Stu just stares back. Matt has seen him square off against Mossian Pixies - who never blink for the very simple reason that they lack the eyelids to do so - and win. Matt leans back in the pilot's chair and wishes he had some popcorn for the show.

It takes several minutes, but the lady blinks first. She sets aside her papers and taps a few keys on the keyboard that had previously been hidden. "We are reading five life forms, four human and one alien, as I already said, and four heartbeats."

She stops talking for a moment, blinking furiously at her screen. She taps another couple of commands in before muttering. "I don't understand. There have been no recordings of any alien species to exist without a viable heartbeat..." Not true but Matt isn't going to bring up the thousands of recorded cases that probably haven't filtered this far into the Universe.

"Please re-read our official paperwork," Matt says. He hates it when this happens. They won't have time for R & R here, not unless they want someone - Republic or private sector - trying to steal Andy away from them to do experiments. Again. They're going to have to locate their clients and hightail it out of the Illinois quadrant ASAP.

Ryan seems to have come to the same conclusion as Matt. He's typing furiously away at his console, most likely trying to get a hold on this Wentz character they're here to pick up.

"Oh," the lady says after a minute and a few more keystrokes. "He is the Ship."

Stu moves out of Matt's personal space with a self-satisfied smirk. "Allow me to introduce Fuck City, the only known Living Ship in existence. We mostly just call him Andy."

"Yes, of course," she says as she turns back to them, a tight, insincere smile on her face. "As a representative of Station 7-2-5 of New Chicago, I welcome you to the Illinois quadrant and grant you your three day pass."

Matt smiles back at her, his just as insincere as hers. "We accept your welcome and thank you. We ask permission to remain in orbit around the station and to dock with our transport shuttle."

She nods. "Of course. Just allow me to initiate our standard scan - it won't take more than a few minutes, and you'll be on your way."

Matt nods again, not pointing out that she'd already completed one scan - otherwise she'd never have known the whole thing with the heartbeats.

"Have a pleasant visit, gentleman," she says once the scan has been completed. She cuts the connection before Matt can reply.

Matt spins his chair so he can glare at Andy. "Dude! What the fuck?"

Andy shrugs; Matt sort of wants to punch him. "She pissed me off!"

Scratch that. Matt definitely wants to punch him. "You just didn't want us here for three days," Matt accuses.

Andy shrugs again but doesn't say anything. His shit-eating grin is really more than enough.

"Just because you don't need the periodic rest, man, doesn't mean the rest of us can survive indefinitely without it," Matt reminds him for what has to be the two millionth time.

"Not to disrupt this little lover's quarrel," Ryan interrupts. "But I have our client's location. Between restocking and pick up, we'll only be here about twelve hours."

|-|

Pete Wentz is a short, inked, weird little alien. He is also a crazily competent shot.

Matt watches Pete take aim around the edge the packing crate they're hiding behind. There's a shout and a crash, and then silence as whoever was shooting at them isn't anymore. "Dude, you have to tell me where you learned how to do that."

Pete laughs and winks at Matt. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you." Then he ducks around the edge of crate and announces the all-clear. "I think Patrick, Joe, and Stu are a couple of levels below us. Where did you say your shuttle was again?"

"If you say so, dude, but if you turn out to be a Republic agent, I'm not going to stop Andy from spacing you and your buddies," Matt says. He climbs out behind Pete and double checks his hipshooters' charge levels before following him past a moaning pile of broken crates. He almost stumbles over Pete when he stoops down and grabs a couple of laser rifles from the floor. "We're two sections too far left, and how do you know where they are? We lost comms an hour ago."

"I always know where Patrick is," Pete says with a grin as he tosses one of the rifles over to Matt. "Come on, we have, like, five minutes before those fuckers' backup shows."

Matt shakes his head as he holsters his weapons so he can use the rifle. Fucking laser rifles – Andy never lets Matt use the laser rifles. "Right. So, what's the fastest way from here to the others that doesn't involve running into anymore hostiles?"

"Ductwork, of course," Pete says. He pries open the grate to the main ventilation shaft and motions Matt through. "After you, dude."

|-|

"I told you flirting with the station owner's daughters was a bad idea, man," The curly haired guy tells Pete. He leans out the small hole in the wall and fires off a couple of shots, ducking back inside the hold to avoid the immediate return fire. He leans against one of the boxes that form the walls of their little hiding spot and reloads. "This might be a small station in the middle of nowhere, but that doesn't mean we won't need to come back some day."

"We won't ever need this back-galaxy station again and you know it, Joe," Pete waves off Joe's concern as he swaps out his liberated laser rifle with one of Patrick's spare hipshooters, both of Pete's having been lost when the ductwork had mostly blown up around them. "You just like their doughnuts."

Joe shrugs easily. "Good doughnuts are hard to come by."

Stu takes the mangled laser rifle from Matt. "I hate saying this, but, dude. Maybe Andy was right."

"Look," Matt says as he powers up and double checks the charge on his guns. "We knew there was a possibility of an ambush as soon as the whole Living Ship thing came up. You can't blame our passengers for that."

Stu levels a glare at Matt that indicates just how low Stu currently rates his intelligence level. "I wasn't talking about the ambush, Mixon." Stu holds up the remains of the rifle. "I was talking about this once awesome piece of weaponry. You're never allowed to use anything other than those hipshooters again, understand? You are a disgusting, technologically inept cretin, I swear."

Matt rolls his eyes as he tries the comms again. They're still two floors directly below the shuttle, and they missed the last three check-ins. They need to get a message out to the others before Andy takes it into his fool head to start shooting and not asking questions. "Sure, sure, whatever, Rossman. When was the last time your comm worked?"

"About the same time as those Republic agents started firing on us. Then again…" Stu holds up the mangled remains of what was once his comm unit.

Matt winces at the mess of wires poring out of the tiny black box and does his best not to look at the corresponding hole in Stu's shirt. "Right. Well, I'm fresh out of good ideas. How about you boys?"

"Thanks to Pete, the ductwork is out of the question," Patrick grumbles. He has a data-pad in hand, and he flicks through a series of screens faster than Andy shooting down any of Matt's great ideas.

"Yes, you are welcome, Patrick," Pete says. "I am so happy to have saved your ass. Again. I do love the practice." He leans out the hole and fires off a couple of shots that result in two screams and a minor explosion that nonetheless shakes the entire level. Matt really hopes Pete hadn't managed to cause a hull breach somewhere. "Shit. Missed the leader."

"We could pull a Kansas City Shuffle," Joe says.

Patrick shakes his head before Matt can ask what that is. "Way too complicated, Trohman, and we seriously don't have the time. Or the man power."

"Okay." Joe shrugs easily. Then he points behind them to where there is now a gap between the boxes behind them. Pete's explosion must have knocked them over. Matt really hopes there isn't anything explosive in them. "We could always just throw this awesome flash grenade out the hole and make a run for it. The stairs are right there."

Patrick narrows his eyes at Joe. Who just smiles back happily.

"Right. Sounds good!" Matt breaks in. "That is an excellent idea, Joe."

"It is not an excellent idea!" Patrick protests. "You know that they're guarding your shuttle; going to the shuttle is suicide!"

"Nah, it's totally an excellent idea - it's just that it is also a poorly thought out plan," Matt tells him as Pete starts shuffling Patrick through the narrow gap between the boxes. "Now, going back to Fuck City without Andy's shuttle? That's suicide. And I have to tell you, man, you and yours seem like awesome people, but I am so not ready to die, so. You're either with this plan or you're looking to stick around this station while we make a run for it."

Stu rolls his eyes at Matt before he follows Patrick and Pete out. "Hurry the fuck up, Mixon. We're only going to get one chance at retaking the shuttle."

Matt waves him off. Then he sticks his own head out of the hole for a quick look around. "You've got a group of them on our left looking to make a run for us, man," he tells Joe when he pops back inside. "The right is completely blocked off. That Wentz guy isn't all that bad at accidental explosions."

"Who said it was an accident?" Joe smiles easily at him. He takes pokes at the flash grenade – actually, Matt's pretty sure it isn't just a flash grenade, at least none of the flash grenades Matt's ever seen have looked quite like this one – then he shifts towards the hole. "Okay, this is going to be a big ass bang – we're gonna want to be moving before it blows."

"Thought you said it was a flash?" Matt asks even as he starts after the others. Behind him, Joe is laughing as he shouts, "Fire in the hole!" Then they're off to the races.

|-|

"I told you that was a bad idea," Patrick snaps as he wraps a bandage around Matt's upper arm. "It figures that I'm stuck with these two, and you lot have to be just as stupid as they are."

"Aw, Pattycakes, don't front! You know you love us," Pete says. He's curled up in the co-pilot's chair now that Stu is piloting them back to Andy because Patrick insisted on taking care of the slice on Matt's arm.

"Seriously, Patrick, relax, dude," Joe agrees. He pops his head up over Patrick's shoulder and winks at Matt. "No one died, all of our stuff is intact, and we've made a clean get away. You really can't ask for more than that."

Patrick turns his head to glare at Joe. "Are we two quadrants away yet? Are we out of range of any of their ships or their ship's tractive beams? No, we are not. So I'll thank you for not jinxing us prematurely."

"Aren't all cases of jinxing premature? I mean, really," Matt says. He pulls his arm out of Patrick's grasp and examines the bandage, acting like he can't see that Patrick is about to pitch an apocalyptic fit. "Can you actually jinx someone after the fact?"

"Mixon, shut up, and get your ass up here," Stu says. "I think I've figured out their jamming frequency. You know how Andy's going to react if he sees you're not driving this thing."

"Andy is a worrywart," Matt says. He trades places with Stu again, ignoring Patrick's squawking about his arm. Matt punches in the emergency broadcast frequency and calls up the visual display, which pops up next to the sub-space radar. The sub-space radar that's telling them that 7-2-5 New Chicago just launched five ships that are heading in their direction.

"This is shuttle craft Nirvana hailing starliner Fuck City," Matt says. "I repeat: Fuck City, this is Nirvana. We're coming in, and we're coming in hot."

"The deities fucking wept, Mixon, what the fuck did you do this time?" Andy's voice snaps just seconds before he appears on the display.

"I'll have you know, Andy, that I am not responsible for this," Matt tells him. "Stu and I landed, loaded the cargo, then went looking for our passengers. Who had been, um, delayed."

"'Um, delayed'?" Andy glares at him. "Why do I not like the sound of that?"

"Because you're a paranoid fuck, Andy," Stu tells him. He leans over Matt's shoulder to smile at Andy. "Seems someone on the station has taken a liking to you, dude, and they wanted to have a meeting with the 'captain' here."

"'Captain'?" Andy says. "Oh, that's rich."

"Mixon's not the Captain?" Pete asks.

"Mixon dreams of being the captain," Ryan's voice cuts in. "Fortunately for the rest of us, he's just the pilot."

Matt rolls his eyes. "Whatever, Morgan. You always sing a different tune when I'm the one piloting us out of trouble."

"I'm confused," Joe breaks in. His head, well, his hair pops into Matt's peripheral. Stu squawks as he's pushed out of the way. "Who's the Captain?"

"Fuck City doesn't, technically have a 'captain'," Matt says. "We know, AFEV and Military Protocols necessitate the whole 'captain' thing, but that doesn't really work with us."

"Still confused," Joe says. "How do you operate without a Captain? Is it a democracy?"

"What? No," Andy says. He's glaring at Matt again. "You are shit at explaining, Mixon."

"You're not doing any better there, Professor," Matt points out.

"Okay, I get that this is all part and parcel with that whole unresolved sexual tension between the two of you, but we do have five enemy vessels baring down on us," Ryan interrupts. "How about we give the lectures after we're two quadrants away and alone?"

"I don't know who that is, but I like him," Patrick says. "He sounds reasonably smarter than the rest of you."

"Patrick, that isn't very nice," Joe points out.

"No, it isn't," Ryan agrees. "But the truth so rarely is."

A light starts blinking lazily on the console. "Not to cut your quality bonding time short or anything," Matt says as he flicks the light off, and then sends the shuttle on a sharp turn to avoid a sudden burst of laser fire. "But our unwanted company just showed up. You folks might want to buckle in; they aren't all that friendly."

"Noted," Andy says as the rest of the shuttle scrambles to their seats. "Kyle is all set to receive you in the bay. And Mixon?"

"Yes, dear?"

"Hurry the fuck up. I can't make the jump to hyperspace without you in the chair." Andy cuts the connection before Matt can reply.

Matt would roll his eyes, but he's a little busy trying to keep the shuttle intact and triangulate their approach into the shuttle bay at the same time. "Stu, I need…"

"On it, Matt," Stu says. He and Pete switch spots, and the weapon system is finally online. "You just get us there in one piece."

|-|

Obviously Matt isn't the only human that Andy has ever interfaced with. Matt is, after all, a significant number of years younger than Andy, and Fuck City has had several crews over his years of service. That bit of logic aside, Matt's fairly certain that he's Andy's favorite pilot ever. He's come to this conclusion by compiling all of the stories and records he can get his hands on and comparing them to his own experiences with Andy.

And really. Andy doesn't rag on just anyone like he does Matt.

"Mixon, seriously," Andy's voice rings out over the shipwide comms. "Hurry your ass up."

"We think they might have a tractive system hooked into the actual station," Ryan adds. He sounds a little wistful. "At least, that's the only thing I can come up with against the current spike in energy readings."

"Morgan, we do not need a tractive system," Stu says with a long suffering sigh. Stu is, as Matt has said in many a crew meeting, under the unfortunate assumption that he is wiser than everyone else on the Ship. Stu actually thinks that because he's right more than sixty percent of the time that that lends credibility to this argument. Matt says that he's just fucking lucky.

"Look, I'm on my way," Matt says. "Unfortunately, unlike that tractive system Ryan's drooling over, no one's come up with a workable teleportation system yet, so you're all going to have to wait the whole three minutes that it's going to take us to run to the bridge. Geeze."

"So I should just send a quick note to the lovely people of 7-2-5 to hold off on that whole capturing or destroying us plan while you amble your way up here?" Andy asks all sugary sweet. Sometimes Matt wishes Andy had a physical body so that he could choke the shit out of him; Andy's expressed the opposite enough times, and Matt doesn't think he should have all the fun.

"Dude, I know you can do that whole evasive maneuver thing in your sleep…" Matt starts.

"Do Living Ships actually sleep?" Patrick asks.

Apparently Kyle has decided that doing his job and escorting the civilians to the nice safe lounge with the seats and the safety belts expressly designed to keep them from being tossed around like so much confetti isn't all that important. Matt glares at him a little. He just shrugs back at him.

"He has a stasis mode that's basically the same thing," Matt says. "And he can totally do evasive maneuvers without a pilot in the chair." Matt clenches his teeth as the ship moves sharply to the left – too quickly and sharply for the inertial dampeners to compensate for – and he slams into the wall right in front of the emergency ladder that goes directly up to One.

"Like I said," he mutters as he flips out his knife and pries the panel off the wall, reveling the ladder. A second later, the panel is lying halfway down the corridor, his knife is in its sheath, and Matt is climbing the ladder.

"Isn't having a direct route to the bridge a bad plan?" Pete asks. He's directly below Matt and his hand hits Matt's foot when he reaches for a rung too fast. "Shit, sorry."

"Please," Andy snaps. "I do know how to do the whole optical allusion shit. My crew is the only people who know where the appropriate access panels are, and I have systems in place to keep invaders from using service areas with ease. Minute thirty, Mixon."

"Yes, dear, thanks for the heads up," Matt says. He's reached the end of the line, and he slams his hand down on the release pad. The access panel hisses and shifts forward, and Matt only has to lightly slam against it for it to fall off. He shoves it further out of the way as he climbs into the corridor outside the door to Weaponry that hasn't worked in eighty-five years (Andy says it was fused shut by one of his past crew members during a particularly dicey raid by Space Pirates posing as Republic agents, and he's never really seen the need to have it fixed. Considering there are about five other ways into Weaponry aside from the main door, Matt doesn't blame him), and he races down the corridor. "Kyle, we totally need to check the access panels again."

"Yes, I'll get right on that, Mixon," Kyle snaps.

Matt skids around the last corner to the bridge, only avoiding slamming into the wall again because the ship takes another sharp curve, and then he bursts onto the bridge. He leaps for his chair, pulling the straps tight almost before he's fully seated. Coordinates, trajectories, and the locations of every ship in the system scroll past on his screen, and he types in an approach to a nice little moon three quadrants over. "How does everyone feel about Coreas this time of year?"

"Sounds good, as long as we aren't visiting," Ryan says. "They've still got that warrant for Stu plastered across the 'Net."

"Eh, we won't be there long enough for it to matter," Matt says. He sends the final coordinates through to Andy and brings the hyperspace controls online. "Everyone strapped in?"

"We're set!" Kyle confirms.

"Your numbers are shoddy again, Mixon," Andy says. His face pops up on the main viewer screen. "Seriously."

"What? That'll get us there, won't it?" Matt asks. He lets the Trance come over him, head falling back and eyes closing, and suddenly he isn't hearing Andy through his ears anymore. No, now Andy is a voice right in the back of his head. Matt can even feel him grinning. Those coordinates will work, and you know it, asshole.

Are you telling me that you're going to say you're right, against me calculating the odds in one millionth of a second? Are you really going to go there, Matt?

Matt laughs. Then fix them so we can get out of here, man.

Like I was going to wait for your permission. You have a thirty second window; take us away.

For another second there is just black against the back of his eyelids, and then the entire scope of the Universe flashes in bright neon colors before fading to just the space around them. Matt finds the trail that follows Andy's coordinates, the brilliant steel blue that matches the unadorned portions of Fuck City's hull, and directs the Ship to lie along that path. All right. Time to go.

He reaches out for the brightest point along the line, Andy reaching, not alongside of him, but with him, and together they pull.

|-|

The thing about hyperspace travel? It isn't like the stories that floated around in ancient bad science fiction. At least, not with Fuck City. Andy isn't one hundred percent sure about how it goes down with the handful of other ships known to use hyperspace travel – schematics will only take a person so far – but for Andy? He needs to interface directly with his pilot. Any being in the chair will do, but there are certain ones that are just more suited for it. Maja was one, Matt is another.

Interfacing is most simply explained as a small (a very, very, very small) portion of Andy's consciousness is downloaded into the pilot's mind. That's not exactly what happens, mind you. Most beings would never be able to handle even a very small portion of any being's consciousness competing with their own – even for a short period of time – but that's really the only way of explaining it to someone who would never actually experience it.

Maja had once tried to explain it to Felix, saying that she went into the Pilot Trance – the common phrase for the way most pilots will slip between complete awareness of their surroundings and into a quasi-dream state during intense maneuverings, which hyperspace travel certainly qualifies – where she could communicate with Andy on a more direct level. Felix had only vaguely understood, but then again, he had been one of the worst interfacings Andy had ever experienced – he hadn't even been able to hear Andy shouting – so it probably stood to reason.

Andy would explain, should anyone actually ask him, that interfacing is basically mental sex, wherein the objective isn't for mutual orgasms but for breaching the barrier between normal space and hyperspace. It takes Andy calculating the right coordinates, the pilot finding the right path, and them both breaching the barrier together.

|-|

They drop out of hyperspace a full planet's distance from Coreas an hour later. There isn't anyone behind them, and before there ends up being anyone in front of them, Matt pulls up the coordinates to Omorja, Andy corrects them, and they jump again.

Once they are orbiting on the far side of an unnamed planet three planets over from the mining planet, Matt calls for a meeting down in the mess. Pete looks vaguely queasy after both jumps, which is a fair reaction to two jumps in quick succession, but hyperspace travel always leaves Matt starving.

"What type of damage did we take?" Matt asks as soon as he has a full plate of food in front of him.

"Minor glances along the port side along Three and Four, no direct hits," Ryan says. "Andy did a damn good job."

"Andy always does a damn good job, thank you," Andy says. There's a fizzing-pop, and he appears at Matt's elbow. "Only minor amounts of credit goes to Mixon."

Matt flips him off. "That wasn't what you were saying a few hours ago."

"You keep telling yourself that, Mixon."

Joe leans across the table to where Stu is just sitting down with a tray of drinks. "Are they always like this?" He sounds like he might be trying at whispering.

Patrick groans. "Joe, you suck at whispering." Joe just smiles at him.

"You mean the flirting? Yeah, that's totally normal," Stu says. He takes a can of pop from the tray before he passes the tray to Joe. The can hisses as Stu opens it. "We've managed to keep Andy from thinking about a cyberkenetic body on the off chance we'd have to see them screwing around – listening to the verbal equivalent is bad enough."

Matt rolls his eyes so hard it makes him a little dizzy. "Look, Rossman, just because you haven't managed to date anyone in over a year doesn't mean you should be broadcasting your sick fantasies about. It's rude."

"Uh-huh. And the flirting is not dinner time conversation," Stu says.

"Where'd you get pop?" Pete asks. He reaches over Joe for a can. "Most people won't go near this stuff." He pops the tab and takes a long drink before he leans against Patrick, who just sighs and shifts to better support him.

"We're not most people," Kyle says. He's leaning his chair back on two legs like normal. Matt's hoping that he falls over like he did the time the Selvienian delegation was aboard; Matt had laughed so hard he hadn't been able to breath comfortably for days. "Also, Stu's addicted to the stuff. He'd live on it if Andy would let him keep enough on board."

"We do have to have room for regular cargo," Andy says.

"Whatever," Stu says. "Was there a reason you called this meeting, Matt, or did you just want some company for dinner?"

"I figured we should clear the air, explain a few things and have a few things explained to us before we get back under way," Matt says. He finishes the last of the potato-like things from the third moon of Flavin and pushes his tray away from himself. "Okay, I'll start with the introductions."

He points at Andy, who has crossed his arms over his chest and is about three seconds from rolling his eyes at Matt. "This is Andy. Andy is also known as Fuck City, also known as the Ship you are currently a passenger of. He's the only known Living Ship in existence, and he takes it personally when people try to sell him to the Republic."

"He also takes exception to people talking about him like he isn't standing right here, Mixon," Andy snaps.

"Hey, just giving a basic summary here, dude. Chill." Matt smiles up at him. "Anyway, right. I'm Matt Mixon, pilot and all around awesome dude. That right there is Kyle Johnson, mechanic extraordinaire and super awesome cook – he's the one you'll want to thank when you've gained ten pounds before you leave."

Kyle gives everyone a little wave as he picks up the tray Matt so careless pushed aside. As he walks back to the kitchen, Kyle smacks the back of Matt's head. Matt tries to duck, so mostly all Kyle manages to do is mess Matt's hair up a little.

"Next on the list is Ryan Morgan, all around Jack of Trades. If you need something oddly specific done, talk to him, but mostly he makes sure that we look reputable in front of the straights," Matt continues, pointing at Ryan. Ryan smiles at everyone else, but flips Matt off. Matt gives him a cheeky smile and moves on to Stu. "Then there is Stu Ross, our weapons expert and resident pop fanatic. Words of warning: do not take any of his pop without his prior permission, he gets cranky."

"Matt learned that the hard way," Kyle says. He sits back down next to Ryan.

"Yep, Matt was blue for a whole three months," Ryan agrees. "It was absolutely awesome."

"Especially when Trillium tried to take him home with her," Stu laughs. "How is dear Trillium doing, Matt? We haven't heard from her in so long."

Matt frowns. "I'm pretty sure she married her second father's first wife's third cousin from Omorja."

"Trillium? As in the High Princess Priestess of Kartas?" Patrick asks.

"Yeah, Trill has this whole blue fetish thing that I'm so not getting into," Matt says. He waves his hand in their passenger's direction. "So, introduce yourselves."

"Well, that was eloquent," Andy says.

"Stu's getting anxious." Matt shrugs. "It's clearly a result of drinking far too many pops, but would you really like to take the chance of the weapons expert getting a little slap-happy? I mean, do we really want a repeat of Lutetia?"

Stu calmly flips Matt off. Then takes another sip of his pop.

"Right," Patrick says. He's looking at all of them like they're crazy, which is a fairly normal thing for first time passengers. "I'm Patrick Vaughn Stump, scientist. These are my associates, Peter Wentz and Joseph Trohman."

"Associates? Like your assistants?"

Patrick shakes his head. "No. While they are extremely intelligent, neither of their talents lies in scientific study."

"Meaning Pete is your bodyguard," Matt says, thinking of the way Pete had fought on the station. Definitely a bodyguard. "And Joe is what, exactly?"

"Here for the doughnuts, mostly," Joe says with a smile. "Or, you know, public relations."

"You're PR? Patrick needs PR?"

Joe shrugs. "More Pete honestly – I keep them out of various planet's government's hands, they feed me doughnuts."

"That's an interesting dynamic."

"We're interesting people."

"And just what do you interesting people need me and my crew for?" Andy interrupts. He's crossed his arms over his chest, and he's glaring at the three of them. Stu really needs to stop watching Space Pirate vids.

"We were told this is the fastest ship available for transport outside of Republic control," Patrick says. "I have materials I need to acquire from a specific location that is a good deal away from, well, anything, and I required a ship with the capabilities to get me there." Patrick shrugs, causing Pete to frown and shift away slightly. "I assure you, you would be in no danger and the materials I will gather are miniscule in number."

"You can't get them anywhere else, or through more traditional means?"

Patrick smiles. "These materials are not… accessible anywhere else in the Universe, I assure you."

Matt and Andy look at each other. Matt knows that the rest of the crew is more than willing to go along with this – what Patrick has said is pretty much verbatim from his initial communiqué, if they had any issues, they never would have picked him up. Matt is mostly just curious. The difficult person is going to Andy.

Who huffs a put upon sigh and disappears when Matt raises an eyebrow at him.

"Right," Matt says when he turns back to the table. "We're in. Where do we need to go?"

|-|

It takes Patrick three days to give them the series of coordinates he wants them to use. Those three days he spends pestering Andy and Matt about Fuck City's hyperspace capabilities and limitations.

"Dude, Patrick, your problem isn't going to be with Andy," Matt tells him when Patrick corners him in the mess the second day in. Matt's just in there to grab a quick bite before Kyle locks him in the shuttle bay playing button pusher for Kyle's experimental adjustments on the Nirvana. "It's going to be with me."

"What? Why?"

"I'm human. Andy has near unlimited energy to draw from, and I don't," Matt says. "The longest I've ever done a jump has been six straight hours. Knocked me on my ass for a week."

"Mind you, he was also sick with the Aleran Flu," Ryan breaks in. He shoves his empty tray aside so that he can pat Matt sympathetically on the shoulder. "Does terrible things to the mind, Aleran Flu. Terrible things."

Patrick raises an eyebrow. "Really. Like what, exactly?"

"Nothing important," Matt says. He shoves Ryan out the nearby service hatch and neatly out of the conversation. The last thing Matt needs is for Pete to find out about how Matt had gone nutty after. Well. Stupid fucking flu. "Moving on."

Patrick's grinning at him, and Matt swears he hears Ryan's cackle echoing back through the walls. Matt takes a seat at Ryan's now abandoned table.

"Shut up, Stump. I can still refuse to pilot for this fucked up little expedition of yours," Matt says. He really can't, but there isn't anyone around to correct him. Matt has learned to be very adept at taking advantage of openings when they appear.

"I'm not actually sure how far Andy can jump on his own – we've never really discussed it – but I'm good for about six to seven straight hours of jumping before I'll need a rest."

"How long to rest?"

"Umm, at least twelve hours," Matt says. Enough time to eat and crash hard is what he's looking for, honestly. "Anything less and I might lose focus at the wrong time and, yeah. You ever see a ship that has dropped out of hyperspace without the correct trajectory? It ain't pretty."

Matt seen it once, a couple of years before he'd joined up with Fuck City. He'd been flying out with a commercial hauler that sort of existed below Republic awareness, and on his second tour round the Michigan quadrant one of the older crew members had pulled him aside to point out the wreckage as they'd passed it. It had been a smaller, experimental design for the Republic. Too small for the pieces Matt had seen scattered across two solar systems.

Matt shudders at the memory.

"Okay," Patrick says. He frowns as he types on his datapad. "How does the hyperspace travel work?"

"Um. We enter hyperspace, stay for a bit, and jump off when we hit our exit?" Matt says. He shrugs when Patrick glares at him. "What do you mean, man?"

"Is it a form of quasar bending? Or something completely different?" Patrick asks.

Matt blinks. Then shrugs again. "I have no idea. That's definitely something you'll have to talk to Andy about."

"Mixon," Kyle's voice blares over the shipwide comm. "I need you down in the shuttle bay. Nirvana's ready for those tests you promised us. No excuses, and hurry the fuck up!"

Matt climbs to his feet. "Sorry, Patrick. I gotta jet. You're better off asking Andy about all those specifics anyway – he knows the science. I just follow the lines."

|-|

That leads to Patrick demanding an audience with Andy. Andy isn't much in the mood for talking, what with being busy pointing out all the ways Kyle isn't fixing the shuttle correctly, helping Ryan and the cleaning droids locate the access panels that needed the most maintenance and prioritizing them, and keeping an eye on Pete and Joe touring the ship with Stu, especially when they are in Weaponry. Andy is also double, triple, and quadruple checking all of his scanners to a) make sure they are all working properly and b) making sure nothing and no one is sneaking up on them, he is running deep background checks on all three of their passengers, and he is fixing the damage to Three and Four from the incident at 7-2-5.

Andy simply doesn't need to add the questions of a grumpy, curious scientist who liked to hum under his breath to that list.

However. After the third chewing out by Ryan because Patrick kept interrupting him to try to better figure out the cleaning droids (Matt had wanted to call them MachRoombas but that had, thankfully, been shot down ruthlessly by the crew), Andy finds himself talking to Patrick in the passenger lounge with his holographic image sitting across from Patrick.

"How do you hyperjump?" is Patrick's first question. "Is it quasar bending? Or is it more like Techlor's wormhole theory?"

"You mean, are there secret passageways in space?" Andy snorts. "That Techlor is a crackpot now as much as he was sixty years ago. Only now people are actually listening."

"I'll take that as a 'no'," Patrick says. "No 'secret passageways', right."

He fiddles with his datapad, which has about as many security programs as Fuck City does. The thing can connect to the 'Net via the shipwide connection, like any other portable, but Andy can't exactly connect back. Usually Andy has no problems if he wants to take a quick look-see around his passenger's portables – and seriously, Mixon can fuck off about it as it's just another layer of security. It isn't like Andy ever uses that information against their passengers, except in cases where the lives of his crew are concerned.

Still, the souped up security on a personal portable makes Andy suspicious.

"So, the hyperjumping is more of a time-shock then?" Patrick asks. "Judging by the wear on Mixon."

Andy frowns. Then he shrugs. "It's actually a combination of the two. More the second than the first."

Patrick stares at him when he doesn't continue. The silence grows awkward quickly.

"And…?" Patrick finally asks.

"No 'and'," Andy says. "I answered your question, and I'm not going into details. You should have information enough to do your calculations. Just remember: Mixon can pilot for only so long before he needs to rest. The longer he pilots, the longer the rest."

"Yes, yes. He already told me. Six to twelve," Patrick says. He huffs and tugs at the brim of his hat. Andy's honestly never seen a person wear the old fashioned trucker hats outside of vids. Patrick the Scientist is more of an odd duck than any of the crew is willing to admit. "You are extremely unhelpful."

"It's true," Andy says. He leans his hologram back against the couch, crossing his arms over his chest. He's been told the studied nonchalance of the pose is particularly infuriating. "Just how many jumps are you looking to have?"

"You jumped three quadrants in an hour, yes?" Patrick asks. He's pointedly staring at his datapad again.

Andy narrows his eyes. "Yes. That was at half-speed. Full speed would have taken half an hour. However, Mixon would have been too drained for the second jump."

"Hmmm." Patrick types something into his datapad. "And the distance didn't bother you?"

"I'm a quantum-drive starliner," Andy says. "Nothing short of a prolonged, full-scale battle or jumping to the Edge of the Universe drains me."

"You've jumped to the Edge of the Universe?" Patrick's head comes up, his eyes wide with surprise.

Andy rolls his eyes. "No. That was hypothetical. Why would I jump to the Edge of the Universe?" Andy's not particularly sure the place even exists outside of the myths and legends.

Patrick shrugs. "Some would do it to say they had. Others because they could. The reasons would be your own, and I was just wondering if you had."

Andy narrows his eyes. He has the feeling that there's something else to it but he doesn't have a way of calling Patrick on it. Stupid fucking courtesy protocols. "I haven't."

"Then your hypothetical jump to the Edge was based on what, exactly?"

Andy resists the temptation to reprogram the environmental controls in Patrick's quarters and in the lab space he'd requested. Andy refuses to stoop to that level against a passenger he could more easily space. Also, the crew would be pissed if he did anything to jeopardize their pay.

Plus that whole courtesy protocol shit.

"I'm a Living Ship, Stump. I'm more than capable of calculating the numbers."

"Right," Patrick says. It's obviously an offhanded remark – because why would anyone want to listen to the Ship they're currently inhabiting? – as Patrick focuses once again on his datapad.

There has to be a way of bypassing Patrick's security protocols. There's no way a kid scientist is going to outsmart a Living Ship.

"Seven seven hour jumps," Patrick says.

Andy blinks. "What?"

"It'll take seven seven hour jumps," Patrick repeats. "If we take, say, sixteen hour breaks in between each jump, we should make the full distance in around a week."

"That's." Andy blinks again. Runs the numbers. "You're trying to reach the Edge."

Patrick smiles at him. "What? Did you honestly expect something different? It isn't like the Uncharted Territories are unreachable by any normal ship." Patrick stands up waving his datapad absently at Andy. "I should have the coordinates for you by morning. Thanks for your input." Then he leaves.

Andy stares at the spot where Patrick had been sitting long enough for the internal room sensors to automatically power down the lights. Their passengers are one hundred percent completely fucking nuts.

|-|

The known Universe is really fucking huge. First, there's the fifty Core Quadrants – mini-Empires in their own rights – that had been named for an obsession that the Republic Founders had had with an Ancient Earth country.

Then there's the Band that surrounds them. The Band is a wide scope of empty, uninhabitable space the respectable citizens of the Republic believe is the cause of all evil in the Universe and is also cursed. No true Republic citizen would dare cross the Band.

Andy has made that trip an uncountable number (somewhere around three million, but he'd gotten bored with counting the trips around twenty years ago) of times. It isn't nearly as bad as the rumors. The gap between galaxies is quiet and empty, but hardly the creator of space vampires or whatever idiot story is flying around this decade.

(Andy's personal favorite theory had floated around during his thirtieth year of service and had involved gigantic space blobs that were mostly corrosive acid and ate through anything they came into contact with. Twenty years later a scientist from the New Mexico quadrant captured and studied what he called the Space Jellyfish that were more squid-like than anything.

Space Jellyfish are extremely intelligent, but they have a taste for metal. Andy is sure that the space blob rumors had been caused because some collective of Space Jellyfish had eaten the vast majority of an inter-galactic caravan.)

On the other side of the Band is the Uncharted Territories. The Uncharted are about five times the size of the Core Quadrants but have about the same population. Technically, the Republic has no official jurisdiction in the Uncharted, but anyone with a brain knows that's just a line of complete bullshit. Half of the Uncharted is made up of law abiding peoples looking to make it into the Republic, and the other half is split between criminals and those who hate the Republic with the force of a thousand suns. More often than not, those in the latter group were one and the same.

(Stu and Kyle were both from the Uncharted Territories, Matt and Ryan were both from the Core Quadrants, and no one really knows exactly where Fuck City came from, not even Andy. The first several years of his consciousness are extremely fuzzy – like all the files were corrupted. Andy's pretty sure that explains everything there is to know about his crew. This time around, anyway.)

Fuck City is currently orbiting an unnamed planet three planets over from Omorja, which is located at the outer edge of the Nebraska quadrant, pretty much smack dab in the middle of the Core Quadrants. It would only take two seven hour jumps for them to reach the inner edge of the Uncharted Territories. Then three, possibly four, jumps of the same length for them to cross the span of the Uncharted Territories to the Outer Rim.

Andy hasn't been that far out in almost a century, and he'd only done that then because he'd been under contract with the Republic. There's a nothingness beyond the Uncharted that is everything the citizens of the Republic are supposed to believe the Band is but isn't. Andy isn't exactly sure what Patrick expects to find a full seven hour jump or two out from the Outer Rim.

He isn't exactly sure he wants to find out.

|-|

Patrick hands Matt a list of coordinates when Matt passes him on his way to the bridge. It's been three days since the meeting in the mess and, honestly, everyone is starting to go a little stir-crazy. Even Andy is twitchy – it used to be that Matt found it hilarious when the lights and environmental settings started fluxing all over the place, at least, once he figured out that it was Andy and not some super virus or whatever.

Granted, Andy being twitchy could also be because Patrick has been asking him questions every time one pops into his head. Matt's found it extremely annoying, and he doesn't have ears in every accessible portion of the ship like Andy does.

Matt looks over the list. There are seven sets of coordinates. The first would take them to the edge of the Core Quadrants just outside of the planetary reach of Orleans, the second through the Band, four through the Uncharted to the Outer Rim, and one more from the Outer Rim to some place to absolutely nowhere.

Matt raises an eyebrow at Patrick. "Um, Stump. Are you sure about these? 'Cause this last one here, right? It doesn't actually exist."

Patrick crosses his arms over his chest and glares. "Who's the scientist here, Mixon? Me or you?"

Matt holds his hands up at chest level. "Whoa, hey! Chill out, man. I just wanted to point out…"

"The coordinates are correct."

"Right." Matt nods and gestures towards the transporter with the list. "I'll just show these to Andy then."

"You do that." Patrick nods.

Matt nods again as he walks way. He gives a little wave before he jumps in the transporter and only gives in to the urge to shiver once the doors are closed between him and Patrick. "Holy crap. That guy is insane."

"Talking to yourself again, Mixon?"

Mixon turns his head to the side. Andy's leaning against the side of the transporter and grinning at Matt. The shifting lights that indicate the level casting shadows over the pale skin on Andy's arms.

"Please," Matt scoffs. "I knew you were listening."

Andy raises an eyebrow. "Really."

Matt leans forward to leer in Andy's face. "Baby, you always listen to me."

The transporter comes to a stop with a cheerful little ding. Andy gestures Matt through the door.

"Aside from your delusions of grandeur, Mixon," Andy says. "Just what the fuck were you talking about? Pete's down in the secondary maintenance bay with Joe, Kyle and Stu."

"Wasn't talking about Pete. I was talking about Patrick." Matt waves the coordinate list above his head. "We have our coordinates. Now with an extra set of issues attached." He spins on his heel to roll his eyes at Andy. "Buckets of issues."

"Talking about yourself again, Matt?" Ryan asks from his station. He doesn't look up from the computer card game on his screen. "We've told you this before: Andy is not your therapist."

"Ha ha ha," Matt says. He plops down in his chair and scans the list in. "The first six make sense, sort of. I mean there's nothing out by the Outer Rim, which is why it's the Outer Rim. But the seventh? Weird, dude. Weird."

There's a fizzing pop, and Andy reappears on the main bridge screen. "Stump is trying to reach the Edge."

Matt and Ryan both blink at him. "What?"

Andy shrugs. "The Edge. The end and the beginning of everything. I realize that you never finished that second degree, Mixon, but surely you remember hearing about that."

"It doesn't exist," Ryan says. "The Edge is a figment of one person's crazy-ass imagination downloaded into society's collective subconscious – like space vampires. We can't go someplace that doesn't exist."

Andy lets the list of coordinates scroll past him on the screen. "Actually, if Stump's coordinates are right, we can."

Ryan crosses his arms over his chest. "Right. And now you're going to tell us that space vampires actually exist."

A series of photos and paintings flashes over Andy's face of a very pale, very cranky looking alien race. "The space vampire rumors, like Space Jellyfish, are founded very much in fact. The Fligs are a very old, very private race from a planet on the very outer edge of the Uncharted Territories. They're primarily herbivores, but they have a few ancient bloodletting rituals that some moronic anthropologists six or seven centuries ago took the wrong way."

"Wait," Matt says. "The Fligs are the original Space Pirates?"

Andy scowls. "No. Don't you listen, Mixon? The Fligs are the source material for the space vampire rumors."

"Seriously, man, where do you come up with this shit?" Ryan asks.

"Andy said they were from a planet on the very outer edge of the Uncharted Territories. The Space Pirate home world is on the very outer edge of the Uncharted Territories," Matt says. "And that ain't no rumor."

Ryan opens his mouth, then shuts it with a shake of his head. "There is something seriously wrong with you, Mixon. I just want you to know that we've all realized it."

Matt flips him off. "So you're saying that, just because you can trace back the existence of space vampires, that means the Edge must also be true? Andy, dude, that's a little insane."

"You're talking to a Living Ship, Mixon," Andy says.

"Yeah," Ryan agrees. "Insane is sort of the point, isn't it."

Matt rubs his hand over his face. "All right. You've swayed me with your crazy-ass logic. To the Edge we will go!"

Andy snorts. "Orleans, first, dumbass."

"Not to interrupt what will probably turn out to be yet another titillating argument between the two of you, but shouldn't you, oh, I don't know. Warn the rest of the crew and passengers that we're about to jump into hyperspace?" Ryan asks. "I'd really rather not have to deal with fixing broken arms and concussions and all that shit. Again."

"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Matt snaps. "One time that happened! One time!"

"And I'll never let you forget it," Ryan agrees easily. "I still haven't gotten the slime stains out of the Infirmary beds."

Matt rolls his eyes. "Fine, fine. Do your job and open the comms, would you?"

Ryan continues glaring but turns on shipwide comms before he straps in.

"Attention passengers and crew of Fuck City. The lovely Mr. Stump, our dear, dear scientist, has given us our coordinates," Matt says. He pulls his flight straps on as he talks.

"Finally," Andy adds.

"Quiet, you," Matt says. "Anyway! We're going to jump to the first set in just a moment, so everyone find yourself a place to strap in."

"Mixon, I'm in the middle of some very delicate work here…" Kyle starts.

"Johnson, you're in the secondary maintenance lab," Andy says. "The only delicate work you're doing to screwing our passengers out of whatever cash and valuables they happen to have on them while Stu watches."

"Like I said, I'm in the middle of some very delicate work," Kyle repeats.

"You can go back to swindling them once we're in hyperspace, dude," Matt says. He has their flight path registered and waiting. "We'll be in hyperspace for about seven hours, followed by a period of rest…"

"About sixteen hours," Andy supplies. "We need to make sure Mixon gets his beauty sleep, after all."

"Yes, thank you, Andy," Matt says. "Seven hours of hyperspace, followed by sixteen hours of rest, rinse and repeat six times. For this first jump, we'll be just outside the planetary reach of Orleans in the Louisiana Quadrant. For varying reasons, we will not be making a visit to Orleans, and I do request that everyone keep the noise to a minimum. Our neighbors will not be pleased to find us visiting, so let's not wake them."

"Who did you piss off, Mixon?" Pete asks.

"That was none of my fault, thank you," Matt tells him.

"Actually, most of that was mine," Kyle admits. "And Andy totally has to take some of the blame."

"No, I don't. Why would you say that, Johnson?"

"Well, if you weren't a Living Ship, then it wouldn't have mattered what I had told them," Kyle says.

"Right. So it's my fault for existing," Andy snaps.

"Only partially."

"Kill him after we jump, dude," Matt interrupts. Andy glares at him but shuts up. "All right, I'm making the jump. Everyone settled?"

"We're ready to go here," Stu says.

"So am I," Patrick says.

"You're good to go," Ryan tells him.

"Hold on tight, boys," Matt says. He lets the Trance take over. You all set, dude?

As I'll ever be, Andy tells him. I've adjusted the coordinates to take us out on the blindside of one of Orleans' neighboring planets. We should be fine for the full sixteen hours.

Our energy trail? Matt locates the steel blue trail and swings the ship around to meet up with it.

Shouldn't be noticed until after we make the next jump. They're having problems with solar flares this decade.

Huh. Guess that explains why they've been so touchy lately. Matt reaches out for the bright spot, and feels Andy right beside him.

Between one breath and another, they're gone.

|-|

There are a total of five rooms on the Ship that Andy doesn't keep a strict eye on: crew quarters and the small storage lab off the secondary hallway on the third level, the one behind the perpetually dying potted plant. Meaning there is only the barest possible amount of surveillance on each of those rooms – temperature and life sensor readings only – and Andy doesn't allow anyone access to those particular logs, not even himself. Considering that he's a Living Ship, that's about the only concession to privacy he can make for his crew.

Thankfully, his crew doesn't seem too bothered by the concept. Andy has always been a bit boggled by that fact, though logically he knows he shouldn't have been. This crew is young and of a generation that had practically been raised by technology. They'd been more surprised about the lack of surveillance than anything else. Obviously Andy's spent too many years working with men and women who have had too many secrets and too little contact with advanced technology to just trust the ones they work around.

And, when Andy is being honest, he's glad he doesn't exactly know what is going on in any of those rooms. Especially the small storage lab.

But passenger quarters? Those are fair game.

|-|

"Okay, seriously. I can tell when you're actively watching me, dude, and not just when you're automatically running your scans," Joe says. He's looking directly into the main camera in his quarters – the one that overlooks both the sleeping area and the entrance – which isn't exactly accessible from the floor. Especially for someone as short as Joe. Andy doesn't have another sensor in the room that can explain Joe's sudden growth spurt. Andy finds this disconcerting.

"Seriously. Either show up so we can have a chat or go away, dude. You're being a creeper," Joe continues. He pauses, and then frowns. "Actually, scratch option two. I want to have a chat with you, oh mighty Ship, so materialize your fine ass."

Andy contemplates this for a moment. Joe hasn't asked for a single thing from Andy since he's stepped aboard, unlike his fellow passengers, who were continuing to drive Andy completely mad.

(Andy's caught Pete and Patrick in compromising positions in nearly every section on every deck. Considering there are six sections to each deck, except for One, this is a rather uncomfortable number of accounts that Andy really would have preferred to have never have witnessed, seeing as he'll never actually be able to completely wipe the images from his memory banks.

To add insult to the injuries, Matt refused to let him space them out of the airlock the last time he'd caught them in the shuttle bay. Stupid fucking courtesy protocols.)

Joe, however, has been a most courteous passenger. He's spent most of his time hanging out with Kyle down in the maintenance bay shooting the breeze or running around with Stu doing whatever it is that Stu actually gets up to when Andy isn't paying attention to him.

(Andy doesn't have to keep a strict, if unnoticed, eye on Stu and he likes that fact. Kyle and Ryan are always creating things that would wreck havoc on the Universe should they be removed from the ship, and Matt is, well, Matt. Stu is the least likely one to do something stupid, and when he does, Andy usually figures it out pretty quickly.)

Andy likes Joe, so talking to him shouldn't cause that many issues. Andy hopes, anyway. It usually is the quiet, respectful ones that throw the biggest monkey wrenches of them all.

"What's up with the pop sound effects, dude?" Joe asks after he hops down from the crate he'd dragged over to the wall. "Shouldn't you be able to appear without it? You don't usually make any noise when you disappear."

It figures that Joe would be the one to notice and comment on that. "One of my former crew members took a distinct dislike to my appearing without sound. Said it startled the shit out of her," Andy says with a shrug. "She almost decapitated another crew member at one point, so I programmed in the sound that annoyed her the most."

"Ah," Joe says. He sits down on the edge of his bed and gestures for Andy to pull up his own seat. Andy appreciates how polite Joe can be (politeness honestly is a rarity in the Universe), even if it isn't particularly necessary. Holograms don't really need to sit.

Andy does anyway. "What do you want to talk to me about? If it's about not spacing Pete and Patrick, you should talk to Mixon – he's the one that told me not to."

"And you listened to him," Joe says. He has his head tilted to the side, and he's grinning at Andy.

"Yes, that's been known to happen. He is my pilot," Andy says.

Joe smiles. "Yeah, I got that. How's he holding up? He looked a little green after that last jump."

"He's fine. We came out a little close to that star, and it shook him a bit," Andy says. Granted, they came out of hyperspace looking like they were going to plow straight into the star, and Matt wasn't the only one a little shook up about it. Stu had gone straight to the storage bay on Three behind the dead plant, and Kyle had disappeared straight to the nearest bathroom. Andy had spent a couple of hours going over his sensors a couple (six or seven) times himself. "He's sleeping now. We're going to hold off the next jump a couple of hours to be sure."

"Good plan that." Joe nods. He leans back on his hands and watches Andy for a couple of minutes. Andy uses the break to double check on everyone else on the ship: Stu is still locked away behind the dead plant, Kyle is in the kitchens baking while Ryan laughs at him and steals the batter, Matt is still sleeping, and Patrick and Pete are. Fuck.

"Patrick and Pete are at it again, aren't they?" Joe laughs at him. "They're like rabbits, man. Every where and all the time."

"If they'd just stick to their quarters, or fuck, Patrick's lab, I wouldn't have an issue," Andy says. "But the gym? People have to use that space; it's unhygienic."

Joe laughs some more. He's laughing so hard that he's curling up on himself. Andy doesn't think about how awesome it would be to have actual hands with which to choke annoying people.

"You wanted to talk, Trohman," Andy points out once Joe's laughs trail off into sporadic giggles.

"Right, right, sorry." Joe giggles again, but he pushes himself back up into a sitting position. "Right, I did. It's just. 'Unhygienic'? Really? That's your protest?"

Andy raises an eyebrow. "What? You want me to say I'm jealous of all the sex?"

"Hey, if it's the truth, it's the truth, man. I'm not going to say one way or the other." Joe shrugs. "Anyway, I didn't ask you here to talk about Patrick and Pete's sex life."

"I should hope not," Andy says. "Gossip is more Mixon's deal."

Joe nods. "Yeah, I get that. Matt is actually who I wanted to talk to you about. Sort of, anyway."

Andy blinks. "You want to talk to me about Mixon? Or not?"

"Not particularly Matt, but it all relates in a circular sort of fashion," Joe says.

Even being a Living Ship capable of calculating very large numbers very quickly doesn't mean that other beings don't confuse Andy. This is a prime example of that. "Right. Circular fashion."

Joe laughs some more. "Yeah. That's it. Have you ever thought about not being a Ship?"

Andy blinks again. And now he's really confused. "What?"

"No, seriously, man. Have you ever thought about it?" Joe asks. He's still smiling, but he isn't laughing anymore. His eyes have even gone serious. Andy doesn't think he's ever seen Joe serious. It's a little weird, no lie. "Like, have you ever thought of not being the only one of your kind?"

"Sure," Andy draws out the word. "It isn't logical to think that there's only one of something in the whole Universe – everything has a second and most a good deal more."

"No, no, man. Not logical. Totally not what I'm aiming at here. I mean, like, emotionally have you thought about it?" Joe asks. "You've kindred spirits with your crew, that's obvious – and you can't say you don't have emotions, because I've seen you when you're engaging with Matt: you totally have emotions – but kindred spirits isn't exactly the same as having straight down to the genetic level similarities family."

"I'm not sure I know what you mean," Andy says. "Are you asking me if I've ever thought about the rest of my race? If there ever really was a rest to have?"

"I." Joe pauses for a second, obviously mulling that over. "Partially. Having another member of your race to compare to would be helpful, but mostly I was getting at family."

Andy doesn't know about the whole family angle Joe is pushing, but he has thought about what it would be like to know another Living Ship. A time or two. Mostly when he most wants to be strangling one of his crew members. "Yes, I have thought about meeting another Living Ship. I don't understand what that has to do with my thinking about not being a Ship."

"Nah, I didn't think you would." Joe smiles a little crookedly. "Don't worry about it. I was mostly just wool gathering. Anyway, I actually wanted to talk to you about Patrick and Pete."

Andy raises an eyebrow again. "Is this the part where you threaten me to not space your friends or else?"

Joe shakes his head. "There really isn't much I could do about that whole 'or else' thing, so I'm thinking threatening you wouldn't really work out so well."

"You'd be surprised at how often that thought doesn't occur to people," Andy says.

"I've been around a few times, so I think I get where you're coming from, dude," Joe laughs. "Actually, I was going to ask you to cut them some slack. Patrick is a little extra stressed about this whole thing, and Pete is just trying to keep him from going homicidal. Not that there are other ways to de-stress the dude, but Pete loves Patrick and apparently the sex is great. Can't really blame dudes for sexing it up when the sexing is great."

Andy blinks again. He has a feeling if he were more humanoid he'd be dealing with a headache right about then. "I feel that there is something I'm supposed to be asking about why Patrick is 'a little extra stressed', but I'm fairly certain I don't want to know."

Joe shrugs. "Nah, it's probably easier not to ask. It shouldn't be a problem anyway."

"Right." Andy climbs to his holographic feet. He doesn't need to be standing to shut off his holographic form but Maja had trained him well. "I'll take this under advisement, Trohman."

"We'd all appreciate it," Joe says. "Really. Most of the time telling Pete not to do something, especially when you threaten him, well. He's contrary."

Andy laughs. "Considering the first time I caught them, he deliberately mooned me? Yeah, I can see that."

"Awesome, man. Thanks for chatting. I'm gonna catch some shut eye before the next jump, you can let yourself out, right?" Joe climbs up the bed as he's talking and curls up under the covers.

Andy can't help but laugh again. "Yeah, Trohman, I'm good. Sleep well."

"Thanks, dude. Night." He's asleep pretty much as soon as he finishes the words.

Andy likes Joe, so he's extra quiet as his holographic form fades out. He even turns down the lights before he goes to double check Matt. They only have five more hours until the next scheduled jump, and Andy knows Matt is going to argue with him about waiting the two extra hours to be safe. Sometimes Matt's nocturnal mumblings give away his arguments.

|-|

They come across a little bit of trouble with the local PLEOs (that is, Planetary Law Enforcement Officers) after their fifth jump drops them right in the middle of a major trade lane. That wouldn't have been much of an issue – it wasn't like there were any actual trade ships using the lane or anything – except for how they'd happened to have dropped back into normal space about a mile off of a rather large PLEO cruiser-class vessel with an active tractive beam and a crew with itchy trigger fingers.

"You have got to be kidding me," Patrick says. "You have maybe, maybe, six hundred ships passing through here every year. Six hundred in a year. That does not spell 'major trade lane'. That spells 'could pass for a paved road.'"

"Patrick, perhaps now isn't the time to be getting into your issues with back-galaxy solar systems," Joe says. He pokes at the screen in front of him for a second, reads whatever it tells him, then frowns before he pokes at it again. "Especially since these guys are either AFEV or Military."

Patrick gestures wildly at the main view screen where the image of a large, balding, overweight officer is glaring at them. "Really, Joe. Does that guy look AFEV or Military to you?"

Joe looks at the guy, then shrugs. "Okay, no. Sorry, dude, but you'd never pass even AFEV fitness regs." He smiles sheepishly at the guy. Then he turns back to Patrick, motioning the scientist over to look at what he'd pulled up on his screen. "But that is a cruiser-class ship registered under the name Infinite Darkness for the Military AFEV branch."

" Infinite Darkness? Really?" Matt does his best not to smile or laugh, considering that would probably be taken as a hostile action by the fat guy currently in charge of the tractive controls, but that has to be one of the worst ship names he's come across yet. And he spent a year apprenticed on a frigate loving called My Lady's Left Ball.

"Yes, really," the guy says. He's slowly turning a deep violet. Matt thinks his left eye might be starting to twitch as well, but Matt's tired so his eyes might just be playing tricks on him. "I do not believe you or your crew seem to understand the trouble you are currently in, Captain."

The guy is totally addressing Matt, too. Stu is snickering somewhere off to Matt's left, and Matt raises his eyebrow at the guy just so he can keep from laughing himself. "Yeah, no. I'm not the Captain, dude. Name's Matt Mixon, and I'm the pilot. The Captain is currently, ah, indisposed of, but if you'll give me your name and a message, I'll be sure to pass that right on along to him, mister…?"

"That's Captain Buckley of the AFEV Cruiser Infinite Darkness, Pilot, and you will call your Captain to the bridge at once," Buckley orders. He puffs himself up as he issues the orders and Matt has to pinch himself to keep a straight face. "You and the crew of this vessel are hereby placed under arrest by order of the Academy of Flight and Extraterrestrial Vessels' Terms of Space Byways Conduct, Subsection 232.I3."

"Really, Captain Buckley. Captain Hurley isn't able to come to the comm," Matt says. "I'm his second, and I'm sure that between the two of us we can come to some sort of arrangement here."

Buckley gestures to someone off screen and then the ship suddenly jerks to the side with a horrible squeal of twisting metal. Matt is very thankful for the fact that he hadn't attempted to stand between dropping out of hyperspace and getting into a pissing contest with Captain Bad Attitude, because otherwise he'd be rolling around the bridge floor next to Patrick and Pete.

"Whoa! Ryan! Kyle! Andy! What the fuck?" Matt yelps all the same. Kyle's voice comes over the comm at the same time Ryan starts talking damage reports, but Matt doesn't really hear either of them, because Andy's face appears on Matt's screen. Matt hadn't expected Andy to be smiling at him, but this isn't Andy's normal 'I'm annoyed by your shenanigans and someone is going to hear about it' face, either.

This is Andy's 'you're fucking with me and my crew and I'm going to fuck you up but good' face. Perfect. Just what they need is a homicidal ship with delusions of Space Piracy.

"Mixon, that tractive beam is trying to tear Deck Four right out of me," Andy says. "I count that as a hostile action. You have approximately two minutes before I start blowing shit up."

"Shit, chill, dude! I'm working on it," Matt says. "No blowing things up, fuck."

Buckley makes another sharp gesture, and the horrid screeching stops. "I trust you now understand that I am in no mood for games, Pilot. You will have your Captain report to the bridge immediately, or I will simply tear you apart in accordance to Sanction 546.7B.95. I will be lenient: you have thirty minutes."

He makes another gesture and the main viewer screen goes black. The bridge is silent except for the blaring sensors.

"Ryan, shut those off, please, and can someone tell me just what the fuck happened?" Matt asks after a minute. He suddenly has a very large headache.

The sensors go quiet. "We totally can't take another focused pull of that magnitude to the same section," Ryan says. "I've reports of hull breeches all along the port side of Four, especially around the Infirmary. I really hope no one ends up needing surgery any time soon."

"I've closed off the affected sections," Kyle says over the shipwide. "The entire Medical Bay section is pretty much a lost cause right now – Ryan, I hope you still have that emergency med lab set up on Two, seriously – but thankfully we still have structural integrity. If we need to hyperjump, we can, but it'll have to be short until Andy can manage repairs."

"Which I'm already working on," Andy snaps. He appears next to Matt chair, and he's glaring at the blank view screen. "I'll need at least four hours before the bots can get in there. And I can't jump until that fucking beam is turned off or jammed."

"Why can't you send them in now?" Pete asks. He's helped Patrick off the floor, and the two of them are hovering over Joe's shoulders. "Wouldn't that speed things up?"

"The hull is breeched, Wentz, which means that section is open to space," Andy says. The damaged section appears in blueprint form on the bottom half of the main view screen. Above that is a real time image of a portion of the section and the space surrounding it. Bits and pieces of the hull and what Matt recognizes as the Infirmary beds are floating in the space between that section of Fuck City and drifting steadily towards the Infinite Darkness. At least Ryan will stop bitching about the slime stains now. "As long as the hull is open and that tractive beam is active, anything that isn't bolted down becomes space trash."

"Right." Pete nods. "So what's the plan then? Captain McGrumpyPants doesn't seem like the type to just let us heal up and go."

"We're still in the Uncharted, right?" Joe asks. "I didn't think the AFEV had jurisdiction out here?"

"Technically they don't," Stu agrees. He's over at the Weapons station punching something in that Matt can't exactly see. Not that Matt needs to see. There are a lot of reasons for why Stu is the weapons expert and Matt isn't. "But those guys aren't AFEV regulars – they're bounty hunters, and most likely the only lawmen in this entire subsection of the territories. Their word is law, period. Most of them are decent enough, for Republic bootlickers, but no one is going to step up against them if there isn't a profit in it."

"Welcome to Pirate Territory," Matt says. "The nice, touristy Pirates with the pet parrots are over on Planet Partyfunfundancetime, about two jumps that a way." He gestures vaguely off to the starboard side of the ship. "The rest will take your ship and your pants sooner than look at you."

"Right." Joe nods. "So, what exactly is Sanction 546.7B.95?"

"Fuck, Joe, you have a computer right in front of you," Patrick says. "Shut up and let them figure out how to get us out of this mess."

"It's probably faster to just to let us explain it," Stu says. "Especially since Sanction 546.7B.95 just means that the bounty on Fuck City says Buckley can tear us to pieces so long as he delivers everything back to the Republic. The sanction isn't really anything official or legal, not that bounty hunters or Republic agents really give a damn about official or legal."

"There's a bounty on the Ship? Put out by who?"

"The Republic, who else?" Andy says. "They've wanted their fucking hands on me for almost a hundred years, and they can't take me unless a bounty hunter brings me in from the Uncharted – I'm technically a Republic Citizen within the Core." His hologram goes fuzzy for a moment, and when it clears, Andy is wearing a standard issue Captain's uniform.

"Snappy, dear," Matt tells him. "But what the fuck are you doing?"

"Buckley wants to see the Captain," Andy tells him. "I'm giving him the Captain."

"Yeah, no," Matt says. "I seriously doubt the Captain of a Ship called Fuck City is going to be wearing that. It's hideous, dude."

Andy rolls his eyes. His hologram goes fuzzy again, and then Andy is standing there in a pair of ratty jeans, old school Vans, and a t-shirt promoting the Death to the Republic movement that was forced underground thirty years before Matt was even born. "That better, honey?"

Matt cocks his head to the side and hums. This is totally his favorite hologram version of Andy. Even if he is wearing a shirt. Though the jeans don't hide his ass like the shorts. "Yeah, I think that'll work."

"He wasn't talking about your spank bank, dude," Pete says. He leans over Patrick's shoulder and leers at Andy. "Though I totally can't blame you. Andy, Andy, those jeans are doing very wonderful things to your ass. You know, I'm totally sure that Patrick can come up with something to…"

Patrick slaps his hand over Pete's mouth. "No. Whatever the fuck you were about to suggest, all the fucking no in the galaxies." He sighs as Pete just gives him the puppy eyes and leans his head on Patrick's shoulder. "Fucking hell, Wentz, you are a nuisance."

"Right," Matt says. He looks away from the Pete and Patrick Show to find Andy glaring at him. "What? You look fine, particularly in the ass area, and it is totally going to make Buckley flip his shit."

"I'm watching you, Mixon," Andy tells him before he turns back to the main viewer, which is calculating…something. Matt thinks it might be the frequency for the tractor beam, but for all he knows it could be the combination for the locked room behind the shuttle bay that always smells funny. "Kyle, how many maintenance bots do you have operational?"

"Um. Counting the four that we had stored in the Med Bay?" Kyle asks. "About ten. I'm working on two right now – ten minutes and they're up and running – and I've already got most of the working ones doing prep work."

"Good. I want you to prep Ultimatum for a decoy run," Andy says.

"Deities wept, Andy! I just finished putting her together," Kyle says. "Six months of work down the fucking toilet."

"So you'll build a new shuttle," Andy says. "Ryan, did you ever finish that program?"

"Yes, Andy. In all my infinite time in the last three days, I have figured out a virus of that level," Ryan says. He doesn't turn away from his console but Matt can totally tell he's rolling his eyes. He always does when people expect 'miracles' (Ryan's words) from him. It also means that whatever type virus he's talking about is mostly complete. "Patrick figured out your coding errors."

"Good to hear," Andy says. He's totally not paying attention. "Stu…"

"Andy, you do realize that we've all done this shit before, right?" Stu asks. He glares over his shoulder at him. "Yes, I have everything on stand-by. Yes, they will be dead in the water. Yes, it will be a pretty, pretty boom. Now shut up and let me work."

"What exactly are you planning?" Patrick asks.

Matt laughs. "Just you're average, ordinary evading capture mission. No worries, we've got this down to a fucking science." He kicks his feet up and leans his chair back as far as it'll go. He's not going to have anything to do until whatever scheme is being cooked up is served, so he'll just stay out of the way and catch some sleep.

It really is too bad that Andy won't let him keep any snacks on the bridge anymore. Popcorn would be fucking perfect right about now.

|-|

Buckley hails them exactly thirty minutes after he'd cut their previous transmission. Ryan, Patrick, Pete and Kyle are all down in the shuttle bay launching the Ultimatum with Andy's special package. Joe is at Ryan's station looking absolutely enraptured – Matt thinks he's actually playing solitaire – and Stu has to throw a flattened pop can at his head to get his attention.

"Trohman! Open the channel already!" Stu says.

Joe clicks the Queen of Hearts onto the King of Clubs. "You do have a computer of your own, Ross," he says, but he reaches out and hits the appropriate button. "Lazy, lazy, lazy."

"I trust you have taken my warnings to heart," Buckley says. He is the image of a bounty hunter now: smirking, leaning back in his chair with his hands folded over his stomach. "This must be Captain Hurley."

Andy raises an eyebrow from his spot next to Matt's chair. "Must I?"

Buckley nods to himself. "Yes, yes. Only the Captain of Fuck City would be so reckless in his choice of attire. You realize that there is the death penalty for any of those caught associating with the Death to the Republic movement, much less for actually wearing their propaganda. Is that vintage?"

Matt ducks his head down supposedly so he can brush his bangs off of his forehead, but mostly so he isn't looking at the view screen when he rolls his eyes. Buckley is even more of a tool than appearances first indicated. Lame.

"For the penalty to have an effect, they have to catch you first," Andy says. "And it is, of a fashion."

Matt doesn't bother bringing his head up again. He's too busy trying not to laugh. Like deep, deep belly laughs that'll have Buckley throwing a snit and pulling the Ship apart one level at a time, starting with what's left of Four. That wouldn't be a good thing, especially since Andy would be sure to kill Matt before there was any chance of capture.

Still, by looking through his eyelashes, Matt sees the way Buckley looks thoughtful at Andy's nonchalance. Granted, Buckley probably thinks that Andy is some kind of kindred spirit, a rebel without a cause looking to subvert the Republic in the most public arena possible. Which is true, except the whole calm demeanor that Andy has at the moment? Is more Andy doing his best not to just start blowing holes in the Infinite Darkness. That's a completely viable option, except for how they'd probably take on too much damage to be able to hyperjump for a few days at least, and Buckley has to have someone waiting out in the darkness as backup.

That's Plan E.

"Interesting," Buckley murmurs. He tilts his head to the side. "Right, now I am sure that your crew has informed you of my demands. And you surely noticed the gaping hole in the side of your ship. It would be in your best interests to surrender now - that way I can tell the Republic that you didn't resist arrest. Voluntary compliance usually receives a lighter sentence."

"I wasn't aware there was a reason for this supposed warrant for my ship," Andy says. He's playing with Buckley now, as they wait for Kyle to send up the okay to Stu that the Ultimatum has reached its target area. Matt has to admit that Kyle and Ryan are geniuses when it comes to using Andy's particular brand of holograph technology - the Ultimatum won't even be visible to the Infinity Darkness until its packages have been delivered. "I have no intentions of turning my ship or my crew over to anyone. The Republic has no jurisdiction in the Uncharted, and we have received no paperwork indicating your right to hold us. Let me warn you, Buckley, I do not take kindly to those who would engage in piracy, especially piracy on the Republic's dime."

Buckley isn't smirking any longer. He isn't relaxing against his chair, either. "I do not take kindly to being called a liar myself, Hurley. Nor will I allow false accusations of piracy against my ship and crew."

Andy shrugs. "Your problem, not mine."

Stu waves his hand in the air, indicating that the Ultimatum is ready for its final orders. Andy nods back at him. "Now, Buckley, I'm afraid we will have to cut this short. I have a job that needs to be finished and nowhere do you fit into that job. And for fuck sake, would it be too hard for you to do a little research before you take on a job? Might save yourself a few headaches."

"And they're away!" Stu throws his arms up in victory as his specially programmed missiles launch from the Ultimatum directly into the Infinite Darkness. "I fucking love my job."

"What are you doing!" Buckley shouts. He starts to say something else, but the reception goes fuzzy for a moment as the missiles hit their intended targets – the shuttle bay and the engines. "You'll pay for this!"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Us and our little dog, too," Andy says. "Honestly, you people never fucking change. One hundred and fifteen years of this shit and you always say the same damn thing. How about a little variety? Is that really too much to fucking ask?"

Buckley's response is lost in a garbled shriek. Ryan's and Patrick's virus, released into the Infinite Darkness's computer systems via the tractor beam and initiated with the first of the explosions, has basically eaten the entire communications system, leaving the bounty hunters stranded and dark. Ryan cuts of the comm and brings up the visual of small sections of the Infinite Darkness exploding.

"Oooh, pretty!" Joe says when a particular explosion turns purplish-pink. "Must have hit a lab."

The ship lurches to the side suddenly. "Sweet, we're free!"

"Yes! Nice shot, Stu," Matt says as he brings up the coordinates he, Andy and Patrick had settled on after a good ten minutes of arguing. "Everyone strap in or hold on! We are leaving the party!"

Fuck, Mixon, just make the jump already. Andy snaps. And stop thinking about my ass!

|-|

They jump out of hyperspace only two systems over. Matt directs them behind a set of moons orbiting around the second planet from that particular systems sun. It is doubtful that the Infinite Darkness will be able to follow them anytime in the next six months, but if Buckley has anyone within three systems that he can call up, the radiation from the sun and the interference of not one, not two, but of three solar system bodies should keep them out of sight of anyone for as long as it takes Andy to finish fixing Level Four.

"We have about six hours, max, before someone comes looking for us," Ryan says. He'd made his way back up to the bridge in the twenty minutes it took Matt to jump them. "Seriously, Andy. We do not want to be here in six hours. Three hours would be better. Two the best."

Matt sits up, unbuckles himself and stretches as far forward as he can without standing up. He's pretty sure he'll fall flat on his face if he stands up right now without someone to lean on. He's also pretty sure that he if doesn't get some sleep right now or some food, he's not going to be able to make another jump and be able to guarantee the safety of this Ship and its crew. "What are you talking about?"

"The Infinite Darkness, or more specifically Captain Buckley, has strong ties to Barataria," Ryan says. "And before you ask how strong, well. You aren't going to like it."

"Am I the only one who doesn't know about this?" Matt asks.

"Well, you are the only one that wasn't reachable during the jump," Kyle points out. He's standing by the door, leaning against the wall. He startles Matt. One because Kyle never stands by the door - if anything he's lounging at what could be considered his station or over Ryan's or Stu's shoulders, whomever it would annoy the most. Two because Matt, if he had actually thought about it, which he honestly hadn't, he'd have expected Kyle to be in the maintenance bay or outside Level Four waiting for Andy's okay to go in to fix everything he could get his hands on.

"Andy could have passed along a message," Matt points out.

"Honestly, I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we'd prefer if you didn't have any distractions in the middle of a hyperjump, Matt," Kyle says.

Matt can't think of anything to counter that with. "You may have a point," he admits.

"I usually do," Kyle says.

"Anyway!" Ryan says. "Look, as I was saying, you aren't going to like this."

"Are you kidding me? Matt's going to love this!" Stu laughs. "This is hilarious, and it isn't like we haven't had enemies before."

"Stu, shut up," Ryan snaps. He rubs a hand over his face. "Look, Buckley is a decent relation to one of the Barataria Familys."

Matt blinks. "He's a Space Pirate?"

Ryan shrugs. "We don't honestly know, but the records weren't all that specific."

"So he's a Space Pirate," Matt repeats. "Royalty even."

"I don't think so," Ryan says. "Why the fuck would a Space Pirate, especially a member of the Familys, be working for the Republic?"

"He has a really nice ship," Kyle says.

"Dude, the Barataria Familys can afford ships almost as nice as Andy," Matt says. "They really don't need to work for the Republic for ships, especially for ships like the Infinite Darkness. That ship is okay but. Seriously. The Infinity Darkness?"

"Yes, the Infinity Darkness," Andy says. "What Ryan is trying to tell you, is that we may very well have Space Pirates to deal with within the next two to six hours."

Matt shrugs. "Because we've never had to deal with them before."

"Mixon," Andy starts.

"What? You need to go finish fixing yourself again, and I need to go eat something and possibly catch a nap," Matt says. He stands up and sways a little. Joe, who had just so happened to be next to his chair, pushes him back upright.

"Dude, food is good," Joe says. He slings an arm around Matt's shoulders. "I, for one, could also use some sustenance. How about we," he includes Patrick and Pete in his gesture, "all wander down to the mess with you and take care of that."

"What, we're not invited?" Stu asks, trying his best to sound hurt instead of amused. He isn't very successful.

"Don't you have work to do, oh, I don't know. Maybe making sure we aren't blown out of the sky by Space Pirates?" Patrick asks. He's grinning as he says it.

"Right," Matt says. "Food, then sleep, then getting the hell out of dodge."

"That's the plan," Andy says. His face appears on the main screen viewer. "Repairs are well under way, and we should be able to leave within two hours."

"Right, so coffee instead of a nap," Matt says. He rubs a hand over his face.

"We have new coordinates to jump to where you'll be able to sleep before we make Patrick's last jump," Ryan says.

|-|

They're five hours into the last jump, and the skies are nothing but clear. Literally. There are none of the usual twists or turns to occupy Matt's mind and, frankly, he's fucking bored. There is seriously only so much of a single steel blue line shooting straight out into nothing that a person can take before the idea of loop-de-loops just starts to seem like a good plan.

Dude, I'm bored. Entertain me.

What? No. Just. Mixon, no. You do realize that I'm not some coin operated jack-in-the-box, right? Andy grumbles. He's extra cranky this trip, and it makes Matt feel like there's an itchy spot square between his shoulder blades. Which he can't fucking scratch because the last thing they need is to drop out of hyperspace prematurely. Like, even less than normal. Concentrate on your flying; that is what you're here for.

There any particular reason for your cranky pants tonight, dude, or is it just that part of the cycle? Matt twitches in his seat. He can tell that Andy is glaring at him – there is a hot epicenter to itchy spot now. No, seriously, Andy. You really aren't this cranky normally.

Am I normally flying through what is clearly a distinct lack of anything? Andy snaps. No, I am not. So if I'm acting a little differently than normal perhaps you should keep in mind that this isn't a normal situation and my normal reactions are not going to apply.

Matt shrugs. Okay. That doesn't change the fact that I'm still fucking bored. He lets the silence linger for a few minutes as he tries to list the number of ways that the hyperspace line doesn't ever fucking change, yet how this jump it seems about a hundred times more brilliant.

And since that takes about two minutes, he thinks about the breach in the hull and how well it is holding up. Andy once told him that newly fixed sections are always a little more sensitive than the rest of him, and now Matt is wondering if his port side is feeling achy or itchy like new skin does in the cold. Which, of course, leads him to wondering just how a Ship is supposed to scratch at the itch if it actually is itchy.

Hey, dude…

Andy sighs. No, it doesn't itch. Yes, the new hull is holding up. No, I wouldn't ask you to scratch the itch if it did itch. No, that has no bearing on whether or not you are a good scratcher, but more on the fact that you are human and I'm a spaceship. Seriously, your hands are too fucking small.

Matt frowns. Am I really that predictable?

Yes. Andy snorts. Also, I can read your mind, Mixon. Hello.

Matt considers that for a second. Okay, I see your point. Hey, if you can read my mind, why can't I read yours?

Of all the stupid fuck questions. He isn't an idiot, why does he say shit like that, what the fuck? Andy's thoughts come through really fucking clear all of a sudden and that leaves Matt, well, not blinking because he keeps his eyes shut so that he doesn't accidentally lose his focus – safety first and all – but the fact that he can hear Andy's thoughts like they were downloaded straight into his brain leaves Matt doing the mental equivalent of blinking.

Oh. Well, I guess that was pretty stupid of me. Because obviously if Matt focuses directly on Andy he'll be able to hear his thoughts. Makes perfect sense. Wait, hey! How come I didn't know that you and Joe were talking about me? Andy, dude! How could you keep something like that a secret from me?

I have no idea, Matt. Why the fuck would I tell you about a conversation I had with another being that isn't any of your business? Andy snaps. There really are times when I'd like the ability to strangle you.

Yeah, yeah, sure. Whatever. Stop stonewalling and tell me what you were talking about.

No. How about you do your job and focus on piloting and not on gossip?

Matt thinks really, really hard about the unwaveringly straight line they're following. Like, pointedly hard until Andy sighs and grumbles, Okay. You made your point.

Seriously, man. I'm going to start singing show tunes in a minute here. Matt warns. He even starts humming the theme song from the soundtrack Ryan had been listening to for days, turning on shipwide and driving everyone nuts. Last chance, man.

Andy breaks before Matt can even mouth the first syllable. Fuck, fine! You are such an asshole, Mixon.

Matt grins. Yeah, that's right, dude. Sweet talk me.

Do you want to hear this or not? Andy demands. Matt pictures himself miming zipping his lips shut. He just asked me if I'd ever thought about not being a Ship.

What? Like if you were human or something?

Honestly, I have no idea what he was trying to get at. He also said something about it relating to having a family and not just 'kindred spirits' or what the fuck ever. Andy makes a sound that is suspiciously like a huff. Then he told me to lay off Patrick and Pete. Because they're in love and the sex is good and Patrick is stressed and Pete is contrary.

How does any of that have anything to do with me? Because Matt has absolutely no opinion on the whole 'Pete and Patrick fucking like crazy space bunnies' other than stopping Andy from spacing them. Is Trohman trying to say that people can't be family without being the same race? 'Cause that's fucked up.

I get the feeling that Joe was trying to imply something other than latent xenophobia.

What do you mean? Joe seems really cool about, well, everything.

I'm not saying that Joe is xenophobic, which would be pretty fucking stupid anyway. Patrick's human, Joe and Pete are not. I'm not sure exactly what they are, but it isn't human.

Huh. I hadn't noticed that. Matt ponders that for a moment, then shrugs it off. Hey, the light's getting really fucking bright. We're coming up early. Matt shifts and prepares himself for the drop out of hyperspace.

Patrick will be happy. Andy says. He sounds a little distracted, and it takes Matt a minute to realize that it's because Andy's talking to someone outside of the Trance, probably Patrick. Matt always forgets that Andy is Fuck City and the Ship still needs to be able to connect with the rest of himself to function properly; Matt's the one that has to stay completely focused on maintaining the line. Patrick and Kyle have that probe ready for when we drop out. You set?

Always. Matt stretches his mind out for the bright spot, and feels Andy right beside him. Just before they reach it, Matt mutters, Don't think our conversation is over with just yet, Andy.

Too which Andy laughs. You're a dog with a bone, Matt. Like I'd ever forget that.

And then they reach the light. Together they grasp and pull, leaving hyperspace like it's easier than breathing.

|-|

It always takes Matt a few minutes to fully drop out of the Trance. The actual length of time varies by way of the length of the jump and just how tired Matt is, so it isn't any surprise to Matt that this time it takes him almost a full ten minutes to become aware of the bridge around him.

He sort of wishes it had taken him longer because the fucking alarms are really loud. Like, ear shatteringly. "What the fuck?"

"Hey, dude! Nice flying there," Joe says. "Your transitions are getting smoother, dude. Didn't even feel a ripple between hyperspace and here." Joe's leaning against Matt's chair and holding out a bottle of water. It's like he doesn't even notice the alarms that are blaring or the way the emergency warning lights are turning the bridge into a really fucked up looking dance club.

Joe's also eating a doughnut, which means he'll be completely zen for the next several hours.

"Um, thanks?" Matt says. He takes the offered water and drinks half of it in a single go. Then he unbuckles himself from the chair and stands up for a stretch. Emergency or not, five straight hours of not moving demands a bit of a stretch. "What the fuck?"

"Patrick just launched the probe, dude," Joe tells him. "We're all gathering up here to see what it finds."

Matt can see Ryan and Stu at their normal stations – Ryan is muttering to himself and punching a lot of commands in, meaning he's probably trying to turn the alarms off, or at least silence them – and Pete is sprawled across the chair at the science station. Patrick and Kyle come walking through the doors before Matt can ask what's going on again.

"Stump, I don't know how the fuck you did it, but there is nothing out there!" Andy shouts as he appears in front of Patrick with a sound that better resembles a cracking whip than the opening of a pop. "What the fuck is going on!"

Patrick rolls his eyes. "I already told you – this is the Edge. The beginning and the end of everything. You're fine."

"Fine? Fine?" Andy says. "I'm fucking drained is what I am! Exhausted! Not good!"

Matt watches Andy swing his arms around and idly thinks that Andy has some pretty good melodramatic tension working for him. Then it hits him what Andy said. "Dude, you can't be exhausted. You're never exhausted."

"Never say never, dude," Joe says. "You should finish your water."

"Ryan, could you please shut those alarms off?" Stu asks. "I can't hear myself think."

Ryan scowls at Stu as the alarms shut off pretty much as soon as he finishes his request. "That better?"

"Yes, thank you."

"No, not better!" Andy half-shouts. "This isn't possible, Stump!"

"Seriously, relax," Patrick says. "It's only going to take a few minutes for the probe to send back the information I need. We should be able to leave in under an hour, two tops."

"Um, actually. We might be here a little longer than that," Matt says. He's pointing at the main viewer screen when they all turn to look at him. There's a woman standing outside of the ship. Matt's pretty sure things aren't going to be as easy as Patrick has been insisting.

|-|

It doesn't matter than Ryan had turned off all the alarms as every single one of his exterior hull alarms are flashing and flaring warnings at him again, which is causing havoc to spread through to the ones throughout his interior. He only has snow from decks Three through Six, and the temperature readings from the rest of the decks are flashing between hot and cold.

Andy, however, is too busy staring at the ten meter tall woman in the gunmetal and blue evening gown that had just appeared several meters off his forward bow to do more than portion out a small part of his systems to watch that particular mess.

Andy has no idea how to even begin explaining her – there's nothing in front of him and yet some more nothing behind him. Absolutely nothing. Not even a single iota of space particle. One corner of his mind hums at him, muttering about how that's why they call this the Edge in the first place. Andy tells that part of his mind to shut the fuck up and figure out how to make the sensors start working again. He wants something to go on here. Anything would be an enormous help at this point.

And in front of him still stands the woman. All ten meters of steel and blue evening gown.

"Um. Stump?" Matt asks. "What kind of experiment did you say you were running again?"

"Also, who's the tall lady in the flashy dress?" Stu adds.

"Patrick Martin Stumph, you stand accused of trespassing and of brainwashing mortals to the detriment of their souls for your own foul deeds," the lady says. Actually, truly says. Her voice carries through the vacuum of nothingness and Andy's hull like there is mere air between her and them.

Except for how there is no air between her and his hull, and his hull is only a mere ten feet thick on its own, once you take the ductwork and wiring into account. Andy is officially freaking the fuck out.

Patrick, however, just looks incredibly pissed off. "Fuck off, Delinda. Your hocus pocus, witchy act isn't fooling anyone."

"Peter Kingston Lewis Wentz III and Joseph Mark Trohman, you are both accused of failing in your sacred task," she continues, completely ignoring Patrick. Who is scowling like he wants to dive through the hull and choke a bitch. Pete looks a little shifty-eyed and Joe looks perfectly calm and satisfied.

That second part is probably due to the doughnut he'd just finished.

"Delinda, you're looking well. Still forecasting the doom and gloom?" Pete asks. He moved straight to Patrick's side as soon as the woman had appeared on the view screen.

"Also, we haven't failed anything," Joe says. "Patrick is still very much amongst the mortals, and the Universe hasn't imploded yet. Or is it exploded?" He turns to Patrick. "Dude, what happens when the Universe ends again? I always forget."

Patrick scowls at him. "I have no idea, Trohman. I haven't exactly witnessed the end of the Universe."

"Whoa! Wait up," Kyle breaks in. He grabs a hold of Pete's arm and shakes him a little. Kyle was probably trying for Patrick or Joe, but Pete has a nasty habit of blocking anyone from Patrick, so Pete was Kyle's only choice. "'End of the Universe'? That is not something we agreed on, people!"

Pete scowls and tries to push Kyle off of him. It doesn't exactly work, what with Pete being a tiny, little dude and Kyle being a space mechanic by trade and, well, not a tiny, little dude.

"The Universe isn't ending!" Patrick shouts. "Fuck, people! I do know what the fuck I am doing here, thank you very much!"

"And what, exactly, is that again?" Matt asks.

"I knew this was a bad fucking plan," Andy says. No one is listening to him, which is completely fucking typical, really. "I told you that this was a bad fucking plan. Who the fuck goes to the Edge?"

"You were discharged, Stumph," Delinda says. "There is no readmittance to those discharged. To seek such will call the balances of the Universe out of sync, thus creating…"

"Oh, shut up," Patrick snaps. " 'Discharged', my ass. You overbearing, self-important, self-centered assholes know nothing of the actual harmonies of the Universe. Being able to calculate pi to its centillionth digit isn't an indication of godliness! It's barely a sign of intelligence!"

Matt leans close to Andy's holographic form. "Dude. Can you calculate pi to its centillionth digit?"

Andy shrugs. "Maybe if you gave me three years and absolutely no interruptions."

"Oh."

"I was the one to write the damn papers! I pioneered the theories on Universal Harmonics," Patrick snaps. He's flailing his arms around like a madman. Honestly, he looks one hundred percent ridiculous. "You…"

"You were discharged, Stumph," Delinda repeats. She crosses her arms over her chest and smirks at Patrick. "You know the laws as well as I do. Once invoked, there are no take backs."

Patrick's arms fall to his sides, hands clenched tightly into fists. If there were ever to be a human capable of producing lasers from his eyes, it would be Patrick right at this moment. "The laws? Oh, you must mean the ones that you lot completely butchered when you decided to banish me. Pretty fucking convenient, you hiding behind words and traditions you've already completely trampled to dust."

"You can take up your disagreement with the Council, Stumph. You and your babysitters are hereby placed under arrest," Delinda says. Her smirk goes from completely aggravating to mildly frightening, and if Andy actually had a spine, he's pretty sure he'd have had chills running the length of it from her expression. "You are to be presented to the Council immediately. These humans that you've duped are to be brought along as witnesses of your transgressions against the Universe."

"Leave them out of it!" Patrick snaps. "They've done nothing!"

"That is for the Council to decide." Delinda raises her arm and snaps her fingers. From them shoot out tendrils of energy the exact same shade of pink as her hair that proceed to enter the bridge and wrap around everyone, even Andy's hologram.

Every single portion of Andy's consciousness is screaming at him in alarm. But before he can even finish the thought to fire every weapon he has at her, everything sparks to white noise and fuzz, and then there is nothing.

|-|

When Matt wakes up, he's laying flat out on something soft. Also, vaguely itchy. And there is a very warm weight against his right side. It takes him a full minute before he can even open his eyes, much less push himself into a sitting position. His head is pounding and his body feels vaguely fuzzy, like he'd gone on a massive bender the night before. Except Matt can distinctly remember piloting through hyperspace to the Edge, where they were accosted by a really tall lady with pink hair and an evening gown and a pink energy web. Then everything is majorly fuzzy.

"Son of a bitchy Mossian Pixie," Stu groans from somewhere to Matt's left. "What in the twenty-seven versions of hell happened?"

"No idea," Kyle answers. He's off to Matt's right, and he sounds like he's about to hurl. "I feel like someone tossed me into a life-sized blender. A very, very pink one."

Matt finally manages to both open his eyes and sit up. The first thing he notices is that they're no longer on the ship, but rather in a very large, very expensively decorated room. Seriously. Matt knows his pricing when it comes to paintings and furniture, and if that couch isn't a Louise Strat original? He'll eat one of Patrick's hats.

The second thing he notices is that the warm weight against his right side? Is Andy. A very solid, actually breathing Andy.

"Holy shit." Matt reaches over and pokes Andy in the side, just to make sure that he isn't seeing things. His finger most definitely hits t-shirt covered flesh, and Andy most definitely swats at his hand. "Dudes! Andy's a real boy!"

There's a moment of silence, where not even Stu groans, that's broken by Kyle saying, "Matt, did you hit your head again? Is there blood?"

"There will be if he doesn't stop poking me," Andy snaps. He slaps Matt's hand away again before pushing himself off the floor. Then he starts swearing.

"Why is Andy swearing?" Ryan asks. He groans as his sits up, holding his head and squinting. "And where are we?"

"I have no idea where we are," Matt admits. He reaches out to poke at Andy again, and winces when Andy smacks him again. "Andy's swearing because he's a real boy now."

"Seriously, Mixon," Stu sighs. "This really isn't the best time for you to be quoting 'Pinocchio'."

"Is there a best time for that?" Kyle asks. He's on his feet and moving around the room, probably checking for a way out. "Okay, the only other room is the bathroom, and there are no doors or window out of here. Where ever this is, we aren't leaving anytime soon."

"Did you happen to see Patrick, Joe or Pete anywhere?" Matt asks. He's on his feet now, and his hands are shoved in the pockets of his pants so he doesn't do anything crazy like poke Andy again. Andy's still swearing up a storm and running his hands all over himself, so Matt really doesn't want him to figure out he can actually strangle someone at the moment. It'd probably be for the best if he figured that out when whoever locked them in here shows their faces.

"Nope. There is no one in here but us," Kyle says. "What do you all remember?"

"Just that crazy lady saying she was arresting our passengers, then attacking us with that pink energy web-thing," Stu says. Everyone, well, except for Andy who is still swearing, utters their agreements. "So. First things first. Andy should probably calm down before he gives himself a coronary, and then we should make a plan."

Andy drops his hands from where they were pressing against his eyes so he can glare at Stu. The glare is totally more effective coming out of a solid body then it was from the hologram. "Calm down? I'm solid! Breathing! I have a fucking heartbeat, Rossman!"

Stu shrugs. "Okay. That really isn't anything to panic over, man. We all have heartbeats, too."

Andy makes an animalistic sound deep in his throat seconds before he lunges at Stu. Stu ducks behind a replica of an eighteenth century ancient Earth writing desk, but Matt grabs Andy before he can reach it. It takes a couple of minutes, because while Andy might be tiny and newly humanoid, he is both strong and fast, but Matt manages to pull him into a bastardized hug with Andy's arms trapped against Matt's chest.

"Andy, man, you need to breath," Matt tells him. He drops his head onto Andy's and squeezes until Andy squeaks and sort of goes limp against him. Matt loosens his hold a little, and when Andy doesn't immediately try to break free, Matt turns the hold into more of a hug. "It's going to be okay, man. We'll figure out what's going on. Stu's just being an asshole."

Andy presses his head against Matt's collarbone. His breathing is still ragged, but Matt isn't worried about him passing out now. "This can't be happening," Andy says. His voice is really soft, and Matt's heart sort of clenches at the sound. He's never heard Andy sound scared – there really isn't a lot in the Universe to scare Andy – but he's pretty sure that this is what it sounds like. "I'm a Ship! My body is compressed steel and wire, not blood and bone!"

"It'll be okay, man," Matt repeats, hugging him tighter when Andy just starts shaking. Above Andy's head, Matt meets the others' eyes. They are obviously just as freaked out as Matt is, but underneath that is anger. None of them deal well with being held against their wills, but this goes beyond that. Andy is family. Whoever Delinda and her people are, they've hurt Andy. And no one hurts their family.

"We're going to figure this out, Andy," Ryan tells him.

"There's a shitload of tech mixed in with these antiques," Kyle says. "Ryan and I are going to come up with something to get us out of here, and then you and Stu can fuck shit up. Just give us some time."

Neither of them wait for a response before they're digging through everything, pulling bits and pieces of things Matt doesn't recognize out of drawers and from between books and lamps and vases. Kyle drags Stu with him, making Stu hold everything he finds so he can keep digging.

Matt just tugs Andy over to the loveseat in the corner. He sits and pulls Andy into his lap, tucking Andy's head under his chin and wrapping his arms around Andy's waist. "The guys will figure this out, Andy. Promise."

"I should help them," Andy says. Then he yawns. "What the fuck?"

Matt laughs a little. "You're fucking tired, dude. Remember telling Patrick that you felt drained? Trying catching some sleep, I'll keep a look out."

"I don't need sleep," Andy protests. "I'm a Ship."

"Yeah," Matt agrees. "You are a Ship. Except right now you're currently humanoid and possibly a little shocky. Just rest for a little while, okay?"

Andy sighs, and Matt is suddenly trying really hard not to shudder as the warm air brushes across his neck. "All right, fine. Just a few minutes."

"Sounds good to me," Matt says. But he's pretty sure Andy doesn't even hear him, at least if the way his breathing evens out and how his body loosens up is any indication.

|-|

Andy's still asleep a few hours later when a really tall and skinny dude in a black suit just appears in the middle of the room. He nods casually at all of them, not looking the least bit worried by the steadily growing pile of technology surrounding Kyle and Ryan nor by the way Stu automatically draws the letter opener he'd found in the writing desk. The dude snaps his fingers and a buffet appears on a table against the wall behind him. The food smells really good.

"Good day," the guy says. "I trust you are feeling no lasting side effects to your travels? I'm afraid you will be needed to stay here for a while longer yet; the Council is in session, and everyone is in an uproar about Stumph's return."

"What the fuck is going on here? Where is Patrick? And Pete and Joe?" Stu demands. "And just what did you people do to Andy?"

"Stump, Wentz, and Trohman are currently on trial and being questioned by the Council," the guy explains. He's turned his back on them and is setting something up by the table. "As for 'Andy', as you call him, nothing has been done. It is an unfortunate fact that his Ship form is simply too large to fit inside the walls. So he had to be reverted to his human form.

"Now, I understand that you have many more questions, but I am not at liberty to answer them; I simply have too much to do at the moment." The dude finishes whatever it was he was doing and turns around to face them again. "I am here to see to it that you are properly dined, as it would not do to treat guests improperly, and to tell you that you will be brought forth before the Council to speak as to your interactions with the accused. Until then, you are asked to retire here in what comfort we are able to provide. Good day."

He nods at them once before disappearing to wherever he came from, leaving behind the buffet and a dining table set up for seven. Then Matt feels a weight lift off his shoulders. He hadn't even noticed that he couldn't move when the dude was in the room.

"Well, that explains why there are no doors," Stu says after a minute.

"Do you think they have technology for the teleportation, or is it something more organic?" Kyle wonders.

"I don't particularly care," Stu says. "It won't matter when I start busting skulls."

Matt is distracted by the rest of their argument when Andy startles awake. "Hey, man. You sleep well?"

Andy groans and pushes himself upright. "My head hurts, I feel dizzy, and I could have sworn I heard someone I don't know a second ago." His stomach growls as soon as he finishes his sentence, and he scowls down at it.

"You probably need to eat. I know I'm starving," Matt says. "Luckily some dude just showed up and brought us food."

"Wait, what?" Andy's head snaps up and he glares at Matt. "There was someone else here? Why the fuck didn't you wake me up?"

"Because you were under so far you were snoring, and the dude was only here for about a minute," Matt says. "He was all teleport in, 'Here! Have some food! Oh, by the way, you can't leave just yet because Patrick and Pete and Joe are on trial and you have to talk to the Council, too! Also, Andy isn't a Ship at the moment because a Ship is too big for the building!' And then he teleported out again."

Andy blinks. "Right. Anything else?" He climbs out of Matt lap so he can stand up and stretch. Matt watches his shirt pull up and expose the inch of pale skin between it and the waistband of Andy's pants.

"Only that Stu didn't kill the guy because I think he had us pinned in place some how. Kyle was wondering if these people just have really, really advanced technology or if they use magic right before you woke up," Matt says. He doesn't really want to explain how he spent the entire time Andy was sleeping staring at him. He does manage to drag his eyes away from Andy's pants before Andy catches him looking and then Matt stands up to stretch himself. Andy might be a tiny dude, but he's heavy.

"Hey, feeling better?" Ryan asks when he sees Andy standing.

Andy pauses for a moment before he nods. "I think so? My head hurts, and I'm a little dizzy, but. Whatever." He shrugs. "It's weird."

Ryan nods. "Your blood sugar is probably low; I'm willing to bet that the shock of reverting to human form and then crashing for six hours will do that to you. You should probably grab something to eat."

"We all should," Kyle says with a sigh. He carefully places what he was working on the couch behind him and shoves the rest of the detritus on his lap away from him before standing up. "We have no idea how long we're going to be here; best to keep our strength up."

"Do we think it's safe?" Matt asks. He's standing at the buffet and looking it over. He doesn't recognize half of what it is, but some of it looks exactly like the stuff his mother used to make when he still lived at home. He grabs a fork and pokes a plate of what is mostly likely cheeses.

"What is with you and poking shit?" Stu asks. He grabs a strawberry out of a bowl of them and looks it over. He shrugs. "Looks fine to me." He takes a bite out of it and chews it slowly. "Tastes fine, too."

"Right," Matt says. He stabs a piece of cheese and eats it. He waits until he swallows before saying, "Yeah, that's definitely sharp cheddar. I think the food's okay." He reaches over for a plate and then starts loading it up, ignoring Stu's mumbling about how certain people never listen to him. When he sees that Andy is just staring at the food, he grabs another plate to hand to him. "Come on, man. You need to eat something."

Andy scowls at him but takes the plate. He completely ignores all the meat, filling his plate with pastas, fruits and vegetables. Matt decides he doesn't want to know.

They all sit down at the table to eat in silence, everyone too busy chowing down to talk. Then Pete and Joe appear next to the writing desk. They look like hell – Pete's face is beet red, and his hands are clenched in fists, and Joe's hair is about twice its normal size, the curls almost engulfing his face – and Pete is still shouting at whomever he'd been shouting at before he appeared.

"…fuckers better let him go! I will fuck you up! All of you!" He breaks off with a strangled shout when he realizes where he is. "Those frog humping sons of bitches…"

Joe doesn't pull his hand away from Pete's mouth, even when Matt's pretty sure Pete bites him. "Not helping."

Pete growls but stops trying to talk. After another minute, Joe pulls his hand away. "I'm not going to let them take him."

"We, Pete," Joe corrects. "We aren't going to let them. The fuck you're doing anything on your own."

"Agreed," Matt tells them. They whip around at the sound of his voice and he waves at them. "Howdy, boys. I take things aren't going as well as you'd like."

Pete snorts. "No shit, Mixon. That isn't a trial. That is a group of fucking school children pouting because they know they are in the wrong and they were caught but they don't want to admit it. They're just trying to piss Patrick off enough so he'll say he was trying to destroy the Universe so they can off him without feeling guilty about it."

"Why don't the two of you sit down and explain what is going on so that we can figure out what to do?" Kyle says. He motions to the two empty seats with his fork.

|-|

It takes about an hour and a whole lot of swearing before they get the full story out of them. Matt's pretty used to dealing with weird shit – the Universe is full of things that are just plain weird – but this just takes things to a whole new level.

Patrick is a former deity. A god. Of music and songwriting and universal harmonies to be specific. Apparently at one point in his past he'd gotten into an argument with another deity that'd ragged for a long time (Matt doesn't know if 'a long time' stands for decades or centuries or whatever, but his brain frizzes out a little at the thought of Patrick being old enough to have had an argument for a couple hundred years so he stops thinking about it). In the end, the other deity had set Patrick up and had him kicked out of the Ethereal Plains for good. Because Patrick had taken some time and left the Ethereal Plains to hang out with mortals to try to prove his point, and, apparently, deities aren't allowed to hang out with mortals.

So Patrick was kicked out, and with that he lost his godhood and became human. Pete and Joe were charged with watching Patrick, making sure that he didn't go around breaking deity law by being all talkative about it. Or something. Pete starts rambling at that point, and Matt has to stop listening to him before his head starts to hurt. Well, hurt more.

"So now they're saying that Patrick had come to the Edge with the intent of taking something from the Beginning, which would, of course, destroy the Universe," Joe finishes over the sounds of Pete's mutterings. "And that contradicts his discharge orders, so now they want to kill him off. 'For the good of the Universe' or so they say, but mostly they're just pissed that he hasn't come crawling back to them begging to be let back in."

Joe shrugs. "Patrick, for the most part, doesn't mind being human and living outside of the Ethereal Plain."

"But he's been a little homesick," Ryan guesses. He looks at Kyle, who's nodding his agreement. They'd all seen the way Patrick had been acting. "And he'd always hoped that these other deities would figure out they were wrong and let him come home."

"They're his family," Joe agrees. He isn't looking at anyone, poking at the mangled mess of food on his plate, and even Pete has gone quiet.

Matt tilts his head to the side and thinks about all of that for a minute. He still comes up with the same conclusion that had initially popped into his head. "Yeah, no. You are so completely wrong."

"What are you talking about?" Joe asks.

"Those condescending assholes aren't his family; you two are," Matt says. "Duh."

Andy nods at Matt. "No, Matt's right," he says before Joe can say anything. "This is what you were getting at the other day, wasn't it, Trohman? You three aren't just 'kindred spirits', you idiot, you're family."

"But…" Joe starts. He looks like he's working himself up for a long and hard battle that he doesn't expect to win and wants even less to actually fight.

"No, man, just give up now," Stu advices. "Andy's a Ship, and he doesn't lay claim to 'normal' emotions, so if he's telling you that you three are family, then you're fucking family. Because you are."

"Oh." Joe and Pete look at each other for a long moment. "Do you think Patrick's figured it out yet?"

Pete snorts. "Not a chance. He was still stressing about not being able to go 'home.'" Pete looks pointedly around the room. "Not that this place is all that awesome."

"The food's okay, but the decorations totally suck," Kyle agrees. "What do you two know about teleportation devices?"

"Um, no one's built a successful one yet?" Pete says.

"That's because no one has really been motivated enough to finish it," Joe muses. "Lots and lots of money isn't really all that exciting once you figure out the amount of tax the Republic would slap down on something like that."

"Plus the enforced slavery," Andy agrees. "And the possibility of another Cola Corp fiasco."

"Yeah, that, too," Joe says. "Why?"

"Oh, because Ryan and I think we've got something close to a working model," Kyle says. "Want to take a look at it? An extra set of eyes wouldn't hurt."

"Won't really do you much good, though," Joe says. "Even if we could teleport out of here and back to the ship, we've no way of getting back into our bodies."

Matt blinks at him. "What?"

"Hmmm? Oh," Joe says. "That net thing Delinda hit us with?"

"The pink energy?" Kyle clarifies.

"Yeah, that stuff," Joe says. "That pulled our spirit energy out of our bodies so that we could come to the Ethereal Plains, and then leave again without any lingering affects. They all think that there's something about this place that leaves a person like an addict jonesing for their next hit."

There's a moment of silence before Andy rolls his eyes. "That's ridiculous."

"Welcome to the residents of the Ethereal Plains: the Universe's gods are all cracked." Pete smirks at him. Then he turns to Kyle. "Show me what you've figured out. We might need it to get Patrick out of here."

|-|

Matt isn't sure how much time has past before the tall, skinny guy pops back into the room. A few hours at least, if the amount of supposed progress Kyle and Ryan have made is a good indicator. He doesn't think it could be much later than that anyway. He's sure that Pete or Joe would have torn down the walls to get to Patrick if that were the case.

No matter how much time had passed, Pete is definitely not pleased to see the guy. "Reginald," he growls as soon as he sees the guy. Joe has a hold of Pete's arm to stop him from going after the guy, even with the weird mojo holding everyone pretty much in place Pete is going to make a go at the guy's face.

"Peter," Reginald replies. He looks totally calm, even a little bored in the face of Pete's fury. "You're looking homicidal as always."

"You're holding him hostage, and his boyfriend on trial," Joe says, voice too even for him to really be calm. Matt suddenly wishes the buffet had included doughnuts. "Do you really expect him to sound pleasantly pleased to see you?"

"Regardless of the situation, Joseph, there is no need to forgo politeness," Reginald says.

Stu snorts. "Bullshit. Politeness only counts in cutthroat politics. Where's Patrick?"

"In the Council's chambers. I've already explained this to you," Reginald says. He sounds bored. "You are all expected there now."

"Wow, some type of service you've all developed," Ryan says. He looks at Kyle, who nods.

"Seriously. First, you all kidnap us. Then you hold us against our wills, and now you're just going to order us around?" Kyle says. "What part of this is within the realms of 'politeness'?"

Reginald looks affronted. Matt really wants to slap him. He's pretty sure he'd end up last in a long line; he's also pretty sure that they're all a little high strung. "We've done everything possible to keep you comfortable while you waited."

Andy rolls his eyes. "Right. Because a gilded cage isn't still a cage."

"I see you will not share our point of view," Reginald sighs, like they're all disappointing him by not seeing the big picture. Matt imagines holding him down so Pete and Joe can beat him with the big picture - it'd probably have thick, heavy, and overly decorated frame that would leave a really nice dent. "It's just as well, and I should have expected it, but I am ever the optimist. Nonetheless, the Council has called for your presences in the Council's chambers. It will not do to keep them waiting."

Matt would be more than happy to keep the fuckers waiting a couple of lifetimes - it'd give Stu and Andy more time to come up with ways to kill all the fuckers, and Kyle and Ryan more time to finish their teleportation device - but being able to grab Patrick would be even better. Plus, he's pretty sure Pete and Joe will go completely nuts if they don't get to Patrick sometime yesterday.

"Right, fine," Andy says. "Take us to your leaders and all that shit."

Matt can't help himself, he has to laugh. Fucking Stu and his fucking vids. Andy glares at him, but that only makes him laugh harder. "To your leaders!"

"You'll have to excuse, Matt," Kyle sighs. "He goes a little stir crazy when he's locked in a room with no way out. You understand."

"Of course," Reginald says. He snaps his fingers, and the mojo holding them down releases. Joe almost loses his grip on Pete, but it doesn't really matter, because between one breath and the next, they're out of 'their' room and inside a small rectangular box in the middle of a large airy room.

In front of them, on a raised dais and behind a large and thick table is a group of ten men and women. They all look constipated. The other three walls have what look like audience seating, which is filled with even more men and women. In another box next to theirs, but much smaller, is Patrick. Who looks tired, hungry, and very, very pissed off.

"Dude, can I shoot anyone yet?" Stu asks him. Patrick gives him a tight lipped glare, but it's pretty obvious that he wouldn't seriously object to people being shot.

"I'm afraid you do not have jurisdiction to be shooting anyone, Mr. Ross," one of the ladies on the bench says. All five of the women look alike to Matt, and so do the men. He wonders if that means they all share the same brain, too.

"Hasn't stopped me before," Stu tells her.

"It's true," Kyle says. "Stu shoots anyone who deserves it."

"It's that Space Pirate business with his father," Ryan explains. "Mostly he picks the right fights."

"And the others aren't exactly wrong," Matt says. "Stu's a good shot and really good at finishing what other people start."

"Regardless of Mr. Ross's inclinations in his previous actions, there will be no shooting inside the Council chambers," the third guy from the left says.

Pete, who had been having an entire conversation with Patrick with only their eyebrows, brightens and turns to grin mischievously at the Council. "Then how about we all step outside the chambers? We'll be more than happy to take this fight outside."

"Pete," Patrick sighs. He pinches the bridge of his nose. "You really need to stop antagonizing people."

Pete scoffs and waves his hand in the air. "Dude, this is totally what we've been gearing up for! Or do you really think we've saved your ass all those times because you're cute?"

"I always thought it was because of the great sex," Joe says. He and Pete high five when Patrick blushes. "Besides, dude," Joe tells Patrick once he and Pete are done celebrating, "It isn't like these assholes are actually people. They get cranky when you call them people."

"Mr. Trohman, we've repeatedly asked you to watch your language," the fourth woman from the right snaps. She's a bit more severe looking than the rest. "You will not be asked again."

Joe raises an eyebrow at her, then turns back to Patrick. "See? Assholes."

"Can someone explain what is actually going on here?" Matt asks quickly. Severe Lady looked ready to smite Joe where he stood, and that was awfully close to where Matt was standing. Not that Matt wanted to see Joe smited – smote? – anyway, but Matt would feel better if he wasn't caught in the crossfire. "Please."

The Council turn their heads as one (actually Severe Lady is about a second behind because she seemed to feel the need to glare at Joe some more) to look at Reginald. Who shrugged. Eloquently, of course.

"I've explained it twice now," he says. "They just don't seem to understand."

"Actually, we found your explanation to be lacking in something," Kyle says. He turns to Ryan. "What's that word I'm looking for?"

"I do believe you mean 'clarity', Kyle," Ryan says.

Kyle nods. "Yes, of course. Your explanation lacked clarity."

"I was perfectly clear. Stumph is on trial for his attempts to destroy the Universe, and for his breaking of the agreements set forth on the occasion of his dismissal, and Mr. Wentz and Mr. Trohman stand accused of allowing Stumph to do this, thus failing in their sacred duty," Reginald says. "It's really all very straight forward."

"And very much lacking in details," Kyle says.

"Yes, very much," Ryan agrees. "Like, for example, why do you keep calling Patrick 'Stumph'? His name is Stump. Puh!"

"And, more importantly perhaps, why was Patrick dismissed, what were the exact terms of Patrick's original dismissal, and just what, exactly, does any of that have anything to do with what we were doing today?" Matt asks.

"Also, what the fuck do you want with my crew?" Andy snaps.

"Stumph, as is his birth name, was accused of acting in a manner unbefitting of a deity, and continued his transgressions even after formal and informal warnings were given," the dude in the center of the big table says. "Unfortunately, we are not at liberty to discuss at length the details pertaining to that case."

"As for your crew, Fuck City," the lady next to him says. Matt blinks at the use of Andy's official name – it's weird. "You are ordered to convey the deeds and actions of Stumph and his guardians to this Council as testimony."

"Ordered?" Andy says. The tone of his voice is similar to the one and only time in Matt's experience that Andy had fired on an unarmed, dead-in-the-water ship. Granted, that ship had a crew that had tried to kidnap and force the crew into a hush-hush, vaguely legal slavery ring on the edge of the Alaskan Quadrant. Andy's not very good at handling being forced to harm his crew.

"Yes, ordered," the lady repeats. "We will treat you as hostile witnesses if need be."

"Darling, you haven't yet seen hostile," Stu says. He's standing off to the side of the rest of them – Pete and Joe as close to Patrick as they can get without jumping the wall, Kyle and Ryan next to them, Andy and Matt next to them, and Stu to the far side. He's been canvassing the room since they reappeared and Matt knows he has at least two weapons on his person – the fancy ass letter opener and a flash bomb that Joe had pieced together with the scraps from Kyle's and Ryan's teleportation device. Stu's just waiting for the right moment.

Gods or not, if Stu has his chance, there won't be anything left but rubble and gore.

"You're barking up the wrong tree, lady," Matt tells her. "Whatever vendetta you have against, Patrick, Pete, or Joe, we won't help you."

"He's broken our laws, and must face punishment," the last man at the table says.

"Your laws are not our own then, and we are under no obligation to up hold your laws," Andy says. "Not one of these men have broken the laws we are forced to live with, making this not a trial, but an excuse for you to flaunt your power. We have faced down worse than the Barataria Familys: you do not frighten us. And you will not win."

"This is ridiculous!" A woman in the audience shouts. Matt agrees, but he suspects they have different reasons.

"Yeah! Stumph came back – he should be executed!" A man three rows behind her shouts in agreement. "'The Banished shall never return!'"

Patrick blinks, then straightens up in his box. He turns to Pete and Joe and smiles. "That is the Law, Pete."

Pete blinks and looks at Joe. Joe shrugs. "Okay. And that's a good thing?"

"Yes, Pete," Patrick says. He stares intently at him. "The Law says that the Banished shall never return."

"I'm pretty sure we've already covered that, Patrick," Pete tells him.

"Wait," Stu says. He leans out in front of Andy so he can see around everyone and talk to Patrick (almost) directly. "How specific is this law?"

"What is the importance of specifics?" Severe lady says. "Stumph returned and as such has the Law. He is to be executed."

"Humor us," Matt says. He thinks he might know what Patrick and Stu are getting at, and he has to pinch his thigh not to laugh. "We don't know your laws, remember?"

There is a moment of silent conversation between the Council members before the second dude on the left throws up his hands. Several of the others look just as exasperated.

The lady in the middle answers Stu's question, and she sounds like she's reciting directly from a book, only there is no book (or any other paper or computer product in the room. "As it is taken from the Writ: It is Law that should a Citizen of the Ethereal Plains be convicted of crimes against their fellow Citizens on the basis of Trial by Peer, they shall hence forth be Banished from these Immortal Lands. Those Banished shall never return to the Ethereal Plains upon Punishment of Death, as delegated by a Council of their Peers. Those found to have helped their Return will subject to the same Punishment; those found to have helped hinder their Return will be greatly Rewarded."

"Right," Stu nods. He shares a look with Patrick, who is still smiling happily. "Is the Edge a part of the Ethereal Plains?"

"No," Patrick says at the same time as the man in the middle of the table says, "Yes!"

Patrick sneers at him. "It is not! Doesn't the Writ also say that the Ethereal Plains shall never extend its borders outside the land and space already possessed?"

The man frowns and doesn't answer.

The second man, the one who had thrown up his hands, sighs and nods at Stu and Patrick. "The Writ does say this is so, Maximum. The Edge is not a part of the Ethereal Plains as the Writ describes our land and space."

Maximum looks ready to protest again, but the lady who quoted the law rests a hand on his arm and he shuts his mouth with another frown. "Edmond speaks the truth."

"So the Edge isn't a part of the Ethereal Plains?" Pete asks. "I'm just asking to clarify, of course." He's also bouncing on his heels and smiling really big.

"No, the Edge is a separate entity under the Writ," Edmond says. "The Edge is the Beginning and the Ending of our Universe, and we are but its keepers."

"Right, so Patrick being in the Edge doesn't mean he was in the Ethereal Plains," Andy says. He's leaning back against Matt a little, and Matt knows he's smirking. They all are.

"Which means Patrick wasn't breaking any laws," Matt adds. "Or Laws."

"He's still here!" Another man shouts, this time from the other side of the room. "He's still culpable under the Writ!"

"I had no intention of returning to the Plains," Patrick says. His voice carries loudly through the room. "My only purpose was to test the harmonics of the Edge, as was and still is my solemn duty. I am the foremost expert on Universal Harmonics."

"He did pioneer the studies on the subject, after all," Kyle says. Ryan nods along with him.

"It was Delinda that brought us here," Stu says. "Tall lady, steel blue evening gown, pink energy web? We were minding our own business, she pops up, and hello migraines!"

The audience in the chamber bursts into conversation. Mostly it's chaos, but Matt manages to hear one guy over all the rest, mostly because he stands up and starts shouting and everyone around him shuts up.

"Is this true, Maximum? Was Delinda sent to retrieve the Banished one?" The guy is a mountain of a man, eight feet tall if he was an inch, with bushy red-brown hair, and built like he could take on a space armada all on his lonesome.

Maximum blanches a little, and then pulls himself to his full height. Even sitting down, Matt can tell that Maximum is at least two feet shorter than the other man. "We had plans in place, yes."

"Maximum Bellaras!" The larger man bellows. The entire room shudders by the force of it, and Maximum goes about three shades paler.

"Dude, it's like a punk kid standing up to their father," Matt whispers at Andy. "This is awesome!" Andy flaps a hand at him to shut up.

"You know the Writ!" the larger man continues. "Are you telling this attending congregation of Citizens that you, the Head of the Council, authorized plans that would not only break several sections and subsections of the Writ but would also bring the Banished one back into the fold to be sentenced to death?"

"Which would break even more sections and subsections of this Writ of theirs, I'm betting," Matt whispers. Andy elbows him in the side, and Matt hides his giggles in Andy's hair.

Maximum flounders for a second. "Henric, I assure you…"

"Yes, he did," Edmond sighs. "He strong armed the entire Council thirty years after Stumph was Banished, and ordered the Edge Keepers to bring Stumph in should he ever appear. You were on your sabbatical, Henric."

"Edmond , how dare you…!" Maximum starts.

"Oh, do shut up, Maxi," Edmond snaps. "Between your ego and your incompetence, you've latched the entire Council, and anyone who attended that Council session, to Stumph's fate. I believe you've done quite enough for the next three millennia."

"I dare say he has," Henric bellows. "Perhaps we should hold a vote over your own Banishment, Maximum."

"Oh, for the love of all harmonies, don't," Patrick says. "The mortal world has treacheries enough without adding that imbecile to the mix."

Henric considers Patrick for a moment. Then he looks at each of them in the witness box. Matt feels the urge to look away, but he just keeps his one arm wrapped around Andy's shoulder, and gives Henric a little finger wave.

"Hrmph," Henric says. "Then the Council has a decision to make."

"Wait a minute," Joe says. "You lot aren't deciding shit until you tell us what is going on. Patrick didn't break his 'banishment', you lot did. I want. We want to hear the everything."

Pete nods. "Accusations, charges, decisions - everything."

The entirety of the Council, aside from Edmond, looks constipated at the idea. Henric laughs, and Edmond waves a hand at Patrick. Patrick had jumped up on the wall of his little cubical and is swinging his legs back and forth.

"It's pretty simple," he says. "Because Edmond and the Council violated the Writ and abused their power, they are forced to drop all charges against me and against you guys. And because they pulled Outworlders into this, mortal Outworlders, no less, there are reparations to be paid."

"Reparations?" Pete asks. Joe rolls his eyes at his gleeful expression and slaps him upside the head. When Pete gives him a hurt look, Joe just gestures at Patrick. "He can't reach you."

"Yes, reparations, Mr. Wentz," Henric says. He's taken his seat again and is leaning back against the knees of the woman behind him. She scowls and pushes at his head, but he doesn't seem to notice it through all of his hair. "We owe you Outworlders a debt. Anything that is within our powers to grant."

"Huh," Joe says. "I'm not so sure I like the sounds of that. It's probably a trap, isn't it, Patrick?"

Patrick nods. "Yep. Totally a trap."

"All right, first things first," Matt says. He doesn't like the sound of 'trap'. "How about you lot make your official decisions, and then we'll talk reparations."

Edmond nods. "Of course. All charges brought against you at this time, Patrick Martin Stumph, have…"

"Actually, my name is Patrick Vaughn Stump now, Eddie," Patrick tells him. He gives the wall underneath him an extra firm thump and grins at Edmond.

Edmond blinks, then nods again. "Right, of course. As I was saying, Patrick Martin Stumph, all charges brought against you at this time have been officially dropped. We, the Council of the Ethereal Plains, formally offer you our deepest apologizes."

Patrick nods. "Right. Understood."

"That said, your original sentencing still holds true," Edmond says. "You and your companions will be sent back to your bodies, and you are not to return to the Edge or the Ethereal Plains again."

"I really like how they felt the need to discuss all that," Matt says. He looks over at Patrick. "They didn't do their weird mind meld thing again, did they?"

Patrick rolls his eyes. "No, Mixon, they didn't. There's always a fallout plan, isn't there, Eddie?"

"Be stupid not to have them." Edmond shrugs. "Your answer, Stump?"

"Not good enough," Andy answers for him. He brushes off the other's protests. "You will send us back to our bodies. The Edge will not be taken from Patrick, and you will assure that none of your Citizens will fuck with any member of my crew – past, present or future – or their families, ever. And we make the decision for whether or not a being is included in that list. Those are our terms."

"That isn't possible," the lady next to Maximum protests.

"Sure it is, Ester," Henric says. "We already know that nothing is going to stop Stump from returning to the Edge – he is still one of the most stubborn among us – and we have no right to restrict movement to, through, and away from it. Ability, yes. Right, no."

"Fine, Stumph can have his treks to the Edge," Maximum snaps. "But I will not allow any Citizen to answer to a mortal, no matter how delusional it may be."

"And I fail to see where you're going to get the power to stop us," Pete tells him. "I will personally lead my family and our allies into a boycott of the Ethereal Plains that will last a millennia just as a taster course."

"That won't be necessary, Mr. Wentz," Henric says. "The Living Ship, Fuck City, Andy as you are known to your friends, we, the Citizens of the Ethereal Plains, agree to your reparations. I, myself, will add an addendum to the Writ to see that as it is now, it shall ever be."

"You can't!" Maximum isn't the only one to protest, but he certainly is the loudest.

Patrick's laugh is clear over the clamor. "It's Henric. He can do anything he damn well pleases."

Andy watches Henric closely for a full minute. Even Matt, who is probably the closest being to Andy, both physically and emotionally, out of anyone in the room, can't decipher what is going through his mind at the moment. Matt just really hopes Andy agrees. He really wants to go back to the land of crazy and understandable.

Finally Andy nods. "We accept."

"Excellent!" Henric throws his arms wide. "Now, say your goodbyes, children. I'm sending you home."

Matt barely has a chance to blink before the world shifts in front of him, and then there is only black.

|-|

Matt wakes up on another floor. He's really getting sick of waking up on floors. He takes a moment to catalogue his aches and pains – his entire body is one large, throbbing ache, but he doesn't have any actual bruises, breaks or cuts. Thankfully. Then he climbs to his feet, using his chair as leverage, groaning at the way the emergency sensor lights are still throbbing above his head.

Everyone else is slowly climbing to their feet as well. He sees Pete pull Patrick to his feet and straight into a kiss, Joe standing at their shoulders, his arms slung over both of them. Matt looks away quickly, eyes bouncing over Kyle, Ryan and Stu, noting that they seem as stiff as he is but otherwise fine.

"Andy?" Matt asks. He turns automatically to the main view screen, sure that Andy isn't likely to appear in his holographic form quite so soon. "You okay, dude?"

"I think it would be best if we left before I do something they'll regret," Andy says. His face is on the main view screen, like Matt had thought, and he looks about as far from pleased as Matt has ever seen him. "Also, I still feel like ass."

"Good to know," Matt says. He hops into his chair and pulls the straps on. "Patrick, man, stop making out with Pete and get your probe. Andy's not the only one getting anxious here."

Pete flips Matt off when Patrick pulls away to wave his datapad in the air. "Mixon, all the information from the probe has been sent to me. We can leave anytime."

"Excellent!" Matt says. He punches in their return coordinates. Patrick had altered them so they will fly closer to Barataria then any of them really feel comfortable about, but he had a point when he'd said, "Better close to an occupied planet, then to the dark should anything go wrong."

"Everyone strap in, and we'll get gone," Matt says. Andy's already brought the engines online, and now Matt just needs to turn them around.

"We're all strapped in, Matt," Ryan says a few minutes later. "What's the hold up?"

"Um, this is going to sound like a stupid question," Matt says.

"Like that's unusual for you," Stu says.

"Fuck off," Matt says easily. "But does anyone know how to turn a ship around when there is nothing to push off against?"

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Kyle asks.

"Like Andy said, there's nothing out there," Matt says. He waves his hand vaguely towards the outside of the ship. "Do I really have to explain basic physics to you?"

"Mixon, just take us into hyperspace," Patrick sighs.

"But…"

"Trust me, Matt," Patrick says. "This is the Edge - the Beginning and the End of this Universe. It's all cyclical."

Matt blinks. Then he shrugs. "Okay then." He drops into the Trance. We all set, Andy?

Just waiting on you to catch up, Matt. Andy's sounds like he's only mildly concentrating on Matt. The sooner the better, seriously.

Fine, fine. You're so impatient lately, dear. You really need a vacation. Matt grins when he feels Andy's grumbling more than hears it. But then he looks out at the bright spot on the line – right in front of them – and together they reach, pull, and go.

|-|

The return jump takes even less time that the outgoing one. Andy's sure Matt isn't the least surprised at the speed. Andy is surprised that Matt hadn't thought to comment on it. Matt isn't really one to just let things slide once they have his attention.

Though, considering the past day and a half, Andy is sure Matt's attention is firmly focused on the task at hand – getting the fuck away from the crazies – and less on the whys and how. Those usually come once they have a chance to hole up somewhere safe.

Andy, however, has too much to think about to push his thoughts away. He could, of course, delegate the thoughts to a lesser portion of his consciousness to ponder over and report back, but. Honestly, Andy has a minor worry of what he'd do if he didn't keep himself occupied. It isn't like the scenery is going to keep him distracted.

First in his thoughts are the people of the Ethereal Plains. Deities Pete had called them. Andy is quite certain that no matter what powers those people possess or the length of their lives, they are not gods. They seemed too much like too powerful children for him to believe otherwise.

Well, except for Henric. Andy would stake his life on Henric being their leader. Andy is choosing to be thankful that Henric liked Patrick and the rest of them by extension. And that is far as his thoughts on that matter would go.

Second in his thoughts is his time spent in a human body. It was confusing and uncomfortable, and Andy now knows just why Matt always bitches when he falls asleep in his pilot's chair. Waking up with a stiff neck, no matter how comfortable the sleep had been, isn't an experience Andy wishes to repeat.

And that thought just leads him to thoughts of Matt. How solid he is, not only in personality Andy now knows, but also in body. Andy knows that his crew, every last one of them, are strong and fit beings, ready to take on anything that comes up against them. To know and now to acknowledge with actually feelings. It's weird.

It's also a little disturbing to have to acknowledge, at least to himself, that it wasn't any of the others that Andy had been most worried about in the Ethereal Plains. No, all of his worry was (is) settled firmly on Matt. Andy has had a dozen different crews in his years of service – good men and women, even during his tour within Republic control for the most part, but none of them have captured as much of Andy's attention as Matthew Mixon. The thought of flying without him in the pilot's chair makes his systems glitch for a nanosecond.

Human emotions are a very confusing concept without having to deal with them outside of the abstract. Andy is quite ready to never go through that again.

Andy pushes his thoughts away. He checks in on Matt – humming some song that Ryan had been pumping through the comms the week before – and turns his attention to the rest of the crew.

Ryan and Kyle are in the main Maintenance Bay, working on replicating the teleportation device they had almost finished prior to the trial. They aren't likely to blow themselves or the section up at the moment, so Andy turns his attention to Stu, who is loading up the Nirvana with the weapons and miscellaneous equipment Kyle hadn't yet put back. Andy had actually expected Stu to head to the storage room behind the dead plant, but he appreciates Stu's caution. Until they are well into the Uncharted, Andy isn't willing to let his guard down in regards to a surprise attack, and Stu seems to share his thoughts, if the amount of weaponry he's packing is any indication.

Patrick, Pete, and Joe are all back in Patrick's and Pete's quarters, and Andy only has his temperature sensors to go on, but the energy spikes are enough to make him happy that Joe has more decorum than either Pete or Patrick. Or maybe Joe and Patrick combined were enough to drive Pete towards more civilized behavior. Either way, Andy doesn't have another video to sear from his memory banks, and he is thankful.

Dude, are you being a peeping tom again? I've talked to you about that.

And his attention is brought back to Matt. I was running a sweep, Matt. How about you focus on your job and leave mine to me?

Matt scoffs and demands distraction. Andy grants it, considering he that he really doesn't have anything better to do.

Outside his hull, he continues to follow a line only Matt can see, towards a bright spot that will take both of them to breech.

|-|

They come out of hyperspace two planets distance from Barataria. However, their proximity to the Space Pirate homeworld isn't Matt's main concern at the moment. The winner of that title is the way the entire ship is shaking around him. It's so bad that when he unbuckles himself, he's almost thrown straight to the floor.

"Note to self, don't disengage safety features prematurely," he mutters to himself as he clings to the arms of his chair for the duration of a particularly violent shudder. The emergency sensors are blaring and blinking again, and he risks letting go with one hand to swat at his computer to try and shut them off. "Andy, what the fuck!"

Andy appears momentarily on the view screen before the image goes fuzzy, then fades completely. "I have no idea, Mixon, but I don't feel so hot. I've lost sensors on Levels Five and Six, and the rest are periodically flashing in and out." Matt sure they are; Andy's voice is doing the same thing.

"Guys, are we under attack or something?" Kyle asks over the comm. "Not to interrupt you two, or anything, but it'd be appreciated if you'd give us a heads up."

"We're not under outside attack," Andy says. "I'm broadcasting the same jamming code that I always do when we drop out of a jump. This is something internal, but I'm having difficulties running the proper programs."

"In the mean time, Ryan, would it be possible for you to shut those damn alarms off?" Matt asks. "I'm having absolutely no luck up here."

"Yes, Matt, because that is currently the best use of my skills," Ryan says.

"Hey, the sooner it's quiet, the sooner we can all think straight," Matt says. He punches in his authorization code and his override, but all his computer does is beep nastily at him.

"I'm headed up to the bridge," Stu says. "The lifts are down, so Andy, please don't fry me as I climb, okay?"

"I'll do my best, Rossman," Andy snaps.

Another violent shudder almost throws Matt to the floor. He grabs at this computer station for balance, but hits a wrong button, and the latest Serenity single blares over top of the alarms. He slaps at the button again to shut it off. "Fucking shit."

"I think I know what is going on," Patrick says. His voice is a little wrecked, low and rough, and Matt definitely does not think about why that could possibly be. "Andy, do you feel like you're losing control of your minor motor functions and secondary systems?"

It's a moment before Andy answers. "Yes. What the fuck is going on, Stump?"

"Yeah, I definitely know what this is," Patrick sighs. "Look, you're going to want to head to the nearest habitable planet so we can land. It'd be best if you didn't change mid-flight."

"What the fuck?" Andy repeats.

"You're changing, Andy. Your species probably wasn't meant to hold this form indefinitely," Patrick says. "Spending some time in the Edge and the Ethereal Plains probably exasperated the issue, so now you're experiencing the need to shift to your human form. Being planetside would be best. Unless you can withstand the vacuum of space unprotected."

"You've seen others like me?" Andy asks. Matt's sure he would have sounded surprised if he didn't sound so fuzzy. Matt grabs a hold of his chair straps and buckles back in as he pulls up the coordinates to Barataria. "Mixon, what the fuck are you doing?"

"Getting us somewhere relatively safe, dear. You heard the scientist," Matt says. He brings up a map of Barataria, locating a suitable landing space on the northern continent. There is a hundred mile wide plain in the northeastern section of the continent that butts up against a mountain range that's about three times the plain's size. "How about you concentrate on staying together until we land."

"Anything else?" Andy bites out.

"Yeah, can you boost that jamming code? It'd be awesome if we landed without a greeting party," Matt says. He turns the ship in the right direction. It'll only take them twenty minutes before they're in atmo, and he still has to figure out the right entry sequence. He needs Andy a little distracted. "Stump, you've seen this before?"

"Not exactly, no," Patrick says. There's the sound of packing going on beyond his voice, and Matt catches snippets of Joe and Pete talking. "I didn't really leave the Plains all that often, honestly, and Andy is the first Living Ship I've met. But there are certainly precedents. Also, everyone should probably pack up what they need. I'm not really sure what's actually going to happen to everything once Andy shifts."

"That's awesome," Stu says. "All right, the Nirvana is loaded up with basic supplies that'll keep us for at least a week. Everyone grab your personal shit and meet up in the hanger. That goes for you, too, Mixon."

"Not a chance in the twenty-seven hells, Ross," Matt answers. He manhandles the ship around a small moon, sensors too off to keep them outside of the affects of its minor gravity pull. "I'm not leaving Andy to fly us in when he's like this. If you could grab my duffle from my quarters though?"

Stu curses but doesn't argue. Matt really isn't all that surprised. Then he stops thinking about anything but his entry sequence as another shudder slams through the bridge.

|-|

The trip through Barataria's atmosphere isn't the worst Andy's ever taken, but it's definitely up there. The Nirvana, with everyone but Matt inside, departs the hanger as soon as they've passed through the worst of it. They'll follow Andy and Matt to the landing site. And then they'll wait.

"You're an idiot," Andy says again. He's tried to put his face on one of the monitors, any of them, any at all, but he's having no luck. He thinks Matt might be a little less freaked out if he could see Andy's face. "If I blow up and you die, I'm going to blame you."

"First, you're not going to blow up," Matt says. He rolls his eyes at the closest camera. "And second, there is no possible way this could be my fault, so you can't blame me."

"Try me," Andy says. Then he tries another tactic. "As soon as I land, you are leaving. No arguments, Mixon. If Stump is right, I don't think we want anyone inside when it happens."

Matt makes a face at that. "Yeah, that definitely sounds like something completely not fun. Though it'd make for an interesting bar story. 'No, seriously! He went from Ship to human, and I was all up inside of him!' Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge."

"Mixon, no. Entire worlds of no," Andy says. "Shut up, and do your job."

Matt laughs at him. But he lands them as close to the mountain range as he can with the sensors fucking up around them. Then he sits in his chair, eyes closed, head down.

"Mixon, I'm serious," Andy says. Another tremor shudders through him, and he can feel…something happening. Not good. "Matt, it's happening. Go!"

|-|

Matt's hands fly to the straps at Andy's shout. They make quick work of the buckles, and then he's on his feet taking one last look around the bridge he's spent the last ten years working, living on. "Andy…"

"Matt, I'm seriously going to shoot you in the head if you don't get gone," Andy snaps. His face flickers briefly on the main view screen. He's glaring. Of course he's glaring. "I trust Patrick; I'll be with you in a few."

Matt's breath catches in his throat and he blinks. Then he nods. "Right. I'll catch you on the flipside, dude."

Andy's, "Oh, for fuck's sake, Mixon," follows him out of the bridge and to the emergency escape hatch near the main entrance of Weaponry.

|-|

Five minutes later, Matt's climbing out of the lifepod with a little help from Stu. They're about twenty yards from the Nirvana, and if the Nirvana had landed any closer to Fuck City, the two ships would have merged. Everyone except for Ryan is outside and leaning against the side of the Nirvana, watching Fuck City.

"You okay, man?" Stu asks. His voice is quiet, so it won't carry anywhere. As soon as Matt's steady on his feet, Stu hands him his hipshooters and holster.

"Yeah, I'm cool. Thanks," Matt says. He straps his weapons on, and then he stoops to grab the emergency kit from the pod. There isn't much in there, but a little is better than nothing. "Ryan monitoring the transmitter?"

"Yeah," Stu says. "Barataria, man. He's freaking out a little."

"Yeah, he's not the only one," Matt admits as they start back towards the others. "Space Pirates, dude."

"Eh, they're not that bad," Stu says.

Matt raises an eyebrow at him. "What happened to your 'Fuck, no! Space Pirates are total cannibals! If you ever find yourself on Barataria, you're fucked.' speech?"

Stu shrugs. "My old man's stories were mostly just stories, you know that right?"

"There's always some truth to the fiction, dude," Matt says. "Mark my words."

When they reach the others, just as Matt's tossing the emergency kit into the open hatch of the ship, a buzzing sound starts up. It's coming from Fuck City, and is growing steadily in volume and intensity.

Patrick nods at Matt. "It's starting."

"How long?"

Patrick shrugs. "Don't know. I don't think it'll be too long, though. Ten minutes, max."

Matt nods and leans back against the hull of the ship, eyes pinned to Fuck City. He reaches up and rubs at his ear; the buzzing has stopped growing louder, but the intensity is still increasing, pressing in on his ear drums. "Figures something like this would happen in the most annoying way possible."

Kyle reaches over and slaps the back of his head. "Yes, Matt. Andy's doing this just to annoy you."

"Of course he's not," Matt says. "But if he were, it would be just like him to do it in the most annoying possible way he could." He smiles cheekily at Kyle, who rolls his eyes and goes back to leaning against the Nirvana with a huff.

It is a beautiful day on the plains of Barataria's northern continent. The skies are open and clear of clouds, and the temperature is comfortably warm. Matt idly contemplates the possibility of spending a few days just relaxing here, maybe closer to a stream or something, because this place is just perfect for a camping trip. There aren't even any annoying bugs to swat away. The only real drawback of the place is the Space Pirates, and there isn't a one of them in sight.

"Andy has stopped broadcasting," Ryan says over their shortwave comms. His voice is tight. "And he isn't answering."

"It's okay," Patrick says. He's the only one of them that looks one hundred percent calm and unruffled. Even Pete and Joe are wearing pinched looks as the intensity of the buzzing grows and grows. "It won't be long now."

"I'm not particularly worried about that, Stump," Ryan says. "Andy is Andy, he's pulled out of more shit than I can list if I had a lifetime worth of time to waste. However, he's stopped broadcasting the jamming code, and there is no way the Nirvana can boost a signal powerful enough to cover the whole of Fuck City, even if that fucking buzzing wasn't screwing with my instruments."

"Not much we can do about that now, Ryan," Matt says. He shifts on his feet, wincing as his eardrums start to throb in time the buzzing. "Keep an eye out on the radar, too."

"Yes, Mixon. Of course, Mixon," Ryan says. "Who the hell made you king and commander?"

Matt doesn't bother to reply. Granted, that's less because he knew the question was rhetorical, and more because the buzzing comes to a sharp crescendo, making everyone grab at their heads and duck away. It lasts for what feels like an eternity, but is really only about a minute according to his watch, and then it stops as suddenly as it had started. It takes Matt a minute to realize there is silence around the ringing in his ears, and he jerks himself upright.

Fuck City is gone. There is nothing in front of him. Then he looks down forty feet and there's Andy standing in the middle of the grass flattened by his much larger Ship form. He's wearing the clothes he'd annoyed Buckley with, and between one moment and the next he sort of collapses in on himself. Matt is running to him before his knees hit the ground, Stu and Kyle right behind him.

"Andy!" Matt doesn't know why he's shouting as he runs up to Andy, sliding the last foot on his knees in his rush to get to his friend. The corner of his mind that was thinking of Barataria as an excellent vacation spot is reeling over the ink on Andy's arms, designs that perfectly match the designs that lined Fuck City's wings. Matt wants to see if the rest of Fuck City is inked on the corresponding portions of Andy's body; he'd bet Stu's lifetime supply of pop that they do.

Andy doesn't look up at Matt's shout, and he falls into Matt's arms when Matt tugs on him. He's breathing, for values of breathing that include hyperventilating. Matt runs the hand that isn't holding the curve of Andy's body to his up and down Andy's back. "Dude, chill. This is really weird, but we've got you."

"Matt, is he?" Kyle asks as he and Stu stop just short of the two of them.

"He's okay," Matt says. Andy's sort of clinging to him, but he lets up as his breathing syncs up with Matt's and he calms down. "I think. He's a little out of it."

"Your mom is out of it," Andy mutters sluggishly into Matt's shoulder. Then, "You smell like ass, Mixon."

Matt laughs and hugs Andy so tightly he squeaks. "Fuck you, man. Leave my mother out of it."

Stu snorts. "You two are fucking ridiculous." He's shaking his head at them when Matt looks up.

"How're you feeling, Andy?" Kyle asks. He leans down and pulls Andy to his feet while Stu does the same with Matt. Matt doesn't miss the way Kyle's hands trail over Andy's shoulders and arms. "You going to be sick?"

"I'm dizzy, exhausted, and my head is pounding," Andy snaps. He shakes their hands off of him, and almost falls again before Matt can get his arm around his waist again. "I'm fine. Seriously."

"We need to get you back to the shuttle so Ryan can do some scans," Stu says. But he isn't looking at them. He's staring off to the west, squinting into the late afternoon sun. "I think we should find some cover, too."

"Yeah, it'll be easier to hide in the mountains with Andy as tiny as he is now," Matt says as he helps Andy walk towards the shuttle. It takes about twenty steps before Andy can move easily on his own, and then he's shoving Matt off of him again. "Seriously, dude. You're fucking tiny."

"Shut up, Mixon," Andy says. He sounds more like himself, which is basically a little annoyed and a whole lot grumpy. "Stump better have a good explanation for all this shit."

"Um, guys?" Ryan says over the comms. "You need to get your asses on the shuttle now. We have company." Patrick, Joe and Pete are already disappearing into the shuttle.

As they start to run, Matt's head turns to where Stu had been looking before. There are definitely shapes on the horizon. Shapes that look more and more like ships as the seconds pass. "Shit. I hope that's a welcoming committee and not an armada."

"Your futile optimism amuses me," Ryan says. "They've already broadcasted the standard 'disarm and surrender' wave. So the sooner we're in the air…"

"The sooner we're still breathing," Kyle finishes. "We'll be there in a minute."

It takes them less than that once Stu and Matt grab and hoist a stumbling Andy into the air between them. "Sorry, dude, but the indignity is worth not becoming Space Pirate goo," Stu says when Andy squawks in protest.

They put Andy back on his feet as soon as they're inside the shuttle. Matt would like to stop and make sure that Andy is all right, but Stu's at his back pushing him to the front of the shuttle with a quiet, "Get us out of here first, Mixon, then you can make out with your now-human boyfriend."

"You are ever so funny, Rossman." Matt flips him off as he shoves past Ryan and Pete to take his seat, throwing his straps on even as he runs through the fastest pre-flight he's done since Kentucky. "Everyone find a place to strap in or something to hold onto. This is probably going to get ugly."

As he finishes getting them ready to lift off again, he hears Andy sort of whisper-yelling at Patrick. "What the fuck, Stump! I want an explanation. I'm not supposed to be human!"

"Sorry, Andy, I don't really have one," Patrick says. He does sound sorry, but there's an under layer of excitement to his voice. Definitely a scientist. "You're definitely human, and yes, your race did shift. I think. Like I said earlier, I didn't have any contact with Living Ships before you, but everything I've ever been told or heard suggested this might be possible. Makes sense, considering the Living Ships were at their height as a race when humans first started exploring the Universe. If they could shift back and forth between Ship and Human, that'd explain how humans colonized so much of the Universe so quickly. Huh. This is really fascinating."

Andy growls. "Stump, I ought to…"

"Andy!" Joe interrupts. "Now probably isn't the time to threaten Patrick. Don't you think Matt needs your help?"

"Don't think I don't know what you're doing, Trohman," Andy says. Then he stomps up to the forward compartment and grabs a hold of Matt's chair. Matt knows because the chair tilts backwards a little and he can feel Andy's breath on his neck. Which is weird. He's used to Andy in his peripheral, but the breath on the neck thing is new. New but definitely something he's going to have to give more thought to later. "Are you going to take off sometime today, Mixon?"

Matt rolls his eyes, and launches the ship into the air. "This isn't like flying with your mind, dude."

"We have an entire armada bearing down on us," Stu says. He's at the weapons console, prepping their defense. "ETA: three minutes."

"Shit," Matt says. Even at top speed, the mountains are a good ten minutes away; Andy's sensors had really, really, really been off. "Seriously, people, strap in. This is going to be rough."

"How much time do we need?" Stu asks.

"We're ten minutes out," Matt says. "We're definitely going to need your expert skills, Rossman."

"We always do," Stu says.

Behind them, Kyle is fake-gagging. "Oh, for the love of little pixie children, we're doomed."

The comm buzzes with a message from the Space Pirates. Matt slaps the comm off. They really don't need to hear the usual 'surrender or die' messages.

They're still five minutes outside of the mountains when the armada catches up to them. The first shot comes at their port side, but Matt is already pulling a loop de loop to drive them straight back into the Space Pirates. He's weaving in and out of the paths of the first three ships when Stu starts firing.

"Ha!" Matt crows when the first of Stu's shots hits its target. "Take that fuckers! Oh, shit." Then Matt's too busy dodging enemy ships and enemy fire to gloat.

|-|

Andy's sure that he should sit down and strap in before he loses his balance and cracks his head open, but he can't get his hands to let go of Matt's chair. Even when Matt starts utilizing evasive maneuvers that should rightly only apply to a human body and not a machine, Andy keeps clinging and trying to blow the pirates out of the sky with only his mind.

"Fucking figures I couldn't get telekinesis with the body change, no, that'd be too fucking helpful," Andy mutters to himself as he's forced to shift hard to his left to compensate for Matt's throwing them to the right. Behind him, the others are muttering and cursing, and he hears Ryan quietly suggest that he sit down before Ryan has to fix him, but Andy keeps standing and keeps cursing, "Die, fuckers, die," in time with Stu's weapons fire.

Then Matt takes a turn too sharp and sudden for Andy to compensate. Andy falls against the chair, one hand slipping off the back and onto Matt's arm. Andy's doesn't even have a chance to process that – he's too busy wishing the ship in front of them a fiery, explosive death – and then the ship experiences fiery, explosive death.

|-|

Matt barely registers Andy's hand falling and clutching on his shoulder, because he's too busy dealing with the ship that had, one, just appeared in front of him that, two, just exploded into a thousand tiny pieces of fiery death. "Fucking shit!"

He has no choice but to fly through the explosion – it's too sudden and too there for any fancy maneuverings. Kyle had done an awesome job souping up the Nirvana, but it'll never have the wingtip turning abilities that Fuck City had. Matt's cursing the whole way through it. There's no way they can come through this cleanly – shield technology is still in its baby shoes, and not even Fuck City had had one worthy of the old school science fiction fantasies.

Alarms start blaring before they're halfway though the flames, coinciding with the thud and screech of metal against metal along the starboard side, and Matt is suddenly fighting to keep the ship in the air with only half of the previous responsiveness from the controls. Then they're clear, and Matt lets the ship drop. He's hoping that the pirates will see the fall and the damage and back off a little; that they'll be more interested in keeping the ship intact then in destroying them.

"Ryan, shit, turn those damn alarms off!" Matt shouts over the noise as he throws his whole body into pulling them up before they hit dirt. He just barely manages. They're skimming over the increasingly rocky ground, and his sensors have to be fucking wrong. There is no fucking way for that many ships to be dropping out of the sky. "Stu, what the fuck?"

"That isn't all me, man. I'm just as confused as you are," Stu says. "They're dropping like fucking flies."

"We're just about out of weapons range," Matt says. "Can someone find me a place to set down – I'm a little tied up at the moment." A definite understatement as he's having a hard time keeping them in the air. The ship has started shaking, on top of all the other shit going wrong. "Andy, man, can you ease up on my shoulder? I'm starting to lose feeling, and I need that arm."

"Right, right. Sorry," Andy says absently. He lets up enough for circulation to return to Matt's hand but doesn't remove his hand.

The alarms shut off abruptly. "There," Ryan says. "They're off. And there's a clearing under that cliff face two hundred meters ahead and to our port side, Mixon. Can you get us there?"

"Do I have a choice?" Matt asks, but it's a rhetorical question. He's already turning in that direction. The dip under the cliff face gives him the most trouble (read: almost pulls his damn arm from its socket), but two minutes later, they're tucked up against the backside of the cliff, well hidden by the overhang.

|-|

Andy only let's go of Matt's shoulder because Matt stands up to climb out of the chair, and Andy can't really reach it comfortably anymore. He's freaking out a little – did he really? Seriously? - but then Matt is dragging him outside along with everyone else, and he's too busy gapping at the destruction riddling the plains to think out how it happened.

"The entire armada just. What?" Kyle asks. He has a hand on Ryan's shoulder and he's leaning forward so sharply that if Ryan moves even a millimeter to the side, he's going to land flat on his face.

"It blew up," Joe says.

"Totally blew up," Pete agrees.

There is a strip of burning metal, ten miles across and thirty miles deep, extending from about three miles out of their hiding spot. Occasionally a secondary explosion occurs, drawing out an approving sound from Joe.

"Nice shooting, Ross," Patrick says a couple of minutes later.

But Stu shakes his head. "That wasn't me. Not all of it anyway. There was some odd fire from the mountains, but. That still doesn't explain this."

"Huh," Matt says. "That's weird."

Yeah, no shit. Andy shifts from one foot to the other, which incidentally presses him closer to Matt's side, because Matt won't move his arm from Andy's shoulders. "There was fire from the mountains, Ross?"

Stu nods absently. "Yeah."

"These mountains?" Andy asks, gesturing to the range they're smack dab in the middle of. He doesn't know why he bothers – it isn't like anyone is looking away from the destruction.

Stu nods again. "Yep." Then he blinks and stands up straighter. "Shit."

Andy nods. "Yeah. Could you tell if they were firing on us or not?"

"I don't think they were," Stu says. Which. Well, it isn't comforting.

"Right, we need to fix the ship," Andy says. "Now."

"First things first, dude," Pete says. "How the hell did you blow up an entire Space Pirate armada? And don't try to deny it – even with someone firing from the mountains, there's no way we could have destroyed all of those ships. No way."

Everyone turns to look at Andy. Mostly they look a little awed – Patrick looking at him like he's a science experiment that just fell willy-nilly into his lap, Joe is considering and smug, and Matt looks especially proud, a look that comes with an accompanying, crushing hug.

"Dude! You are awesome!" Matt says. He even kisses the top of Andy's head. Andy doesn't bother trying to squirm away – he's seen Matt pull that on the others enough times that he knows he doesn't stand a chance at successfully getting away. "You are the best Living Ship ever!"

Andy sighs. "I'm the only Living Ship you know, Mixon, and possibly the only one left. Also, not really a Ship anymore."

"Eh, details, man. Details," Matt scoffs. He hugs Andy again and only pulls away because Andy applies his elbow directly to his ribs. "Ow."

"Stop squishing me, Mixon, and go look at my shuttle," Andy orders. "I don't think we want to be here when the pirates come looking for their missing armada."

Matt rolls his eyes, but he lets Andy go so he can go over the damages with Kyle and Stu.

Andy would have followed them if Ryan and Patrick hadn't latched onto his arms – one to each. "What?"

"You aren't going anywhere until I have a chance to scan you, Andy," Ryan says. "You need a medical check, and I am not taking no for an answer."

|-|

The starliner appears just off the edge of the cliff. Literally appears. Okay, so it probably did the normal ship hovering thing, but to Matt it seems like it just appeared because he most certainly hadn't heard it approach.

Granted, he had also been watching Pete do things with a laser torch that just shouldn't have been possible. Four inch gashes in solid metal do not just melt back together like that, Matt doesn't care who is wielding the tools.

Matt does wish he had heard the ship approach, because he almost loses a hand when Pete jumps in surprise and almost drops the laser torch. "Shit! Watch it, Wentz!"

"Sorry, sorry!" Pete says, jerking the torch up and away from them both before he turns it off.

"Matt, get your ass in here!" Ryan shouts from the hatch. "You've got a wave!"

Matt and Pete share a look before turning and looking at the starliner hovering twenty yards away. It's about twice the size of the Nirvana, and definitely something close to a smaller version of Fuck City. Meaning, totally an all on its lonesome space faring vessel. From the bridge window, a small dark figure waves at them.

Pete waves back even as he whistles. "That is not a cheap ship."

Matt nods. "Totally not." He'd bet it was worth somewhere in the billion credit range.

"Mixon!" Ryan bellows.

Matt rolls his eyes. "Yes, mom! I'm on my way." He takes another look at the ship, and then slips down from his perch to the open hatch, dropping down into the passenger section easily. "What do you want?"

"There are a couple of Space Pirates that want to talk to you," Ryan says. "Well, they want to talk to the person in charge, and I'm not done with Andy yet. You're up."

Matt blinks, then shrugs. "Okay." He goes into the cockpit and drops into his chair, where his view screen shows a burly blond man waiting patiently. "I'm Matt Mixon. Would you be the guy in that billion credit ship hovering outside my shuttle?"

The blond guy smirks at him. "That's a low estimate, Mixon, and yes. I'm Bob Bryar."

"Space Pirate and general Bob of all trades!" Another man says as he shoves Bob to the side to look into their end of the connection. He's small and dark and probably the guy who'd waved at him and Pete. "I'm Frank, and how the fuck did you losers blow up three quarters of an armada?"

"I'm not disclosing that information, sorry, Frank," Matt says. He leans back in his chair and clasps his hands over his stomach. "What can we here on the good old Nirvana do for you boys?"

Bob puts his hand against the side of Frank's head and shoves him out of range of the view screen. "We're here to get you and your crew out of the area. There's a search party from the Toro Family on its way, and you do not want a piece of that."

"Especially since that bucket of bolts doesn't look like it can fly in a straight line!" Frank says off screen. He giggles when Bob lobs something at him – something that made a very loud thump when it hit the wall.

"Why should I trust you?"

Bob shrugs. "You don't really have much of a choice. Also, since you're definitely not local, you probably don't know that there's something of a civil war taking place right now – we'd be part of the rebels trying to overthrow the harsh rule of the Familys and yadda yadda yadda."

"Dude, Gerard is going to be pissed that you totally trashed his speech," Frank says. He pops back up on the screen, this time leaning into Bob's space instead of out and out shoving Bob aside.

Bob shrugs again as Matt blinks. Bob says something back to Frank, but Matt is distracted by the sudden appearance of another grouping of ships on the outer edge of the plains.

"Shit, you're serious, aren't you?" Matt asks, sitting up in his chair. The ships are definitely headed in their direction. Even if the Nirvana's jamming sequence was working, there's no way it could hide the body heat of eight guys, especially a former Living Ship that was still giving off energy like a ship exiting hyperspace.

"Yes," Bob says. "You should gather up your crew and whatever belongings you don't want confiscated by the Toro's and come aboard Dixie. Your ship should be fine here – it's well hidden and off radar. I wouldn't have found it if we hadn't seen you land. We'll bring you back once the heat's off."

Matt looks Bob in the eye. He doesn't know why but he's sure he can trust Bob. Frank is another question entirely, but Bob reminds Matt of Andy – solid and sure. The others are going to kill him. Matt nods. "Okay. Ten minutes safe enough?"

Bob nods. "I'll land, and we'll help you load up. Any injuries?"

Matt shakes his head. "No, thankfully. I'll go warn the peasants."

|-|

Thirty minutes later, they're piled a passenger lounge on Dixie just outside of the main bridge. If Matt hadn't just spent the last ten years of his life on the most advanced, tricked out ship in existence, he'd be drooling over Dixie. She's all clean lines and open space, compact and airy, intimate, yet enough room to give even the crankiest of crew member's space. In short, the best type of small space flight vessel in the galaxy.

No one is thrilled that Matt agreed to jump on board without talking to them, but he is completely sure that they didn't have a choice. He's sure they don't actually believe him, especially after they hear Frank call into someone named Brian that he and Bob are, "Totally bringing in fresh meat! You'll like them, too – they're cute!"

"Mixon, if anyone dies or is tortured, I am blaming you," Andy tells him. He jabs a finger against Matt's shoulder, hard.

Matt scowls as he rubs his shoulder. "Why am I the one always being blamed?"

"Because it usually is your fault?" Stu says. He has had his hands near his hipshooters since Dixie had appeared outside their bolt hole.

"Dudes, not to cut into your friendly comrade banter or anything," Frank interrupts. He has his head stuck through the opening between the two rooms. He's grinning and wagging his eyebrows at them. "But we're about to land. You totally want to see this, Mixon."

Matt shrugs at the glares everyone else is giving him, and he follows Frank into the other room. Andy and Stu follow him.

The bridge is standard for a starliner. Main view screen in front that can be disengaged and slide away to show a solid clear plexi-steel window for in-atmo flight. There are six other windows – three on each side of the forward window – stretching along the port and starboard sides of the ship, their steel covers also pulled away. Then there're the two main work stations – pilot and navigation – one on each side of the room. Bob's sitting at the station on the left, guiding their decent deeper into the mountain range through the forward window.

At first glance, it looks like Bob is about fly straight into the side of a mountain. Then a huge section at the mountain's base pulls back, revealing a huge tunnel that Fuck City could have flown through – doing loop-de-loops. Bob flies them straight in, and not five minutes later they're landing in a huge cavern that could have held five Fuck Cities with room to spare.

As it was, besides Dixie, there were three other starliners, two frigates, a freighter, two battalions and a cruiser parked in various slide docks along the walls. Half the slide docks stood empty.

"Welcome to Rebellion Headquarters!" Frank says. He waves his arms grandly, almost smacking Bob in the head. Bob swats his hands away with the ease of long practice as he shuts down the ship.

"Come on," Bob says as he stands up from his seat. He gestures out the front window at two guys walking up to the ship. "You need to meet Gerard and Ray. Unfortunately, they are the brains of this outfit."

"I'm telling Gerard that you said that!" Frank crows as he pushes past the three of them and off the bridge.

Bob rolls his eyes at Frank's back. "Yeah, I'm terrified, Iero!" He shouts after him.

"You should be, Bryar! Gerard signs your paycheck!" Frank shouts back. Then he says something to the others, and there's the sound of everyone trooping off the ship.

"What paycheck?" Bob asks the air as he gestures the three of them ahead of him. "Come on. Way and Toro are decent guys, you'll like them."

Matt stops halfway out the door. "Toro? I thought you said…"

"I did. That's how you know we're the real thing and not the fucking pansies playing at a rebellion to look good to mommy and daddy. We have the third in line heir of the Toro throne co-leading us." Bob nods, a smirk on his lips. He gestures impatiently for Matt to move again. "Now hurry up. Way is sure to have dinner all set up, and I'm starving. Frank ate everything. Again."

If Matt had been asked who he thought was leading a planetwide rebellion by Space Pirates against other, more tyrannical Space Pirates, the two guys who met them at the base of Dixie loading ramp would have been pretty far down on his list. Okay, they probably would have been at the very bottom of the list, if they'd made it on there at all.

But two guys in their late twenties - one with a rat's nest of black hair, sunglasses and ink stains on his fingers and the side of his nose, the other with curls that rival Joe's and a goofy smile – are not the picture of 'Space Pirate Rebellion Leaders'.

"Hi! Welcome to Rebellion Headquarters!" Sunglasses and ink says. He has a huge grin on his face. "I know, I know, it's a terrible name, but I really haven't had the time to think of a really good one, yet. Most of them have already been used, and at least this one is straight forward."

"Gee," Curls says. He shakes his head sheepishly as he looks over at the gathered group of them. "I'm Ray Toro, and this is Gerard Way. We're the two that asked Bob and Frank to bring you here."

"And you did that why?" Andy asks. He has his arms crossed over his chest, and he glares at them. Matt nudges him with his hip and mirrors Ray's sheepish look back at him.

"You were attacked by part of my Familys armada," Ray says. He raises his hands in a 'what can you do?' gesture. "We figured you were either one of their enemies or potentially one of their enemies, given that you crash landed and they tried their 'surrender or die' routine. We thought we should help."

"An enemy of my enemy is my friend?" Joe asks. He's standing just in front of Pete and Patrick, angled just enough to hide Patrick from Ray's and Gerard's line of sight without looking like he was trying to hide Patrick from their line of sight.

Gerard nods. "Totally. Or, at least, the least we can do is show some hospitality to you guys. Crash landing and being attacked all in one day sucks." He sounds like he's speaking from personal experience.

"He's speaking from personal experience," Frank says. "There was this one time over…"

Bob puts his hand over Frank's mouth. "Frank, they don't want to hear that," Bob sighs. Then he growls and snaps his hand away from Frank, who is grinning innocently at him. Bob scowls and wipes his hand off on the side of Frank's face. Frank just giggles.

"Space Pirate stories? Who doesn't want to hear them?" Pete asks. He's leaning against Patrick and shifts forward to poke Joe in the shoulder, who calmly rolls his eyes and ignores Pete's snickering.

Bob rolls his eyes. "Okay. Frank, they don't want to hear about that now."

Frank pokes him in the side. "You're just cranky because you're hungry, Bob."

"I wonder why that is," Bob says. He pokes Frank in the cheek. "Pig."

"Please ignore the FrankandBob show," Gerard says. "They always act like they haven't been together forever." Despite his words, he's smiling happily at the two of them. Matt's sure there's a story – there always is.

Ryan snorts. "We know the type." He, Kyle, and Stu roll their eyes collectively when Matt raises an eyebrow at them

"I take it Frank ate everything again?" Ray asks. He shakes his head before he hears Bob's answer. "Frank, you are a pig. Brian sent you two out with enough food for three days, and you were gone eight hours!" He rolls his eyes when Frank just smiles cheekily at him. "Thankfully we have dinner set up in the small dining room. Come on, Gee will explain everything as we walk and eat."

He and Gerard turn together and start walking towards a small open doorway cut into the stone. There are similar doorways spread out periodically throughout the massive hanger – they look like tiny spots of light against the dark red stone – on this level central level and the other six. There are two massive doorways that start on the third level and extend through the fifth that are directly across from one another along a line that would form a t-junction with the now hidden again entrance – a line that would probably be a pale gold should Matt have dropped into the Trance. Most of the smaller doorways have a corresponding slide dock, but the two larger ones only have large balcony like lips that extend out about twenty yards in a semi-circle around them.

Matt isn't sure what he is expecting when they walk into the tunnel behind Gerard and Ray. Part of him wants to see something from an ancient science fiction vid, with exposed wiring and hanging exposed light bulbs from the ceiling, but reality continues to not provide. Instead, the walls are smoothed to a dull shine, more from wear and tear than someone deciding today would be a good day to polish the walls, and there are recessed lights in the ceiling spread out every six feet.

"We have no idea who made this place," Ray tells him when he spots Matt running his hand along the wall. Matt had been following a line of light to discover what looked liked crystal fragments within the red stone. Mostly they just reflected the light, making the tunnel seem larger than its eight foot width and height. "Gerard says his great-great-great-great-grandfather and mother found this place when they'd split from the Jordan Family, and only minor alterations have been made."

"Mostly technology based improvements," Gerard says. "And those only in the last twenty years. Elena, my grandmother, was the one to push for the actual Rebellion, and not just the facsimile the Familys allow." He rolls his eyes. "Drunk and high kids planning stupid pranks and shit. Anyway! Long story short, our group would like to overthrow the Familys and set up a system of government that would actually benefit the whole of Barataria and not just the rich jackasses.

"Most of the people on this planet aren't actually Space Pirates," Gerard continues. He turns down the left tunnel when they approach a fork, and then right when they reach a crossroads. Matt really hopes someone else is paying attention to where they've been, because he's lost already. Give him stars and sky and he can find himself where ever he needs to go. Put him underground and he's completely fucked. "Just decent enough people who want to live good lives. Sure, most everyone likes to think of taking to the skies and earning a couple million in easy credits, but those are pipe dreams. We just want everyone to have a fair shot."

They take them down another couple sets of tunnels, and then Gerard stops at a closed door. He knocks and sticks his head in. He has a quick conversation with whoever is inside, and then he shuts the door again. "They aren't hungry," he says to Ray, who shrugs.

"They don't eat as often as we do, you know that, Gee," Ray tells him. He pats him on the shoulder. "They'll meet everyone at breakfast."

"But first things first," Bob grumbles from the back of the group. "Dinner."

Ray laughs. "Yeah, yeah. Hold onto your britches, Bryar, you'll get your dinner."

They walk down another couple of tunnels (left, right, right, left) until they come to another door. Gerard just opens it and waves everyone inside. "We don't really go for the whole formal dinner thing, so everything is usually just a buffet. Help yourselves."

They all file into the room, which looks a lot like the mess on Fuck City. Large and open, with food lined up on preserver tables against the wall, and groups of tables and chairs spread out across the room. Bob and Frank beeline right over to the food – Bob for actual food, Frank for the desserts – but Ray and Gerard wait for them to move.

Pete, Patrick, and Joe have a quick conversation between them, all eyebrows and head twists and funny faces, before Patrick throws his hands up. "Whatever. You to want to be paranoid fucks, go right ahead. I'm eating." He goes the buffet and starts loading up a plate.

Joe and Pete look at each other. Joe shrugs. "Food's food, dude. And Bob's not the only one who's starving." He follows Patrick to the buffet, and Pete drifts after him with an odd quirk to his mouth.

"We promise we aren't going to poison you," Ray says when the rest of them just stand there looking at each other. "Honest."

"We know," Stu says. He's leaning against the wall with his arms over his chest, and he's mostly laughing at the rest of them.

"You do?" Ray asks. He sort of blinks at them, and Matt knows the guy can't be clueless or naïve or overly trusting or anything like that given who he is, but that doesn't mean he doesn't look like any of those things.

"Our ship isn't exactly working at the moment, so it isn't like we can just run off on you," Kyle says with a shrug.

"And if you were going to kill us, you would have just had Frank or Bob do it when we went to board Dixie," Stu says.

"Less mess and you wouldn't have shown us your secret hideout," Ryan adds.

"Plus Andy isn't freaking out," Matt says. "He doesn't say much, but that doesn't mean he isn't also very, very loud."

"Fuck you, Mixon," Andy tells him in a bored tone. "Are you four going to stop being dicks and eat, or are we going to stand here for the next hundred years?"

"Not hungry?" Matt asks. He'd have thought Andy would be starving, what with the shifting and the battle and Ryan doing all of his poking tests. Matt's been on the wrong end of Ryan's 'tests' and it is exhausting without all of the other stuff piled on top of it.

Andy shrugs. "Not really. Stomach feels off, but not for food."

"Ah, stress! It'll be the end of us all," Gerard says. "I know exactly what you need!" He walks over to a refrigerator unit set into a recess just off to the left side of the buffet and pulls out a can of pop. He motions Andy over, then hands him the pop. "Root beer. Elena always gave us this when we were upset or sick. It'll settle your stomach right quick."

"I thought ginger ale was for settling stomachs." Andy raises an eyebrow at Gerard, but takes the can. He pops the top and takes a sip. He blinks and swallows, holding the can out a little so he can peer at it. "Huh. Not bad."

Gerard grins. "Ginger ale isn't a favorite of mine – root beer is."

Matt laughs when he sees the look on Stu's face. "You just made a friend for life, Way."

"Gerard," he corrects. He looks a little confused until Kyle points at Stu, who is staring at Andy's can of pop with dark intent. "I take it you're a fan."

"Stu would live off of it if he could find a way to cart it around with him," Ryan says. He laughs when Stu absently flips him off.

"Well, I promise to show you where we store this stuff, if you introduce yourselves," Gerard says.

Stu nods. "Done. I'm Stu Ross, that's Kyle Johnson, Ryan Morgan, Matt Mixon and Andy Hurley. Those three are Patrick Stump, Pete Wentz, and Joe Trohman."

"Cool. Nice to meet you guys," Gerard says. He grins big. "I can show you the pantries tomorrow, but for now, we have a full fridge." He opens the door to the refrigeration unit and steps back.

"Excellent," Stu says. He dives right in, and the sound of cans being shifted and turned fills the room.

The rest of them roll their eyes but go over to the buffet to load up on food. Andy grabs an apple but otherwise just hovers around Matt's elbow until they head over to the table that Bob, Frank, Patrick, Pete and Joe had claimed. Then Andy sits as close as he can to Matt without actually climbing into Matt's lap. Or touching him. Matt doesn't really understand how Andy manages that, but then again, he doesn't really know how Andy has managed a lot of things in the years they've known each other.

When everyone has pretty much finished their second servings, though Bob and Joe have gone back for thirds ("Dude! Doughnuts!" "Yep. Bob makes them. He's a ninja and a baker of awesomeness."), Gerard tells them what had happened that day from their end of things.

"We monitor the airspace around the planet," he says. "It keeps us busy and makes sure that we have something of a heads up if something really big starts happening. Well, one minute it's systems quiet, then there's this huge ship on radar, like a Class Three Venian Cross starliner. It damn near crashes through the atmosphere, spits up a shuttle, then lands on the Plains. Radar got kind of wonky then, and none of our other sensors could even pick up the ship, even though it'd practically landed on our doorstep. Weird, right?

"Right. Well, it gets better. See, all of a sudden there's this huge spike in the energy readings, which Brian managed to get back online because Brian is awesome, everything goes black, then nothing," Gerard continues. "The ship is gone. We had already sent Bob and Frank out to see if they could figure out what was going on, so there wasn't anything else we could do. Then we see that the Toro's send out an armada.

"Well, shit, we thought. If there were any survivors, there wasn't going to be anything left to rescue. So we told Bob to do as much damage as he could."

"You were the one firing from the mountains," Stu says to Bob.

Bob nods. "You made it difficult, too. One minute I had a shot, the next your ship was in it. Almost hit you once or twice."

"Evasive maneuvers," Matt says with a shrug. "If I'd known you were on our side, I'd have stayed out of your way."

"Right," Gerard says, jumping in like he thinks Bob is going to start something. From the way Bob rolls his eyes, Matt's pretty sure Gerard was just being preemptive for the sake of being preemptive. "So there was a battle. And then, BAM!" He brings his hands together with a big crack! "The armada just starts blowing up. One ship after another until all that was left was your shuttle. So we told Bob and Frank to go pick you guys up before the Toro's sent another armada out after you."

"So, what we'd like to know, aside from the whole light show at the beginning, is how the fuck did you blow up an entire armada?" Frank says.

Matt laughs and rubs at the back of his head. "Well, to start from the beginning. We were unjustly chased down by these bounty hunters, and in the scuffle, our ship took damage so we were forced to land. Barataria was the only place to be had. We had to leave the ship because things went really sideways, and then there was the armada, and we have no idea what happened. Honestly."

Bob and Frank exchange a look. They totally don't believe him. Not that Matt blames them; he wouldn't have believed that story either. Too bad it was mostly true, if not completely accurate.

"You must be a really good shot, Bryar," Stu says. "To cause all that type of a chain reaction."

"You think I did that?" Bob says. He raises an eyebrow at him. "Really."

Stu shrugs. "You have a better explanation?"

Bob frowns and it's obvious that he doesn't. He points a finger at Stu. "I will find out how you did that, Ross." Stu just shrugs again.

Ray and Gerard have one of their silent conversations, ending with Gerard shrugging and gesturing at them. "Fine, fine," Ray mutters. "You are such a fucking wuss, Way."

"Bite me, Toro," Gerard returns with an easy grin.

"All right, we understand that you can't tell us everything, and we don't blame you," Ray says. "How about we make you a deal? It's been a long day, apparently more for you than us, and no one thinks all that well tired. We've got quarters set up for you, short notice ones, but they should be fine for now. You guys can get some sleep, and tomorrow we'll show you around, let you see what's really going on. If we aren't your cup of tea, we'll find a way to set you up with a new ship and see you off world."

"Really? You'd set us up with a new ship?" Kyle asks. He sounds just as skeptical as the rest of them are feeling. "Out of the goodness of your hearts?"

Ray shrugs. "Something like that."

"Look, we aren't bad guys here," Gerard says. "That's all we're trying to prove. Just because we're 'Space Pirates' doesn't mean we're evil. Take the night and think about it. You're going to be here a few days anyway – the Toro's are bound to have sentries all over the plains now and they won't be going anywhere for a while."

"And you still have to show me your pop stash," Stu says. He's leaning back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest. When Matt looks at him, he just nods. Matt gets the same nod from everyone else, except Joe who just shrugs and yawns, and Andy who glares.

"Yeah, we definitely are ready to crash," Matt says.

"Awesome!" Gerard says, getting that he isn't going to get a better answer than that. "Leave your plates; we can take care of them…"

"Meaning he's going to make us clean up while he runs off to make out with Brian," Frank says.

"Same difference," Gerard tells him. "And Ray can show you guys to your quarters. Tomorrow at breakfast you'll meet the best of us, Brian and Mikey…"

"He has to say that," Bob says.

"Yep! Brian is his boy," Frank says, singsonging 'boy'. "And Mikey is his brother. They'd kill him if he didn't say that."

Gerard rolls his eyes. "It also happens to be true. Anyway, if I can finish without the peanut gallery?"

Bob makes a 'go ahead' gesture, while Frank snickers.

"You'll meet Brian and Mikey tomorrow, and we'll explain everything a little more in depth," Gerard finishes. He glares at Frank when his snickers turn into giggles. "You are an asshole, Iero."

"But you love me anyway!" Frank says.

Gerard rolls his eyes but doesn't dispute the fact.

"And on that note," Ray says. He stands up, chair scrapping across the stone floor. "I'll show you to your quarters."

|-|

After the introducing and the eating and the talking are done, Ray leads them to a small room three corridors (straight, left, right) over from the small dinning room.

(Cave? Matt isn't all that sure what to call it. The entire complex looked natural enough but Matt is a space brat one hundred percent of the way. He just can't reconcile 'natural' with the complex and systematic layout of the, apparently, never-ending cavern they'd seen so far.

Also, Matt wants to know when caves started coming equipped with bunk beds and curtain separators and bathrooms and closets and shit.)

Ray points out everything that they might need and then excuses himself. "I'll be back first thing in the morning to take you guys to breakfast. You're going to want your strength before Gee starts lecturing."

After a quick discussion involving only eyebrows and head tilts, Pete and Joe select a trio of bunks set into an alcove along the far wall of the room and drag Patrick over there. Patrick doesn't put up all that much of a fight. He'd been mostly quiet since they'd landed. Matt isn't really surprised. Matt is pretty sure he'd be quiet, too, if he'd just found out that going home would mean the destruction of the Universe. That'd put a damper on anyone's spirits.

It had been almost as much of a shock to find out that Patrick was a former half-deity as it was to see Andy turn from Ship to human.

Joe pulls the curtain separator shut with a shrug before any of them could say anything. Which left the five of them staring at one another.

Matt looks at everyone, his eyes lingering the longest on Andy – on the ink adorning his skin like the designs had his hull – before he scratches the back of his head. "Any ideas?"

Ryan holds up a hand. "Wait. Let's get things straight first before we go jumping into…whatever."

"Ok, I'll start," Kyle says. "Our passenger we thought was just a mad scientist is actually a former deity that'd been kicked off of the Ethereal Plains for mingling too much with humans. And his assistants are actually the guards meant to keep him from attempting to re-enter said Ethereal Plains."

"Actually, I think Joe's just here for the doughnuts," Stu says. He hops up onto one of the other beds and lounges across it.

Andy rolls his eyes. "Your leaps of bad logic continue to astound me, Rossman. Trohman and Wentz both have the same bio-signatures. Meaning if Wentz isn't human, which we've already figured out, Trohman isn't either."

"So Joe's a former deity's guard who's paid in fried, sugary pastries," Stu says with a shrug. "It still works."

"Moving on!" Matt says before Andy and Stu can go any further arguing semantics. "Patrick is a former deity, Pete and Joe are his guards that failed to stop him from trying to re-enter the Ethereal Plains, and, by doing so, they almost destroyed the Universe. At least, according to the fucked up deities that kicked Patrick out of the Ethereal Plains in the first place."

"We probably deserve a portion of the blame for that," Ryan says. "We did ferry them to the Edge."

"Against my better judgment," Andy says. He's crosses his arms over his chest and he scowls at all of them. "I did say that this would turn out badly."

"Stow the 'I told you so's, man," Stu says. "We aren't dead, so I say things are going along quite swimmingly."

Andy blinks for a moment. Matt starts a silent countdown in his head. As he reaches '0' Andy says, "I'm fucking human, Rossman! The only known Living Ship in the Universe is no longer a fucking Ship! Human. How the fuck is that not a bad thing?"

"Granted, not having a kick ass, quantum drive Starliner at our disposal anymore, a fact that has left us stranded on a notorious Space Pirate planet just outside of the recognized edge of the Uncharted Territories, isn't a great thing," Stu admits. "But you weren't destroyed. And it isn't like being human is all that bad. We're all doing just fine with it, honestly."

"'Starliner to human isn't a great thing,'" Andy says. His voice has gone that extra growly that sends chills up and down Matt's spine. It is also the extra growly that would have vibrated the speakers on the pilot's console until Matt's feet slid off of them. "I'm so glad you cleared that up for me!"

"I'm not quite sure what you're complaining about," Stu says. "You destroyed an entire Space Pirate armada with your mind. That's pretty damn impressive."

Matt can see that Andy is about to try destroying Stu with just his mind, so Matt jumps into the argument to prevent the probable (and possibly justifiable) slaughter. "Anyway! We were recapping?"

Ryan and Kyle roll their eyes at him while Andy and Stu glare; Matt so feels like the forever too cheerful optimistic girl that is always trying to keep the heroes in those vids from giving up when things keep going sideways. Matt smiles his most winning smile and gestures for Kyle to continue.

"Right," Kyle says, his tone the same 'I'm just humoring you, Mixon' that all of them have down pat. "So we've former deities, former deity guards who may or may not work for literal doughnuts, a Ship that is no longer a Ship, but a human being who just so happens to retain the ability to crush small armadas single handedly, or in this case, single mindedly. And we are currently stranded on a notorious Space Pirate planet, enjoying the hospitality of nice Space Pirates who rescued us from other eviler Space Pirates, the nice Space Pirates are trying to overthrow their corrupt government, and all of them would shit themselves for a chance at Andy if they knew who Andy was/is. Did I miss anything?"

"Yeah," Patrick snaps, his voice floating over the curtain separator. "You forgot that curtains aren't soundproof, and I'm going to kill all of you in your sleep."

"No, he's not," Joe says. He pops his head around the partition with a smile. If he's trying to distract them from the sounds of Pete and Patrick wrestling behind him, it isn't working. "He's just a little upset. Idle threats make him feel better. Plus, Pete and I will keep you safe."

"And just who is going to keep you safe from him?" Matt asks. He doesn't want to ask, but sometimes his mouth works without any input from his brain. Andy's yelled at him for years about it but there are just some things that a person cannot change about himself.

"Eh, don't worry about that. If Patrick hasn't managed to kill either of us in the past three hundred years, he doesn't actually want to." Joe pauses. "Probably." His smile widens – he's probably going for reassuring but is utterly failing – before he disappears behind the curtain again.

"They're older than you, dude," Stu says to Andy in the resulting silence. Matt's actually surprised he didn't make a Wizard of Oz joke. "Which totally explains how Joe knew about all that shit with Cola Corp that only ever made sense to you."

Andy opens his mouth for what would probably be a scathing retort, but then he snaps it shut with a frown. He rubs at his face with one hand, another wrapping around his torso, and he looks so miserable that Matt just wants to cuddle him. Matt's pretty sure Andy would attempt to make his head explode if he tried. Matt's also pretty sure that he's not going to let that stop him.

"Ok! Executive decision: we are all going to bed," Matt says. He grabs Kyle's and Ryan's arms and pushes them towards the bunks next to the one Stu is already sprawled on. "You two can take those, and Andy and I are going to go over here. Before Stu breaks Andy."

"Hey!" Stu protests.

Matt smirks at Stu. "We only have one of him, Rossman, and it wouldn't do to have you destroy him before he's even two days old!" Matt finishes his proclamation by pulling the curtain separator shut before Stu can say anything else.

(He isn't going to think about how weird it is that this cave guest room thing has curtain separators in sets of three bunks. And one quasi-double. Pirates are weird.)

Then he wraps an arm around Andy's shoulders and, ignoring his protests, leads him across the room to the other curtained off alcove with the quasi-double. He pushes Andy at the bed before he turns around and makes sure the curtain is completely closed.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Andy demands. He's standing at the edge of the bed with his arms across his chest. And he's glaring. The glare is about a thousand times worse then when it was just coming from a holographic simulation. Matt totally doesn't wince at the look, though he'll admit that it was a close thing.

Matt smiles his biggest, cheesiest smile. "We are going to bed! Remember how I told you that we mere humans need to rest every now and again? Well, seeing as you're human now, you need to sleep! And after the day we've had, I am not taking no for an answer."

Andy raises an eyebrow. "An answer for what?"

"Um, sleep and cuddles?" Matt says, his voice over emphasizing the unspoken 'duh'.

"No, shut up," he tells Andy when he frowns. "Today was total shit, and I know that you're used to not relying on anyone ever for anything but trust me. Almost destroying the Universe, turning from a Ship into a human mid-fucking-flight in space, destroying a shitload of Space Pirates, and everything else that happened today totally warrants cuddles. I will not be deterred."

Andy blinks. Then he shrugs. "Okay, whatever. You have to be the weirdest fucking person I have ever met, Mixon, and I've been around a long, long time."

Matt walks over to Andy and his hand on Andy's shoulder. "Pete," Matt says in his most serious voice.

Andy looks thoughtful for a second before he nods. "Okay. Point taken. Mine still stands."

Matt reaches around Andy and pulls the covers down. He wonders if the Space Pirates have a bunch of little guest caves set up all the time just in case they have to, he doesn't know, put up visiting dignitaries or whatever, or if Gerard had sent someone back here to set this place up while the whole introducing/talking/eating thing was happening. It is probably the latter, but Matt can somehow see the former being true as well. Gerard and Ray seem like strangely strategic people. For Space Pirates, anyway. Most of the Space Pirates Matt has had the displeasure of dealing with were all, "Attack! Attack! Kill and plunder!" That doesn't seem like Gerard and Ray, though.

"It can stand all it wants, dude, just as long as we don't have to," Matt says. He sits down on the bed and toes his shoes off. He thinks about shedding some layers, but it's a little chilly. Makes sense, when Matt thinks about it, because. Cave. The coolness of that fact still doesn't make him all that eager to lose any layers, so he doesn't. "Shoes off, man."

Andy has his eyebrow raised again, but he does what Matt asks. He doesn't really protest when Matt tugs him down and arranges them on the bed, Andy tucked under three of Matt's limbs with his head on Matt's chest.

"This is when you close your eyes and make your brain shut off, dude," Matt tells him after he's pulled the covers back over them. They can vaguely hear Patrick muttering to Pete and Joe, and Stu is already snoring, but other than that the cave is silent. It's warmer than Matt thought it'd be – Andy's putting out heat like a broken heat modulator – and he is totally feeling the length of the day catching up with him.

"It's sort of like shutting down for server updates, except you just let your body do what it needs to do instead of hitting the off switch."

Andy snorts, but Matt barely hears it before he takes his own advice.

|-|

There are people walking past their room, a pair every twenty minutes. Andy can hear them coming and going, even through the thick stone walls and the two foot thick steel door. It's almost like he still has his sensors except for how he can't see the sentries and how the sounds are oddly tinny but not. Even with the millions of words he still has in his head (two hundred and seventy languages and dialects organized by dates and popular usage), he doesn't have right ones to describe what is happening to him, what he's seeing, hearing, feeling.

It's more disconcerting than the first time Andy lost a crew. Living beings that aren't Living Ships have notoriously short lives, after all, even the races that live for a couple of centuries. When they can survive that long, that is. Most don't.

Andy doesn't like this. He's not used to dealing with emotions.

Okay, that's a lie. Andy has always been a living being, but being a Ship meant that he was closer to a computer than he was to, say, humans. His emotions had never had this sense of, well, urgency.

Andy scowls into the dim lighting. This must be what Maja had meant when she was always cursing the fact that she had hormones. He's pretty sure that he agrees with the sentiment.

"Emotions are fucking weird," Andy mutters into Matt's shoulder.

Matt murmurs something that Andy doesn't quite catch. Seeing as Matt talks in his sleep, Andy's fairly sure that, whatever Matt said, it wasn't in response to Andy.

And there's another problem right there. Andy isn't sure if anyone else actually saw what happened out on the plains today (if he had to place a guess, Joe probably did because Joe is that crazy observant). Andy hadn't been able to do shit until he touched Matt. Nothing.

The logical part of his brain tries to tell him that it's because Matt is his pilot. Andy tells the logical part of his brain to shut the fuck up. Whether or not Matt had been his pilot when Andy had been a Ship doesn't really translate over to Andy as a Human.

Andy's done a lot observation of humans and the other species of the Universe, and of the relationships between separate individuals, between groups, and between groups and individuals. Nothing he has come across seems remotely similar to the interaction between a pilot and his ship. Especially not this particular pilot and this particular Ship.

Matt shifts in his sleep, pulling Andy closer. Andy loses his train of thought.

Outside, another pair of footsteps approaches and departs. Andy wonders whose safety they are there to protect.

"Dude, I can hear you thinking," Matt mutters. He pokes Andy in the side. "Stop thinking and sleep. Things'll be easier in the morning."

"There's no logical reason to believe that," Andy mutters back.

"Sure there is. Everything is easier after sleep." Matt nuzzles his face into Andy's hair; his breath is tickling the back of Andy's neck. "Besides, we'll all be together. Just like Kentucky. And you can think of this as the Universe's way of making you take a fucking vacation."

Andy sighs, disgruntled. But he closes his eyes and focuses his hearing on the steady rhythm of Matt's heartbeat. Sleep comes quickly after that.

|-|

Matt's sure that morning comes bright and early. He can't actually see it for himself - what with the cave and all - but he's sure that the sun is shining somewhere. Inside the caves, or at least in their cozy little corner of them, morning comes bright and early in the form of Pete throwing on all the lights and singing both loudly and off-key.

Matt's response is to bury his head between the mattress and Andy's shoulder. "What the fuck?"

"You should have let me space them," Andy tells him. Under his words, Matt can hear the sound of something - shoe-like if he doesn't miss his guess - slamming into the far wall. Followed closely by Pete yelping. Andy pokes at Matt's head until Matt moves out from under his shoulder.

"Stupid fucker, shut up!" Stu snaps. Something else - also shoe-like, which Pete had better be thankful for considering Stu regularly carries easily thrown weapons to bed with him - slams into the wall. "People are trying to sleep!"

"Quit your bellyaching, Ross," Patrick says. "You've had ten hours. Or do you still want to be abed when the nice Space Pirates show up for breakfast?"

Something else slams against the wall. Matt isn't quite sure what it sounds like, though.

"Maybe we should have warned them about waking Stu up," Matt says.

Andy snorts. "Yes, because waking up a weapons expert when you know they don't want to be disturbed is such a great plan, even when it isn't Stu."

"Point taken," Matt says. Stu and Patrick are still arguing with the occasional comment from one of the others. Pete, Joe, and Patrick sound wide awake, especially next to Kyle's and Ryan's yawn-filled mumbles. Matt feels like he could sleep for another couple of days, so he wraps his arms more firmly around Andy's waist and tugs him closer. "Sleep well?"

Andy shrugs, jostling Matt's head and waking him up a bit more. "Well enough. The sentries were loud."

"What sentries?" Kyle asks. He's poked his head around their curtain and starts making kissy faces at them when he sees them curled up together. Matt flips him off, and Kyle just laughs at him. "And fuck no do the two of you get to stay in bed. Up and at 'em, boys! Patrick says Pete and Joe have some intel to share."

"The sentries that kept pacing outside the door all night," Andy says over Matt's grumbles. Andy gives Matt a firm shove to dislodge him and almost pushes Matt clear off the other side of the bed. Matt decides that getting up would be the safest thing for him to do. "I can't be the only one who heard them."

"That's a two foot thick door, dude," Matt says as he leans down to pull his boots on. "And the wall's are at least another foot thicker. Your hearing might be souped up because you're a Ship."

"I'm human, Matt," Andy says.

"In human form, yes," Matt says. "But you're still a Ship, dude."

"Are the two of you ever going to argue about something relevant to our continued survival?" Ryan asks when they emerge out into the room proper. He or Kyle must have pulled aside the curtain to their bunks, because all Matt sees of Stu is a lump under the covers of one of the bunks. "Now really isn't the time for that."

"And just what is it time for?" Andy leans against the wall across from Ryan, who is sitting on one of their storage boxes - the Space Pirates must have brought their stuff from Dixie while they were all at dinner - next to Joe and Patrick. Kyle is leaning against the end of the bunk beds by Stu's feet and Pete was pacing the length of the room.

"Figuring out if we're gonna help these Space Pirates or not," Joe says. He's looking very zen for the lack of doughnuts, and he's cleaning a wickedly curved knife.

"Wouldn't more information be helpful first?" Matt asks. He sits down on the floor near Andy and starts stretching his legs. They're all knotted up from sleep and exhaustion. "You know, instead of just jumping in to see how deep the water is?"

"Pete and I think their guys are the real deal," Joe says. "There have been rumors of a rebellion here on Barataria for almost sixty-five years. It's all very hush-hush. A legit rebellion, not the one the Familys flaunt as a twisted type of training ground."

"Here's what everyone knows about Space Pirates. They're mean and cruel to the point of being evil. And that's to everyone: friends, family, foes, or random strangers. It's safer to be their enemy than their ally. Any resistance they meet is crushed without a second thought. They're everything the vids makes them out to be, except they're a thousand times worse: slavery, drugs, prostitution, money laundering, racketeering, and simple, plain, old robbery and assault. Those are their trades, and everyone is too terrified to fight back. Right?"

Everyone nods, even Andy, who looks like he's going back through his logs to double check something. Matt find that expression a little unnerving on a fully human Andy, even if it is somewhat comforting.

"Wrong," Pete says. "At least, it was about a hundred and eighty, two hundred years ago."

"What? Were the Space Pirates all free love and happiness?" Stu asks. He's poked his head out of his blankets, his hair a fluffy mess, and he sounds like he's still half asleep.

"No, Ross," Patrick snaps. "They were pirates. Only not nearly as violent and cruel."

"Space Pirates used to have a Code of Conduct that they had to work and live by," Joe says. He holds his knife up to the light for a moment, and then goes back to cleaning it. "Honor amongst thieves, that sort of thing."

"And now they don't?" Ryan asks.

"Have you ever known a Space Pirate to give quarter to surrendering ships?" Joe asks. "No, of course you haven't, because they don't do that anymore. That went out of style almost two hundred years ago."

Matt sits up, leaning his back against the wall. "Any ideas why it went out of style?"

"You believe this?" Kyle asks. He flashes a quick smile at Patrick, Pete, and Joe. "Not that I think you guys are lying, but I'm from Neramonda. Space Pirates aren't on my holiday card list for a reason."

Pete winces at the planet's name while Patrick and Joe frown. Neramonda was a planet that the Lafitte Family had razed to the ground twenty years ago. Kyle's family was one of three hundred that had managed to escape during the attack. Most of those families had scattered over the breadth of the Uncharted, but Kyle's family had relocated to the Core, where his great-great-grand aunt owned a small mining planet.

"No one from Neramonda sends the Space Pirates nice letters," Pete says. "So, no offense taken."

"And yeah, I believe them," Matt says. He points at Patrick. "Older than Andy, remember?"

Kyle nods. "Point."

"Anyway," Joe says. "We have no idea. There just isn't any information available for the best money to buy. And we've tried."

"The best we've managed to cobble together is that there was some sort of coup, probably with Republic involvement, that drastically changed Space Pirate behavior practically overnight," Pete says. "Then sixty-five years ago, small things started changing. One or two planets a year with money or trade goods or anything else that would look appetizing to a Space Pirate started to be ignored. That number has grown every year. There are less raids than there used to be. Things are still bad, but not as bad as they used to be."

"And you think this rebellion of Gerard's and Ray's is the cause of that?" Andy asks.

Joe nods. "We do."

"You guys can decide amongst yourselves what you want to do," Pete says. "But the three of us are staying to help these guys."

Matt looks at Kyle, Ryan, and Stu, who all shrug at him. He's pretty sure they wouldn't have a problem sticking around and helping out if what Pete and Joe think is going on is going on, but they aren't going to make the decision. That's for Andy and him to figure out. "Well, Andy? What do you think?"

Andy looks down at him and shrugs. "If the Space Pirates were to become less of a threat to the rest of the Universe, then we might have a chance at cutting back on the Republic's influence."

"Space is starting to feel a little crowded," Stu says.

"And if this is some sort of elaborate trap?" Matt asks. He can't believe he's the one acting as the voice of reason here. Weird.

Ryan snorts. "Right. Because a bunch of Space Pirates are going to outsmart us."

"Seriously, Mixon," Kyle says. "Did you hit your head yesterday? Should Ryan check you over?"

Matt flips them off. "So, dude?" he asks Andy. "Save the Space Pirates, save the Universe?"

Andy rolls his eyes. "I'm not leaving any of my crew behind to Space Pirates, good or not."

"All right then," Matt says. He stands up and slings an arm around Andy's shoulders. "So. There it is then. We're staying."

"You sure?" Patrick asks.

"Like the man said, dude, we don't leave crew behind," Matt tells him with a big grin. "So if you three are all set on joining this rebellion, then we're going to be right behind you."

"Awesome," Joe says. He holds his knife up one more time, inspecting the blade closely before he slides it into the sheath at his side. "Saving the Universe, step two: save the Space Pirates from themselves."

While Pete and Patrick start arguing over what step one of Joe's plan is – Matt's pretty sure Pete's right about it being saving Patrick from the idiot deities – Matt smiles down at Andy. "So much for that vacation, huh?"

Andy snorts. "Please, Mixon. I've already explained this to you: I don't need a vacation."

"You keep telling yourself that, dude," Matt laughs. "I like a little delusion in a man."

Andy elbows him in the side, and Matt just keeps laughing.