The stars dipped and swirled in a crazy dance outside the view port, as the breach in the ship's midsection vented air and debris into space and sent the ship into spasms. The Jersey Queen was doomed, but the internal dampeners hadn't quit yet – Ray could still barely feel the tremor through the deck.
"Frank!" he yelled over the sound of blasters and the snap-hiss-roar of burning conduits. "Frankie, where the fuck are you, man?" He pressed his bruised shoulder tighter against the bulkhead, peering sideways down the corridor.
Smoke and steam from a blown processing unit hazed the view, but so far as he could tell, Ray was alone with a couple of dead pirates and the escape pod controls at his back – if the pirates' friends got past him, they'd cut off the only escape route. He glanced again at the dizzying display through the view port, and winced. They didn't have a lot of time.
"You'd better not be dead," he tried again, but his radio only gave back static. "If you don't get your ass over here in the next thirty seconds, I'm leaving without you, fucker, don't think I won't."
He passed his laser drill from hand to hand – his fingers were cramping. The heat rising from the stock worried him. It hadn't been designed for use as a weapon, and Ray was afraid he'd overloaded it – it could blow in his hands. But he couldn't quite bring himself to drop the only weapon he had, no matter how makeshift and suicidal it was.
He wasn't sure if he'd rather lose his left hand, or his right.
He shook his head, blew a curl of hair out of his eyes. He glanced at the cold blue lights of the airlock controls.
"Seriously, Frank, tell me where you are." Static spit and buzzed . Ray hung his head. He pushed himself to his feet, using the bulkhead as a brace. The corridor was still empty.
"Fine," he said, and turned his back on the escape pod.
"I'm coming, Frankie. Don't be dead."
He gave a half-hearted kick to Dead Pirate on the Left – the one with the smirk, who'd sliced into his thigh with a plasma knife – as he limped down the corridor. Asshole. It hurt. And the dampeners weren't keeping up with the motion of the ship entirely – he could feel his weight shifting as the corridor lurched. He toed the switch in his boots that magnetized them, groaning a little at the extra effort it cost his leg to move them.
The Jersey Queen had been a good ship, damn them. The fastest freighter this side of the blockade, with the best crew anywhere (he didn't really want to think about the crew right now. Couldn't stop seeing their faces). They ran the mail for half the stations in Blue Quadrant, payrolls for the asteroid mines in Red, real flour and sugar for the luxury liners in the Gold Belt. They'd even breached the Blockade once or twice, outrunning the Gunners for the chance to make real money running goods to the Broken Stations.
They'd fought off pirates before. But these bastards . . . Ray snarled, stepping carefully around the bloody legs lying through the galley door. He already knew who the legs belonged to. Didn't stop to look again.
The pirates had placed a mine just outside of Gatespace, the nexus in the hyperways where any ship coming through would have to pause and recalculate, to let their systems shut out the chaos of traveling the 'ways. To let their navigators come back to themselves, their crews shake off the effects. To recover.
No one had used Gate mines since the War that Broke the Stations – not even the Gunners. A mine like that, so close to Gatespace . . . it warped the 'ways around it. Any ship trying to use this Gate for the next couple of decades would be lost, sent down the hyperways in any direction but the one they expected. There were legends from the war – ghost ships, stuck in the hyperways, unable to find a new nexus. Ships found drifting, hundreds of light years away from their destination, their crews driven mad by an extended trip between Gates.
And these crazy bastards had done it . . . for what? They could have hit any ship at all, from a passenger liner to a messenger drone. The odds of them hitting a rich freighter like the Jersey Queen were . . . good enough, it seemed. Ray felt his lips twist again, and his grip tightened on his laser drill.
Damn them, anyway.
"Frankie!" he yelled again, reaching the engineering deck. The great turbines were silent – sparks flared and dripped from the forward connectors, a spiteful rain of red and gold in the darkened room. The sound of fighting was dying down, which he could only think was a bad thing. The Jersey Queen only carried eight crew – the pirates outnumbered them plenty. He'd seen Geoff and Andy go down himself, and that had been James in the galley. Matt behind the weapons locker, tattoos a shredded mess. Bob . . . Ray flinched. Bob was the navigator. He still would have been plugged in when they hit that mine. He could only sincerely hope that he was dead, too, and wasn't that a fucking shitty thing to hope for.
Joe and Brian had gone radio silent before he lost track of Frank, but not even Frank could have held the pirates off this long by himself.
But as he was trying to reassure himself of that, the sporadic blaster fire stuttered. Went silent.
He took three heavy steps before he stopped, his magnetized boots suddenly loud on the decking.
"Oh hell," he said, hardly out loud. "You'd better not have left me alone here."
Then, over the vague hiss of the radio, he heard the rising whine of the hyperway engines, and the sudden pounding of quick feet in the corridor.
He raised his laser drill defensively, on instinct, but it was Frank who came barreling into him. He hadn't bothered to switch on his boots, using the spin of the corridor to propel himself – he hit Ray almost shoulder height. Ray barely pulled the drill away in time.
"Ray! Ray, move, move, move, come on move it . . ." Frankie's eyes were wild as he pushed Ray into the emergency restraints at the side of the corridor. His hands were shaking as he pulled the buckles tight around them both.
"What the hell have you done?" Ray managed, breathless still from the impact. The whine of the engines was painful now. The Jersey Queen was shaking itself apart.
"We're jumping." Frank giggled, a broken, jagged sound. "We're going to fucking die, man."
* * *
Mikey listened to his brother sing.
Even over the comms, he could hear the crack in his voice – a sharp edge, just a bit serrated. He wasn't worried though. That crack had been there for years.
It was the only sound on the ship at the moment. They'd cut life support to a minimum and shut the engines down a long time ago – saving power, Gerard said. Mikey wasn't sure why they needed to, but he didn't really care.
They were drifting through the blackest, emptiest stretch of space he'd ever seen. After the color and chaos of the hyperways, the tiny flashes of distant stars looked like nothing so much as dust on the view ports. He pretended to rub them away with the sleeve of his shirt.
Gerard's voice broke. He coughed, and Mikey winced. He'd been singing for hours, wandering from verse to verse, only vaguely following the original tunes. Mikey wasn't sure he even knew he had been singing out loud.
"Gee?" he asked, just to use his own voice before the ship forgot he had one, too. When the ship was drifting, like now, she forgot easily. Forgot that she wasn't just space debris, that Gerard and Mikey were still there. Mikey gave her a mental poke. She felt cold.
"Yeah?" Gerard sounded tired. He'd probably been dreaming out loud.
"Where are you now?"
His brother paused, probably trying to figure that out. "Cargo bay? Maybe. Or the docking bay."
Mikey sighed. "Can you stay there? I'll find you."
Quickest just to ask the ship. Anyway, he liked to keep her involved. The Ravenkroft wasn't exactly sentient – her systems were sophisticated, but not that sophisticated. Like a puppy – an friendly, not that bright puppy.
She sent him little nudges, this way, this way, and he followed them to the docking bay, pulling himself easily from handhold to handhold along the long, curving corridors.
Gerard sat on a crate in the corner, looking at the bay doors, absently holding on with a foot hooked under the side paneling.
When Mikey came in, he barely turned his head. "Sometimes I wonder if I should just open them," he said, "just to see what would happen." He still sounded half asleep.
Mikey paused, and glanced at the bay door controls – still blinking, steady blue. He refused to be relieved that they were still locked. As if they would ever be anything else. Not again, anyway.
"It would be cold in space," he said, carefully neutral. It wasn't the first time his brother had told him something like this. The first time, he'd yelled, and Gerard had yelled. Once, he'd dared him to go through with it, and only managed to stop him by begging the Ravenkroft not to open the airlock. He still had dreams about that.
"It's cold in here, too."
"Colder out there."
Gerard sent him a crooked smile. "I guess it would take a long time. The circuitry wouldn't give out for ages."
Mikey sat on the crate beside him, and tugged his brother's arm over his shoulders. "You'd get bored."
"Probably. Not much of a view out here." Gerard tilted his head against his. His hair, half of it standing in listing spikes, half of it swaying gently as he moved, was blond again. Mikey wondered when he'd done that. If he knew he'd done that.
He'd mostly dyed it black when they were . . . well, living wasn't really the right word. That would imply they weren't alive now. Flesh and blood wasn't quite the right term, either, since they could still bleed. Before they were cyborgs was the best he had come up with.
Sometimes Gerard had worn his hair in streaks of green, or blue, or vivid red. After the accident, and the operations, Gerard had gone through a phase where he turned his hair every color of the rainbow, mostly to amuse Lindsey. He'd go from blue to pink mid-sentence, to see if she'd notice. She always did. Sometimes she laughed, and Gerard would grin, like a little kid.
When the crew . . . jumped ship, and left them behind, his hair had gone white. Mikey didn't think it had been intentional. Just shock.
It was a long time ago. Mikey shook the thought out of his head, almost dislodging Gerard's arm.
"Want to try the 'ways again?" he asked. They took to the hyperways sometimes, when the silence of normal space got too oppressive. Before, the 'ways had been a necessary ordeal, something to endure with tranquilizers and restraints. Now, they were . . . still very weird. But interesting. He could feel them, in ways that he found hard to describe, like strange music thrumming under his skin. Gerard said it was like hearing colors, like sending themselves through a prism – a rainbow of sound and sensation.
The Ravenkroft didn't understand the fuss. To the ship, it was all a stream of numbers.
Gerard shrugged. "In a bit."
Gerard had been the navigator, even before. He'd plugged his senses into the ships' controls, feeling the ship like an extension of his mind, the hyperways like a trail to follow. Mikey remembered, after a particularly long jump, waiting outside the bridge for his brother to come back to himself. It had taken long enough that he had almost called for Kitty, the medic, but just as he reached for the radio, Gerard opened the door. He'd pulled Mikey into a hug and held tight for a good long minute – Mikey had felt him shaking.
After the operations, it was different. Gerard said it was easier to process now that he was part of the ship. But he still took a deep breath before going into Gatespace.
"Where should we go? It's been a long time since we went toward inhabited space. Might be nice to see the lights."
"Last time, we jumped right into a Gunner fleet. We almost got penned in." All those scarlet ships, bright as a school of lethal fish in the light of a blue giant star. It had been blinding – he still brought up the image, sometimes, when space seemed especially dark.
"No way. They thought we were a ghost. You heard them, all 'arrgh' and 'aaahh' and 'Oh god, that's the Ravenkroft.'"
"And then they started firing and nearly took off the port stabilizer."
"Whatever. The bots repaired it."
"I almost think you enjoy being the boogie man, Mikey."
He tugged Gerard's arm a little closer around himself. Actually, he just remembered the hungry look in his brother's eyes when they heard other people's voices on the comms. But what he said was, "Sure I do. We're legends."
"Fucking right," Gerard said, but his smile was sad.
Mikey almost said something else, wanted to say something else, but the thought was wiped out of his head when the Ravenkroft's alarms started up – a startled, almost embarrassed yelp of sound.
Gerard shot to his feet, and Mikey felt him tense.
"Proximity alert." Gerard announced, as if he didn't already know. "The Gate's opening."
"Out here?" No one used these 'ways. They were old and scattered, and uselessly far from the shipping lanes. No one used them but the Ravenkroft. Other smugglers used to, but they hadn't come across any for years.
Gerard's eyes were closed, but the alarms had gone quiet, and the ship was broadcasting nothing but a vague curiosity, so Mikey knew they were out of reach.
"Huh," his brother said. "It's Viking class."
Mikey frowned. It was harder for him to 'see' with the ship's sensors than it was for Gerard. All he could tell was that it was a ship, a little smaller than the Ravenkroft, and running silent – the constant sub frequency radio broadcast proclaiming the ship's name and origins was missing.
"What are they doing?" he asked. Coming out of this Gate, silent – they were either smugglers, or drifting. If they were drifting . . .
Gerard's shoulders hunched a little. "Nothing. It's dying."
Mikey swallowed. Dying ships were part of space – a normal, horribly shitty part of space. It didn't always mean 'hopeless.' "We should see if there's any crew on board."
"Mikey . . ."
"No, Gerard." He kept his voice firm. Gerard would have dreams about that ship if they didn't investigate. So would he. "There might be survivors."
Gerard opened his eyes. There was a shadow in them, but he nodded, and Mikey felt him send the order to approach to the Ravenkroft.
* * *
Ray came out screaming. Reality wavered and stuttered and fell back into place with a shudder and a bang. Or the ship did. It took a minute to be able to tell the difference. His head hurt. His throat hurt. Everything hurt.
He could feel Frank quivering beside him – could hear the restraints rattling. He turned his head, with effort. Frank had bitten through his lip. There was blood running down his chin.
He fumbled with the buckles, let them fall, clunk against the wall. He pulled Frank loose. His weight made him stagger, and Frank was not a big guy. For a moment, he didn't react, and Ray felt a frisson of fear. But then Frank took a deep gasping breath, and shoved away from him, swaying on his feet.
"Damn. Fucking . . . fuck."
"Yeah," Ray said. His tongue felt thick.
They looked blankly at each other.
"We're not stuck in the hyperways. And we're not dead."
"The engines are dead, though," Ray said. "What happened?"
"Brian found Bob," Frank said, voice flat. "He didn't take it well." His eyes were dark when they met Ray's.
Ray swallowed. "He rigged a blind jump? After that mine hit the Gate, we could have ended up . . ." Ray shuddered. "Never mind."
"He was going to just blow the ship. I convinced him . . ." Frank laughed, just a breath. "We didn't know for sure that everyone was dead. We knew Joe was, but . . ." He scrubbed at the blood on his face, hiding behind his hand. "Was anyone else. . ."
"No. I was thinking it might be just me."
"Yeah." Frank laughed again, like he couldn't stop, until he was hiccuping, bent at the knees. Ray pretended not to see that he was crying. He pulled him up, pushed him along until they found the galley.
James wasn't in the door anymore. He didn't look for the body.
They pulled the juice-packs from the cupboards, drank them down mechanically. They needed the nutrients, after that jump.
Frank threw his empty pack over his shoulder.
After a while they sat on the decking, backs against the wall. Neither of them made a move to go anywhere else – there were only more bodies, outside. If any of the pirates had been alive when . . . when Brian found Bob, they would have been shit out of luck after that. They wouldn't have known where the restraints were.
"So," Ray said again. "The engines are dead."
Frank sighed. "What the fuck do we do now?"
Ray pinched the bridge of his nose. They couldn't stay on the ship. They were drifting – life support seemed to be functional, but he doubted that would stay the case for long. They weren't spinning anymore, and they weren't floating either, which meant the dampeners had a handle on it again. But that also meant that all the atmosphere from the middle decks had already vented out, giving the stabilizers a chance to get to work.
"There's always the escape pod." He thought for a moment. "So long as none of the pirates got behind me and disabled it."
"Cheery." Frank groaned and leveraged himself up. "We might as well try to see where we ended up."
They picked their way through the ruined corridors. Anything that hadn't been locked down when they jumped was in pieces. Even the bodies. Especially the bodies.
After a minute, he couldn't help but ask: "Where was Joe when . . . "
"In the bridge, with Brian and Bob. Geoff, Andy?"
"Cargo bay. Matt at the weapons locker. Should we . . ."
"No." Frank's jaw was set. "No, we'll turn the whole ship into a pyre. Set the self-destruct."
Ray nodded. Yeah. Let them go out burning.
"You know," he said, surprised at his own calm, "if the escape pod has been disabled. . ."
"I've always liked a good fire." Frank moved off, shoulders stiff. "Let's go."
They walked the rest of the way in silence. Frank stared out of the view port while Ray checked the controls.
"It's empty," he said. "I can't see any stars."
"We must be way out at the rim," Ray said. "Off the charts."
"So. Do we jump in the pod and take our chances out there? Or fuck it all and go down with the Queen?" Frank didn't look at him.
It was frightening, how tempting that thought was. The odds of someone picking up a distress signal out here were. . . not good.
But. "Seems a shame. After all that effort." He smacked the control panel, and the blue lights flickered back on. "And the pod works."
Frank nodded slowly, still looking out the view port. "Okay. Yeah. Why not."
He turned around, and grinned at Ray. There was blood on his teeth.
* * *
Convincing the Ravenkroft to fire up her engines and move in on approach took a bit of doing. She'd been half asleep for a while now, and the cold of space slowed even ships down if they let it.
But the Ravenkroft never said no to Mikey. His weight slowly settled back over his bones, and his boots clicked down on the deck. He could feel the engines rumbling to life beneath his feet, power shivering through the ship like spreading warmth. He'd missed that feeling. Even Gerard seemed more . . . present, now that the ship was firing up. His eyes were sharper, anyway.
He left the cargo bay almost at a run (just because he could again) to check the engines, and Mikey followed after. Engineering was loud as fuck after the quiet in the docking bay. Mikey welcomed the noise – it thrummed through his skin like music.
He could still feel it when they moved to the auxiliary bridge and turned on the view screens. They wanted to see the ship they were approaching.
The Ravenkroft moved in slowly. If they were smugglers, the ship could be rigged to trap salvagers. Mikey tried to plan for a trap, but he could feel an anticipatory excitement anyway, even at the thought of seeing a ship that wasn't theirs.
Instead, they weren't quite within visual range when the ship blew up.
Mikey felt the Ravenkroft's hull shiver as the shock hit it. The burst of flame died quickly with the last of the dead ship's oxygen – it was the briefest flare of light in the view port, so much brighter than the far off stars.
He stared at the darkness where it had been. Gerard's mouth opened. And shut, still silent. His eyes were very wide.
Mikey found himself leaning forward, one hand flat on the view screen, as if he could find the ship's remains with the naked eye. Or the light of an escape pod. There could be an escape pod.
Space out here was very dark. There was no sign of movement.
The Ravenkroft picked up the beacon before he did. Mikey felt her nudging for his attention, and let out a long, relieved breath. He leaned back, self-consciously wiping away the hand print he'd left on the screen.
Standard SOS. . . Earthside version. Huh.
"Hey, Gee," he said, carefully keeping his voice matter of fact. So there was an escape pod. Of course there was, no surprise at all.
"They're on the wrong side of the Blockade."
"What are they doing way out here?" Gerard hung over his shoulder, eyes closed as he piloted the ship through the mental link. Mikey pretended he couldn't tell that he was still shaking in reaction to the explosion.
Mikey shrugged, reading the scanner. "Only two life signs. We should pick them up and ask them."
Gerard pursed his lips. "Guess we can't leave them out here."
Mikey smiled to himself as his brother moved the ship closer. "Hey, Gerard.
"They're not dead."
Gerard huffed a breath that might have been a laugh if it wasn't so bitter. "Might be crazy though."
Mikey flinched. Gerard shot him an apologetic look, but his lips tightened, and he didn't take it back. "I don't think they came through that Gate by choice," he said, "and . . ."
Mikey interrupted before he had to say it. "I know. But they might have been lucky."
"We'll find out soon enough. I'm just saying, we ought to be prepared." Gerard looked as grim as he ever did – which meant he looked like he looked like a station orphan, big eyed and wary. "And they're Earthsiders, so they might not look that kindly on being rescued by cyborgs in the best of conditions."
Mikey sighed. "I don't think Earthside is still that concerned with cybernetic augmentation. It's been around a long time now."
Gerard's chin tilted up. "Prejudices don't go away in just a few years, Mikes. You know what they were like during the War."
"Yeah, but that ended fifty years ago. And even then, they were starting to use cybernetics in their fleet."
"I just don't think . . ."
"Fine," Mikey interrupted, rolling his eyes. He was just making excuses now. "We'll let the bots deal with them when we pick them up. We'll observe for a while. See what they're like."
Gerard looked down. He might have been ashamed. A little. But when he nodded, he looked relieved.
* * *
Ray kept a hand on the grip of his laser drill – he didn't know where they were, or what ship had been close enough to pluck them out of the black so soon. And until that hatch opened, he had no way to find out.
Though it was probably a smuggler. That's the way their luck was running.
POD HAS DOCKED, the featureless mechanical voice announced. ACCEPTABLE ATMOSTPHERIC CONDITIONS DETECTED. PLEASE DISEMBARK. The seals hissed faintly as the hatch opened.
Frank got up first, stepping in front of Ray before he could protest. It was dark outside the pod, but not space dark. Just a dimly lit bay, empty but for them and a few large crates stacked at the edges. And two small repair bots that rolled away from their boots with faint whistles and squeaks. They sounded slightly annoyed.
"Huh," Frank said. "Anybody home? It's kind of cold in here."
It was freezing, actually. Just this side of frosted. Ray frowned. It felt like the ship had just pulled out of cold dock – or like the atmospherics hadn't been on for long.
Ray crouched to inspect the closest bot, carefully stretching out his bad leg. The bot settled just out of reach, rocking slowly in place. "Somebody must be here."
"Unless it's a ghost ship. Maybe one with a leftover program set to respond to distress calls."
Ray cocked his head at the little bot. It rolled a little farther away, and stopped. "I don't think these bots are the sort that can run a ship this size. And anyway, why would a ghost ship keep a breathable atmosphere?"
"Point. Still," Frankie said, shoulders tight, "there's nobody here. Nobody's come to say hello."
Ray stood up, wincing at the pull in his leg. "Well," he said, "they don't know us anymore than we know them. Probably they're just being cautious. And I think we should follow the bots."
"Follow the. . . okay, why not. We'll follow the fucking bots."
The interior bay doors opened with a quiet shuush as the bots rolled toward them, and Ray cocked his head. If this was a ghost ship, everything seemed to be in good working order. He limped through the doors, Frank hovering at his side. The bots stayed a pace or two ahead of them.
The corridors of the ship were slightly better lit than the docking bay, but still much darker than he was used to. The normal array of processing units and instrument panels lined the walls – though the designs seemed more. . . idiosyncratic than he was used to. They looked like they'd been pieced together from several different models. The hyperway restraints at intervals along the way seemed more regulation, which was reassuring, but the symbols printed by the doorways they walked by were not Earth Standard, which was not.
"I think we're across the Blockade," he murmured. "Can you still read the Station script?"
"Sure. Maybe not if someone passed me a fucking handwritten note or something, but this stuff is pretty legible." He pointed at the next plaque on the wall. "'Take hold when alarm rings three times, release at four.' I wonder what one or two mean?"
"Earthside, that would be docking and undocking. I don't suppose it'd be much different here."
"Think this ship docks at a one of the Broken Stations? Think that's where they'll take us?"
Ray paused. The bots waited, just out of reach.
They had made those supply runs, on the Jersey Queen. They weren't entirely without friends on this side of the Blockade. But being left adrift over here, without papers or resources, would make getting back over the line much more difficult.
But Frank was looking over at him, a darkly amused grin on his face. "Does it matter, though? I sure as hell don't have anything to go back for."
No. The Jersey Queen had been home for years. He barely remembered Io, where he'd grown up. That ship was all the family he knew. Had known. Shit.
"We could set up shop," he said, fighting to keep his voice level. "Find Wentz."
Frank's grin widened. "That asshole. Yeah. We could do that."
They started walking again, and the bots rolled on. Their whistling sounded a little impatient now, but Ray wasn't going to hurry. His leg hurt, and he could see the way Frank's hands were shaking.
It was such a quiet ship. It was almost meditative, following the bots down the dim corridor, passing door after closed door. These must be crew quarters, but there was no sign of the crew.
And then there was someone, standing at the end of the corridor. Ray was walking almost on automatic now, and it took a second for it to register, but Frank had stopped dead beside him, and gripped his shirt with one hand.
The guy looked young, and skinny as fuck, leaning back on one hip with his hands in his pockets.
"Hey," he said. "Gerard doesn't really want to talk to you yet, but I think he's being an idiot. I could show you around or something."
Ray blinked at him, and he shrugged. "Or you can just follow the bots if you want." His face was very calm, but his eyes were curious. And wary. Ray tried not to stare.
Frank stepped up, arms crossed belligerently. "Not to be ungrateful or anything, we're thankful as fuck, but who the hell are you? What ship is this, out here on the rim?" Ray didn't think a stranger would have heard the strain in his voice.
The kid (and really, he couldn't be much older than Frankie) shrugged again.
"I'm Mikey. Way. This is the Ravenkroft."
And he turned and walked away, so he didn't see Frank's arms drop to his sides as he swayed back a step, or Ray's mouth drop open. They stared after him.
"Fuck. Just, fuck." Frank sounded like he didn't know whether to be impressed or terrified. Ray knew exactly how he felt.
The Ravenkroft. Well, shit.
"You coming?" Mikey asked, and after a moment, mechanically, they followed.
* * *
The Ravenkroft was a smuggler before the War, and a gun runner during it. She was a legend. They'd sung songs about her. Ray had sung songs about her, as a kid on Io. One of the last of the Falcon class freighters, she was built exclusively to haul mail and digital goods – high price, low mass. Fast. Faster than anything her size. And her crew had modified her, heavily, until she was a smuggler's wet dream. She'd gone through the Blockade like it didn't exist, blasted past Gunners with impunity. Even loaded down with heavy cargo during the War, she was faster than they were. And she was armed, unlike most freighters. Unlike most smugglers, even. Guns were heavy. Shields were even heavier. Much better to cut and run. But the Ravenkroft didn't need to.
At the end of the war, the Ravenkroft disappeared. For a while, that caused little comment. The ship was known for not being where people expected it. Her crew used little known hyperways, remote Gates. They were already ghosts.
And then rumors started spreading – that the great ship had hit one of the Gate mines left over from the beginning of the War. That her crew had gone mad. Jumped ship. It was the buzz of the fleet, told in whispers at every station.
Earthside authorities claimed to have captured them. To have destroyed the ship. The Broken Stations, who considered the Ravenkroft crew heroes, called them liars. No wreckage was ever found. No prisoners were ever brought forth.
A few years after the war, a freighter in Blue quadrant claimed to have run across the ship. They claimed that she'd shadowed them through two different Gates, but never responded to hails.
Then, months later, a Gunner fleet reported seeing the ship. And a Station patroller took vids. She was running dark – no lights at all. Just a black shape against the Orion Nebula, sleek and impossible against the stars. The vid ran on every holonews cast for weeks, speculation running rampant.
After that the Ravenkroft was a genuine ghost ship. And there were even more songs.
Frank interrupted Ray's musings. "Even if this is the Ravenkroft, he can't be original crew. They disappeared fifty years ago! Ship years, Ray." The distinction was important. Time . . . ran differently on ships, thanks to the 'ways. Stationers didn't really get it, but fifty years relative time on at dock was nothing like fifty years relative ship time.
"So someone found her. Salvaged her."
"Don't you think we would have heard if the Ravenkroft was back in operation?"
Ray could only agree. Even the most careful smugglers were seen occasionally. And the Ravenkroft had the most recognizable silhouette on either side of the line.
"Maybe they made alterations."
"Fuck. That would be a crime."
Ray nodded. Something in him balked at the idea that anyone would use the Ravenkroft – that anyone would find the ship empty and silent, a monument to a lost war and a lost crew, and turn it into something common.
He noticed then that Mikey was walking a little bit closer to them now – just barely out of earshot. He hadn't turned to check that they were following. Hadn't said another word. Ray had a sudden shivery feeling that he wasn't even really there at all.
But then they turned a corner, and there was a door. Frank said, "Med bay," under his breath, reading the sign, and Mikey nodded, like he could hear them just fine. His hand, hitting the panel, sounded solid.
The door opened to a room lit with a clear, bright light. It washed out Mikey's face, turned his greenish eyes deep and dark, and Ray found himself staring at them just a little too long. But Mikey didn't look away.
* * *
He was making the taller one nervous, he thought. Mikey stopped himself from hunching in like Gerard, and made himself keep eye contact. He was out of practice with people. They probably had all sorts of questions.
"So, this the med bay," he said, deciding not to explain himself. "You should probably use it." There was blood on their clothes. He was pretty sure that at least some of it was theirs. He hoped the rest of it had a less than criminal explanation.
They didn't look like pirates though. Well, the one with the tattoos peeking out of his sleeves, maybe, though he'd liked the way he'd confronted him earlier, straight up and honest. And the one with the hair – he liked his face.
"You know what you need in here?" he asked. He never had paid attention to the med bay while Kitty had it all in hand. And he hadn't been in much after the operations.
Not that he was avoiding the place or anything. It wasn't like he remembered much of the time between the accident and waking up a cyborg.
Not consciously, anyway. And he never remembered his nightmares.
"Um. Yeah, I guess so," the tall one said, looking around.
The tattooed one stepped towards Mikey, and he caught himself before he could sway back. It really had been a long time since he was around people.
"I'm Frank," the guy said. There was dried blood on his face, and the tattoos on his arms were even more vivid up close. Gerard would like them, if he got off his ass to take a look. "This is Ray." The taller one nodded, and his curly hair nodded too. He looked tired, and Mikey had noticed him limping. Also, the laser drill strapped to his leg, but he wasn't going to mention it. It didn't seem like he was the jump-you-in-your-sleep type. He had kind eyes.
"You said you're Mikey?" Ray's voice was surprising light for his size. Mikey liked it.
He nodded. "And there's Gerard. You might not see him." Mikey could tell Gerard was fretting. He frowned a little, realizing that he was in Lindsey's old quarters again. That wasn't good for him.
He sent him a message. Go say hi to the guests. But Gerard just sent back a wordless refusal.
He turned to go then. He didn't want to talk about his brother without him here, and there really wasn't much else to say.
"Wait!" Frank said, and Mikey paused at the door. He looked like he wanted to ask him something, but Ray put a hand on his shoulder, and he bit his lip instead.
Ray said, "Thank you. For helping us. Should we . . . stay here, then?"
"Oh. No." Mikey felt a little flustered. "Just. Follow the bots when you're done patching yourselves up. They'll take you to some quarters." And he fled, sending the new commands to the bots as he went.
He could feel Gerard's objection to this plan, but he waited until he was out of earshot of the med lab before answering.
"We can't just stash them in the cargo bay, Gerard. And the cabins are empty."
"They're not empty!" Gerard yelled in his ear. "They're full of . . . of memories. And . . ."
"Fuck, Gee." Mikey rubbed at his eyes. "That's creepy, even for you. I'm opening the cabins now."
His brother didn't answer, but he could feel him sulking.
Really. Mikey grit his teeth. They were just rooms. Just empty rooms, that they never used. And okay, so maybe they hadn't cleared all of the crew's stuff out of them. They'd gotten rid of most of it, in a fit of anger and grief that they'd regretted soon after. But there'd been a few things, little things, that they couldn't make themselves jettison.
They were pathetic that way, he thought. It made him tired.
He could feel Gerard's quiet agreement as if his brother was walking at his side. "Do you believe in ghosts?" he asked, but he already knew the answer, and he changed the subject right away. "I'll keep them out of Lindsey's room. All right?"
But Gerard didn't answer quickly, and when he did, his voice over the radio was grim. "Do what you want. There aren't any ghosts in those quarters anyway. They all left." And then he couldn't feel his brother anymore, but for a cold, angry kernel in the back of his mind.
* * *
Ray put out a hand. "Scissors?" he mumbled, teeth clenched on the end of the bandage wrapped around his thigh. He'd been surprised to find real bandages here, instead of the more common sealant sprays, but this was serviceable.
Frank slapped a scalpel in his hand and shrugged. "That'll do, right? How's your shoulder?"
Ray had dosed himself with some pain killers already. He rotated his shoulder now, relieved not to feel that grinding pull in the muscle. "It'll be all right. Just bruised. What about you?"
"Me? I'm fine. Hardly a scratch. I was too quick for the bastards."
"Too short, more like. They shot over your head."
But the banter petered out. Ray was tired. More than tired. He felt empty. And Frank . . . Frank's eyes were hollow. Not even the excitement of being on the legendary Ravenkroft was raising his spirits anymore.
"Think they'll let us share quarters?" Frank asked suddenly. Ray raised an eyebrow, but Frank met his eyes squarely. "I'd rather not be separated, just yet. I mean, we haven't met this Gerard guy yet, and for all we know, he's a monster."
"Or he's a skinny kid like Mikey. But I don't see why we couldn't stay together." He stood up and tested his weight on his bad leg. He grunted, but it felt tolerable.
"Come on. We'll find out." He walked up to the bots, still milling by the door. He felt a little silly, but he asked them to lead the way, and they rolled off back down the corridor.
It didn't feel like such a long walk this time. He was more alert, less numb. He could feel the gibbering nightmares in the back of his mind, but he would deal with them later. He distracted himself by studying the ship, instead. It had obviously been heavily customized – nothing was quite where he'd expect things to be, though everything seemed usable.
There were exposed cables running along the upper decking, thick bundles of colored wire. They seemed secure enough, but he still made a mental note to keep an eye on them – exposed wiring like that could cause problems.
There were scratches in the decking, the general wear and tear of a working ship. Although most of the marks were old, and it did seem cleaner than most working ships. Or less lived in.
He noticed then that the bots were avoiding some of the more obvious marks– these did not look like they were incurred in a normal day's work. More like . . . blast marks. Scrubbed until they were almost gone, but not quite.
He pointed them out to Frank, but he'd already seen them.
"Is it just two?" he asked, suddenly, and Ray frowned at him. "Just Mikey, and that Gerard guy."
Ray's frown deepened. "On a Falcon class ship – that's about the same size as the Queen."
"And we were running a skeleton crew with eight," Frank said. "It can't be just two guys, here."
"Maybe it really is a ghost ship," Ray heard himself saying, and Frank punched him in the arm. And then gave him a pat, sorry about the bruise.
The bots led them back to the doors that he'd thought must be crew quarters, and seemed to be making up their mind – they paused outside of the first door, but rolled off as though they'd been slapped, and shot off past the next two doors so quickly Ray thought they might be left behind. At the fourth door, they stopped. Ray thought their squeaks were a little apologetic.
"Not those quarters, huh?" Frank asked. "Why not?" He pressed the panel on the second door, but the door didn't slide open. The bots whistled reproachfully at him.
"Does it matter? Maybe that's Mikey's cabin."
"Or this 'Gerard's.'" Frank had a mulish set to his face that Ray recognized – it was the look that accompanied getting kicked out of port bars, usually.
"Cut it out, Frankie." If the crew of this ship meant them harm, they were certainly being polite about it. And he was tired. Even Frank was drooping, though he wouldn't admit it if he brought it up.
"Fine. Fine. If Gerard the Ghost comes over to smother us in our sleep, I'll just blame you."
"Exactly what sort of ghost stories have you and Matt been telling each other?" Ray shut his mouth then, feeling vaguely ashamed. The last time he'd seen Matt Cortez, he'd looked almost like he was sleeping. Almost.
Frank shuddered, once, and turned a brittle grin his way. "Just the standard repertoire, you know. The old Flying Dutchman. The Challenger Three. The Ravenkroft. " He gave the fourth door panel a slap then, and it whisked open on flawless pneumatics. Barely a sound. Frank almost fell through.
The bots made as though to usher Ray on to the fifth door, but he shook his head, and stepped in with Frank. The bots milled around a bit, but then squeaked an affirmative sounding squeak, and backed away. One of them rolled off down the corridor, while the other settled into place opposite the door. Its lights darkened. It looked asleep.
"Some guard," Frank muttered, and shut the door.
The quarters were small, but efficiently laid out. Ray didn't feel crowded. There were two bunks, he was glad to see, that folded out from the wall and locked in place. There were sliding cabinet doors over the mattresses – for storage, he was sure, to keep loose objects secure during jumps. There was a small shower (almost too small for him) behind a frosted plexi wall, along with a toilet, and a tiny sink. He thought the cubby by the sink would probably hold soap, maybe lotion – he hoped so, as the air on a space ship could get punishingly dry, and if that was the standard sonic shower, they'd need it. Shelves, long and shallow, ran the length of the wall opposite the bunks. There was a roll of webbing tied above the top shelf. He inspected it, and found that it would reach the deck when let loose. There were clips on every shelf, and the deck, too – the webbing could be fastened to secure anything on the shelves.
"Pretty old fashioned," he said out loud. "Most ships don't bother with shelves anymore."
"Too many spacers impaled by a knick knack when they forgot to fasten the webbing," Frank said. "I like them. Old school." He was bouncing on the mattress of the top bunk. "Not bad," he decided. "Ooh, I get first shower." He hopped down and ducked behind the plexi wall, already pulling off his shirt. Soon, Ray heard his sigh of relief over the hiss of an honest-to-god hydro shower.
Ray ducked under to the bottom bunk to wait his turn. A real hydro shower on a space ship – those were expensive. And the water wouldn't last long. But if they were lucky, the reserves would fill quickly. And it would be hot. He sighed, anticipating the feeling of really being clean again. Maybe there was real shampoo in that cubby, too. He could smell smoke in his hair, and it made him queasy.
Idly, he opened the cabinets. They were as empty as the shelves. Which quickly lessened the pleasure he was feeling about the shower.
Most ships kept tranqs in cabinets like these – a supply for any emergency jump that might catch a spacer in bed.
The sound of the shower ended, and Frank came out to watch him. He'd wrapped a worn pink towel around his waist – there were zombie kittens stitched into the corner.
"Where did you . . . No, never mind. Look," Ray said, pointing to the cabinets. "No tranqs."
Frank frowned. His wet hair dripped into his eyes.
"We went through the last jump wide awake," he said. "Think you could take another?"
Ray swallowed, and pushed the nightmares a little further back into his psyche. "No. I don't."
* * *
Mikey found Gerard in engineering, tinkering with one of the bots. It whistled cheerfully in his hands, and he hummed back at it. His hair was black again, and stood up in wild tufts, like he'd been tugging at it with his oil stained hands.
Mikey watched him for a moment, leaning against the doorway. He didn't think Gerard knew he was there, so he was surprised when he spoke first.
"What do we do with them?" he asked, not looking up from the bot. "We probably shouldn't just drop them off in the shipping lanes, if they're from the other side of the line." His voice was carefully neutral – a peace offering, of sorts.
"So we drop them off Earthside." Mikey shrugged. "It's not too hard to get past the Gunners."
Gerard pursed his lips, nodding. "We're running empty. They'd never catch us."
"So we do that. We'll be done in a few days. Go on about our business." Or spend eternity at the edges of the galaxy, until entropy had its say.
Gerard's hands stilled, and the bot gave a melancholy trill. "Yeah. Fuck."
Mikey walked over then, leaned his head against his brother's. "We could wait. Get to know them. Let them rest." They could stay.
But Gerard was shaking his head beneath his, and Mikey pulled away. "No. They wouldn't want to . . . I'm sure they want to go home. We should just take them home."
Mikey frowned at him. He always did this. Like that freighter, years ago – they'd followed that ship for days, Gerard drinking in every radio hail like water on the surface of a sun, but he'd never answered them.
"If you want to just drop them off, fine. " He glared until Gerard's shoulders twitched and he turned to meet his eyes. "But I'm not asking them where they want to go. You talk to them."
And he turned and went. Gerard didn't follow him.
It was too quiet on this ship, he thought, listening to the sound of his own boots in the corridor. He missed having people around, just as much as Gerard did.
Sometimes, he could almost hear Kitty and Steve, shrieking with laughter as they raced like idiots on bot-carts through the corridors. It made the silence even heavier once they'd gone past.
His shoulders hunched in on themselves and he found himself headed towards crew quarters. He stopped, angry at himself. He could hear them, the strangers, talking quietly through the guardbot's sensitive receptors – not so clearly that he could tell what they were saying, just a murmur of unfamiliar voices. It made him want to get closer, to hear more.
But Gerard wasn't the only one out of practice being human.
He missed his brother's dorky laugh.
And instead of letting himself wander closer to the voices, some perverse impulse sent him to the bridge.
* * *
He stopped at the door, hand not quite touching the panel. They hadn't opened the bridge door in almost fifty years – in his head, the bridge was still a black hole, burning on the edges.
But fire didn't last that long in space, he told himself. And it wasn't really fire, anyway.
He took a deep breath. Laid his hand gently, firmly, on the panel.
The door opened as quietly as any other, maintained by the faithful little bots.
Inside, the lights on the panels were steady, green and gold. He went in feeling something like relief, and hitched himself up on the console. He could feel the circuitry, murmuring in his mind like the ship was talking to herself.
It had freaked him out at first, feeling the ship all the time. After the accident, there'd been a long time of feeling nothing, at all, and then all this . . . it had felt like drowning, like flying, like running as fast as he could to the bunkers as the station shields collapsed, holding tight to his brother's hand and tripping in shoes too big for him. It felt like everything, all at once.
And then it had been exhilarating. Addictive. They'd soared through the hyperways wide awake and he'd felt space shivering against his skin, sped drunk with acceleration through the Blockade and danced around the Gunners like they were moored at dock. He felt like a titan. Like a god. He remembered Gerard grinning wide, the lights of the hyperways reflected in his eyes.
And then they'd come through that Gate, an old familiar Gate. And the next thing he knew the Ravenkroft was screaming. The Gatespace was warping, shredding around him – it felt like the mine had flayed them raw and naked, and space was burning.
He'd stumbled to his brother – Gerard was on the floor, sobbing in pain, and Mikey fell over him, retching. Lindsey had found them. He remembered Lindsey and Steve, pulling them onto stretchers – but they hadn't made it to the med bay.
They'd only meant to come through the Gate for a moment. A routine recalculation. The second jump was already programmed.
The sirens blared, three times. He remembered Lindsey swearing as she locked them all into restraints. And then the Ravenkroft jumped, still screaming like a mechanical banshee.
For him and Gerard, for the ship, it had been a lifesaver. The Ravenkroft fell into the 'ways like diving into cool water. It put out the fire. But the currents were wrong – too strong, too wild – and it took longer than it should have to surface again.
At least they were sane when they did.
The rest of the crew weren't so lucky.
Steve and Lindsey hadn't thought to grab the tranqs in time. They would have been all right in a normal jump – it would have been painful, and probably damaging, but they would have recovered. They would have been all right. But the jump was too long. They'd gotten lost in the 'ways.
And the rest of them, asleep in their quarters – the tranqs wore off before they found they found a Gate. They woke up into nightmares, and never came out.
Alicia had been sobbing about spiders, spiders crawling out of her eyes. . .
For days, they'd tried to find something that would help. They'd called in every favor they had – every station doctor that they'd ever run goods for, every spacer captain they knew who'd had crew miss their tranqs in the 'ways. Nobody had any good news.
There'd been flickers of sanity, now and then. They'd hoped . . . but then Otter hijacked an escape pod, and jettisoned himself in the middle of an asteroid field. They hadn't been able to find him amidst the debris. They'd had to hold off Kitty and Steve from taking the other pod – Gerard actually fired on the control panel in desperation.
Then Lindsey had pulled a blaster . . . Lindsey had pulled a blaster on Gerard, and demanded they dock at the old station where they stashed supplies. Where there was an old ore trawler, kept around for spare parts. Demanded that they let them go, like they'd somehow been prisoners on this ship. Like Mikey and Gerard had been keeping them hostage.
She'd looked at them like she didn't know them at all.
Mikey felt an ache in his hands, and looked down. He was gripping the edge of the navigation panel hard enough for his fingers to cramp. He forced himself to let go, one finger at a time.
Gerard's face, when Lindsey held that blaster under his chin . . .
Mikey had docked the ship himself. He wasn't the pilot the Gerard was and the dock was jarring. Clumsy. The crew had barely waited for the seals to close before they got off. Jimmy had sprinted past them, punching the door release so hard he'd left blood on the keys.
For a moment, he'd thought Alicia might stay. She'd hesitated at the dock ramp, looking back at him. There'd been a question in her eyes.
But then she'd shuddered, and clutched at her arms. She'd left too.
He remembered Gerard, standing at the top of the ramp, leaning out, one hand wrapped around the edge of the door. He'd been calling for Lindsey, his voice painful to hear. But Lindsey never looked back.
He remembered trying to run after Alicia. After he couldn't see her anymore, he'd run at the ramp, but Gerard had grabbed him before he left the ship. Gerard hadn't said a word, but Mikey thought he was probably crying. They'd fallen in a heap at the head of the ramp, holding on to each other.
They'd waited. Mikey kept trying to stretch his foot out over the ramp – it was strange, like pushing through a force field. It hurt. It felt like his circuits were shriveling. Gerard finally dragged him out of reach, and Mikey remembered then that Gerard had already tried that.
They'd heard the old clunker take off. Felt the stutter in its engines. The Ravenkroft's sensors hadn't thought much of its chances.
Gerard had shut the sensors down. For a long time, they stayed there, clinging to each other.
Mikey wiped at this eyes. This was pointless. That was years ago.
But he stayed in the bridge for hours, staring out the view port at the faint dusting of far off stars.
* * *
Ray woke up to Frank thrashing on the top bunk. He blinked away the haze in his eyes (smoke, and steam, and blood on the deck) and gave the bunk overhead a smack. Frank stilled. He could hear him panting.
"Ray?" He sounded cautious.
"Frank. Frankie. It's okay."
That might have been a laugh. "Sure. Okay."
Frank's legs swung down over the the bunk. "I'm going out." He dropped down almost gracefully, only stumbling a little. His flailing arm almost hit Ray in the face though.
"I'm hungry. Coming with?"
Ray glared at him, but he couldn't keep it up long. "Give me a minute. And put your boots on."
They dressed quietly, still subdued about the possibility of jumping without access to tranqs. Their clothes felt grimy. They smelled like burning circuits. Frank hesitated, and then chucked his ruined jacket up to his bunk. "It's not that cold out there," he said, but Ray remembered that it was.
The little bot was still outside. It lit up with a sleepy sort of warble when they opened the door, and Ray cleared his throat.
"Um. Can we get to the galley?" It still felt strange, talking to the bot, but he thought it would probably work. The bot rocked in place for a minute, then rolled forward and bumped into his boot before backing up and rolling down the hall.
"Huh," Frank said, looking after it. "Our bots never did that."
They followed the bot down a corridor they hadn't reached before. This one curved gently, probably built around the the outside of the cargo bay. The light was a different color – brighter, not as red.
"Maintenance," Frank said, pointing to plaques on the wall. "And storage, probably. Laundry, good, we should see if we can use that. Oh, cool, they have a hydroponics bay. No wonder they could install real showers."
His voice was brighter than Ray liked. It sounded forced.
"Where do you think engineering is?" he asked, just to have something to say. It was very disconcerting, walking through a ship that by rights should be occupied. And very obviously wasn't.
"Maybe down the other side of the med bay. They usually put that either by the galley or by the power tools."
The bot waiting, rocking slightly at a double door that slid open as they got closer.
"Galley," Frank said, unnecessarily. Ray could see the stainless steel from there, pale and cold against a background of riotous color – murals larger than life sprayed out across the walls.
They stood in the doorway, taking it in – even aside from the murals, which were boggling enough, not many ships had a set up like this. There were real pots and pans hanging from snap-hooks over real stove tops, and a pair of deep sinks behind them – Ray tried to imagine how much water it would take to fill them. Couldn't.
There was a single long table running parallel to the counter top, stools bolted alongside. Eight of them – Ray couldn't help but count them. Not that that meant anything – most ships ran at least two crew-shifts.
Frank prowled around the the back side of the stoves, unlatching cabinets.
"I guess ghosts don't eat much," he muttered, tossing a set of freeze-dried rations on the counter. "These things are almost expired."
Ray picked one up, staring at the date stamped on the package. "But they last for decades – they stock them for long-haul colony ships!"
Frank shrugged, tearing into the other package with his utility knife and sniffing at the contents. He made a face, but pulled a pan free of its hook and let it clang down on a burner. "Well, these have been stocked for a long-ass time. They're still edible. Sort of."
He fiddled with the burners for a moment, until the coil started glowing a dull, deep red that slowly brightened to an orange that spread up the sides of the pan. Frank dumped the packaged rations in to warm and tugged Ray's pack out of his hand to add it too.
"Hope you like sawdust!" he said, grinning over at him. "That's what this is going to taste like."
Ray shrugged. So long as it got the acrid taste of smoke out of his mouth.
Ray pulled himself up on the counter, wincing a little as his leg protested. The stools at the table seemed . . . not occupied, or anything like that. Just. Not for him. There were eyes in the murals, watching the room – they didn't recognize him.
Frank didn't comment, just handed Ray a fork and dug in, straight from the pan.
They ate quickly, trying not to taste it. James' cooking had been gourmet in comparison, but Ray didn't let himself dwell on that.
How many meals would they need to eat on this ship? There were plenty of rations, but a quick survey told him they were all coming up on their expiration date – not, like, immediately. But sooner than he liked.
They were way the hell away from inhabited space, after all.
To get anywhere near a station, or even a freighters' supply cache in less time than that, this ship would have to take the 'ways.
Ray shied away from the thought. There was still a raw, painful part of his mind that gibbered at the very idea of heading back there. Reality cracked and splintered in the hyperways, tied itself in nauseating knots and took you along with it, just to throw you back into normal space like trash, wrung dry and discarded. The human mind wasn't built for it.
The tranqs made it bearable. But there were no tranqs in their cabin.
Frank dropped the empty pan in a sink, and turned the faucet, staring at the water that poured freely out of it. Ray stared too – running water on a starship – that would never cease to amaze him.
But. "Frankie," he said. "We need to talk to someone."
The set of Frank's shoulders tilted, in what might have been a shrug if they hadn't been so tight. "Or we're fucked. I know."
* * *
The bot was waiting for them at a fork in the hall.
"Which way to the guy in charge?" Frank asked. He seemed to be getting accustomed to their odd little guides.
The bot went left.
There were airlocks in this corridor, and Ray elbowed Frank to point out the control panels. Escape pods.
One of them was missing – the lights on that panel were red. The next one was just blank. Blackened.
Frank eyed it distrustfully. But the last two pods seemed in working order.
"Eight to twelve," Ray said, calculating the size of the pods. "That's how big the crew should be. Unless there are more pods somewhere."
"Think you could access one if you had to?"
"Maybe. You'll have to read the controls for me."
Frank eyed him as they passed the pods, but Ray kept his face bland. He wasn't jumping ship without Frank.
Then Frank snorted. "Yeah well, you'll need to close the hatch. Looks too tall for me."
Ray didn't smile, but he felt an exasperated fondness anyway. Looks like they were sticking together, however this went.
The bot was stopped now in front of a wide bulkhead – the doors looked more substantial than most of the ones they'd seen so far. More like the ones to the docking bay. Ray felt his spine straighten. Whatever was on the other side of those doors was vulnerable to hull breach.
And the doors opened on black.
Ray grabbed hold of Frank's arm by instinct, but there was no rush of decompression. The bot trundled merrily over the threshold, and there was an answering whistle from inside. As well as an impressive string of curses in an unfamiliar voice.
The lights came up in a soft white glow, and Ray saw that the endless black was actually a large view screen, set to look out into the barrenness of space in this quadrant. It would probably be really impressive further towards the galactic center.
There were big slouchy couches placed here and there – bolted to the deck, Ray noticed – and a bar that curved along the wall to the side of the door. Locked cabinets full of book discs and games lined the wall behind it. He thought he recognized some real antique paintbrushes too. There was one of those multi-layer music cubes in the corner. The sort that could play about fifty different musical instruments, from antique electric guitars to the fluting drums from Sigma 9.
A rec room. This ship really did have everything.
The voice belonged to the guy who'd just jumped off of one of the couches. He stood now with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his grease stained coveralls, shoulders hunched defensively. He looked like he'd love to get out of the room, but they were standing in front of the only doorway.
Frank stepped a little closer, tugging at his arm until Ray let go with a muttered, 'sorry.'
"So. Are you Gerard?" Frank asked, a challenging tilt to his chin. "I hear you didn't want to talk to us."
Gerard, if it was Gerard, and he didn't say he wasn't, met Frank's eyes with what he probably thought was a confident look. Ray had a hard time reconciling this with the Gerard the Ghost talk from earlier. He just looked . . . tired. And nervous.
"I wasn't expecting. . ." He cleared his throat and brought his hands out of his pockets to cross his arms. He tilted his chin up. "Are you two doing all right? Need . . . anything?" He was really flailing here. Ray took pity on him.
"We're doing much better," he said, sidling around Frank and giving him a warning punch on the arm as he did. "You've got real showers on this ship! That's impressive, man, that's class."
Frank glowered at his back – he could feel it, as familiar as he was with Frank's glares. But he stepped back on his foot and willed him to stay put. Now was not the time to burst out with an accusation about the missing tranqs. Frank tugged his foot free and kicked at the back of his leg, but walked over to the bar without a word.
Gerard followed him with narrowed eyes, but jerked his attention back to Ray when he stepped a little closer.
"So this is really the Ravenkroft huh? You know, I've sung songs about this ship." Gerard blinked at him, brows furrowing.
"Sure. When I was kid. Playground rhymes." Over his shoulder, Ray could see Frank trailing a hand along the bar, walking towards the music cube. He kept looking at Gerard, and his face was grim. One of the bots was trailing right at his heels, lights blinking anxiously.
"We're not . . . playground rhymes, seriously?" Gerard sounded lost, and kept making little aborted movements, like he wanted to turn to face Frank, but Ray kept talking, keeping his attention focused on him.
He felt sort of bad about keeping him off balance like this. They were probably good guys, even if they were alone on a ghost ship. But there were no tranqs in the cabinets, and they couldn't take another jump like that last one.
"Where did you come across her, anyway? She's the find of the century."
For a moment, Gerard went still, and Ray felt his throat close up at the look in his eyes. The awkwardly nervous young man was no where to be found there – just a deep, cold well of stillness and loss.
"We've always been here," Gerard said, finally. "This is our ship."
Behind them Frank stood stock still, eyes wide and getting wider. Even the bot was motionless.
Wild thoughts of ghosts and legends scattered through his head, and Ray swallowed, hard.
"How," he heard himself asking, barely a whisper. "How can it be yours?"
The blank look on Gerard's face was chilling. "They left it to us," he said. And then he walked around him, just out of reach, and left. Behind him, the doors slid shut before the bots could follow. They whistled, mournful, and came back to bump against Ray's feet, almost as if they wanted reassurance.
Frank's incredulous question burst over their little silhouette like an explosion.
"What. The fuck?"
* * *
Mikey jerked out of his reverie with a start that almost knocked him off his perch. "What?" he asked aloud, before realizing that the frisson of fear and frustration that he felt was Gerard.
He went through the door at a run, boots clanging on the deck. He didn't even know why he was running.
He sent a query through the ship, but everything seemed normal but his brother. He reached for Gerard, but he was a tightly wound knot of tension, and Mikey couldn't get through.
"Where?" he asked the Ravenkroft, and the ship turned him towards crew quarters.
"Damn it, Gee," he said, as he slid to a stop outside Lindsey's quarters. But no, not here. Mikey frowned, and walked on, trailing a hand along the wall, across the closed doors. He drew his hand back as he went past Alicia's.
God, he missed Alicia.
He'd put Ray and Frank in Kitty's quarters. She wouldn't mind. But Gerard wasn't there, either.
He was in Mikey's cabin, curled on the bunk, staring right at Mikey when he opened the door. His eyes were frighteningly blank, and for a split-second, horrible moment, Mikey thought he might have shut himself off somehow.
But his chest rose and fell, and when Mikey took a stumbling step inside, Gerard blinked, and buried his head in the pillow.
"I can't," he said, so muffled Mikey barely heard him. "I can't talk to them."
Mikey closed his eyes. He'd be relieved, if he couldn't still feel the miserably cold despair that surrounded his brother.
He sat on the bed instead, and hugged him tight.
"It's okay," he said, though it really wasn't. "It's okay. I'll do it."
* * *
Frank was pacing. Ray had given up trying to settle him down a while ago, and sat himself down on the closest couch, bad leg stretched out in front of him, eyes closed. He felt numb.
"That's not possible," Frank said. Again. "He's lying. He's a pretty liar."
"He's not lying." Ray didn't know what made him so certain, but there it was. And he wasn't going to touch the 'pretty' thing. Frank took to people sometimes. Rationally or not.
"Then he's crazy." Frank's voice was flat.
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"How could he be not?" Frank's laugh was edged in panic, and Ray opened his eyes to see him stop and stare at the door with eyes that were too wide. Too wild.
"Frankie," he said, sharp as he could make himself sound. "Sit down. Take a breath."
And Frank did, which was troubling in and of itself. He sat on the couch across from Ray's and tucked his feet up under him, like a kid, a fucking little kid who'd heard too many ghost stories and found himself in a creaky station maintenance shaft, with the lights flickering and the walls shuddering as the pumps worked.
"This is a ghost ship, Ray, " he said.
Ray whipped his head around so fast he felt the nerves twinge in his neck. He barely noticed the brief burn though.
Mikey stood in front of the door, hands at his side.
"It might as well be," he continued, "but it's not."
His voice was as flat and uninflected as it had been before, but Ray thought he heard something dark and lonely underneath. It made his heart ache, weirdly even more than that look in Gerard's eyes.
They were both staring now, Frank and he both, just waiting. Vaguely, Ray felt like this might be rude, but he couldn't seem to care.
Mikey's shoulders rose defensively, but he didn't back away. "It's probably weird."
"You think?" Ray didn't think Frank could help it – but he welcomed the outburst. It popped the growing tension like a soap bubble, and Ray could breath again. Mikey looked a little disconcerted, but stepped a little closer, and his shoulders went down.
He scrubbed one hand through his yellow hair.
"Is it still illegal, back Earthside, to deal with cybernetics?" he asked. Ray didn't get it, right away. Didn't understand the relevance.
But Frank did. Frank uncurled on his couch and leaned forward, his eyes still wide, but with a growing wonder now, not white rimmed with dread.
"You're cyborgs?" he asked, like it was Old Christmas and Station Retrieval Day rolled up in one, and Ray felt stupid.
That was so much more likely than ghosts, fuck. That explained. . . shit, that explained a lot. "The tranqs," he said, and Frank almost turned to stare at him, but couldn't quite keep his eyes of Mikey. "That's why there weren't any tranqs in the cabinets. You don't need them."
Fuck, but if . . . "You do have them, though, right?" he asked. He couldn't keep the strain out of his voice. "Somewhere on this ship?"
Frank was nearly vibrating with tension now, looking sideways at Mikey, hope and dread pouring out of every inch of him.
Mikey blinked. "I tell you we're cyborgs and you ask about tranqs?" But it didn't take long for the realization to hit, and Mikey flushed.
"Fuck," he said, like he hadn't meant to say it. "We forgot."
* * *
Gerard was still locked down, in the dark in Mikey's quarters, and a part of him was horrified that they'd forgotten to stock the tranqs while they were warming up the ship, but Mikey felt more at ease in that moment then he had in years.
They weren't afraid of them. Okay, so they had been afraid of them when they thought that they might be ghosts, and then Gerard just about convinced them of it, but they weren't actually afraid of them now.
And that was normal, he told himself, fierce and certain, to keep the trembling down. That was normal. Fear and distrust were not the default settings for most people. Fuck, Gerard was just about the least intimidating person he'd ever known, even when he was being all freaked out and mysterious.
He'd forgotten that they weren't the monsters that their crew had mistaken them for, somewhere along the way.
Of course, if he didn't find the tranqs, that could change.
He walked over to the bar and ducked behind it. Somewhere back here . . . in a box next to Lindsey's paints. He paused. Gerard had thrown them in there with a look on his face Mikey had never seen before or since, and didn't want to, ever.
"Mikey?" Ray sounded hesitant, and he made himself grab the box and stand up.
He set it on the bar with a thump. He half expected that there should be a puff of dust, but of course the bots wouldn't allow dust to gather on this ship.
"Here," he said. "Sorry." Which was about the most inadequate response ever, but he didn't have another one.
Frank reached the box in half a step, it seemed, and pulled it to him with a desperation that eased as soon as he could see inside. The relief in his eyes made Mikey catch his breath. Had it really been so long since he had to worry about diving through the hyperways? How could he have fucking forgotten?
Unexpectedly, Frank was the one who looked embarrassed when he looked up. "No, it's fine. Now. No harm done. It's just, I don't want to do that again."
Mikey felt a splinter of fear in his spine, so cold he could feel his circuitry like fire under his nerves. They'd come so close to doing it again, and hadn't even realized . . .
"No, hey," he heard Ray say, and realized he was shaking only when Ray had a hand under his elbow. "It's okay. We're okay."
He was very close to him. He hadn't been so close to anyone but Gee in . . . fuck, in fifty years.
Frank was looking back and forth between them. There was no accusation on his face, though he hadn't let go of the box yet. Mikey could have pulled away then, but strangely he found he didn't really want to. Ray was warm at his side, and this close, Mikey could hear his heartbeat – a steady, calming rhythm.
"Oh yeah," Frank said then. "Guess we didn't answer your question." Mikey didn't remember asking one.
"Cybernetics," Frank said, reminding him, and Ray laughed a little. Mikey could feel the puff of breath against his neck. It sent a shiver through him.
"They're totally illegal," Frank went on, but before Mikey could worry about that, he grinned, the widest, most ridiculous smile he'd ever seen. "But we're not exactly law abiding citizens, so who the fuck cares?"
Mikey's own unaccustomed smile felt like it would crack his face. The bots whistled happily as they caught his relief, and even the Ravenkroft sent back a contented sort of glow. But the knot in the back of his mind that was Gerard didn't seem to notice, and that . . . that was fucked up. Mikey let the smile fade.
He sent Gee what he saw – Frank's ridiculous grin, brighter than stars. He knew Gerard noticed that – he could feel him turning towards it, like Frank was a fucking sun – but he pulled back again, even more miserable. Mikey wanted to scream in frustration.
You won't break him, he sent his brother, in a flash of code and sparking synapses. You didn't break them. And maybe Gee wasn't that cold, dark knot anymore, but the waves of confusion and grief were nearly as bad. Not as bad ,though, as the emptiness left in his head as soon as Gerard realized he was projecting and pulled so far back Mikey couldn't feel him at all anymore.
This had to stop, Mikey thought. He'd let Gerard pull too far away in this empty ship – if he went any farther, he may as well have let him open those fucking docking bay doors.
* * *
There was a good chance that they were all crazy, actually. Ray figured the odds at about sixty/forty. But then again, what did it matter? If they were, then at least it seemed to be a shared delusion.
They followed Mikey now. The little maintenance bots rolled along with them, whistling back and forth to each other. He was getting fond of the things.
This time, the corridors were not so eerie. Their boots didn't ring so loudly in his ears – if only because Frank was cheerfully quizzing Mikey about the ship (and, almost subtly, about Gerard) while holding the box of tranqs like he'd never let them go.
Mikey answered the questions about the ship with an awkward sort of eagerness. And if it seemed a bit like he was trying to distract himself from something, Ray could let that go. Ray still felt himself grinning every time Mikey started explaining some intricacy of the ship's design and waving his hands around, smiling big and broad. Then Mikey would sort of blink and fold back in on himself, pursing his lips and ducking his head. Ray smiled then too. It was cute, damn it.
But, 'he's my brother,' was all he would say about Gerard, no matter how much Frank dug. And the cyborg thing . . . he didn't avoid the question. He just didn't seem to know how to explain it.
"There was an accident, before the War. Our cargo – it wasn't as stable as it should have been. Something blew, while Gee and I were in the hold. I don't. . . know exactly what happened after that. But Kitty fixed us up – she and Jimmy." He shrugged. "And then we were cyborgs."
Ray was beginning to realize that Mikey didn't really go into long involved explanations.
He wanted to ask about the crew (and Kitty and Jimmy must have been crew) but he remembered the doors to crew quarters that wouldn't open, and the way Gerard had looked (they left it to us) before he'd walked away.
He didn't really have a right to that, he thought. That was private. (Fifty years since there was any record of that crew. Fifty years of silence. And one rumor that always made the rounds, of a mine tripped in Gatespace. He thought of his friends on the Jersey Queen with a bitter twist in the back of his throat, and kept the question to himself.)
They stopped by the quarters they'd adopted, and Frank carefully stowed the tranqs away, splitting them equally between the cabinets by the top and bottom bunks. He kept two in his pockets, and handed Ray a pair as well. They felt like a life line, and Ray felt some of the tension he'd been carrying around since they'd gotten in that escape pod ease.
Mikey waited at the door, looking around the cabin, a little crooked smile on his face when he saw Frank's zombie kitten towel, left crumpled on the deck.
He saw Ray looking, and shrugged. "It was Kitty's," he said. "Gabe gave it to her."
Frank glanced over, going still. "Is that okay?" he asked. "Using it, I mean."
Mikey looked at him. "It's just a towel," he said. "It's fine."
But Frank picked it up and folded it carefully over the edge of the bunk anyway, and Ray thought he saw gratitude in Mikey's face.
* * *
They were easy to talk to, Mikey marveled, these 'not exactly law-abiding' spacers. While Frank seemed especially interested in Gerard – and he thought that once, he would have been all about bragging about his brother to such an appreciative audience, but Gerard had been his for fifty years, and it was hard to let go of that – his enthusiasm over the Ravenkroft was more fun than he'd expected. Ray, though, was such a steady presence at his side. He kept looking over at him, at the smile that kept crossing his face as Mikey talked, and if it wasn't as bright as Frank's mad grin (nothing was as bright at that grin) it felt warmer. No one had smiled at him like that since Alicia left. Mikey wanted to make him smile more.
Gee, he thought, you can talk to these guys. You can.
Ray was looking at him again. For a long moment, he let himself think of nothing but his dark eyes, crinkled at the corners with that smile. But it faded slightly, into something like concern, and Mikey had to bite his lip before he dumped everything on him. That wouldn't be fair.
"I have to talk to my brother," he said, abrupt even to his own ears. Frank looked up sharply, but Ray just nodded, that concern still in his eyes.
"It'll be fine," he heard himself saying. It would. "We'll come back in a while, and you can tell us what you want to do."
And he backed away before he tried to get Ray to come with him.
As soon as the door slid closed, he managed to turn and go, as if he hadn't been hanging on Ray's smile at all (he had been). Like he wasn't wanting to turn around and go back (he was). And that made him feel guilty. Gerard needed him. Well. Gerard needed them, and needed him to make him face up to it.
But when he reached his door, just around the corner, Gerard was sitting in the corridor, knees bent, head back against the door. His face was creased with pillow lines, and his eyes were burnt red and dry, but he was outside of Mikey's quarters, and if he was still closed tight, at least Mikey could see him, and know he was there.
He slid down beside his brother. He didn't know what to say that he hadn't already said.
So he pulled Gerard's arm up around his shoulders and kept a hold of his hand, and said nothing. For a long time, they sat there. Eventually, Mikey could feel Gerard shaking, silently crying.
It would have frightened him, but he could feel the empty space filling back up with Gerard, as his brother slowly untied the knot he'd made of himself. And when he fell asleep, wrung out, curled into Mikey's side, he was more there than he'd been in years.
If Mikey cried then, they were tears of relief, and anyway no one was around to see them.
* * *
Ray sat on his bunk (he already thought of it as his bunk, even though he'd slept here exactly once) and looked at Frank's feet. Frank's feet, in socks, because he'd pulled off his boots and left them neatly stowed away in a cabinet before he clambered up to the top bunk and swung his feet out over the edge.
They kicked slightly, periodically, as though he wanted to swing them but kept remembering that if he did, he'd probably hit Ray in the face.
"What did he mean, do you think?" Ray asked. "When he said that we could tell them what we wanted to do."
"Where we wanted to go, probably. We're on the wrong side of the line – but this ship could probably take us back Earthside if we want."
Frank didn't sound altogether enthusiastic about the prospect.
"Wouldn't he have said that then? Where we wanted to go, instead of what we wanted to do?"
Frank's feet stilled for a minute, before kicking sharply enough to make Ray duck.
"You think they'd let us stay here? If we wanted, I mean."
And Ray smiled, because that meant Frank wanted to, and was just waiting to see if Ray did too. Like it was any surprise, really. This was the fucking Ravenkroft, and it wasn't run by ghosts. Frank fucking loved the whole idea of cyborgs – he'd regaled Ray with tales enough for him to know that.
As for Ray himself . . . He wouldn't mind. This ship was beautiful, in its weird way. And he couldn't see himself back on Station, or even planet side, looking for a new berth. A new crew.
Also, there was Mikey, and Ray wondered at himself, that he'd be so taken with someone he'd just met, and still didn't really know.
There was also Gerard, and Ray knew already that Mikey would follow Gerard's lead. Ray frowned.
Frank's feet weren't kicking anymore. "Should we stay here?" he asked, almost too quiet for Ray to hear. "He looked so upset." And Ray knew he didn't mean Mikey.
Ray remembered the lost note in Gerard's voice. "I think," he said, and trailed away.
Frank pulled his feet up. "What?"
"It will depend on Gerard," he said, and tried not to think about how it would feel to leave Mikey behind if he had to.
He told himself it was just some bizarre sort of imprinting – the first friendly face after a trauma – but it didn't sound convincing. Or he didn't fucking care.
He lay back in his bunk. It hadn't been long since he'd woken up, and even though that last sleep had been anything but restful, and tiredness dragged at him like lead, he didn't think he could sleep now if he tried. And judging from how uncharacteristically still Frank was, above him, neither could he.
"I'd like to talk to him," he heard. "I'd like to tell him I was sorry, for thinking he was a monster."
Ray smiled, but it was a sad sort of smile, and he kept quiet. Let Frank talk himself out. Maybe one of them could get some rest.
"Not in those words, though. Don't want to fucking put the idea in his head if he didn't already know that's what I was thinking. Since I don't think it anymore anyway."
"Sure, Frankie. I know."
"Ray. Ray, I think I want to stay here."
"Yeah, Frank. I know."
* * *
There was a chime. Ray sat up, disoriented. Had he fallen asleep after all? The chime came again, and he realized it was the cabin door. He hadn't realized there was a chime.
Frank was already jumping down from the top bunk, padding over in his socks.
Ray expected to see Mikey, standing there. But it was Gerard – looking through messy strands of dark hair, a twist to his lips that looked more uncertain than anything else.
He rocked back on his heels. "I wanted to talk to you. Properly, this time."
Frank fucking beamed at him. Ray blinked away the last of the sleep from his eyes in time to notice the stunned look on Gerard's face before Frankie answered him.
"Okay," he said, and stood there smiling like an idiot. He was crushing hard on the guy, Ray knew. It was almost as bad as that time with the girl on Belleville Station. He would have married her, Ray thought, if their ships hadn't been running on opposite schedules.
Ray came up as quietly as he could, but he needn't have bothered – neither of them paid him any mind. He saw Mikey then, standing well back in the corridor. He waved a little, embarrassingly, but Mikey just flapped his hand in a sort of wave back. A tiny barely-there smile curled on his face, and Ray felt hopeful.
"Um," Gerard said, and blinked a couple of times. But then he looked away from Frank, down at his feet, and asked "So where can we drop you off?" all in a rush.
Ray saw Mikey's smile fall.
Gerard tucked a strand of hair behind his ear and continued, voice brittle and bright.
"We can take you back Earthside. The Blockade has never really been an obstacle for the Ravenkroft."
Mikey's face was absolutely blank, and Ray felt gutted. He'd been so sure. . .
Frankie said nothing, and Ray reached for his shoulder. But he shrugged it off, and stood up straight.
"Sure," he said. Ray felt it like an electric shock.
"Could you make it all the way to Blue Quadrant? To Titan-7?"
What was he doing? They didn't know anyone on Titan-7. They hadn't been that far Earthward since before they'd signed on to the Jersey Queen.
There was a determined set to Frank's jaw, despite the false cheer in his voice. Ray didn't think Gerard knew him well enough to spot it.
Ray let out the breath he had been holding. So, Frankie had a plan.
He caught Mikey's eye again, and winked.
* * *
Gerard set the course to Titan-7 with uncommon deliberation. He'd always been precise – navigators had to be. But he'd always made it look effortless. Like he'd always known exactly where the best routes were, and hardly needed to think about it. He told Mikey once that the Gates rang with a frequency like song in the 'ways. He could always hear them.
Even after, when they were wandering, Gerard never got lost. He might skip a Gate, to stay longer in the color and noise of the 'ways, but he never missed one that he was aiming for.
But this time, Gerard was charting a course – actually, literally, charting a course – consulting star maps and Gate records, spreading the hard copies over the galley table like old fashioned sea charts, quizzing Frank about any changes that might have affected the 'ways in the last several years. Frank answered between bites of reheated rations, making faces at the taste.
Sometimes Mikey caught Ray giving Frank a look, like maybe the route he'd just suggested wasn't the one he was expecting. But Ray never corrected him, and Mikey didn't tell Gerard.
It seemed like Frank was always at Gee's side, now – peering over his shoulder, or sitting on the deck beside him, knees up and hands cupped over his chin. Gerard kept looking over at him, sometimes mid sentence, words forgotten. Frank would give him that toothy grin, and Gee would start talking again, blinking as though he'd been staring at a star.
Mikey started leaving them alone more often. He could tell Gee was warming to the guy – he was fucking charmed, obviously. He talked more than he had in decades. Mikey even caught him going off on a tangent about the way space sounded to the ship, and Frankie was hanging off of every word. Or maybe just the way Gerard's lips moved when he talked. It was hard to tell.
"He's smitten," Ray said. They sat in the rec room, listening to something old and loud and full of guitars. The music cube was flashing red and blue, and all the other lights were off.
"He should be," Mikey said. "Gee's awesome." Also, pathetically blind to how often he was thinking about Frank – it was fucking embarrassing, hearing that refrain in the back of his mind. Gerard seemed to have forgotten how to screen things. But he'd rather deal with this Gerard than the one who'd all but disappeared just a few days ago.
Ray nodded absently. They were leaning close together on the couch – the light from the cube caught Ray's curls every time he moved, highlighting them at the edge of Mikey's vision.
"You know he's getting him to take the longest route he can think of." Ray said it like there was no question, but he was giving him a sidelong look as though searching for an objection.
Like he'd fucking object to them staying on board for as long as possible.
"Did you know," he asked, "that Gerard doesn't really need to chart a course at all? He could find a way to the Blockade with his eyes closed."
Mikey turned his head. Watched the way Ray's chest rose and fell, wondering what he would say.
"So, they're both stalling," it was, and Mikey could hear him smile.
"It's nice," he said, "having other people around." Maybe that sounded a little more plaintive than he'd meant it to. He scuffed his foot against the deck, trying to think of something else to say.
Ray shifted on the couch beside him, and Mikey knew that he was looking over at him. "Is that all it is? Having company?" He sounded wistful, and Mikey chewed at his lip. "'Cause, you know . . . Frank really fucking likes your brother." And the tone was teasing, but Mikey didn't think that was what he'd been planning to say.
On impulse (and feeling strangely calm about it all), Mikey reached over and took Ray's hand. Their fingers laced together like they'd done it a hundred times, sliding over each other with a warmth that Mikey felt all the way through to his gut.
"No," he said. "That's not all it is."
The song ended, and a steady, marshal drum beat started. The light turned green and gold.
Ray kissed him.
* * *
It felt like the most natural thing he'd ever done, kissing Mikey. Just a quick kiss, soft and dry, and the tickle of Mikey's eyelashes, brushing against his cheek bone as his eyes opened wide in surprise. Ray felt himself blushing, a hot, fierce flush across his face, and he pulled back almost immediately.
Ray leaned back into the couch, looking at their joined hands. He hadn't felt this shy since he was a kid. And then his stomach dropped, because Mikey was tugging his hand free, was standing up.
He looked down at his boots – the metal soles gleamed, green and gold to the beat of the drums. He hunted for something to say, to apologize, to fix it . . .
But all the words escaped him, because Mikey wasn't leaving. He was right in front of him, his hand was on his shoulder, his long legs sweeping up on either side of him. He sat in his lap, like it was the most natural thing he'd ever done, and tilted Ray's chin up with his free hand.
"Is this all right?" he asked, voice deeper than usual, and Ray could only stare at him, and the way his eyes were smiling. "With your leg, I mean. Is it all right?"
Ray couldn't catch the words, but he nodded. What leg, really? Who cared about his leg? His hands rose to wrap around Mikey's ribs, clutching at his shirt, and Mikey leaned in, cupping his jaw, and kissed him.
He pressed him back into the soft cushion of the couch, the gentle insistent pressure of the hand on his shoulder hot through the fabric of his shirt. Ray shuddered with the heat of it, and when his lips parted in reaction, Mikey took the invitation and ran with it.
Ray almost forgot to breathe – he tasted so good – okay, maybe a little bit stale, maybe a little bit strangely metallic, but good, and Ray couldn't get enough of it. His hands wandered up Mikey's curved spine, pulling the shirt along with them, until Ray could tug if off, over Mikey's head. Mikey made a displeased noise when he broke the kiss, but he leaned back long enough to strip his shirt off his arms and fling it over the side of the couch – the movement rocked his hips against Ray's. He made a truly embarrassing noise, and pressed his hand flat against the small of Mikey's back, feeling soft, warm skin give beneath his hands, and the cool, metallic curve of his spine, which didn't. He stared up at Mikey, with his hair in wild spikes from the shirt, his eyes heavy lidded, lips swollen, not smiling. The green light flared over his shoulder.
Then Mikey leaned in again, so slowly, running his hands up under Ray's shirt, little fingers dipping below the waist of his pants on either side. Ray gasped at the spread of his long fingers across his ribs. He let go of Mikey, with difficulty, to let him tug his shirt away – his hair caught in the collar, and Mikey drew the strands free with a steady hand.
Ray was shaking, tiny tremors of adrenaline, and Mikey curled down to lay his cheek against his heart. Ray pulled him closer, and slid his hands down the back of Mikey's pants, cupping at his ass. He tightened his grip, involuntarily, when Mikey started nibbling, tugging gently at his nipple with his teeth. Mikey rocked again, more purposefully – the front of his pants was warm and damp against Ray's stomach.
He hissed, drawing one hand free too quickly, catching it on Mikey's waistband. He fumbled between them until Mikey's cock was free, heavy and hot and slick in his hand. Mikey growled, licking a stripe up Ray's chest and biting at his collarbone. He reached around Ray's hand and undid his fly, pulling Ray's cock out to line up with his own. He wrapped his long hand around Ray's, around both of them, and squeezed gently, stroking steadily.
Ray was throbbing now, barely noticing the answering twinge in his bad leg. His mouth felt empty – he heard himself whine, a needy, broken sound, and he ducked his head to suck at the lobe of Mikey's ear. Mikey shuddered, and turned his head to tug Ray's lower lip between his teeth, drawing it in until they were kissing again, deeply, frantically messy.
He tightened his grip, and stroked with Mikey, adding a twist at the end of the stroke the way he liked. Mikey moaned into his mouth, rocking faster now, the wet head of his cock brushing against his belly, Ray's slicking up the palm of his hand. Ray was sure they'd knock the couch back, before he remembered it was bolted to the deck.
Ray's thighs were trembling now, quivering with strain. He groaned, and Mikey nodded, pulling back to take a gasping breath, running the palm of his hand over the head of his cock. He came with a stutter that might have been Ray's name, and Ray came tumbling along with him.
Mikey rested his head on Ray's shoulder, and blew a curl of sweaty hair away from his neck to kiss it gently. Ray let his head fall back on the couch and stared at the ceiling, running his hand along Mikey's back from shoulder to hip.
They stayed there for a long time, not speaking. Ray closed his eyes, and held on.
* * *
Mikey pulled a blanket from the stack under the bar. It was very old and very soft – Ryland brought it with him from Cobra Station. His initials were embroidered on the corner, so worn only the R was legible. Jimmy had last used it as part of the blanket fort he and Lindsey had built over the bar.
Mikey held on to it, just for a second, then brought it back to the couch where Ray was sleeping. He drew the blanket over his bare chest. It could be cold in here. The Ravenkroft paid only the slightest attention to temperature settings, and the bots paid only a little bit more.
The music cube was dark now. There weren't enough stars on the view screen to light the room. But he could see in the dark well enough, and he sat on the edge of the couch, watching Ray sleep. His eyes moved behind his eyelids as he dreamed.
He could still feel the slow stroke of Ray's hand down his cybernetic spine – he hadn't hesitated when he'd touched it. Hadn't flinched. Even Alicia had flinched, the first time, before kissing her way up the smooth metal in apology.
Mikey closed his eyes.
Then he got up, found his shirt, and pulled it on as he walked out of the rec room. "Shh," he muttered to the maintenance bots. "Don't wake him up."
The quiet of the corridors felt different – less lacking. He walked softly, trying not to break it.
He made his way to the docking bay, looking for Gerard, knowing where he was.
His brother sat on a crate, one leg bent, the other kicking softly against the side. He looked up when Mikey got closer.
"Mikes," he said, voice soft. "Everything all right?"
He hopped up beside his brother, leaned into his shoulder. He hadn't said it yet – the words he'd wanted to say since he took Ray's hand. It felt important that he say it out loud.
"Gee. I want them to stay."
Gerard did too, he knew it. He could tell, watching him with Frank, could see it in his face when he looked around and saw Ray at Mikey's side. He had a whole argument planned out, but it all revolved around getting Gerard to admit to himself what Mikey already knew.
But Gerard nodded.
He nodded, but his eyes were sad, and Mikey's argument lost cohesion.
"I do too, Mikey. But they might not."
"You're not serious," he said. He felt like laughing. Gerard couldn't be that blind – even the bots had started treating Ray and Frank like they belonged here.
Gerard's shoulders hunched, but his jaw was set, and Mikey found the urge to laugh dissipating.
"They're stuck here right now," he said. His voice was calm, reasonable. His eyes were bleak. "They might just be making the best of a bad situation. We can't know – they can't know, until they have options. It wouldn't be right to hold them to anything now." He didn't just mean asking them to stay on board – Mikey caught a quick image of Frank, sleeves rolled up over his tattoos, leaning across Gerard to make a note on the chart. Kissing his brother, a quick, light touch of lips against his temple. He could smell his hair, still wet from his shower, before Gerard shut him out.
Mikey let out a long, shallow breath. It was all right. This didn't change anything. They were already planning to get them back Earthside, to a station where they could drop them off. If they wanted to go. Ray wouldn't want to go.
Mikey kept his hands from forming into fists. He wouldn't.
"So we'll ask them later," he said.
Gerard's lips tilted in what was almost a smile. "Yeah. When we get to Titan-7, we'll make them an offer."
"They'll say yes." Mikey pushed at Gerard's arm. "You know they'll say yes."
But Gerard just looked at his hands, clasped around his bent knee. "I don't think we should assume that, Mikes." He glanced up, catching Mikey's eyes. "We're taking the 'ways tomorrow. We'll find out soon."
* * *
Ray met Frank in the galley. It had become the impromptu meeting place while Gerard and Frank plotted their course – even the murals no longer looked unwelcoming. They sat on the stools without thinking about it.
"It's today," Frank announced, slapping his hand down on the star chart laid over the table. "It's like he's in a hurry all a sudden. It's driving me crazy."
Ray frowned. Mikey had been cagey about the question lately. He'd just said they should ask once they got to the station.
Frank's eyes were red rimmed. He looked bruised.
"Did you sleep at all?" Ray asked
"Fucking course not," Frank said. "Moving on. He's completely ignoring the route we had mapped out, too – he says we can get to the Blockade in one jump. One. And then one more once we pass the Gunners. That's gonna take no fucking time at all."
Ray looked at the red line drawn across the star chart. "That's gonna be a long jump," he said, looking at the first big gap between their position and the Blockade. Frank sighed, shoulders drooping.
"Yeah. I noticed that."
But at least they'd have tranqs this time. Ray still had a pack in his pants pocket. He was pretty certain Frank did too.
"It'll be fine," he said, more confidently than he though he could. "We're prepared for it."
Frank laughed, his eyes dark. "Sure we are."
* * *
Mikey checked and rechecked the dosage of the tranqs until Ray told him to stop fussing.
"You'll need to take the blue packs," he said again. Frank nodded down at him from the top bunk. "The red ones won't last long enough . . ." Ray pulled him into a one-armed hug, and Mikey trailed off.
"We've got it. We stowed the red ones clear across the room, so we can't even take them by accident. And we put some juice-packs in the cubbies, so we're all set there." Ray sounded perfectly calm, but Mikey could feel the fine tremors that tightened the muscles in his arm.
"We'll see you at the blockade."
Mikey took a deep breath. He'd set a bot to watch over them, just in case. Still, he pulled Ray down for a hard kiss, not caring that Frank was watching, before leaving the cabin.
He made himself walk, though running seemed like a really good idea at the moment.
They had made plenty of long jumps, he and Gerard. Sometimes they stayed in the 'ways intentionally, just drifting – it was normal.
But they hadn't jumped at all with fully human passengers since the mine ripped their crew apart. Mikey felt a horrible, lingering dread that he knew was irrational. It didn't stop it from existing.
And he wasn't the alone – he found Gerard pacing back and forth across the auxiliary bridge.
"They know to take the blue packs?" was the first thing he said when Mikey got to him. Mikey nodded. His mouth was too dry to speak.
"Okay. Okay." Gerard stood very still, eyes unfocused as he traced the Ravenkroft's systems, triple checking for any faults.
"Okay," he said again, and nodded firmly. He sat abruptly in the command chair, buckled the restraints across his chest. Mikey did the same, next to him.
The sirens went off. Once, twice, three times. Mikey sought out the bot he'd left in Ray's quarters – they'd strapped in already. They'd stowed the empty blue wrappers in the cabinet, and were already out.
They looked too still in their bunks – so Mikey stopped looking. They were safe. Ray was safe.
The Ravenkroft was running equations like a web, all across her systems, and Gerard swayed in his seat, following them all. When the ship found the numbers Gerard was looking for, he sent her forward, through the Gate.
Space turned inside out. Or blew sideways. Collapsed all together, and expanded into something new. It was impossible to describe accurately, but that was as close as Mikey could get.
The Ravenkroft soared through a riotous expanse of energy – the lights of stars were whips of color, spiraling through patches of sound – the songs and howls of space. It wasn't really color, it wasn't really sound. But that's how Mikey's cyborg systems translated it.
He knew Gerard was beside him, but he couldn't see him. He could hear him, him and the Ravenkroft calling to each other, using each other to find the current that would take them to the Gate they wanted.
And then they found it, and they went through, and space snapped back into reality. Mikey sat down. He felt heavy. Slow.
It seemed like hardly any time had passed – but Mikey knew how subjective that was. A thousand light years, less a hundred or two, if you measured how far they'd come; from the far end of the galaxy to just outside of the Blockade, surrounded by stars.
Almost a week, relative time. Long enough to go through most of a dose of the long-distance tranq.
"They'll be waking up soon," Gerard rasped, voice shot. He stared out the view port – no longer empty space, but the middle of a planetary system. Just ahead, a gas giant, green and gold and enormous, eclipsing the light of its binary star. The Ravenkroft felt perturbed by the draw of multiple gravity wells, but was making the adjustments easily.
Gerard's face was pale, and his hands were shaking.
"Go ahead," he said to Mikey.
The bot trilled its welcome when he opened the door, and Ray was just beginning to stir. He moved as if his arms and legs were heavier than they should be.
Frank muttered something, sharp and angry, and sat up with a snarl that faded into confusion as soon as his eyes opened.
Ray saw him first. Mikey studied his face carefully, but Ray just looked tired. Hungover. He pushed his hair back from his face and waved, already reaching for the juice-packs.
Mikey sagged against the door frame, immeasurably glad.
* * *
Frank was quiet, but he wasn't different, which made Ray a little more sure that he was fine too. Which, of course he was, it had been a routine jump, if a little longer than normal. After Mikey left and they washed up, they went out to the galley, to see where they stood.
They fell on the ration packs like they were real food, and looked up after to see Mikey and Gerard watching them, bemused.
"You should get some real supplies for this place," Frank said, gesturing at the sadly underused equipment. "It's criminal, wasting all this quality. Or, you know, at least some ration packs that aren't ready to expire."
Mikey looked over at his brother, eyebrows raised, but Gerard just looked steadily back, doing that cyborg thing they did sometimes, when they seemed to be talking to each other in silence. Or maybe it was a brother thing. Either way, it was frustrating to be on the outside of.
"We don't use it, really." Gerard's voice was carefully neutral. "So we haven't paid much attention."
Frank met his eyes squarely. "You should," he said. "You should pay attention."
Mikey walked around behind his brother to avoid interrupting their locked stares. He sat next to Ray, close enough that their elbows touched.
"The Blockade is just past this star system," he said. "They can't see us, behind this planet, but we're picking up some chatter."
"We'll need to get past the Gunners," Gerard added, finally breaking Frank's gaze. "We can't jump past them, so long as the Anchorships are disrupting Gatespace."
Mikey toyed with Ray's discarded fork.
"Do either of you have any experience as an armsman? Mikey's the best I've ever seen," Gerard said, "but this isn't a one person job."
Done glaring at Gerard's back, Frank began to grin.
"Sure," Ray said, trying to roll his eyes at Frank without making it look like he was insulting Gerard. "We can help with that."
The Jersey Queen hadn't been heavily armed. But she hadn't been defenseless either.
And not even Brian had liked blowing shit up as much as Frank.
* * *
Mikey watched as Frank and Ray slid into their stations. They looked like they knew what they were doing (Frank looked positively gleeful) so he gave Ray once last look. For a second, he could hear Gabe and Ryland insulting each other, and the slap of playing cards against the central console. For a second, he could almost see Gabe's long legs, stretched across the aisle. But he blinked them away. Walked through them, and strapped himself in to his own station.
He flipped a switch, and the radio chatter they'd been picking up flooded into the room. "Oops," he muttered – the settings were still as he'd left them, the last time they'd run into a Gunner fleet. He made the adjustments, until Frank and Ray weren't bombarded with directionless noise.
All set? Gerard asked him, an absent thought. He was already concentrating on the fleet's positions, plotting out the quickest way through. Mikey caught a flash of scarlet – Gerard's hair, bright as a Gunship.
Ready, he answered, and felt the engines revving up. His weight settled more heavily, pushed him back into his chair.
"Just aim for the drones," he said over the comms. "I handle the Gunners."
Lights flared green all over his console, weapons prepped. He heard the others' acknowledgments, felt the snap of everything settling into place – the whole ship felt tighter, systems streamlined. If the Ravenkroft really was the puppy she reminded him of, she'd be straining at the leash.
"We're going," he said, as Gerard yelled 'go' in his head, and the ship leapt out of her hiding place.
The Gunner fleet saw them immediately – after their first hale went unanswered, they trained weapons on the Ravenkroft, or tried to. Gerard had her at her top speed, sprinting towards the Blockade.
Stray radio chatter started flooding the sub frequencies – individual ships talking to each other, bridge crews demanding information. Mikey put them all in the background, concentrating on command frequencies.
"There," he said, and Frank's starboard guns started spitting out suppression fire, keeping the fighter drones at bay until the Ravenkroft blew passed them. Frank whooped, and Mikey felt an explosion shudder against the hull.
They were in the middle of the fleet now. The comms were filled with panicked questions, but there was a growing thread of disbelief. One ship had recognized the Ravenkroft, and the identification spread through the fleet faster than the ship could fly.
Frank's guns were firing constantly now – mostly tracer rounds, to confuse and blind the enemy sensors. Ray's guns did much the same off the port side, and Gerard's flying kept them out of the enemy sights.
Still. The Gunner's command carrier was looming large ahead of them. Gerard showed him where he meant to go, and Mikey set his sights on the carrier's aft stabilizers.
The big rail guns shook the whole ship, and the carrier's stabilizers blew apart, sending the command ship into a spin towards the rest of the fleet and leaving the way clear for Gerard to take the Ravenkroft on through.
A few scattered drones kept them busy, but they were through the worst of the Blockade. Mikey kept one ear on the comms. "Arrgh," he said, mostly to himself. "Aaah, it's the Ravenkroft!"
He realized that the others could hear him only when Frank started laughing – a loud, staccato giggle that he'd never heard from him before. He looked over in surprise, and Ray grinned at him, shaking his head.
Did you hear that? he asked Gerard, but his brother was concentrating on the last dodge into Earth controlled space, and didn't answer.
Mikey sighed and took his head set off. "That should be it," he said. "Thanks for the help."
"That was awesome. Let's do it again." And though Frank said it like a joke, Mikey knew he meant 'again, going the other way.' He only hoped he still felt like that once they were within reach of a station.
* * *
Ray came out of the second (thankfully shorter) jump with a dry mouth and pins and needles in his arm. He'd slept with it tucked underneath himself, and he shook it irritably as he stumbled away from his bunk. It had made getting out of the restraints difficult.
Frank was still in his bunk – not asleep though. He reached down and tugged at Ray's hair as he walked under him.
"Ow, fucker." Ray couldn't even make that sound anything but tired. He yawned. "I get first shower."
"Hmmmph." Frank answered, and didn't move, except to flop a hand towards the cabinets, and the juice-packs.
Ray leaned his forehead against the shower wall and let the water (real, fucking real water) run down his back. They were hours away from Titan-7 – where neither of them had any desire whatsoever to be.
It shouldn't be this nerve wracking. He'd made his decision while they were still at the edge of the galaxy.
But his hands shook as the water ran down them, ending the streams with scattered, broken splashes.
He'd lost homes before. He'd lost family. Fuck, the Jersey Queen had been both, and that ship still burned in his dreams. He didn't want to lose another.
He made himself get out before the water turned cold.
Frank was looking more human when he stepped around the plexi in his towel, but there was a grim cast to his features that Ray didn't like, and he was still quiet.
He tried a smile – it slid off his face like the water down the shower drain.
* * *
Mikey listened to his brother spin a lie so blatant it should have burned his tongue. But he blithely continued telling Station Authority that they were a long distance freighter called the Rumor, based out of Charon-4, here for supplies and a little R&R. The Ravenkroft cheerfully continued broadcasting her false id – tied in with a really clever program Steve had put together, that tricked the station sensors into thinking they were an unarmed Viking class freighter. It only worked if the ship didn't try to do any quick maneuvering, and if the station took video records it would be useless, but Titan-7 was a pretty basic place.
They gave them clearance to dock, and wished them a nice visit. They'd send the station passes, if they could have the ship's transmitter codes.
Gerard got off the comm with a smile and a wink. If Mikey didn't know better, he'd think he was actually in a good mood.
"Why bother?" he asked, I know what you're feeling.
"I'm practicing," Gerard answered, still smiling.
"You don't need to pretend. They'll want to stay." He'd said it so many times it almost sounded meaningless, and Mikey shivered.
He and Gerard were both waiting outside the docking bay, leaning against the corridor wall. Mikey wanted to run back to Ray's quarters, to check in, to make sure he hadn't packed. Not that he had much to pack. Just the laser drill he'd come aboard with.
He wanted to make sure that laser drill was still locked in its cabinet.
But they'd agreed to meet here, all four of them, so Mikey waited, while Gerard ran the Ravenkroft through the docking procedures. Mikey listened – the dock went satin smooth, and the seals hissed closed with more noise than the ship did, locking into place.
And Mikey waited.
* * *
Frank quite pointedly looked at Ray's empty hands when he came out of the washroom. "You don't want to take the drill? Just in case?"
Ray clenched his jaw. Frank was only being an asshole because he was nervous. He wouldn't let it get to him.
"No," he said. "It's fine where it is."
Frank shrugged, and pulled his jacket (cleaned and mended) from the top bunk. "Let's go then," he said, and walked out with another word.
One of the bots – the one Ray had taken to calling Botrick in the privacy of his own head – rolled along at their feet, seemingly just for the company. Frank ignored it, almost kicking it as he strode down the corridor.
They came around the bend and there was Mikey. He stood with his arms crossed, frowning fiercely down at his boots. Ray would really rather he was smiling.
Frank didn't stop until he was in arms reach of Gerard. Then he stood there, not moving.
Gerard didn't blink. Mikey did though, and he looked up, glancing around for Ray.
Ray stood a little closer.
No one said anything. Botrick warbled cheerfully, and Ray fought the sudden urge for inappropriate laughter.
Then Gerard took one step further, put himself well with Frank's personal space.
"The Station's sent us two passes," he said, so calm he seemed cold. But from the way Mikey was frowning at him, that was misleading.
"You can use them to get quarters in Red sector three – that's the freighter's sector. It'd be a good place to make contact with a ship that needs a crew, or to get passage further in-system. You could go anywhere you want." He held the passes out to Frank.
Frank's face was still, his eyes locked on Gerard's. Ray didn't think he'd ever seen him this angry. He moved a little closer to Mikey, just reflex, and Mikey met him halfway, taking his hand. He was staring at his brother now, eyes wide. The frown was gone.
"Or," Gerard started, just as Frank opened his mouth to yell – Frank froze, and slowly closed his mouth.
"Or. You can take the passes, and use them to get down to Green Sector, where the merchants set up shop. You can order whatever supplies you want, and have them delivered here. Put it on the ship's account." Gerard's cool facade was beginning to crack. Ray could see the passes starting to flutter as his hands began to shake.
"And. You can stay on with us. If you want."
Frank's face was pale as he stared up at Gerard. Pale and expressionless. If Mikey's bones hadn't been made of metal, Ray thought he might have crushed his fingers by holding on so tight.
Frank took the passes from Gerard, not dropping his eyes.
"If you leave without us," he said, "We'll send the fleet after you for theft. Ray's laser drill is still in our quarters."
* * *
The Ravenkroft was a legend, lost at the end of the War that Broke the Stations. There were songs sung about her. Stories told in spacer bars.
She was a ghost ship, a spook. A black silhouette against the stars.
But the Gunners had seen her. More than once. They were commissioning faster ships for their fleets. The rumor was spreading through the stations, on both sides of the Blockade.
Pete Wentz on Angels, and Bebe Rexha, who ran Kings -- twin stations on either side of the Blockade -- both got calls. They started checking inventories that day, making lists.
The Ravenkroft had come in from the deep.