Chapter 1: Wake Up - Get Dressed - Get to Work
“Kunai? Are you alright?” Alyx called from outside the cabin door.
Kunai rolled over, her head in a fog. Matted hair stuck to the side of her drool-streaked cheek, and there was a definite wet spot on her pillow. She wiped her face with the back of her arm, and remembered passing out at 5AM. She’d been reading a book Emily had leant her. Her reading light was still on, and blinding.
“I’m okay, Captain,” Kunai answered as she crawled out of bed. In the semi-darkness, she stripped out of her PJs and into more appropriate clothes. She could hear Alyx tapping her foot before she opened the door.
Alyx was waiting with crossed arms and a thin smile. Her outfit and hair were immaculate. She’d opted for a sleeveless black shirt, a pair of blue jeans, and slip on shoes. There wasn’t a single stain, crease, or loose thread in the entire ensemble. Even her hair, tied into its usual bun, was freshly washed.
Alyx Falcout was the image of a starship captain.
Kunai looked a sorry sight by comparison.
Her hair, sparse as it was thanks to her undercut, was sloppy. It spilled off her scalp and dangled in front of her eyes. Seeing her captain’s critical look, she tried swiping it away. Oil splotched her crimson shirt, and wrinkles marred her jeans. Likely because she’d folded them into a ball.
There wasn’t anything wrong with her bare feet, though.
Alyx scanned Kunai from top to bottom, her eyebrows inching higher every time she found a new offense. Seeing Kunai try to rub the sleep from her eyes was enough to send them halfway to her hairline.
“Morning, Cap’n,” Kunai yawned.
“Good morning?” Alyx said with a look at her watch. “Kunai, it’s 0815. Why are you just now waking up?”
Kunai thought about this while she scratched her back.
“I got to bed late… my internal clock or whatever is all screwy,” she answered with a wave.
That much she was certain of, despite her sluggish thoughts. The crew had spent a week on Snowblind, an isolated planet far from Union space. There was a six hour difference between ship time and planet time, so while the rest of the crew went to sleep at 11PM, Kunai read Emily’s book, because she felt it was only 5PM.
“We’ve discussed this, Kunai. You have to get to bed on time, and be awake at a reasonable hour. This is not. I expect you haven’t run a systems check yet either, have you?” she said. The hardness to her voice went unnoticed by Kunai’s well tuned sense of subservience.
Her head still in a fog, Kunai frowned.
“The ship’s still flying,” she shrugged. “I checked everything last night. I can sleep in and get it all squared away later – it’s a greased job,” she finished with a wave.
Alyx blinked. But her eyes narrowed to slits, and her face darkened into a scowl. Kunai recognized her mistake immediately. Panic began to well in her stomach and her heart began to pound.
“Excuse me, young lady?”
Kunai tried to backpedal, but before she could open her mouth, Alyx had a single, perfectly manicured finger centimeters from her nose.
“First of all, you will always, always, run a morning diagnostic. I am shocked we have to discuss this,” she raised a second finger. “Second, no, you cannot ‘sleep in.’ Grim made a very nice breakfast. You will come and eat it now, and apologize to Grim for being late.” She raised a third finger, and here Kunai was certain the temperature of the hallway dropped. “Lastly, before you come upstairs, you will straighten out your appearance, and once you are done eating, you will clean your room,” she said with a thrust of her fingers inside Kunai’s cabin. “It’s filthy in there, and I like my ship clean.”
Through the dim light pouring in from the hallway, Kunai could see what Alyx was talking about. Every outfit she owned, all five of them, was strewn about her room. Her jacket was draped over her desk chair. Her favorite black jeans were crumpled into a ball, which she’d kicked into a corner. Shirts and shorts were laying at opposite ends, and there was a pile of undergarments resting square in the middle.
Kunai turned back to Alyx.
“Get it done,” the Captain said.
Kunai watched her walk down the hallway, her back ramrod stiff.
“Aye aye, Cap’n,” Kunai muttered a little too loudly.
Alyx stopped in the middle of the hallway. Kunai held her breath.
“Kunai, do not try my patience.”
Then she climbed up the ladder, and disappeared through the hatch, leaving Kunai alone in her doorway.
With a huff, Kunai went back into her room, twisting her face into mocking expressions as she pulled on her coveralls.
“Good of you to join us, Kunai,” Alyx said as Kunai climbed up the ladder.
The rest of the crew was already seated, and busy eating. Grim had made pancakes and bacon. Kunai had realized this was a custom of his. Steak and eggs before arriving at a planet. Pancakes and bacon on departure.
“We were starting to worry, Kunai,” Grim said. “But, we did save you a plate.” He was sitting at the far head of the table, opposite of Alyx. Next to him was a plate, whose napkin covering he pulled off with dramatic flair. Underneath was a stack of pancakes and bacon. Beside the plate was a cup of coffee, creamy brown and filled with sugar, just how she liked it.
Coffee, and a decent breakfast, was still a marvel to her. They’d served her from a trough at the orphanage. They cooked and served from a heated container. Working at the shipyard wasn’t much better. Every day it was the same. Cereal flavored bars for breakfast. Peanut butter flavored bars for lunch. Chicken flavored bars for dinner. The only time she could ever eat real food was thanks to the black market. She could still remember the first time she’d tried a tomato. She’d almost spat it out. The flavor was too much to handle.
Grim’s cooking was a welcome change of pace. As was a full stomach.
“Thanks, Grim,” Kunai said. Glancing away from the table, and Alyx, she added, “Sorry for being late.”
“No problem. Glad you’re up.”
Kunai walked past Alyx, whose back was to her, and took her seat next to Grim. Beside her, Burke and Thai ate in silence. The clattering of silverware on plates and energetic chewing was their only conversation. On the other side of the table, Allison twirled her combat knife in one hand while reading a paper book in the other. Her mechanical eyes scanned the pages with machine precision. Emily sat next to her, and chewed her food deliberately, a smile on her face. When she saw Kunai was looking at her, the smile grew, and she seemed to grow brighter.
“Why were you late, anyway?” Jack asked. He was sitting beside Emily, across from Kunai, and had already cleared his plate. Now he was trying to balance his fork on a fingertip of his prosthetic arm. “I was about to take your bacon.”
Reflexively, Kunai glanced down to make sure her food was still there. A threat like that on Halcyon would’ve ended with a fork through someone’s hand. Relaxing, she scooped up a mouthful of pancakes and began to eat.
“I overslept,” Kunai said.
Down the table, Allison grunted, the corners of her mouth turning into a smirk. Beside her, Emily leaned over the table, her smile growing as well, albeit in a less sinister fashion.
“Remember, Kunai,” she said in the tone she reserved for early mornings and simple lectures, “it’s important that you adjust to ship time immediately.”
Kunai didn’t look at her as she chewed.
“I know, doc.”
Emily smiled back and continued eating. As Kunai was about to do likewise, she saw Alyx give the slightest twitch of her eyes. Against herself, Kunai felt anger well within her. Her grip on her fork tightened, and her teeth began to grind between bites.
Beside her, Grim delivered a grunt.
“Be sure to get to bed at a reasonable hour tonight then, yeah?”
Kunai glared at him, the anger now finding a convenient outlet.
“I know, Grim,” she said.
Jack’s face contorted into a mocking grin, and Allison snorted. But Kunai could almost feel the left side of her body cook as Alyx’s eyes focused to lasers that cut to her heart.
“Do we need to have another discussion about your attitude this morning, Kunai?” Alyx said acidly.
Kunai was about to spit back when Grim placed his elbows on the table and leaned over his plate.
“Breakfast is no time for fighting,” he said calmly, the whiskers of his prominent beard barely moving.
Alyx tilted her head, ceding authority to Grim. It was her ship, but his kitchen.
“Agreed,” she said diplomatically. With a short glance at Kunai, she added, “Apologize to Grim.”
Kunai wanted to retort, her anger once again beginning to boil. It wasn’t enough that Alyx had chided her for waking up just a little late, and had snapped at her about the state of her room. Now she was screwing with her at breakfast, Kunai’s favorite time of the day!
But the anger faded, slowly, when Kunai remembered that she’d been the one who’d snapped at Grim. But before she could apologize again, Grim had already raised his hand in a sign of peace.
“It’s alright, Kunai. Just get to bed on time tonight, yeah?”
Sitting a bit straighter now, Kunai nodded her head in agreement.
“Sure. Will do.”
At the end of the table, Alyx let out a sigh.
Chapter 2: Coffee on the Bridge
Breakfast concluded shortly thereafter, with everyone clearing off their plates under Grim’s supervision, and going off to attend to their duties. Emily and Allison headed off to the clinic to work on one of Emily’s pet science projects. Grim tidied up the kitchen, offering leftovers to whoever was interested. Kunai headed to the machine shop, still grappling with the anger in her stomach. And Alyx headed towards the bridge, where Burke and Thai were already busy tapping away on their control consoles, focused entirely on their work.
The Albatross was an easy ship to fly, as spaceships went. She was a retro-fitted military vessel, designed for easy construction, and easy handling by crews with limited training. To her credit though, she was nigh indestructible and could turn on a dime, something Alyx always admired. But a single mistake could still prove catastrophic. Out here on the edge of Union territory, far from rescue, every detail mattered.
Alyx watched all of this from her command chair, which was between, behind, and slightly above Burke and Thai. From her perch, she could see precisely what they were doing. She could pull up the same information on her holographically projected screens, but the effect wasn’t lost on either man. You’re being watched. So don’t screw up.
But both men knew they had nothing to worry about. Alyx had scouted the pair out because they were the absolute best The North Star guild had to offer. They didn’t need to be watched, which is why Alyx felt comfortable looking out the massive bridge windows from time to time.
Stretching out before her was an infinite expanse of stars. Warm yellow, dark red, and arcing over and beyond the tiny ship was a blanket of blue light. The Milky Way Galaxy, in all of its omnipresent glory. It was a sea of color, and had been the backdrop to her entire life. She’d been born on a spaceship, and like her father, she expected to die on one too. She couldn’t imagine doing anything else with her life. What else could compare to plying the stars at the helm of her own ship?
Then she yawned. Long, and loud, and wide enough to strain her jaw.
Alyx turned in her chair to see Grim floating beside her, a mug of coffee in his hands. She beamed at him and gingerly accepted the cup. Unlike the traditional cups they used in the kitchen, this was built for zero-g and was meant to be used on the bridge. Rather than an open top, it looked more like a hollow pasta shell. Surface tension kept the coffee clinging to its inside surface. To drink, all you had to do was suck on the spout-like straw.
Holding it gently in her hands, Alyx took a moment to appreciate the warmth as it radiated through her hands. After breakfast, she’d pulled on a sweater. The bridge was usually colder than the rest of the ship, a design flaw that she’d struggled to fix for years. But eventually, she’d grown to accept it. Every ship had its quirks. The Albatross was no different.
“You read my mind,” Alyx said before pulling from the cup’s straw. She smiled at Grim, who bowed his head in humility. He’d made the coffee just the way she liked it – black, and piping hot.
Careful with his own mug, Grim slowly maneuvered his way to her side. Once he was in position, he pressed his feet down on the adhesive mat that was fixed beside the captain’s chair. Once his footing was secure, he stood, and rested his elbow against the top of her chair.
“Thought you might need some this morning,” he said. Alyx grinned, and while she couldn’t see his face, she was sure Grim was too. They’d spent the night together again, something that was happening with increasing regularity. Enjoyable, certainly. But she wasn’t sure how she felt about it… long term.
She glanced over at Grim. Bushy, yet well trimmed brown beard, with hair on his head and chest to match. Deep blue eyes. A strong jaw, full lips, and cheeks fit to cut diamonds. As perfect as a man could get. The rest of him was similarly impressive.
She took a sip of her coffee. She’d been all around the galaxy, and lived a full life. Grim put everyone else to shame. Gentle, generous, romantic, and, Alyx thought with a coy grin, obedient. When she was in the mood for that sort of thing.
She took another sip. He was a good man alright, and a good first officer. She knew he’d like to keep it that way for a long time yet, and maybe take things a bit further. She wasn’t so sure. And he probably knew that, too. They hadn’t talked about things like that yet. Alyx was grateful for that. She’d sensed he wanted to several times.
“Anything happening?” he asked.
Grateful for the change of thought, Alyx sat a bit straighter in her seat.
“Next Jump in twelve hours. Four days, and we’ll be at Last Hearth,” she showed her anticipation for their arrival by pinching the bridge of her nose and letting out a tremendous sigh. “Galaxy, I need to send a message to Brahm. I swear he is the biggest, dumbest con artist on the frontier.”
Thoughts of her and Grim and tangled sheets were quickly replaced by the Last Hearth and Brahm. Brahm the pirate. Brahm the con artist. Brahm the stuck up prick. Alyx could already feel the anger roiling inside of her, her exhaustion and coffee accelerating its growth. Nothing made her angrier than oafish morons, like Brahm, who tried to swindle her at every turn. Worse yet, he wasn’t even good at it. Better to be a professional thief than an amateur, she felt.
“I can talk to him when we get there, if you like,” Grim offered.
Alyx considered the idea, but shook her head. “No, I’ve known him for years. And I don’t want to subject you to him,” she said with a light stroke against his dangling hand. He reached down over the seat to take her hand in his. Alyx ran a thumb against his calluses, something she always admired.
Her mood quickly darkened again however when she began thinking of the logistical complications involved in meeting Brahm. Time-tables, fuel purchases, cargo loading, credit transfers, potential bribes, maintenance, work and work and work ad nauseam. She pulled her hand out of Grim’s grasp and sighed.
“I’m not looking forward to this,” she said sullenly.
Grim nodded and sipped from his coffee. Alyx did likewise.
She was satisfied to let her anger stew for several moments, but her exhaustion overcame her. Ruminating on how much she hated bad business partners was simply too much effort. Better to save the anger for when it would prove useful.
Grim shifted beside her, prompting her to glance over.
“Say, what was going on with you and Kunai at breakfast?”
It took her a moment to remember what he was talking about, but it clicked by her next sip. Her simmering anger returned, somewhat subdued, but certainly present.
After getting up at 0630 that morning, as was her custom, she’d gone through her usual routine. Sparring with Allison and Emily, a quick shower, and tidying up her room. Grim was working on breakfast by then. They’d already said their extended, very temporary goodbye after she’d gotten back from the gym.
After all of that, she’d been frustrated to see that Kunai was still sleeping. She was ignoring her orders, Grim’s generous meal, and worse yet, had an attitude about the whole thing. Alyx’s face slipped into a scowl. Negligence was one thing, and could potentially be justified in Kunai’s case. She was new on the ship, and new to ship life. It was unreasonable to expect perfection of her.
But a sullen attitude was a different story. That was something Alyx couldn’t tolerate. If Kunai had accepted her mistakes in stride, that could’ve been the end of things. But she’d practically begged for a reprimanding.
“She gave me attitude when I got her up this morning,” Alyx answered simply. Grim shrugged.
“She’s a teenager, alright,” he said dismissively. Alyx cocked her head, and one eyebrow began to climb its way up her scalp.
“She’s 19. An adult. We should expect her to be up on time, and have a professional attitude,” Alyx said in a measured tone. Grim winced nonetheless.
“I don’t disagree,” he said calmly. He stared out the viewport a moment before sprouting a sheepish grin. “Was her room messy, too?”
Alyx clenched her jaw.
“And what if it was?”
Grim’s smile grew, as did the pressure against Alyx’s teeth. Pressing her lips into a solid line, she stared out the viewport, fuming.
The two watched the stars go by until they’d finished their coffee. Collecting her mug from her outstretched hand, Grim said “I was going to take a nap later.”
Still angry at him for the slight against her cleaning standards, Alyx only let out a grunt. She wasn’t going to forgive him for that one quickly. Half the fun of going to bed, alone or with someone else, was messing up the sheets.
But when he leaned in close, and she could feel hot breath against her ear, forgiveness suddenly felt like a far more tantalizing option.
“You probably should too,” he whispered
Her mood evaporated quickly, and with a sullen look, she glared at Grim, who shrugged at her in return. Then he lifted his feet off of the adhesive pad and floated out the air lock, leaving Alyx alone, with only her anger, and imagination.
Tease, she thought.
With a huff, she looked back out the viewport.
It was going to be a long day.
Chapter 3: No Fighting in the Cargo Bay!
The work-day complete and dinner behind her, the rest of the evening belonged only to Kunai. This was still a novelty to her, and one she’d initially struggled to enjoy. Her first week on the ship, Grim had to order her, gently, to take off her coveralls, put her tools away, and go have fun. She wasn’t sure how, but she learned.
Emily had been the first to help her. Help her find what she didn’t enjoy, that is. The doctor had tried to teach her the galaxy’s history – everything she hadn’t learned in school. Which Kunai learned was essentially everything. How the Earth had broken up into warring states, the most powerful of which had taken to the stars, breaking into more war, and finally coalesced into the Union, the Hegemony, and a thousand other smaller interstellar states. It had been interesting, sure, but soon after the start of a lesson, Kunai would be tapping her foot and longing to be back in the machine shop.
Jack wasn’t much help either. They were the same age but came from utterly different backgrounds. And as a student pilot, most of his time on the ship was occupied either with his studies, or at Burke’s side, learning his trade. They played games every now and then – poker mostly, which Kunai was getting better at, but he just didn’t have the time.
Which was why Kunai had been so grateful when Grim had introduced her to the ship’s library. Emily’s history lessons were interesting, but Kunai just didn’t have the patience to sit in the same place for hours on end. But she could sit, stand, curl over and around a book until the next day came. She devoured the history of early space travel in a week, and was just starting on World War III.
But that would have to wait. Since coming on board, she’d been neglecting an old friend, and it was time to pay her a visit.
Kunai bounded across the cargo bay, pulling along its surface with her hands. The grin on her face was stretching wider and wider with each tug. Soon she was at her destination.
Hastily pulling the plastic off of its durasteel frame, Kunai’s grin cracked into a full, beaming smile.
“Hey, girl. Miss me?” Kunai said as she ran a tender hand up Zipper’s body.
The hover cycle had been roped into a lonesome corner of the cargo bay for months, its plastic covering slowly accumulating dust. Kunai had promised herself that she’d take the bike out for a spin when they reached a planet, but each time they landed, she let the opportunity pass. There was simply too much work to be done, and it wasn’t always appropriate to be seen riding a hover cycle around.
But enough was enough. While she didn’t know when she’d be able to ride the bike, Kunai could at least give her some tender love and care. So she clipped her tools to a nearby anchor and got to work.
Sitting idle for months on end wasn’t good for any vehicle, least of all a hover cycle. Its delicate engine was prone to corrosion, even in a precisely regulated atmosphere like The Albatross’. So that is where she’d start.
Kunai removed the engine cowling and placed it gently aside. Even in the micro-gravity, it wouldn’t go anywhere. It floated next to her, unmoored but maintaining its position relative to her and the bike. So long as she didn’t bump it, it would stay there without any problems.
Next she decoupled the engine’s filtration system, which required a bit more finesse. Zipper was a top-tier cycle, and meant to be taken apart by an expert using expert tools. Kunai was more than qualified, but her tool selection wasn’t.
But with a bit of work, the filters popped into her hands, and she could immediately tell there were problems. The inside of the filter was coated in a thin sheet of corrosion, doubtless because of the engine’s chemical byproduct mixed with falling snow back on Halcyon. Corrosive elements plus water plus air plus time equals corrosion – the archenemy of mechanics everywhere.
Kunai sighed. If the filter was corroded, the engine most certainly was. She’d either have to clean it, which would be a time consuming pain, or replace it, which would be an expensive pain. Not knowing when or where she’d find a replacement engine, or how she’d pay for it, Kunai’s choice was obvious.
First she grabbed the vacuum she’d brought with her. It was a snake-like hose connected to a small pump that was anchored to the floor. The hose could be manipulated into any position, and would stay there until moved. She mostly used it in the machine shop to clean up after work, but now it would serve a different purpose.
She craned the hose near the engine filter, and flicked the pump on. As a low thrumming sound filled her ears, Kunai grabbed a can of solvent spray and a wire brush from her tool kit. With a small spritz from the can, the solvent began to foam inside the filter. When the foam had filled every nook and cranny, Kunai began to work the brush everywhere she could. The motion of the brush dislodged the foam, and the corrosion, which was then sucked up by the hose.
Simple, Kunai thought.
When she was finished with the filter, she applied a spritz of chemical sealant that would patch some of the cracks bored out by the corrosion. It wasn’t a permanent solution – she’d need specialized gear for that. But it would preserve everything until she could get Zipper into a proper shop. Then she scrubbed the filter down with a rag, and worked the sealant into every nook, careful not to miss anything.
Finished, she set the filter aside, and continued disassembling.
As she worked, Kunai let her mind wander. Taking the bike apart was simple, and cleaning it was easy. She could see tangible results from her work, which was always satisfying. As she scrubbed, she thought of home, of Cyan, of her old life back on Halcyon. But each time she scraped away the corrosion, her thoughts drifted more towards The Albatross, the North Star guild, and her new life among the stars.
“Kunai! What are you doing?”
Kunai looked up from her work, her stomach already turning to knots. The Captain was on the far side of the cargo bay and exiting the bridge, but even from thirty meters away, Kunai could see the fury in her eyes.
Panicking now, Kunai grabbed onto Zipper and stood as best she could in zero-g. Alyx was already heading towards her, quickly, and her anger was only becoming more obvious. Wracking her brain, Kunai wondered what she’d done wrong.
Oh no, she thought. I never cleaned my room… does she know? She has to, right?
“Kunai! I asked you a question,” Alyx called as she approached. She landed next to Zipper almost gracefully, but her feet hit the deck plates with a heavy thud. Almost too scared to look her directly in the eye, Kunai fumbled for an answer.
“I’m working on Zipper,” she blurted. Her stomach squeezed tighter. She’d never asked permission to do that. Did she need to? Was this not allowed? Grim had never said anything. Alyx hadn’t either. But each day it felt like she was learning new rules – when to wake up, when to eat, when to work, how to work, what to wear, what to say. Had she missed something?
Alyx’s eyes narrowed dangerously, and her lips pressed into a thin line.
“I can see that, Kunai.” She pointed a finger above Kunai’s head. “Now explain that to me.”
As Kunai slowly turned to follow Alyx’s finger, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. A terrible, primal fear slithered into her mind. She was turning her back on an enemy now, leaving herself exposed.
Looking above her now, all she saw was open air. The cargo bay seemed almost empty. All of the crates and supplies they were shipping were bundled together in the center – Alyx wasn’t pointing at anything. But as she scanned more thoroughly, Kunai saw what Alyx was pointing at.
She sucked in a cold breath. Floating around the cargo bay were little gray clouds of the corrosion and solvent laden foam that she’d been dislodging for the past hour. Looking around her, she could see that they were almost everywhere – sickly yellow splotches that had infected the ship.
Realizing her mistake, Kunai looked back at the Captain with eyes wide in terror. Alyx stared back with cold fury.
“Captain…” she began.
Alyx cut her off with a look. “Tell me that’s not what I think it is.”
Kunai glanced around the cargo bay, searching for an answer, but it was all she could do to stand mutely by. Alyx shook her head in disgust.
“Tell me you didn’t just release corrosive material into my atmosphere.”
Kunai looked at her boots. It was what she’d been trained to do. Look at your feet, don’t say anything, and wait for it to stop. That was how she’d gotten by on Halcyon. Alyx walked forward – actually walked. She was wearing her semi-adhesive deck shoes, letting her get so close that Kunai could feel the heat radiating off her body.
“I asked you a question, Kunai. And I am getting very sick of repeating myself to you. Did you just release corrosive material into my atmosphere?” Each syllable was delivered in a calm, steady voice. Too perfectly modulated. Underneath, Kunai could hear a woman trying desperately to reign in her emotions.
Swallowing, Kunai answered. The words started slow. “I was cleaning my bike, I used the vacuum to get everything, but some of it got out and I’m sorry please don’t be angry,” the words were pouring out of her now, with tears not far behind.
Alyx raised one hand to silence her, and pinched the bridge of her nose with the other.
“I’m well past anger, Kunai,” she said. “I cannot believe you didn’t think this through.” She jutted a hand towards the vacuum pump, which softly thump-thumped away at empty air, it’s nozzle still hovering near the bike. “That tiny little thing was built to pick metal shaving off of a floor! Not suck foam out of the air!”
She was yelling now, and a scant half-meter from Kunai. Each word struck her like a bullet. And still Kunai couldn’t meet her Captain’s gaze.
“If that garbage gets into the vents, it’ll strip out every chemical cleaner that makes our air breathable, Kunai. Do you understand that?”
Kunai nodded her head vigorously. It seemed so obvious now – the machine shop had vents specially designed to remove hazardous materials. That’s why it was okay to use welding torches and noxious chemicals in there. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“I’ll… I’ll clean it up,” Kunai stammered.
Alyx grunted and set her hands on her hips. “Oh, really? You’ll clean it up? Like your room, huh? Which you did clean, I trust.”
Kunai’s silence was all the answer Alyx needed.
“Galaxy, Kunai.” Exasperated, Alyx shook her head from side to side. Kunai’s dread increased each time she started another cycle. She could feel her stomach tighten, feel it sink deeper and deeper into her body. Down and down it traveled past her intestines, her liver, her pelvis, her knees, her boots, into the deck plates and down into the dark abyss of space.
Finally, Alyx snapped her head back into place, and narrowed her eyes to lasers that cut through Kunai, penetrating into her soul. “When you came aboard, we made a deal, Kunai. We had an understanding. You do your job, you get to stay.”
Kunai’s lips quivered. She knew what was coming next.
“We may have to revisit that deal.”
Alyx let the words hang in the air, letting them do their work. Kunai’s quivering lips extended to her entire body, until she was a quivering mess. One final effort was all it would take to end her.
“Look at me, Kunai.” But she couldn’t. To look at her Captain now would have pushed her over the edge with no recovery in sight. Kunai kept her gaze fixed on the tips of her boots.
“Look at me, Kunai!” Alyx was shouting again, and had shattered the last of Kunai’s will. She obeyed, and fresh tears streamed forth from her eyes. To her credit, they were over in an instant. This wasn’t the first time she’d been in this position.
“What’s all this then?” Grim bellowed.
He was by Kunai’s side in an instant, a hand on her shoulder. Kunai recoiled from the touch.
Alyx glared at him. “Kunai’s released a cloud of solvents into the air, and she’s about to explain to me why I should keep her on board.”
Perplexed, Grim looked all around him. He noticed the clouds immediately. He returned Alyx’s glare, then patted Kunai on the back, pushing her towards the crew deck.
“Run along to your quarters now, Kunai. We’ll talk in a moment.” Kunai was on the verge of leaving when Alyx motioned her to stay.
“Absolutely not. She’s going to stay and clean up this mess, then we’re all going to have a talk.”
Grim stared at her, his blue eyes unwavering, and his expression like granite. He gestured towards Kunai with a flick of his head, never taking his eyes off his Captain. “Alyx, look at her. She’s shaking for galaxy’s sake.”
Slowly, Kunai lifted her gaze from her boots, to Alyx’s boots. She worked her way up the Captain, pausing briefly to ensure that her blaster wasn’t strapped to her thigh, until she reached her face. Just as before, her eyes were narrowed to slits, and her mouth was curled into a snarl.
As the two stared at one another, Kunai begged for that anger to slip away. But instead, Alyx flicked her head towards the port hatch.
“You’re confined to quarters. Go,” she ordered in a clipped tone.
And Kunai went, struggling mightily to hold her emotions in check until she was out of sight behind a locked door.
Chapter 4: Echo Chamber
Alyx marched through the door first, Grim close behind. The two had narrowly avoided a shouting match in the cargo bay, now they were primed for one in the confines of Alyx’s quarters. Grim closed the door behind him, and locked it shut. Facing away from his Captain, he breathed deep.
When he turned around, Alyx was standing in the middle of the room, her arms crossed, her back straight, and her expression absolutely murderous. His heart began to beat faster. A lot of men had seen that look before. For some it was the last thing they’d ever seen.
“Well?” she asked petulantly, her foot now tapping on the deck.
Summoning his courage, Grim turned to face her.
“What happened between you and Kunai?” he asked as calmly as possible.
Alyx twisted her face in mock surprise. “Are you kidding me? Could you not see out there?”
She had one hand on her hip and another gesturing out the door. Grim held up his hands in a sign of peace, but his blood was starting to boil too. He'd seen the toxic clouds alright, and knew what they could do. He'd ordered Jack to clean them up at once - and do a thorough job of it. Alyx was his concern now.
“Aye, I saw it, but I’m asking why you were screaming at her,” his chest was tightening as he labored to maintain the calm in his voice, but that was nothing compared to Alyx. The look on her face switched from anger to shock to disgust and back to anger in the span of a heartbeat. Grim could feel the air siphon out of the room when she inhaled.
“Because I’m fucking pissed, Grim!”
“Aye, I got that when you started screaming at a scared teenager and threatened to throw her off the ship!”
Like a switch, Alyx’s anger went from hot to cold, her face a mask of ice. “I wasn’t threatening,” she said.
Grim took a step towards her, his hands on his hips. “You’re not about to do that to someone for a minor screwup.” he growled.
“Watch me!” Alyx answered. She shook her head. “All day she’s been like this, Grim. Getting up late, insubordinate at breakfast, sloppy and just careless with this thing in the cargo bay!” She finished on a note of exasperation, but with another shake of her head, it was clear her anger remained.
“I understand,” Grim said, grateful she'd stopped yelling.
Alyx closed her eyes and began to comb a hand through her hair. Grim could see her cheeks were getting red. He slowly backed towards her desk, and sat down, content to let things cool off.
He quietly sighed, but as he breathed in, he was pleasantly surprised by the soothing scent of sage that hung in the air. Alyx must’ve burned a candle after he’d left in the morning.
He looked at the bed, and was unsurprised to see that she’d made it to her usual impeccable standards. There wasn’t a wrinkle from head to foot. She’d even fluffed the pillows. He wondered when the next time he’d be able to climb back under those sheets.
As Alyx breathed deep, he continued to look around the room. He’d memorized all of it by now – he’d been her often enough. The cream colored bed, the light brown carpet, the gunmetal grey walls, and the mementos, photos, tapestries and flags that adorned every available space.
A series of photos, real, printed photos hung on one wall, encased in clear plastic. A timeline of Alyx's life. Her time with a pirate crew that she insisted was made of “good people.” Her, in front of the statue at North Star headquarters on Rockport. And one with her father. They were on a Rockport beach, her all of ten years old. Perched on his shoulders with a broad smile, rosy cheeks, and not a care in the world.
Grim had long since decided her father was a man’s man, by the looks of things. Broad shoulders, hairy chest, stout legs, and a full head of curly black hair. On his right bicep was a red sash, identical to the one Alyx wore on her own arm. Both were miniaturized versions of the flag that hung next to the photo collage.
Nearly two meters long, the flag was deep crimson and trimmed in blue. At its center was the Falcout crest, a proud falcon superimposed in white, with broad wings stretched from end to end, and a long-beaked head looking to the right. It was an elegant symbol known throughout the galaxy. It had been with the Falcout family since their exodus from Earth nearly three hundred years ago.
When Alyx heaved a heavy sigh, Grim snapped his attention back to their conversation. She was playing with her sash now, rubbing it between thumb and forefinger.
Grim sighed. They weren’t done here yet.
“She looks up to you, you know.”
Alyx nodded, her eyes still shut. “I know.” She sprouted a crooked smile. “Not so much after today, huh?”
Grim tilted his head, thinking. “It’ll be alright… she’s been yelled at before.”
Alyx cracked open her eyes long enough to fix Grim with a look of disbelief. “She’s not a crier, Grim. She’s just not the type.”
She dropped her hand from her sash, opened her eyes, and with another sigh, walked towards her bed. She kicked off her deck shoes, letting them fall where they may, and collapsed onto the bed. “Galaxy, what a mess.”
Grim considered joining her, but thought better of it. This wasn’t a conversation for them to have in bed together, even if sex was the farthest thing from their minds.
“Did I miss anything from before?” he asked. When Alyx looked at him in confusion, he clarified. “Did she say or do anything else? Something that…” he struggled for diplomatic words.
“Something that would justify me screaming at her?”
“No, that was all me.”
Grim opened his mouth, again struggling to find the right words. “I’ve never seen you yell at someone like that. Except at Allison, but…”
Alyx smiled. “But that doesn’t really count.” She propped one leg on top of the other and began to idly wave her foot. Grim could see her curl her toes as she searched for an answer. “I don’t know… I was still niffed from the attitude she gave me this morning. And the thing with the solvent was just… careless and stupid, Grim. She ought to know better.” A note of the old anger crept back in.
“Aye, she ought to,” Grim added hastily. “She does now.”
“Yeah, I made that point pretty clear.”
Grim nodded. “You know why I think you did it?”
She looked at him expectantly. “Because you’re exhausted.”
She sighed. “That’s no excuse.”
“Aye, it isn’t. But neither is getting angry at a teenage rookie for making a rookie mistake.” Alyx didn’t respond, save for the waving of her foot. “You get like this when you’re tired.”
She snapped her look from the ceiling to his eyes in a blink. “Like what?”
“You turn small things into big issues.”
She hummed in agreement.
After the two waited in silence for several minutes, Alyx rolled over in bed, her back to Grim.
“You’re dismissed,” she said to the wall.
Grim stood slowly.
“I’m going to talk to Kunai.” Silence was his answer. “Good night.”
Chapter 5: Quiet Giant
Kunai was in bed, facing the wall, her arms and legs wrapped around a tear-soaked pillow. Every few moments, her body would shake as another wave of grief wracked through her.
Storming into her quarters had been the last straw. Her cabin door operated automatically – push a button, the door opens. Push a button, the door closes. She’d seen people slam doors in movies. It was supposed to be cathartic. But with these doors, she couldn’t even do that right.
Frustrated, and on the verge of tears, she locked the door, kicked her boots off, and climbed into bed. Where she’d stayed for the last half hour.
Stupid, stupid, STUPID, she thought. Another shock of shame and guilt flowed through her. The mantra had echoed through her mind, a sick jingle. Like a black hole, it had pulled every other thought towards itself, letting nothing escape.
You selfish idiot! Good for nothing, rotten worthless orphan idiot!
A voice in the back of her mind tried to remind her that these feelings weren’t new. How many times had she laid awake at night on Halcyon, going to sleep only after becoming exhausted from silent sobs so powerful that they shook her pod? How many times had she gotten up the next morning and done her job? How many times had she been on the verge of giving up completely? How many times had she kept moving forward?
But it was no use. Stupid, stupid, STUPID blocked out everything else.
Variations of the tune slipped in, until it was just the refrain in an unholy chorus. New verses brought entirely new themes. Shame on you! The Captain brought you onto this ship, and look how you repay her! That one hurt. She clutched the pillow even tighter, and pulled her legs closer to her chest. But she felt, true, physical pain like a knife to the gut when she thought about her future.
What’s gonna happen now, idiot? What’re you gonna do now? She’s going to kick you off the ship!
She shut her eyes so tight they hurt, and it felt like someone had poured acid down her throat. The fear grew within her again – having to start a new life, away from everything she’d known. A life without friends, no family to speak of, on a new planet. Again. Stowing away on The Albatross had been risky, but she’d accepted the risk at the time. Leaving now felt suicidal.
Knuckles wrapped softly against her cabin door. For a bone chilling moment, Kunai feared it was the Captain. Another part of her felt elated. Rather than have her wait in purgatory – will she kick me off, or won’t she? – Alyx was going to tell her straight away. The feeling of relief was almost palpable.
But instead of Alyx’s voice of cold command, it was Grim’s pleasantly accented baritone. “Kunai? Are you in there?”
He said it gently enough. But Kunai recoiled all the same.
“I’m here,” she croaked.
“Can we talk?”
Kunai buried her head into her pillow, and silently urged Grim to leave. She didn’t want to talk to him, or to anyone. She just wanted this moment, this day, and this decision, to be over.
He sighed. “That’s alright. We don’t have to.” Kunai waited to hear him walk down the hallway. She didn’t. “But I’d like to.”
Kunai relaxed her grip on her pillow.
I don’t have to answer, she knew. She could stay in bed all night, into next day, and forever more. But hearing Grim on the other side of the door, the pleading in his voice, made her feel all the more guilty about turning him away.
The thought of more anguish was too much to bear. Wiping her tears with her sleeve, Kunai crawled out of bed, and opened the door.
She couldn’t meet Grim’s steady gaze, but by the sigh he let out, Kunai could tell that he wasn’t happy.
“Would you like a hug?”
The question brought Kunai’s thoughts to a screeching halt. A hug? Why? What for? And when… when was the last time someone gave me a hug? Cyan? But that was on the day she’d stepped out of Kunai’s life. She’d hugged co-workers before, right? Hadn’t she hugged anyone just… because? Because she was feeling bad, and needed it?
She wasn’t sure. There weren’t any laws against touching on Halcyon, no taboos or cultural norms. But even still… she couldn’t remember.
A new well of feeling gushed from within her. Suddenly, she desperately needed to feel someone else. To know, with tangible certainty that someone else in the universe cared for her.
With utter abandon, Kunai walked into Grim’s outstretched arms. He wrapped himself around her, and squeezed tight. Kunai pressed herself against his chest, and with mild embarrassment, wept openly. To his credit, Grim didn’t give any indication of discomfort.
Once the initial deluge had passed, Kunai tried to croak out a few words.
“I’m sorry, Grim.”
He patted her on the back, and squeezed tighter.
“It’s going to be alright.” When Grim loosened his grip, Kunai took it to mean they were done. She released, somewhat reluctantly, and looked up at him.
This was the closest she’d ever been to Grim. She’d never realized how dense his beard was, or that his blue eyes had flecks of gold in them.
With a jut of his chin, he pointed towards Kunai’s bed. “Let’s sit down, yeah?”
They plopped down together, Grim at the foot, Kunai at the head. She grabbed onto a pillow and folded it beneath her, hugging it. Grim spread his hands behind him, and leaned backwards. Kunai thought he was trying to look relaxed, but she could tell by the clench of his jaw that he was anything but. When she saw him scanning her up and down, she set the pillow aside, embarrassed. What are you, a baby? Huh? You need your widdle stuffed animal, huh? She glanced away and tried to wipe the tears from her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She sniffed and rolled her eyes. “For looking so dumb.”
“Oh, don’t say that. You’re doing alright, Kunai.” After wiping away a stream of snot, Kunai looked back at Grim. Her look of surprise was met with a smile. “What you’re doing is perfectly fine… and no one looks good all puffy cheeked and watery eyed.” He rubbed his beard with the palm of his hand. “Just be glad you don’t have to worry about getting soggy, eh?”
Kunai laughed, although it came out more like a snort. Grim smiled at her. For a moment, she rocked back and forth in place. She picked the pillow back up and rested it in her lap, deciding that she liked its warmth and softness.
“I screwed up, Grim,” she blurted out after one final rock.
“It’s okay. We all make mistakes.”
“This is…” Kunai waved a hand through the air, encompassing all the terrible possibilities at once. “She’s gonna throw me off the ship, isn’t she?”
“No she’s not going to do anything like that.” But Kunai wasn’t convinced. She curled over the pillow, and her eyes began to well with tears again. She could feel a hole forming in her gut, and she was happy to pour all of herself into it.
Grim sighed again, heavier this time. “Listen… I know the Captain’s not going to throw you off the ship – or do anything else like that.”
Kunai shook her head in protest. He’s lying! Forgiveness was too much to hope for. On Halcyon, she’d already be begging for a ration card, if she wasn’t floating in hard vacuum. Plenty of other people to take her place. Why should things be any different on The Albatross?
“I just talked to her - ”
Kunai shook her head, cutting him off. “She could change her mind.”
Grim nodded his head, seeming to consider that.
“Aye, she could. But I know she won’t.” Kunai looked at him, and saw he was looking right back. “Kunai, I’ve been Alyx’s first mate for two years now. Knew her by reputation long before then. Everyone in the guild does.”
Kunai thought about this for a moment.
“Aren’t you and her…” She twirled her fingers around one another. Grim raised an eyebrow and glanced sheepishly away. Kunai blushed.
“Opinions vary. Point is, I know she can be…”
“Cruel,” Kunai finished.
“Insensitive,” he offered. “There’s no better captain flying, but she’s respected for being tough, and getting results. Her emotional self is more complicated – especially if she’s tired, just like today. But that’s not an excuse. As a captain, she should know how to keep a cool head.”
“I screwed up though,” Kunai repeated.
“Aye. You did something you shouldn’t have, and you could keep a tidier room,” Kunai sat up straighter, and looked at Grim in stunned silence. “Sloppiness is a capital offense in her eyes.”
Grim laughed, drawing a quizzical look from Kunai.
“Stars above, have you seen her room? Spotless – I want to take my shoes off every time I walk inside.”
Kunai smiled. Grim looked lost in thought now.
“She once caught me eating crackers in my bed. She was mortified.”
The two of them laughed together now. It started as a chuckle, and grew until Kunai was holding onto her sides. When it was over, she again wiped tears from her eyes. But a new feeling had crept its way in now – or rather, some of the poison had been drawn out.
She sighed now, long and loud. “I don’t think I belong here, Grim.”
“Because you were a bit messy and Alyx yelled at you? You should see her and Allison go at it. It’s bloody war.”
She shook her head. “I mean… I don’t think I should be a spacer.”
“Ah. Why do you think that?”
She thought for a moment, and shrugged. “Gut feeling?”
“Mm… fair, but we can do better.”
“It’s just. I grew up on a backwater, backwards, miserable planet. I just – don’t think I’m ready to warp around the galaxy,” she said with a wave of her hand. “It’s not my place.”
Grim turned towards her, his eyes piercing straight through her.
“Now that’s hard vacuum. Your place is wherever you want it to be.” He frowned, and let more of his usual warmth slip back in. “Listen. You’re an A plus mechanic, Kunai. You can go anywhere in the galaxy you want.”
Kunai dismissed the idea with a scoff. “There are a lot of mechanics, Grim.”
“True, but how many of them had the guts to leave their home world, stow away on a cargo ship, and build a new life? Huh? That sounds like one gutsy mechanic to me.”
She shrugged, still dissatisfied. “Maybe I should stay on Rockport.”
“Well, if you want to do that, then we won’t stop you. We’ll help you if that’s what you want. But we like having you here, Kunai. Don’t let what happened today cloud that.” She nodded. “I’ll give you some advice I got at your age. ‘Never make a decision out of fear or greed.’ If you want to stay on Rockport, be a mechanic there, that’s fine. But don’t do it because you’re afraid of what’s out here. Understand? Do it because that’s honestly what you want – and remember, you’ll have bad days there too. Yeah?”
“Yeah. I get it.”
“Alright.” He stood. “I should go make sure everything’s squared away for our next Jump. Get to sleep soon, yeah? Bit of rest, bit of time away from things. Everything will be better in the morning.”
“Alright. Thanks for talking, Grim.”
“Anytime.” He turned to leave, but halfway to the door, he turned, and after a stroke of his beard, looked at Kunai with a refreshed outlook. “We’re a crew, Kunai. A family. Sometimes family can be mean, understand? But we’ve always got your back.” Apparently satisfied, he shrugged, and headed for the door. Just before departing, he looked back at her one last time. “Good night.”
The door shut behind him, leaving Kunai once again alone in her room. She sat still for several minutes, thinking. But soon the day’s exhausting events caught up with her, and she couldn’t bear to be awake any longer. After dressing for bed, she put out the lights, pulled up her covers, and went to sleep the moment her head touched the pillow.
Chapter 6: Morning Routine
KLANG, KLANG, KLANG! sounded through Kunai’s room, jarring her awake. Dazed, she looked around, her heart racing.
Had the ship been hit by a meteor? A blaster bolt? Did a seal pop?
…Was it her alarm clock?
Groping in the dark, Kunai waved her hands until the holographic projection appeared. Blinking slightly, she strained to see the numbers hovering above her bed.
06:37… 06:37… 06:37?!
Kunai stared at the numbers, dumbfounded. She was still breathing, so the ship was probably okay, and her alarm wasn’t going off, so where had the banging noise come from?
Her question was answered when the banging repeated, followed by Allison’s hissing from the far side of the door.
“Get up, vacuum. And open the door.”
Too tired to argue, Kunai complied. She rolled out of bed, not caring to dress properly, and opened the door. Allison stood outside, bathed in red light and pressed against the doorframe, massive and imposing.
“What do you want?” Kunai asked.
“Put on your gym shorts and a shirt,” she said. Kunai stared at her. “Right now, spam! I won’t wait all morning.” Then she shut the door in Kunai’s face.
Kunai stared at the door for a moment before heaving a sigh. Still too tired to argue, she dressed quickly. She pulled on a tank top and the gym shorts that she’d bought on Rockport. Dimly she realized this was the first time she’d actually put them on, outside of the store. Allison hadn’t mentioned shoes, but Kunai pulled on the slippers Grim had bought her. Better to be safe than sorry, she reasoned.
Then she tied her hair into a ponytail, and opened the door. Allison was leaning against the opposite wall, her eyes cast in shadow. Not waiting for Kunai to even step out of her room, she skulked down the hallway, wordlessly beckoning for Kunai to follow. She did, reluctantly.
As they climbed up the ladder and into the kitchen, Kunai considered asking where they were headed. It was certainly too early for breakfast. The ship’s red lights were still on, which meant anyone who woke up intended to head back to bed, the red light serving to antagonize their night vision as little as possible. She and Allison also weren’t going to do any work – Allison had told her to wear shorts, not her coveralls.
The thought occurred to her that gym shorts meant they were headed to the gym, but Kunai dismissed the thought as being utterly ridiculous.
Who works out in the morning? Kunai thought. Her empty stomach growled its agreement.
But the possibility became increasingly likely as they crossed the cargo bay, entered the starboard side compartment, and stepped off the ladder onto the top floor – the gym, and Emily’s lab, just beside them.
Almost praying that Allison would head for the lab, Kunai groaned when she instead headed for the gym. Her stomach, which was already growling in earnest, twisted into knots. The signs were too evident to ignore.
Alyx had summoned her to the gym, and sent Allison as the messenger.
The injustice of the moment struck Kunai like a bullet. All of yesterday, Alyx had been hounding her. Get up on time, clean your room, clean your workspace, don’t give me that attitude. This wasn’t what Kunai had signed up for.
She’d left Halcyon, fled Halcyon, her home world, to get away from this kind of entitled garbage. She would’ve stayed back on Rockport and gotten a job there if it meant avoiding another stuck up boss, a stuck up heiress as the case was, if she’d known she’d get woken up at the crack of dawn by a cyborg mercenary errand girl.
Kunai stopped in the middle of the hallway and crossed her arms. Her mind was made up.
“I’m going back to bed,” she said. Allison wheeled on her.
“No you’re not,” she hissed back.
Kunai glared back. “You’re not my boss, Allison. And you’re not the frappin’ Captain either.”
Allison was on the verge of retorting when the gym door opened, a shaft of yellow light burning into the red hallway. Emily’s voice echoed out, her usual sing-song tone laced with mild strain.
“Is that you, honey?” She called.
Allison seemed to cool in the red lit hallway. Without taking her eyes off Kunai, she called back.
“Yeah. Kunai’s here too.”
There was a thump from inside the gym, followed by a sound of sharp footfalls and the unmistakable smack of skin on skin contact. Despite her exhaustion and eagerness to return to bed, Kunai found herself inching closer to the door, straining to hear more.
“Oh! Fantastic!” Emily called again, the strain in her voice becoming more obvious. “Come inside! The Captain and I are just wrapping up!” This comment drew a laugh from Alyx, though it sounded to Kunai more like a bark.
With one last malevolent look at Kunai, Allison turned on her heel and slipped into the gym’s door, shutting it behind her. Despite that, the muffled thumps and smacks grew louder, and faster.
Kunai waited in the hallway, a dilemma now on her hands. She was desperate to return to bed. She could still feel the warm covers and the delicious comfort of being wrapped in her blanket. The thought was intoxicating.
More than that, she wanted to spite Alyx. Her early morning wake up and Allison’s callous attitude had revived yesterday’s anger – no matter what Grim had said, Alyx was still in the wrong! Kunai was new on the ship – a few mistakes were okay. That didn’t make it alright for Alyx to bite her head off!
A tremendous thump from inside the gym returned her attention back to the moment, but only temporarily. She knew what Grim would say if he were here. “Yesterday was yesterday, Kunai,” or “The Captain is entitled to her mistakes too,” or even “Spacers aren’t perfect, Kunai. All each of us can do is our best.”
Kunai scowled. It had been okay talking with him yesterday, but it occurred to her now that Grim was mostly protecting his captain. He wanted to placate Kunai, and end Alyx’s headache. Something that Kunai was rapidly developing.
Screw this, she thought. Spite was a good enough reason as any. Whatever scheme Alyx had planned could wait until a reasonable morning hour. She’d deal with the fallout later.
But just as she was about to turn on her heel and march back to her room, Alyx let out a tremendous shout from inside the gym, followed by a ferocious cry from Emily. A storm of thumps followed, and before her anger could stop her, Kunai had opened the gym door, her curiosity and reluctant sense of obedience overriding any desire for justice.
It took her a moment to understand what she was seeing. Standing in the center of the room, locked in combat, was Alyx and Emily. On the right, Alyx curled over Emily, her long legs locked straight, and her arms curving around the doctor’s petite frame. Her head was tucked against Emily’s shoulder, giving Kunai a view of her face – focused, grim, and determined.
A thin sheen of sweat coated her skin, and every muscle rippled in exertion. Beneath her, Emily was putting up a tremendous fight. The smaller woman had her arms locked around Alyx’s torso, her legs bent slightly under the weight crushing down on top of her. Kunai couldn’t see Emily’s face, but she could guess her expression by the terrific grunts she was offering.
When the gym door closed shut, Alyx snapped her gaze from the floor to Kunai. Their eyes locked for a moment, and Kunai’s breath caught in her throat. She could see something in the Captain’s eyes that hadn’t been there a moment before, let alone all of yesterday. First was surprise, and then… warmth.
The warmth was replaced by additional surprise when Emily took advantage of Alyx’s distraction. With a mighty roar, she lifted Alyx over her head, sprung backwards, and drove Alyx headfirst into the gym floor with a sickening crunch!
Kunai’s hand flew to her mouth in a gasp while Allison threw back her head and laughed.
“Galaxy, what a power move, babe!” she said.
She was still laughing as Alyx and Emily got to their feet, Alyx rubbing her neck and trying to suppress a grimace all the while.
“Are you alright?” Emily asked.
Nodding gingerly, Alyx walked to the wall and scooped up her water bottle. “Oh yeah,” she croaked, opening the bottle with her mouth.
“You got distracted,” Emily said.
Alyx looked at Kunai, who for a moment became afraid that she’d already screwed up the morning. But instead, Alyx smiled at her. “Guess I did,” she said. Then she looked back at Emily, her expression hardening. “Won’t happen again,” she added, with a spritz of water into her mouth.
Emily smiled in return.
While Alyx drank from her bottle, Kunai looked around the gym. Save for the very brief tour Emily had given her the day she’d arrived, this was the only time she’d ever been inside.
The walls were lined with thick padding, no doubt to absorb bodily impacts and suppress noise, and painted in cream colored white. The floor was covered in a thick, padded, blue carpet. Seeing that everyone else was barefoot, Kunai removed her own shoes and placed them by the door. Curling her toes, she realized that the carpet had a micro-fiber property that helped provide traction.
Along the wall opposite the door were various weights, jump ropes, bars, bands, and other tools of unknown purpose. Against the right wall was a row of exercise machines, including a treadmill and what Kunai presumed were weight training systems.
It occurred to her that this was the first time she’d been in a gym. No one on Halycon had the time or money to use a gym – only Spacers or people living on Union worlds lived this luxuriously.
Finished with her drink, Alyx closed her bottle with a slap of her palm, then turned her attention to Kunai, who was still standing just inside the door way. For the first time, the two really looked at each other.
Alyx was wearing her usual workout attire – gym shorts with compression wrappings around her calves and forearms, plus a tank top. Kunai had admired this ensemble back on Rockport, where Alyx liked to start every morning running barefoot up and down the city’s sandy beaches. The effect was no less powerful in the ship’s musty gym.
As usual, Kunai must have struck a less impressive sight. A lifetime of under nourishment and labor in zero-g had robbed her the chance to earn Alyx’s lean muscle and toned frame. But Alyx nodded gently nonetheless, apparently approving of Kunai, to her mild relief.
Anger still boiled in the pit of her stomach, but she was forgetting to feel it, thanks to the Captain’s sparring match, and her fatigue.
“Good morning, Kunai,” Alyx said softy.
“Good morning, Captain,” Kunai replied, with equal calm.
“Sleep well?” Alyx asked with a grin, which Kunai returned only halfheartedly. Alyx’s grin faded quickly, and much to Kunai’s surprise, she actually blushed. “I’m sorry for the early wake up, but… I didn’t want you to miss this,” she said, beckoning towards Allison and Emily, who were standing nearby. Kunai got the sense they were waiting for something.
Her lips pressed tightly together, Kunai tried to control the brewing emotions that were slowly breaking through her exhaustion and shock. What makes this so important, huh?
“Well, it’ll help me adjust to ship time, at least.”
Alyx smiled at the jab.
“That’s… true,” she said with a nod. She glanced down for a moment, but when she looked back at Kunai, much of the warmth in her eyes had disappeared, and was replaced by determination. “Well, since you’re up, I thought you may like to join us.”
Kunai’s dumbfounded look earned her a derisive snort from Allison.
“Join you for… fighting?” she asked.
“Sparring,” Alyx corrected.
Emily stepped away from Allison, wringing her hands in front of her.
“It’s my fault,” she said, before catching Alyx’s look of guilt, “in a way. Angels of Mercy aren’t just doctors, Kunai. We’re trained fighters too.” She emphasized her point by catching a hurled fist in the palm of her hand. “Allison and I train every morning.”
Kunai looked over at Alyx, who stood with her arms crossed and a sheepish grin on her face. She raised her hands, palms out, at Kunai’s unvoiced question.
“I’m tough, Kunai, but I can’t keep up with an Angel or a cyborg. But Emily was kind enough to give me an open invitation… it’s my ship, after all,” she said with a wink to Emily. “You’re welcome too, if you like.”
Kunai stared at Alyx. The anger boiling in her mind flared, but was crushed by her sense of disbelief. She’s asking me to… fight? Spar? She looked around the room.
Behind her, Emily was beaming, her smile extending practically from ear to ear. It was all Kunai could do not to give her an open mouthed grin in return. Allison was… Allison. Scowling, rolling her eyes, red headed and still very attractive to Kunai. And Alyx, who Kunai looked at now, was again wearing that same expression of warmth that she’d had when Kunai first walked into the gym.
Against the diminishing protests of her anger, Kunai felt that sense of warmth she’d first experienced coming aboard The Albatross. When Grim had invited her onto the ship, much to Jack’s delight, and Emily’s overwhelming joy. And while Alyx had made her unease clear, beneath her grim facade, everyone could see that she wanted Kunai on board. That she wanted her to become a crew member. To become a member of their little family.
“Well?” Alyx asked. “You up for a challenge?”
Alyx nodded, satisfied. A new sense of pride radiated off of her, stirring Kunai, and washing away her sense of fatigue. “Good,” she said softly. Then she nodded towards Emily. “Who do you want to fight first?”
Alyx stretched an arm over her head, and scanned Kunai from head to toe.
“Do you want to fight me or Emily first? We’ll go easy on you, since you’re… rusty.”
Kunai cocked an eyebrow.
“What does that mean?”
Allison snorted. “It means you’re a limp wristed - ”
Emily cut her off. “Please be kind, dear.”
“…You’re out of practice. Not a trained fighter,” she corrected.
Kunai tilted her head in consideration. That was partly true. Maybe mostly true. She’d gotten into a few scraps on Halcyon, but never between trained fighters, especially not an Angel or a cyborg. The Captain was likely stronger than anyone she’d ever fought with, certainly more experienced. But, Kunai thought with a grin, I had to learn how to fight just so I could survive. Let’s see what the Captain’s prim and proper upbringing is made of.
“Alright,” Kunai said. “Guess it’s you and me, Captain.”
“Good.” She pointed towards the other end of the gym, where a pair of padded gloves had been placed.
Kunai smirked. The Captain was certainly confident.
Chapter 7: Knock Out, Drag Out
“The idea, Kunai, is to drive your opponent into the mat without causing any… permanent damage. Understand?” Kunai nodded as she pulled her gloves on, the situation slowly starting to sink in. “So no strikes to the head. And if you want to quit, just shout out, or tap myself or the floor, or anything, a few times. Got it?”
Kunai nodded, her heart beginning to beat faster.
Her gloves pulled on, Kunai turned, and faced the Captain.
Standing opposite her, Alyx struck an imposing figure. She was two heads taller than Kunai, with thick bands of taut muscle stretching up and down her lithe figure. Kunai could see it rippling along her thighs and biceps, which shined with sweat. Kunai suddenly thought of the massive blaster she carried on her thigh holster, and the tremendous holes it had carved into its targets.
The thought made Kunai shiver, but as she ducked into a fighting stance, it was electricity, not fear, that she felt shoot up her spine.
Alyx ducked into a fighting stance too, and a massive grin began to stretch across her face. The effect unnerved Kunai. She’d never seen someone smile before a fight.
“Ready?” Alyx asked.
Kunai slammed her padded fists against one another, the satisfying smack it made drawing a grin. She could hear her heart beat in her ears, and began to pump her legs to its war rhythm.
“Let’s go!” She called.
Alyx’s smile grew. She held Kunai’s gaze for a moment longer, then charged.
She sprang off the padded floor with the energy of a freight train, thighs pumping and muscles straining on her way to Kunai, the smile still prominent on her face.
Kunai raised her arms in defense, and had just enough time to plant her feet before the Captain was within striking distance. The maneuver had caught her off guard, but Alyx’s next move was obvious: she’d gotten in close, now she had to take Kunai down.
Alyx wrapped her arms around Kunai, ready to replicate the same move that had bested her moments before. But Kunai was ready. In her haste to finish off Kunai quickly, Alyx had left her center totally exposed. Just as she wrapped her arms around Kunai, the teenager placed both hands on her captain’s shoulders, and drove a bony knee into her gut.
She repeated the move, twice more until Alyx finally released, her smile replaced by a pained grin. Her ploy to end their match quickly had failed. Now she’d have to fight hand to hand.
But it was Kunai’s turn to strike. Her blood was up – Alyx had sent a lackey to get her out of bed early, just so she could make some point about sisterhood or working as a crew or whatever. That was fine and dandy, Kunai decided.
But I’m taking my dues out of your sweat and pain!
She jabbed with her right fist, only to watch Alyx slide out of its path. She jabbed with her left, but Alyx danced away. Frustrated, she closed the gap. If Alyx was going to be an illusive target, then she’d simply grab hold of her. She couldn’t dodge if she was pinned to the ground.
Alyx had other ideas. Just as Kunai was about to lock in, Alyx feinted with her left arm, drawing a wince and the slightest change in stance from Kunai. Alyx had her opening. She sent her right fist square into Kunai’s ribs, eliciting a juicy cry of pain.
Smiling wider now, Alyx pressed her advantage. She followed up with alternating strikes to Kunai’s chest, then her gut, then chest, then guet over and over. Kunai tried to block what she could, but Alyx was simply too fast. She was losing.
Kunai retreated a step backwards. Alyx was fast and smart. Kunai would have to think this through if she wanted to win. The blood was pumping in her ears now, drowning out every thought save one: Do not lose!
But the situation seemed hopeless. Alyx was taller, stronger, faster, and more experienced. She had all the advantages. The thought clicked through Kunai’s mind with sobering reality. And soon she’d be out of time. Alyx wasn’t going to give her forever to think it through.
But attacking directly wouldn’t work…
Take the time, think it through – it’s your only option.
Alyx was advancing again, bearing down on Kunai with the furry of a hurricane. If her plan was to break Kunai’s spirit, then she was well on her way. She set her right leg forward and planted with her left. Her left fist was arcing through the air when Kunai spotted her opening.
Ducking to her left, Kunai saw seized her moment. She curled her left fist tighter, squeezing the blood from her fingers. Each knuckle was a weapon now, and she meant to place them straight into Alyx’s exposed gut. She’d left the tender flesh vulnerable – a prime target.
Kunai wound up her strike, cocking her fist into position, and in the blink of an eye, propelled it into Alyx like a laser blast. The effect was instantaneous. Alyx recoiled from the blow, her whole body seeming to collapse.
“Now, Kunai! Kick her ass!” Allison screamed from the sidelines.
Kunai was grinning. Her counterattack began.
Knocked off balance, Alyx was vulnerable. Kunai followed her strike up with one more shot to the gut, her position anchored by one arm wrapped around Alyx’s waist. Each blow struck like a hammer, and Kunai could hear the wind evacuate from Alyx’s lungs.
But Alyx wasn’t intent on going down easy. She ripped Kunai’s hand away from her and backed swiftly away. She struck back with a series of blows to Kunai’s arms, which she’d had only milliseconds to raise in defense.
Kunai cursed herself. She was back to square one. Worse yet, her arms had been pounded to glass, her legs were on fire, and her stomach felt like a bowl of acid. This had turned into a war of attrition, and she was going to lose.
If she wanted to win, she’d have to do it in one, decisive blow.
Bide your time. Wait for the right moment.
Kunai kept her arms raised – they would be her shield. Then she stepped back from Alyx, out of her reach. The two circled each other like rabid dogs, each one sizing up the other. Kunai could see sickly purple bruises rising on the Captain’s stomach, bringing a twisted grin to her lips. She’d made Alyx pay, alright.
Alyx noticed where Kunai was looking. “Payback, huh?” She asked with a grin.
Kunai nodded, but kept her guard raised. She wasn’t in a position for banter.
“Well, you’ve earned it.” Behind Alyx’s raised hands, Kunai saw her expression shift again. She glanced at the floor, and the corners of her smile lagged. “I messed up yesterday, and didn’t treat you fair. I’m sorry.”
Stunned, Kunai stopped prowling. Alyx’s words sat in her brain. They didn’t make any sense. Didn’t compute. Weren’t understood. Sorry? She’s sorry?
But… she’s in charge.
In all her life, this had never happened before. A boss, an overseer, a manager, they weren’t… sorry. Never ever. They only knew anger and not-anger. They didn’t know happy, or sad, or contentment, and especially not empathy.
Kunai glanced at the floor – she couldn’t stand to look into Alyx’s eyes anymore. Meeting her had been unexpected, and her doorway into a new life. Getting to know her had been a privilege, but she was still just a boss. Right?
The warmth that spread through her now was unlike anything she’d felt before. It filled the darkest parts of her soul, sections she’d closed off long ago. Someone in the universe, someone who was responsible for her, cared for her too. In all her life she’d never expected that to happen. But here, on The Albatross, it had finally come true.
When she looked back at the Captain, she saw Alyx was charging towards her.
Oh, right. We’re still fighting.
Alyx jabbed left, then right, then left again, her fists landing with thunderous terror into Kunai’s arms. She simply couldn’t move fast enough to avoid them, and they were getting pounded into hamburger meat. Soon, Kunai would be out of fuel, and be utterly at Alyx’s mercy. Despite the Captain’s apology, Kunai realized that her tactical assessment hadn’t changed.
End the fight now!
Her mind made up, the only route now was to take action. As Alyx’s fists continued to fall, Kunai formulated a plan. It would be painful, and risky, and result in either immediate victory, or her inevitable crushing defeat. But with her energy waning, and her bones being pounded into powder, there were other options.
Kunai locked onto Alyx’s right fist. That would be her opening. It landed against her arms, nearly breaking her meager defenses apart, then retracted, where it would be cocked, and ready to fire again. Then came Alyx’s left fist, but Kunai ignored that strike. Her entire focus was on her right fist.
She studied its every facet before it was once again hurtling towards her.
NOW! Kunai’s mind screamed at her. Now, in this moment, every muscle, every cell, everything in her body moved with one concerted purpose. She dropped her hands from their defensive position, and skirted a hairs breadth out of Alyx’s reach. Then she shot both hands outward, toward Alyx’s approaching fist.
The Captain could see what Kunai was doing, but by the time the information had reached her brain, it was already too late. Kunai wrapped her hands tightly around Alyx’s right forearm, and squeezed tightly. Then she turned her back to Alyx, and pulled with all her remaining might.
Alyx was yanked off of her feet, her armpit pressed against Kunai’s back. And as Kunai pulled her off the ground, over her shoulder, and into the mat, a slow grin sprouted on her lips. Just before her head smashed down with yet another crunch, she felt proud of her mechanic.
Kunai couldn’t see Alyx hit the ground – she’d closed her eyes. But she could feel it, and upon opening her eyes, tentatively, her exhaustion all but disappeared. Alyx was lying flat on her back, her mouth twisted in pain, but by the grin on her lips, Kunai could tell that it was mixed with joy.
A good fight, she decided.
Allison let out a low whistle beside her. “Not bad,” she said.
“Agreed,” Alyx croaked. She extended a hand to Kunai, who helped her stand.
Emotions stirred within her now. Anger for her treatment yesterday, pride at having defeated Alyx, and mixed through it all, shock. Her Captain had apologized, had brought her here as some sort of… meditation? Teachable moment?
As the two walked to the side of the gym, making room for Allison and Emily, Kunai glanced at Alyx. She was the image of a star ship captain, just as Kunai had seen when they first met, a lifetime ago. But now she could see something different. Something she’d never known before.
Alyx caught her staring, and looked back at her with a cocked eyebrow.
Alyx nodded in return, and picked up her water battle. After a few short sips, she offered it to Kunai, who eagerly accepted it. She hadn’t realized how thirsty she’d become.
“That was a good move,” Alyx said.
Kunai slapped the bottle closed, and savored the compliment. “Thanks.”
“Won’t work twice,” Alyx said, a playful grin on her face.
Kunai grinned back. It was a new day in her new life.
“We’ll see about that.”