Raiko paced along the edges of the slime pool, her boots squelching against the moist, warm, vaguely pulsating ground of the cave. "If I had time, I could construct a pulley-system to get you out of there, but we left excess gear back at the-"
"Less talk. More getting me out of here." Savage could feel the cold fluid creeping up their scalp, sinking into their hair. As they were taught years ago, Savage was lying on their back, distributing their weight in such a way that the turgid gel supported them. However, they could still feel themselves sinking, or perhaps being sucked into the pink gel, physics and weight distribution be damned. It smelled of stomach acid with a hint of day-old blood sausage.
The entire cavern they stood in pulsated in a wave. It gave off the feeling that they were riding a wave of flesh and veins. Moisture continued crawling down the striated, crimson walls, in shades of translucent pink and red. Somewhere within the bowels of the caverns, a vast noise roared, causing the ground to shudder.
“Might have to hurry, Rai.”
"Logically, you have more time than you think," Raiko mused, the tips of her fins twitching as she looked towards the crimson ceiling. "Once the slime engulfs you completely, your EPP will activate and with the right amount of luck, which is quite a lot, you can survive down there for as long as you can retain fluids and food."
Savage resisted the urge to flail about in frustration, and instead resorted to rolling their eyes. "I can't save the star system in the middle of a slime pit. Look, just… less talking, more thinking, okay?”
“I think better when I talk.” Raiko walked around the puddle, muttering to herself and tracing in the air with her fingers.
After a minute of Raiko chewing on information, Savage coughed. “You still there?”
Raiko gave Savage a frightened look. The Deadbeat in the pool of slime rolled their eyes.
“Don't you have that attraction staff? Might help."
"The attraction staff! Of course!" Raiko jumped, her boots sending bits of fleshlike material splattering into the slime puddle. "One second!"
"Make it half, please."
Out of the corner of their eye, Savage saw Raiko reaching behind her, retrieving a platinum staff with a ferozium tip. She pointed it and activated the attraction field somewhere slightly above Savage, the glowing Ferozium briefly illuminating Raiko's face and gills.
A loud noise howled from within one of the caverns leading away from the cavern. Savage jolted, agitating the gel and speeding up their descent. Even Raiko paused for a second, the ferozium staff powering down, before an amorphous lump whizzed out of a cavern. It landed right at the edge of the gel pool, agitating the fluid and causing Savage's calves to suddenly pop beneath the surface of the gel.
"Complications!" Raiko shouted. She sidestepped, putting more distance between herself and the creature, but kept her line of sight flush with Savage.
The flesh lump was vaguely shaped like a fist that had melted down into an unnameable mass, only a hundred times larger and more skinless than the average human fist. If Savage would have been able to stand, the thing would have been as tall as their shoulder. Its eyes, scattered across the entire structure, swiveled around and pulsed like balloons deflating and inflating again, their multicolored irises looking in about a hundred different directions. They scoped and jittered about for ten seconds, before swirling around to focus on Savage.
As the flesh bag lumbered towards its mark, Savage's hips started sinking into the muck. They collected fluid in their mouth, in an attempt to spit at the fleshbag, but accidentally swallowed a splash of gel. Savage's last meal nearly came up as they tried to force the indescribable aftertaste out of their throat.
"Raiko! Pull that thing out first!"
The fleshy thing lit up with a bluish glow. Slowly, it rose into the air, the gel making a sickly schlup as it suctioned and broke away. It writhed in midair, as though it were filled with thousands of bugs. Even as Savage's torso gave way and sank into the muck, the fleshbag flew into the corner of the room with a squelch and slid down the walls, leaking clear juice.
A green blur whizzed over Savage, just barely visible above their goggles. A Floran, green and sporting ovoid leaves sticking out at the back of their head, charged at the deflating bag of flesh on the ground. They unsheathed two deadly durasteel blades, murder in their black, beady eyes and a wicked grin flashing pointed teeth.
The fleshy attacker never had a chance. Wet chunks of meat and other unspeakable matter splattered the ground as Medotha the Floran annihilated the fleshy bag. The smell of offal and blood quickly filled the room.
"Raiko," Savage muttered through gritted teeth.
"O-oh, of course!"
Again, the bluish light pulsed, and Savage felt themselves gently lifted out of the gel. Raiko gently set Savage onto the ground, flicking strings of gel onto the already-moist ground. Savage took a deep breath, whistled in gratitude, and started wiping gel off themselves. Their blue skin peeked through a thick layer of sticky substance.
"Raiko, I think you should get a sample of this gel, I think it's stinging me… where's your sample case?"
"I left it with Chips. He was right behind me before we were separated."
Just as she had finished speaking, a tall, strapping figure emerged from the caverns behind Raiko. A feathered Avian, almost two full heads taller than Raiko and twice as muscular approached. His feathers would have been pure white, had not half his face been covered with a foul-smelling flesh-colored fluid. He carried a durasteel case at his hip and no less than two automatic-fire energy rifles on his back.
"Chips, the case, please," Raiko hurriedly urged, not even turning around. She picked up a dropper and a tiny phial from her pouch. Chips grunted, set the case on the ground, and backed two steps away, eyeing the caverns behind him with a silver eye. Savage could hear faint roaring and wet sounds coming from the cavern.
"Chips? Food, those weird growths from the other cavern? Got 'em?"
Wordlessly, Chips shook two fabric bags at his hip. Each were filled to bursting, and sloshed about weirdly.
Before Savage could respond in approval, the cavern behind Chips filled with other flesh bags, complete with eyes, some with deformed legs and some with horns sticking out at random angles. Chips already had their weapon out and started firing blasts of force at the amorphous flesh blobs with energy blasts, splattering the cave edges with scorched flesh. They let out keening, watery cries as they tried to advance beyond the cavern lip, gunned down by Chips's fire.
"Raiko! You done there? We need to go!"
"Not yet, Savage! Give me forty seconds!"
Savage swore and reached for their belt. The stun grenade should do the trick, they thought, retrieving a dark gray metal capsule from their pouch.
"Chips, when you're ready!"
Two seconds passed, with nothing but gunfire. Then Chips turned their head, just enough to give Savage a tiny nod.
At Chips's signal, Savage hurled the grenade through the air. It hit the ground at the exact moment Chips's gun powered down.
"Flash active, take cover!"
The flesh cavern lit up with enough light to power a city. Savage watched the insides of their eyelids glow bright red, their hands firmly planted on their ears to block out the snap. The flash ended, and Savage opened their eyes, blinking away the stars.
Through the haze of the stun grenade, the cavern was a cacophony of noise. The remaining flesh bags were screaming wildly, knocking into each other, sporting blackened burns. As if from far away, Savage heard Raiko calling out to them. "Sample isolated, we have to go! Candela! Candela, teleport us back!"
The last thing Savage saw before whizzing back to the ship at warp speed was a fleshbag seemingly coming to its senses, before being obscured by a whizzing streak of green and metal. Before they could chide Medotha, the communicator at their belt let out a buzz of static.
* * *
The locker rooms were empty. Everyone just assumed that Savage was the most accustomed to filth, next to Medotha, so they got to the showers last. It was hot shower day, and already the drain was suffused with a thick, viscous layer of pinkish fluid from the flesh cave. Medotha got the best of it; they had completely reduced a single flesh bag into pulp when they returned to the ship, much to Candela's chagrin.
Wiping down their head and horns with a towel, the steam of the shower wafting over the steel walls, Savage opened their locker and got dressed in their shirt and overalls. As they technically weren't a fully-licensed spaceship crew, no one wore uniforms. Technically, and in no less than 15 local star systems, the crew of The Rust Frigate would be considered "vagabonds" or "unaffiliated wanderers". At worst, in some Miniknog-controlled settlements, they would be shot down if Savage so much showed their face to the guards, hence their mask and disguise collection.
Savage shut the door to the locker, and behind it stood another Deadbeat.
They had seen this face before. Her blue face was half-concealed by messy black locks. Her similarly dark eyes, large for her face and almost lifelessly glassy, stared blankly at Savage. She was half a foot shorter than Savage, giving her the impression of a rich philanthropist who had fallen to the abuse of various Floran drugs. Her clothes were dirty, but sturdy enough to survive the hot desert where she and Savage used to live.
It also happened to be someone Savage never wanted to see again.
"It's been a while, Savage."
"It's literally been two hours. A few minutes less, even. I beat Chips's record."
"Not quite. How many hours has it been? Geiga-years?"
Even as Savage turned towards the code mechanism at the door, the girl was standing by the exit, leaning against the moist white wall. The moisture in the air clouded the mirrors hanging on the walls, but the girl's unkempt hair stayed as dry and frizzy as it would have been in the middle of the Baixi desert. Savage rolled their eyes. She always had this habit of hanging out where she shouldn't be, watching all the time. Somehow being there, when no one else was around. Inconspicuous, always with lightly-peppered words that tugged on exactly the wrong nerves.
"Always avoiding the question. For your information, it's been 26,356.6 Geiga-hours. Which, for your information, is 26,256.1 Earth-hours, and 26,355 Standard-Galaxy hours."
"You seem very invested in the specific time of when Geiga died off," Savage sniffed. They leaned back against the lockers and folded their arms, glaring at Nikolee. "Then again, you should know."
"You did nothing to stop me. You wanted this. You even took me away from Geiga to here." Nikolee was smiling now, her dark, glossy eyes narrowed in anticipation.
Savage glared, their hands balling into fists, but didn't respond.
"And, look at this cool new ship you live in now." Nikolee turned her head towards the white halogen lights and twirled once, arms outstretched as if catching sunshine, her eyes closed. "I'd say it was worth it. Wouldn't you?"
"Always doing things for my own benefit, did you?" Savage let out a bitter laugh. "I don't think genocide is worth having someone you obviously didn't care for wander the stars in peace."
" Relative peace," Nikolee interrupted.
Nikolee sniffed in disdain, shuffling her feet and looking up at Savage. "It wasn't personal. It's not exactly what you think it is. Just a matter of breaking a cage that kept you trapped."
"At the cost of so many people. People we knew ."
Nikolee's smile faded, to be replaced by gentle scorn. "But I cared for you , Savage. Not them. I gave you freedom. Why won't you accept it?"
Savage gritted their teeth and looked away, half their words lost in their throat as they struggled to find words that were worthy of the situation. "Because… because you're horrible."
"Oh, now you're calling names? No fancy monologue or anything? No armor-piercing question that chews away at my defenses and leaves me vulnerable? That's not very eloquent of you. Try a little harder. You can make that exit a little better. Slam the door, punch me in the face, do something other than stand there and try to ignore what I'm telling you."
"I'm not worth that much destruction," Savage muttered. "If you knew me at all, you'd know that."
Nikolee giggled, and started laughing. Her mirth bounced off the metal walls of the locker room, multiplying and filling Savage's mind. There were twelve Nikolees laughing at once, but Savage felt no warmth in their laughter. The sheer cold in cackling nearly threw Savage off balance, making the bile bubble up in his throat. "But you're worth so much to me, Savage. I know you so much more than you think. You're special ."
" Don't call me that !"
Savage advanced on Nikolee, fingers digging into their palms, ready to strike. "Don't call me special. You don't get to tell me what I'm like. Your words mean nothing. "
It took a moment before Savage realized they were speaking to thin air. They looked up and spotted Nikolee at the end of the room, a faint, satisfied smile on her face. "If my words meant nothing, Savage, you wouldn't even be listening to me right now."
Sighing, they dropped their hand and whistled in exasperation. "You never change, do you? Never owning up to anything. If anything in this room doesn't listen, it's you ."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Nikolee sang cheerfully, walking over to Savage and tweaking their nose. "You'd better go, star trooper. I hear some bad news coming your way. Try to focus this time, won't you?"
Someone knocked on the durasteel sliding door from outside. They knocked twice, and Raiko's voice called from outside, filled with concern. "Ah, eh, Savage? We've gotten a reply from the research satellite. The Head's on the video feed right now."
Savage glared at Nikolee, who was walking towards the lockers. "On my way," they growled through gritted teeth, as Nikolee gave them a wink.