When Aeryn finally found a doorway, it was covered in bars. Curious, since this clearly wasn't the brig. She approached the opening with caution, keeping out of arm's reach. For all she knew, there were very good reasons for whoever it was to be behind bars. Even when she heard a sputtering cough, she kept her guard up. Few predators were above malingering to gain access to their prey.
Still, she wanted a closer look, so she advanced on the doorway slowly, bypassing an odd round platform that stood in the middle of the room. When she finally caught a glimpse of the occupant, a chill ran down her spine. For all that the ship was sleek and silvery in appearance everywhere else, this room betrayed its biological origins. The walls crawled with bright arteries and veins, swollen with pumping blood. Like tendrils they curled around the captive, holding him fast to the fleshy wall.
Aeryn flattened to the wall and aimed her stolen rifle at him, hoping that when the time came she could figure out how to fire it in time. "Who are you?" she demanded.
He sputtered. "Funny," he said, spitting out a mouthful of what looked like thick, yellowish mucus.
Aeryn shuddered with disgust. "What's funny?" she obliged.
"You," he said, "making demands on me, in my ship."
"Funny," said Aeryn. "The woman with the big yellow pitchfork gave me the impression that she owned this ship."
He snorted and spat out another wad. "Maybe she orders it, but I am the ship. Look at all this, look at me! Any fool could see I'm the vessel's slave."
Another chill ran down her spine. She didn't even know of any species, other than the pilots, who could be bonded to a vessel in this way, let alone against one's will. "You're not a willing symbiont?"
He cackled wildly until he started coughing again. "Hardly. No one would choose a life like this."
She tilted her head. "Many do, one of them a close friend of mine."
"More's the fool," said the bound man.
A pop sounded behind her, and Aeryn turned, crouched and aimed her rifle in one motion. It came from the platform, on which the Empress was now standing.
"Excuse me," she said, as though they were no more than strangers exchanging pleasantries on a street, "you're standing between me and my Helmsman."
Behind her, Aeryn could hear the man laughing and sputtering.
"I don't think he wants to see you."
The Empress smiled. "I'm the only thing that can save his life, the thing that's been keeping him alive. Were it not for me, you louse-ridden ingrate, you'd have died a thousand sweeps ago!"
He choked out his words through the laughter. "A thousand sweeps for freedom! A joke. Tell, me, stranger, would your pilot friend have made that trade?"
"He sacrificed many cycles of his life to see the stars," said Aeryn. "Do you wish to die rather than pilot this ship?"
"Desce," he asked, addressing the Empress, "are they all dead?"
She frowned. "Not yet. Most of the highbloods are still alive, but they begin to suffer the effects."
"This is it, then," he said, suddenly somber.
"Freedom in death, just as you always wanted," said the Empress, smiling inscrutably. "I will miss you when you die."
"You've always said so, Desce," said the Helmsman, and started coughing more violently than ever.
"Whatever the frell is going on between you two," Aeryn interjected, "I want nothing to do with it. Seems to me, Madame Empress, that you're not conquering anything. How about you just let me go, and we part as absolutely not friends?"
Her answer came in the form of a concussion.
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