A voice was singing.
Indrani could hear it still, the hallowed echoing of it flitting back and forth from ear to ear, circling around in his head. A warbling soprano reaching the apex of a psalm, the clarity of the single note so pure he could feel it burning his skin cold, swallowing every other sound around it. It sounded holy, a psalm from the throat of a Paragon whose Purpose had been reached in that single solitary moment as it built and built and—
Absence. A full and filling muteness, a silence so stark it hurt. Indrani’s ears were beating in the quiet void, so desperate for sound his mind was amplifying the throb of blood in his ears. The curate’s eyes drifted open; a sea of shrapnel swarmed his vision, blocked out the deep black beyond. He blinked hard, stared aghast out of his fogged helmet visor. He was in space, untethered, no merchant ship in sight. And then pain, as if suddenly triggered by his presence of mind, rose up like a stoked fire in him. He whimpered and curled forward slightly as it ate through his body, radiating out into his limbs. He’d never felt this level of agony before, his whole body an inflamed bruise. Inflamed. Flames.
Memories all filtered back: the other mercenary ship, the missile, Curate Mithraiya’s smug face on the screen as she saluted him with a swirling gesture that one made to Curates who’d passed on before their Purpose was reached.
That wretched tryhard had tried to kill him! But it seemed his obliteration was not a part of Indrani’s Path as it was for the crew. Selfish fool! Indrani clutched at his helmet, hid the wreckage of the attack from his line of sight. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. “No, no, no.” He started shivering suddenly, a feeble grin on his face, and then chuckling uncontrollably. “No, no, haha, no, oh Paths, haha—”
Something tugged at the edge of their senses, and Sun pulled away from reviewing the game records and ran through the usual cycle. Everything was running okay inside; atmo at standby levels, nothing amiss in the hydroponics lab. Exterior radiation seemed to fall within normal range, and there was the pulsar they were crawling past, 7.2 light years off their high starboard. It was a landmark, easy to detect in this part of the fragment, spinning every millisecond but as steady and reliable as a heartbeat.
Sun returned to the play-by-play. This was the last game they’d finished with the passenger before he’d disembarked on Qia Station with the rest of his company a few days ago, leaving the halls of the ship empty once again. He was a fast player, but Sun had had plenty of time to study their opponent between moves, and by the time the two had placed their last pieces, Sun had been fairly certain he knew.
There was something in the expression, flat and smug and hungry, that Sun had come to recognize after seeing it enough times. A few minutes between the suspicion, the realization, and then the questions, the endless, probing questions. Of course he would have suspected; he’d been talking about his peak-imperial relic collection with two other passengers earlier in the trip. Those collectors always had a thing for Ships. And Sun knew it. Sun knew it. But he was also ranked silver-B in Heptagrams, and how long had it been since they’d played anyone in Heptagrams?
Another twinge, one Sun couldn’t ignore. Nothing on long-range yet, but Sun knew well enough not to ignore, haha yes, that’s what it was after all, a gut feeling. They made a minor course correction, bumped up the speed and quietly expanded their senses through the delicate fuzz of interstellar radiation. 587 milliseconds had passed.
A few stretches of debris-littered space away, Indrani was just beginning to gather himself. He swallowed his sobs but whimpered as he assessed his spacesuit. Since this was his first space flight, the young curate had kept it on for the few days of travel, as disgusting and ill-fitting as it was. The pilot and their crew had gotten a good laugh out of his insecurity, jokingly asking if he was relieving himself in his suit when they caught him idling somewhere.
In the end his fear had saved his life. Mithraiya had fired on the ship nearly as soon as she was sure Indrani was aboard the longhauler. He’d felt the cold touch of space on his eyes, in his throat as the ship decompressed, sucking the atmosphere out into the void with a piercing whistling sound. The screams of the crew had been sharp and then, suddenly, dampened into muteness.
The young curate shut his eyes again, trying not to cry. He tapped the console on his arm and a flickering display spread across his visor. He couldn’t make out what most of the stats referenced but the ones he could understand made his stomach clench up.
Suit: damaged 31%
Fear tightened his throat. Oh, Paragons help me, guide me, please, he muttered under his breath, poking at the arm console ineffectively. “H-hello? Anyone out there? I could greatly use some assistance! I’ve been attacked and am free… f-floating…in…bLEARUGH—”
Hm. Now that was interesting. Particle trails made recently by a vehicle, make that at least two, longhaulers by the looks of them, not built for speed. Matter readings high, too high for a ship of that class to eject into space as waste. Sun sifted through the matter scattering and atomizing in the vacuum. A couple flavors of hydrocarbon, metals…
Sun ran some quick math, laid in a course for the source of the scattering debris. No ship wanted to lose water. Had it gone through some kind of emergency venting procedure?
As Sun drew close enough to start feeling the infinitesimal pieces slide and skitter across their hull, they picked up the beginnings of the narrowband message at the edge of its range. The debris pieces grew larger with every second closer Sun drew to the calculated center of the decompression. By the time Sun heard the phrase “free-floating,” each chunk averaged a meter across.
Sun found their voice, their speaking voice, and sent a message on the same weak channel. “Hello there! I’ll be there to help in just a moment. Boy, you’ve run into a real problem here, haven’t you?”
Indrani scrabbled at his helmet ineffectually, moaning in disgust as the thin stream of vomit floated through his field of vision. He leaned away from it as if he could escape its transit straight towards his forehead, his thick spacesuit arms flailing in front of him.
“No, no— wait, h-hello? Is there someone there?!” The curate tapped madly at his arm console again until the comms pinged to life. “Please, this is High Curate Indrani the IV of Malakar! I’m in desperate need of rescue a-and possibly others of my crew are as well, though I can’t see them! Hurry, I beg you.”
His visor display flashed on again and through the stream of curdled barf he could see his oxygen stat dwindling lower. 8%. Indrani made the sign of the Path on his chest, an upside down triangle drawn with his pointer. “Whoever you are, I think I m-might be out of time…”
Poor guy. This was a real mess. No cracked remains of a ship, no decompressed chambers, no sign of any other ship except a particle trail high-tailing it out of there. This wasn’t just a skirmish — someone wanted to reduce this ship to a greasy smear, and they’d succeeded.
Sun pinpointed the source of the narrowband transmission, a small figure flailing and buffeted by pieces of debris. Nothing too big, so a scoop-up should be doable. They opened their primary docking bay, dialed up the buffer fields inside, and started matching their velocity to match the drifting figure, coming into range at the word “time.”
Indrani didn’t see the ship until he finally slowly rotated in its direction, its massive smooth fuselage already upon him, glowing bright in the ancient dark. The docking bay gaped open at him, a hungry black opening that would have taken twenty of the longhaulers he’d been on. Indrani swallowed, the air inside his suit going frosty as it escaped out of the small tears around his torso and sleeve. His thoughts felt heavy, his breaths coming in slow and thick. The curate’s vision dimmed, limned in shadow. “I….I…can’t…”
The figure hurtled into Sun’s bay, clamps and locks snapping shut decisively behind him, and the buffer fields slowed his tumble like a pebble thrown into a pond. Sun began a sweep of the debris field for other survivors, but the majority of their focus was on their new, unexpected passenger.
The buffer fields dissipated, letting the figure drift limply to the floor of the airlock. Sun flooded the chamber with atmo, high on the oxygen, and snapped out some limbs from the walls to examine him more closely. His suit was shredded, barely worth the effort of unclasping the pieces properly. Sun made a long tear from the sleeve to the opposite hip, peeled off the material, flicked the helmet loose with a long digit, and tapped a specialized meddigit against the man’s freshly exposed neck. Low blood oxygen levels, but body temperature was okay. Sun studied the man’s severe face, frost melting on the eyelashes, hair plastered messily to the forehead. He’d probably come to shortly.
The man was still for a beat, and then he floundered as his body suddenly sucked in a hard breath, oxygen flooding his hypoxic brain. The fringes of his sight were blurred but no longer hazed in darkness, and his thoughts were finally stringing together into a semblance of a rational train. The moon-bound zealot blinked, saw the indistinct limbs and reached feebly out to them with a groan.
“T-thank you.” A dry, sputtering cough. “Who…are you?”
“Oh, hey, you made it! I’m glad I got to you in time.” Sun withdrew their mechanical limbs and paused for a moment, undecided on how to attempt the ruse this time, with this passenger. “Welcome aboard The Sun Clouded Over. I’m uh, the one who runs things around here.”
Indrani’s hand dropped to his side as he marshaled enough strength to sit up, whimpering as he rose. With the damaged spacesuit now discarded and his only clothing tight-fitted compression wraps around his extremities, chest and briefs, it was plain to see the extent of his injuries. Garish bruises peppered his torso, nicks etched his limbs. Blood and flecks of vomit flecked his face. All in all, a veritable mess.
“You have my gratitude, The Sun Clouded Over.” A pause as the curate winced, each intake of breath needling sharply against his ribs. “I’m High Curate Indrani of Malakar—” A pained grunt. “—the IV. It’s obvious our Purposes have intersected. I praise Them for that,” he muttered with a crooked smile, signing once again the Path across his chest.
“Okay, well, don’t push yourself too hard,” Sun replied gently. “It’s clear you need a once-over, and my docking bay isn’t the place to do it.” To serve as a stretcher, a four square meter section of the floor beneath the man hummed and began lifting him, a hovering slab of sleek material.
“This’ll take you to one of the cabins.” Sun’s voice reverberated in the large chamber. “There are first-aid supplies in there, but I’ll be able to look after you if anything more serious crops up. It’s a little cozier in there, too.” The slab coasted smoothly out of the airlock and towards the passenger level.
“We should talk, but I’ll give you some time to look after yourself. I’m gonna finish combing the site where I picked you up and see if anyone else made it through,” Sun lied. There were no other transmissions on narrowband, and the heat signatures in the debris field were not promising. But Sun knew from experience that pan-humans tended to trust others who spent their time searching or helping or listening, even if the results were negligible. Most humans valued time, because most humans had little.
Really, what Sun needed the most time for, relatively speaking, was figuring out how they and this High Curate were going to have their talk.
Indrani fell back limply onto the slab with a pained smile and, not knowing where this pilot was watching him from, waved into the air. “Thank you, yes, that would be ideal, most ideal.”
The curate blinked in and out of consciousness as he floated through the passenger level, face twisted into an unflattering grimace as he tried to keep his eyes open. The halls of the ship were massive, the ceilings arching infinitely high over him, almost disappearing into the softly lit distance above. Maybe it was just the knock he’d taken to the head but it felt…unusually grand. What kind of ship was this? Who had plucked him out of the wreckage? His mind didn’t respond, slipping off the edge of consciousness into a deep black quiet.