â€œSo, weâ€™ve got Commander Traken in the command position now. Doctor Lanyard is the head of the support division, and Lieutenant Yumis is head of the security division.â€ Gallen Aldarus ticked off names with his fingers, sitting easily in a chair. Across from him, reclining on the simple bench that adorned the shipâ€™s brig, Galas Indira nodded slowly. In order to pass the time, she had asked Aldarus to explain the shipâ€™s command structure to her, and since it wasnâ€™t classified, heâ€™d obliged her. If she was going to be spending a lot of time as a prisoner of war â€“ which seemed increasingly likely â€“ she figured it was a good idea to know how things were set up.
â€œOf course, usually weâ€™d have the Captain above all that, butâ€¦â€ Aldarus shrugged uncomfortably, then continued quickly. â€œThe bridge crew is three members plus the Captain and Commander. Lieutenant Ryland commands when theyâ€™re unavailable. Support is divided into medical, engineering, and thaumaturgy â€“ two doctors, two engineersâ€¦ well, one nowâ€¦ and Specialist Ramadi. And the securityâ€™s split between the gunnery crew â€“ thatâ€™s Yumis and Kayle â€“ and the actual security crew, which is now just Kaltos and me.â€ He sighed, sitting back. â€œCanâ€™t believe Jasinâ€™s gone.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry. If you hadnâ€™t come after usâ€¦â€ Indira broke off suddenly, looking away. Aldarus shrugged.
â€œCouldnâ€™t be helped. We canâ€™t leave a beacon unchecked.â€ His face clouded. â€œBesides, if we didnâ€™t, someone else would have, and they might not have stopped that thing.â€
â€œThere is that.â€ Indira fell silent for a moment, twisting her hands. â€œJamas used to say that it was better to have died for your duty than toâ€¦â€ She broke off, swallowing heavily.
â€œHe must have been quite a guy.â€ Aldarus spoke softly. Indira nodded.
â€œHe was. Soft-spoken for a Dragon King, but totally dedicated. He was a good friend.â€ Indira swallowed again, wiping furtively at her eyes. â€œThey all were. And now itâ€™s just meâ€¦ and soon, probably not even that.â€
â€œHey, now.â€ Aldarus smiled reassuringly. Reaching forwards, he tapped the bars separating him from Indira. â€œDonâ€™t let these fool you. The Imperium doesnâ€™t execute war prisoners. Probably, youâ€™ll be ransomed back in a few weeks in exchange for some prisoner on the other side.â€ He chuckled faintly. â€œWeâ€™ll both check each othersâ€™ prisoners for traps, find nothing, and move on. Life continues.â€
Indira was less sure, but she smiled anyway. â€œLife continues.â€ Her smile fell away, and she sighed. â€œAfter everything we did, I donâ€™t see why youâ€™re being so nice to me. The other one â€“ Kaltos, is it? Heâ€™s certainly not. I think he wants to throw me out the hatch.â€
â€œHeâ€™s just in mourning. Kaltos takes his grief out on other people. And he might not have shown it, but he and Parn were pretty close.â€ Aldarus shook his head. â€œGive him some time. Once he calms down, youâ€™ll see what heâ€™s really like.â€
A level below, in the engine room, Assistant Engineer Sallen Mendai and Specialist Ramadi Nala were studying the shipâ€™s Essence core with a faint frown. After a moment, Mendai tapped the long, twisting tube that extruded from the left side of the engine, running up the wall and into the jade framework of the ship. â€œItâ€™s definitely right here. Parn was doing some sort of patch job, but I canâ€™t for the life of my say what for.â€
â€œTrying to get more time out of it, Iâ€™d bet.â€ Nala, sitting on a crate of spare parts, smiled faintly. Her uniform was dusty from the work she had been doing, but her smile was earnest. â€œYou know Parn. Never mind that the military replaces these things when we ask, he always wants to squeeze in that extra season.â€ She paused, catching herself over the use of the present tense, and her smile faded.
â€œHe did.â€ Mendai nodded heavily. â€œI just wish I knew which modifications mattered. Any luck finding documentation?â€
Nala snorted. â€œOh, sure, Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s all in his report brief.â€ She gestured pointedly to the folder the two had brought down, stuffed to the brim with papers detailing random thoughts, sketches, and ordinance reports, undated, and unordered. â€œIâ€™ll just whip upâ€¦ Corporal Kaltos!â€ She straightened quickly, wiping at the oil stain on her face, and smiled. â€œWhat are you doing down here?â€
Kaltos smiled embarrassedly. â€œLooking for you, Specialist Ramadi. I was worrying about the thing we left behind. I spoke with Doctor Lanyard, and she thought it might put my mind at ease to talk to you. Are you sure it canâ€™t follow us?â€ He hesitated a moment. â€œWhat if it hid inside that New Realmer?â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry. Iâ€™m a pro.â€ Nala grinned proudly. â€œEven if a ghost was powerful enough to punch through one of my wards, it would trigger the alarms for sure. Theyâ€™re all over the ship.â€ She stepped lightly off the crates, rubbing her nose. â€œAll of you from the surface passed through at least three on your way to the brig, and there wasnâ€™t a peep.â€
â€œThe wards are intact?â€ Kaltos was unusually insistant, and Nala found herself stepping forwards to him.
â€œThey are.â€ She gave him her most reassuring smile. â€œYou have nothing to worry about.â€
â€œNo, I guess I donâ€™t.â€ Kaltos hesitated. â€œThank you, Nala.â€ To both her and Mendaiâ€™s surprise, he suddenly stepped forwards to embrace her. After a startled moment, she stepped into it as well, flashing another grin towards Mendai, who turned away in embarrassment.
There was a sudden, sharp snap, and he turned back in time to see Specialist Ramadiâ€™s lifeless corpse hit the floor. Mendai staggered backwards in shock. â€œWhat theâ€¦â€
Kaltos crossed the space between them faster than should have been possible. His grin was predatory as his arm fixed on the engineerâ€™s throat. â€œWhy did I kill you, you wonder? After all, she clearly was interested in me.â€ He sighed mockingly. â€œThe Maw of the Void would have driven poor Nala mad, crushed her soul to fragments and rebirthed her as a spectre. Call me selfish, but I didnâ€™t want to deal with her twisted shade for the next several centuries. Besides, I rather liked her. So she gained a quick death.â€ He considered briefly. Mendaiâ€™s eyes bulged as he saw the fangs descending from the mouth of the thing that had been his shipmate. â€œTruth be told, Mendai, I rather like you too. So letâ€™s be brief.â€
A few moments later, Corporal Kaltos, wiping blood from his lips, stepped out of the door to the engine room, sealing it shut with Assistant Engineer Sallenâ€™s key. He shrugged as he snapped it in half. â€œSleep well, you two. Maybe weâ€™ll meet in your next lives.â€ Humming faintly, he started towards the ladder out of the engine area. Nine to go.