The two ships danced in the darkness of space, a soft, soundless ballet while the sleek freighter Trystero matched the rotation of the blocky, abandoned Gra’al cruiser in the fringes of the Demilitarized Zone between Terran and alien space.
“Bring ‘er in slow, Bec,” Captain Vasquez said, hovering over the pilot, her hand braced against the ceiling of the cockpit while the pilot inched the two ships together. She was lean, her jet black hair pulled back into a neat, high ponytail.
“That’s why you pay me the big bucks, Cap,” Becca replied, almost always the opposite of the Captain in how she presented herself. She wore an ill-fitting flight suit half-unbutton, with the arms dangling behind her with only a white tank top on underneath, a contrast to her dark skin. Her hair was a majestic, frizzy beast of its own accord with splashes of blonde interspersed at random.
“Let’s hope,” Drake said, gripping tightly onto his chair. Even though he’d known no other real home outside of the Trystero for the last five years, something about the way Becca came in hot and narrowly avoided scrapes still made him jittery. Captain Vasquez stood defiant through it all, like she always did, while Drake sank into the chair like he’d disappear. Much like the pilot, he wore a flight suit around his average frame.
“You need to chill out or get out, Dray,” the pilot snapped back.
“Children,” the Captain said. “Let’s focus on the job at hand, alright? Sergeant Rose, are you ready by the blast doors?”
“Yes, ma’am,” his gruff voice boomed over the internal comm. “Locked and ready to roll.”
“Good,” she said. “We don’t know what’s waiting for us on the other side in there. It’s not every day we find a derelict Gra’al cruiser in the DMZ, make a quick sweep and signal back, Drake and myself will follow when it’s clear.”
The bump confirmed the two ships had made contact, Bec letting out a slight whoop while the captain gave a slight nod of acknowledgement before turning towards the door. “All right, Drake, better suit up. You know better than to keep the Sergeant waiting.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, unstrapping himself from the cramped seat stuffed in the corner of the four-seated cockpit and carefully stepping over the chair and out into the narrow hallway. Salvaging out in the fringes was perhaps the last thing that Drake ever saw for himself, especially with his roughneck father there with him. They hadn’t exactly seen eye-to-eye when he was younger, what with him being the sensitive type who didn’t understand the thrill of serving humanity on the front lines, yet there was still something romantic about being a part of a crew out in the depths of known space scraping to get by. That life was at least better than living on Capitol Station alongside his mother and Ron. Fucking Ron. Nobody liked Ron, except for his mother, although Drake questioned that often.
His dad had at least tried to be mildly understanding of him for a while, pitching more than just the usual father-son bonding time but a chance to see the galaxy up close and in person, something that every artist worth his salt should make an attempt at. So, Drake was making an attempt at seeing the galaxy and soaking it all in. The only problem was that they spent most of their time traveling, searching for salvage to pick up and usually only hit small mining colonies or traveling merchants to sell the scrap before heading out to find more.
What had seemed like an exciting life instead was a quiet, isolated existence spent mostly inside of a cramped sleeping quarters that served as the canvas for his manic energy that he’d scrawl over the wall before scraping it off and starting over again. No one else had ever been inside of his room, which meant that no one ever saw his work before he’d destroy it and start over again. Everyone probably just thought he was shy or angry, or both.
“Captain,” the Sergeant’s voice came over the ship’s comms. “We’ve got a live one over here, gonna need medical, stat.”
“Copy that,” she said. “Drake. Grab a med kit.”
“Okay,” he said, hopping on one foot while he pulled on his bulky suit, smashing into the metal wall with a thunk before he snapped the med kit out of its clamps, his hair flying everywhere, reminding him that he needed to trim it. “I got it.”
“I’ll be there in 30,” she said. “Be ready.”
“All right,” he said.
The Captain strode in, a pistol on her hip, and just a thin membrane rebreather strapped over her nose and mouth. She squinted at Drake and studied him for a moment before a laugh erupted from deep inside of her. “Haven’t you been paying attention?”
“What? Yeah,” he said. “Mostly.”
“Oh, sweet child. The Gra’al breathe the same air as we do, you don’t need that bulky thing.”
“I thought the ship was shot up?”
“Gra’al ships self-heal, or at least their hulls do. Besides, we scanned it before the Sergeant went in to make sure that life support was still working.”
“And it is?”
“Uh huh,” she said. “Oh well, too late now. You have the med kit?”
“Yeah, right here,” he said.
“Good, let’s go.”
When he had first met Captain Valencia Vasquez, she was 23, in the prime of her life and had newly acquired the Trystero. She didn’t exactly know what she was doing, just that she had won the ship from an old marine buddy of Drake’s dad’s in a card game. With his father newly unemployed, he went where the work was, on the ship, even if the captain was years younger than him with a fraction of the experience. A lot has changed since then, she’d grown harder, more experienced, but she could still be kind and playful with Drake like a surrogate mother of sorts.
They carefully crossed the docking tube between the ships, the captain up ahead having no problems making it through the retractable tube while Drake stumbled around in his 40lbs suit that he found out he didn’t need. She moved effortlessly between the ships, pausing just inside the doorway, waiting for Drake to catch up and only cracked a smile when he smacked his head on the low doorway built for the short, stout Gra’al and not the average-sized human.
“Sergeant!” she shouted.
“Straight down the hallway,” he called back. “I’m in the control room.”
“C’mon, kid,” she said, forging ahead into the alien ship while he clomped along behind her, marveling at the Gra’al vessel. The fusion between organic and mechanical made for fascinating technology, everything looking smooth and metal from a distance but delicate the closer he got to the walls. He reached out and half expected his hand to sink right into the wall which didn’t happen; the walls were rock solid and warm to the touch, even through his gloved hand.
A few of the Gra’al lay strewn about the ship, their deep green blood staining their otherwise pristine uniforms from whatever struggle had occurred on the ship. Each death was precise, right down to each wound, avoiding their carefully crafted armor and aimed at the major arteries. “This is insane,” the captain said.
“Whoa,” was all he could say.
“They didn’t stand a chance. Look, over here at this one,” she said, kneeling down next to a body leaned up against the wall. “See where the bullet went in? This was the work of professionals. Whoever they were they knew how to kill Gra’al with laserlike efficiency.”
“Humans?” he asked.
“Not sure yet,” she said. “C’mon, we have to find your father, we’ve taken long enough.”
The Sergeant hunkered down next to a console, a few scattered bodies littering the bridge, each one near a station. The Gra’al were honorable, and it wasn’t surprising to him to see that they died doing their duties, not cowering in fear or abandoning their posts. His father was standing over a Gra’al with a knife still planted into his chest, only the handle protruding at an angle facing downward.
“Shit,” she said. “Has he said anything?”
“Just a few mumbles here and there, if I take this thing out I’m afraid he’ll bleed to death.”
“Do we know his name?” Drake asked.
“Why are you dressed like a dumbass?” His father asked.
“We’ll go over that later,” the captain said. “Did you get his name?”
“These Gra’al names all sound the same to me, some sort of Din-tube or something. It’s on his badge.”
“Din’tu,” the captain said. “Din’tu, are you awake? Can you hear me?”
The Gra’al groaned and moved his head.
“We have to get him back to the med bay,” she said.
“If we move him he’ll probably die,” the sergeant said.
“If we don’t then he dies. We can at least try.”
“Whatever you say, Cap,” he said.
“Hey, Cap?” Drake said, looking around the bridge.
“Could you help us out, Drake? We’re gonna lift him up and you support him from underneath, okay?”
“What? Spit it out, already,” his father said.
“Right, so, why don’t we disable the gravity? We’re less likely to drop him then, at least.”
“He is heavy, huh?”
“Fucking Gra’al,” his father said. “Short but weigh a ton.”
“Their planet has higher gravity than ours. I can feel it right now, even,” Drake said.
“Go on, then, find the damned gravity switch.”
Drake searched the boards, which were all written in Gra’al. There was probably a command somewhere to change the language, considering the Gra’al had their own regional languages beyond what they knew as “standard” Gra’al, but he would not find it.
“What did he just say?” The Captain said, kneeling down close to the alien. “He’s saying something, I don’t have a translator, do you?”
“Damned if I do,” the sergeant said. “He’s pointing at something, though.”
“Go look where he’s pointing,” she said. “We need to hurry, though. We don’t want whoever did this to come back and find us here.”
“What about the haul?”
“There is no haul as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “Go. Drake, how’s the gravity coming?”
“I think this is it, I just—”
“We don’t have time, press it!”
“Okay, here we go.” He pressed the red button, the ship whining, and the sudden pull of gravity almost dragged him down to the floor.
“God damnit, boy!” His father shouted. “You almost made me trip and fall onto one of these corpses.”
“Sorry,” he said, pressing the blue button right above it twice, the gravity going back to Gra’al standard before releasing entirely, his gut clenching at the sudden weightlessness.
“Uh, Cap,” his dad said. “I think I found something.”
“What is it?”
“Keep… keep it safe,” the Gra’al muttered.
“Wait, what was that?”
“Keep it safe.”
“Keep what safe?”
“Keep it safe. Important…to Gra’al,” he groaned before passing out.
“He said something about important to the Gra’al. What did you find, Sergeant?”
“It’s a tube of some sort, has a bunch of writing on it, along with a panel.”
“Take it with you, then,” she said. “Drake. Help me get him safely to med bay.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
The images of the dead Gra’al were hard for Drake to shake, him sitting in the crash couch by the kitchen gnawing at a packet of protein goop with images of the dead aliens flashing through his mind. Finding the derelict Gra’al ship had excited his father, especially with the dying Gra’al telling them it was important. Any of his disappointment over not tearing the ship apart for scraps washed away because of some fancy container.
“Look, Cap. I know you want to bring it in, but listen to me,” he said, following behind her while she rummaged around for a drink. “Please?”
“Sergeant, you know how I feel about it.”
“We came all this way and for what? We’ve got a rockhead in our med bay and some glowing thing that he told us was important. I’m not against dropping him off at the nearest station or anything here, I’m just saying, we don’t have to just give them our loot.”
“I hear you,” she said, “and my answer is still no. We turn it in and that’s that.”
“I’ve been in battle with these bastards,” he said. “I’ve seen them kill friends of mine, you think they treated us this well? Hell no.”
“This isn’t war,” she said. “This is being decent. This is us playing nice with someone in trouble.”
“Maybe even preventing another war,” Drake said.
“Exactly, listen to your son.”
“Why don’t we ask Becca, huh?” He asked. “Let the whole crew decide on this.”
“Decide on what?” She said, ambling down the narrow metal stairs into the kitchen.
“What we do with the loot.”
“The tube thing?”
“Yeah, the Captain and my son here think we turn it in. I say we at least open right, right?”
“No harm in that,” she said, uncommonly agreeing with him.
“What? Err, see, Cap, even Becca says we should at least look.”
“Fine,” the Captain said. “I yield, doesn’t change the fact that whatever is in there isn’t ours and our new friend in med bay would probably appreciate it if we’re responsible with it.”
His father dashed off to get it, slamming it down on the table with a thud, a glint in his eye. After the war there wasn’t much for someone like his father to do, so turning to the stars and joining crews like this were better than taking security jobs planet side or on some station, at least that’s how he sold it to Drake. Clumsily, his father attempted to pry it open, trying to jam his fingers into the seams only for them to be too tightly sealed to give way to his brute force.
“Damnit,” he said.
“Here,” Drake said. “Let me look at it.”
“Whatever,” his father said, yielding the tube to him. The tube was smooth and slightly rounded, not actually a tube like they’d been calling it, but close enough. The panel on the outside was spitting out data in Gra’al that he couldn’t recognize and their translators only worked with spoken words. None of them knew the language that well, outside of his father knowing a few curses that he learned to shout at them while engaged in combat. That never came in handy for any of them again.
“This panel looks a lot like the ones in the ship,” he said.
“They’re rockheads and it’s something of theirs, of course it does,” his father growled.
“No, I mean, whatever is in here is probably pretty important.”
“Then crack it open already, alright.”
“Yeah, Dray. Bust that egg open already,” Becca said.
“Okay,” he said. “I think if I just press this here and…”
Mist arose from the tube while it emitted a low humming sound, the seams coming apart while the parts slowly peeled away from it. They all jumped back at the mist except for Drake, who was squinting, trying to see through the billowing vapors. The room went silent while the mist cleared, the sound of a cry rang out and Drake’s eyes almost bulged out of his head. There inside of the tube was a baby Gra’al, swaddled up in a blue cloth staring up at them.
“Is that…?” Becca asked.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” his father said.
“A baby Gra’al,” the Captain said under her breath.