My bed, came my first thought as I began to rouse, is too comfortable.
And my ceiling too clean, for that matter, what with the slick grooves of white metallic plates forming the ceiling above. Which the ceiling of my apartment bedroom was very much not actually made out of. And glowing, albeit extremely dimly; even for someone who just woke up, the weak light was easy on bleary eyes.
I was feeling very much too physically tired to bother with any shooting-out-of-bed drama, even if I had wanted to. Besides, something like two weeks of craziness had probably dulled my capacity for surprise and shock and awe, maybe.
From where I was lying on my back, I looked to the right: A wall in that same style I have come to expect - sleek and elegant but less ornate, missing the golden paneling and such - and an empty nightstand. The latter seemed embedded into the architecture, part of the wall rather than a piece of furniture. It's fortunate that the ceiling was glowing just enough for me to make out my surroundings without forcing me to squint.
I looked to the left: A faceful of redhead foxgirl, uncomfortably close.
Scarlet wasn't just sleeping serenely with her face close to mine; she was also in her lingerie and clinging to me as she slept, her arms wrapped around my waist. Even in dim lighting and beneath the thin sheet of synthetic fabric, she was very pretty - without makeup, for that matter - where I'm incredibly plain. Which simultaneously made me feel a little jealous and embarrassed; waking up to a really pretty half-naked girl in bed had not really been on my list of priorities. Too bad I didn't actually swing that way. It's probably something I could lord over my ex-boyfriend when I got back, at least.
If I got back. The realization that I was in space - the corner of the universe where there were human girls with animal ears, in fact, who somehow conveniently speak English - had somewhat recalibrated my sense of the scale of my problem.
And the scale of the bed I'm lying in, for that matter. I couldn't really see over Scarlet's sleeping form without craning my neck - and I didn't really feel like it - but my guesstimate put the bed at queen size, if not bigger, which would easily make it the largest bed I'd ever slept in. The bedspread was made of the same kind of alien synthetic fabric as the sheet, startlingly silky to the touch but still completely foreign to me. Still, it was almost criminally comfortable to lie in; although my body continued to be very much sore, I felt rather well-rested.
My eyes had more or less adjusted fully to the dim lighting when the face before me slowly opened her own. Scarlet was clearly the kind of girl who was a morning person: Her eyes slowly opened and fluttered a few times, but within seconds, they focused and seemed lucid, looking like they were actually looking at me.
My embarrassment intensified at the whole pretty-girl-in-my-face routine, so I probably sounded incredibly lame as I weakly offered, "Um...good morning?"
Scarlet, for that matter, showed no sign of embarrassment at her proximity to me or her state of undress as she replied almost blandly, "I'm not sure what time it is."
I didn't really have a good reply to that. It's almost surreal how banal Scarlet's response was. Actually, I really couldn't get a bead on her character. This is someone who had nearly blown out my brains with a gun, then spent days trying to ensure that I survived from people with more guns, then actually fought beside, and now she was underdressed and clinging to me in bed.
I really didn't get people sometimes.
I could get even more worked up about my current situation in bed or pretend I had anything interesting to say. So I sighed and rolled away from Scarlet onto my back; she easily let go. "We're still alive," I muttered tiredly. "Yay."
"It was a close thing," Scarlet agreed as she pushed herself out of bed, and I averted my gaze and turned away a bit more as she swung her slender legs out from under the sheets and out of bed. I self-consciously wondered if there was a bit of mixed messaging there; you had fallen asleep clinging to me in your underwear, and now you were already rushing out of bed the moment you're awake? "I'm glad you remember yesterday."
"And that I didn't wake up asking what happened?" I snorted in an attempt at sounding blithe, trying to pretend I wasn't flustered as my gaze determinedly wandered around the blank and suddenly-very-interesting ceiling. I at least assumed that we were still in the spaceship we made our daring escape from. The architecture - though different from the giant space station we had escaped from - felt familiar enough, at least. Like it had been designed by the same interior designer, just with a smaller budget. I knew all about smaller budgets.
"There are worse outcomes," Scarlet replied agreeably before rising to her feet. I instinctively reached for the sheets to pull them up a bit to make sure that I was covered...
...Which also conveniently allowed me to notice that I was in a similar state of undress, stripped down to my underwear. That I had been spending all this time sleeping next to a pretty half-naked girl. Who had been curled up to me in bed. With me also half-naked.
I pulled up the bedsheet to my face. "Um...Scarlet?" I asked. When she turned to face me in her bra and panties, I asked from beneath the covers where I could better hide my blush and didn't have to look anywhere weird. "Where are my clothes?"
Impassively, Scarlet bent over to reach at the floor beside the bed, straightening with a crumpled pile of my blouse, jacket, and skirt in her hand. "Here," she said as she deposited my clothes onto the bed within arm's reach.
"Thanks," I muttered, tentatively reaching out from under my cover for my clothes. Honestly, I was kind of glad that I did not sleep in these clothes; after two weeks of wearing them in high-stress situations, they felt grimey and smelled like piss, and I actually cringed a little as I started putting them on again from where I hid under the sheet. I wasn't desperate enough to start running around in just my underwear, though, no matter how comfortable Scarlet was with that.
I suspected it was too late and pointless to helpfully inform Scarlet that I was straight. It was definitely too late and pointless to ask Scarlet whether she had been the one to undress me and put me in bed.
"How do you feel?" asked the girl in question; Scarlet was now bending over and picking up her own clothes from the floor, once again giving me a generous view of her milky, slender legs and panties that I was totally not actually looking at.
Like I'm questioning my sexuality, I wanted to mutter sarcastically. Then I realized that chances were good she was actually asking about the fight where I passed out instead of anything else. "I could be feeling a lot worse," I muttered awkwardly, trying not to let my mind wander to any other topic as I buttoned up my shirt and slipped into my frayed office skirt. "Thanks. Though. For asking." After everything we had been through, it was actually kind of strange how grateful I was for the completely banal gesture of asking how I felt. I got over it quickly, though. "How long was I out?"
"Just a night. You were in perfectly healthy condition when you returned to this vessel." She didn't quite turn around to look at me as she slipped back into her shirt. "I'm sorry for not calling you back sooner."
I blinked. "Calling me back...?" Then the events of the previous battle clicked into place. "Oh, you mean during the fight, when I was trying to run from the voidwaves of death?" Finally presentable - if stinking in clothes marinated in two weeks' worth of sweat - I emerged from the sheets and waved a hand blithely, trying to play it cool. "It's fine, don't worry about it. I was caught up in the moment anyways, so I probably didn't hear you. And there was interference, wasn't there?"
It was Scarlet's turn to blink, stopping as she pulled her trousers halfway up her legs. "Interference?"
"Radio interference. I had problems hearing you over the radio."
"Oh." Scarlet pulled up her trousers all the way before - in an odd gesture of vulnerability - self-consciously rubbing her throat. "No, I was missing my neck at the time."
I stared. "From...the voidwaves...?" I offered hesitantly, dreading the answer but knowing in my heart of hearts that this was probably the case; it wasn't as if I didn't literally watch my arm ripple across the fabric of reality. When Scarlet nodded, I muttered, "Well, that's great, I didn't need to sleep again, ever. What the hell is the void anyways?"
Scarlet gave me the kind of look that she always did when it felt like I had just asked something stupid. Characteristically of her, though, she sounded entirely patient and clinical as she replied, "No one knows for sure. We know that it is a separate plane of reality. We think that it is what makes interstellar travel possible. We think it's where the arkologies come from and where they disappear back into." Her expression turns a little grave. "We know we don't belong there."
Well, that wasn't unsettling at all. Strangely enough, though, her words also contextualized the sense of unease I was getting from her. It hadn't been something I registered immediately due to my own confusion and bewilderment at my own predicament, but there had been an undertone of discomfort to Scarlet's words and actions, one I had ignored due to how comfortably she had been snuggled up in bed with me. Now, though? Now I got the strange feeling of how "we don't belong there" could very possibly apply to this spaceship we were on.
That wasn't unsettling at all.
The light had, at this point, brightened to a level that I would've described as "normal lighting". Both of us were finally fully dressed: Me in my smelly office clothes, Scarlet in something that reminded me of special forces in Afghanistan or something. "Would you like a moment," she asked, "or would you like me to give you the rundown on things?"
"Oh," I blinked. "Um, sure." I climbed out of bed and found my shoes on the floor beside it. "A rundown sounds nice."
Scarlet nodded and waited for me to slip into my shoes before gesturing for me to follow her out the door: "Come on."
Hesitantly, I followed her to the door, noting to myself that this was only going to be the second time in two weeks that I stepped out of an unfamiliar bedroom and into an unfamiliar hallway. The surroundings were certainly more cramped and less ornate, but it still enjoyed a sort of pristine cleanliness to it despite having been abandoned for - how long did that voice in my head say it had been? - five thousand six hundred twenty-seven years, two months, and eighteen days ago. Or had that been in reference to the suit of armor I had flown yesterday?
Maybe I was just a bit tired and more than just a bit apprehensive about waking up in unfamiliar environments. Still, taking a deep breath, I followed Scarlet out the bedroom and took one step into the corridor...
...And nearly slipped and fell as something shot right under my foot before I put it down.
With an audible electronic shriek that almost sounded adorable if it had not carried a clear hint of panic, the space Roomba - completely heedless of either myself or Scarlet - shot down the corridor perpendicular to the bedroom door, slipping right underneath the sole of my foot at the very last second. I actually flinched and bounced backwards to avoid stepping on the Roomba purely out of reflex; it would've been nice to grind a heel into it after all the trouble it had caused me. But my sense of vindictiveness was temporarily delayed as I watched the Roomba charge full-speed into a T-intersection, slam against the wall, bounce off it, spin listlessly for a moment as if it had suffered a concussion...then shriek once more as it took off down another hallway, disappearing around the corner.
I should've felt pretty good about that, staring down the corridor where the Roomba disappeared down and thinking about all the times it made me slam into a wall. Unfortunately, I was mostly just feeling concerned, if not alarmed. "What's wrong with the space Roomba?" I asked hesitantly.
"It's been like this since we left the arkology," Scarlet replied; she, too, was staring at where the space Roomba had rounded the corner, although her look of concern was substantially different from mine. Precisely how, though, I could not say.
"I...guess that's not normal?"
"We don't see servitors very often, much less catch them. And they don't remain active when removed from their arkology. I don't know why this one is still...awake." She took a deep breath. "I don't know what is supposed to be 'normal' for it."
As Scarlet marched down the perpendicular corridor in the opposite direction the space Roomba just went, my gaze lingered a little at the intersection it disappeared around, wondering if I should check on it. I decided to let it go, turning around and following Scarlet. I could afford to let it panic for a bit longer; I was sure it deserved it.
With the kind of familiarity with her surroundings that I'd come to associate with this redhead - she just had this kind of aura of dependability about her sometimes - Scarlet led me to a familiar-looking manhole, complete with a ladder, one that seemed completely obsolete; without hesitation, my redhead companion stepped into the hole, and instead of falling down, a faint bubble of light seemed to form around and "catch" her, and she floated gently downwards as if sinking in water; I awkwardly followed suit with a bit more hesitation in my step - my own experiences on humble little Earth had conditioned me to avoid falling down holes - before being momentarily consumed in a semi-familiar-but-mostly-alien feeling of semi-weightlessness. Swiftly but gently, I floated down the light and was deposited onto the floor of the deck below where Scarlet was waiting.
My full sense of weight returned, not that it stopped me from tapping the ground twice with a shoe just to make sure I wasn't going to go floating off. "So, um," I said to Scarlet, awkwardly pointing back at the magical manhole we just descended down, "stupid question. What's this called?"
It was somewhat annoying to me that Scarlet managed to say with a completely straight face: "A lift."
Right. Because it lifted things. That's so funny. I mean, technically, it lowered things, but I had a very strong suspicion that I would float upwards if I stepped back right under the manhole. Lift. Whatever. It's funny. Did I mention this was funny? No, I'm not being sarcastic at all.
Looking around, I realized that I was in the cargo hold again, the basketball court-sized belly of this ship Scarlet had sent me to yesterday, near-empty but for the high-tech garage rig at the very end. And suspended in that garage rig was a familiar sight: A sleek suit of armor with its backpiece and mechanical wings and elongated limbs. The same suit of armor - the Empyrean Guard, I was reminded - that I flew in just the day before. Rows of lights flickered on as Scarlet and I walked towards it, reflected in the polished sheen of the Empyrean. Despite all the firepower and missiles and giant fire swords I had put it through yesterday, the Empyrean looked almost disturbingly untouched, like a sports car that just rolled off the factory line.
I felt a strange sense of attachment as I approached the sci-fi suit of armor. As if there was a kind of affection a bank robber had for an old, reliable getaway car. Maybe that was the case for me; maybe this Empyrean Guard or whatever was my Millennium Falcon. I mean, technically, the ship I was on now would be a better analogue for it, but details. I hadn't managed to survive a crazy fight against Empyreans and spaceships and fire swords and voidwaves on this ship; I did so in that stupid Empyrean. That counted for something.
As the two of us stopped before the suit of armor, though, I was swiftly reminded that not everything had gone flawlessly. Beside the Empyrean was a familiar giant black sword, still ridiculously large for human hands. The blade, however, was slightly crooked, with a deep crack running across its midsection, surrounded by a spiderweb of thinner, latticed cracks. Taking a closer look, I could see what looked like damaged mechanical and electrical components under the crack, although I would've needed a closer look to tell what any of it was. Actually, I doubted that I would've recognized anything even if I had gotten a closer look.
I swiftly realized that this was the part of the sword that I had used to strike an enemy Empyrean yesterday, back when I had not yet realized that this giant sword was actually a humongous lightsaber. Whoops.
"The melee system was damaged in battle," Scarlet explained. There was no hint of scorn or chastisement in her voice - nothing approaching the kind of parental disappointment of "you just broke an expensive toy" - yet I still felt incredibly uncomfortable about this. "I...don't know if it's still operable. And I didn't want to try inside the ship."
The last and only time I turned on the lightsaber, the laser that came out of it was maybe half a mile long, which meant any decision to not turn it on inside this ship was a wise and completely understandable one. Tragically, none of my education and training had ever prepared me for the possibility that I would one day have to repair lightsabers.
As I thought back to the events of yesterday, though, it did occur to me that yesterday was the point in time in which voices started speaking in my head. They had allowed me to take control of the space station's defense guns so I could defend myself against all those bitches shooting at me, they had allowed the space Roomba to tell me to evacuate, they had allowed me to take control of this ship, and they had allowed me to fly the Empyrean Guard or whatever this suit of armor was called.
I had no idea if this was going to work, but what did I have to lose? So I looked up at the ceiling - as if there was some unseen camera or microphone hidden in those white-and-black panels - and asked, "Is the, uh. 'Melee system' still working?"
I was actually hoping - even expecting, maybe - something to reply to me, but that did not stop me from jumping a bit when a voice started forming words in my head. <Structural damage detected in void-burst oscillator,> came that calm, silky, helpful feminine voice. It was still a very strange sensation; rather than actually hearing the words being spoken in sequential order, it felt like these were actually fully-formed thoughts being shoved into my head. It was still a weird, alien feeling, something that had only happened since yesterday, and the fact that it was happening inside my head did not make me feel any better about it. Nor the fact that Scarlet was looking at me weird, looking clearly puzzled as to what I was doing and what was going on; I took that to mean that she couldn't "hear" what I was going to assume was this ship's computer. <Several key diagnostic synapses not responding. Conclusive assessment of void-burst oscillator operability not possible at this time. Possibility of successful activation based on incomplete data stands at 27%, but may result in localized dimensional collapse, and therefore not recommended until serviced by a certified Trisic-level repair and maintenance team.>
Right, got it. Hit power button, possibly get caught up in more reality-bending BS. Do not turn on. "The voice in my head says we shouldn't try using it again until it's repaired," I told Scarlet before instantly regretting my choice of words. I really couldn't blame her for looking at me with a really muted, well-concealed hint of "I'm talking to a crazy person".
To her credit, she took my reply in stride, just as she had taken everything about me in stride thus far. It was admirable; I could almost shed a tear. "Okay," she nodded impassively. "Unfortunately, this means that this ship has no combat capabilities."
In a space universe where everything seemed to be shooting at us, this was not a good development. "None at all?"
Scarlet shrugged. "I still have my submachine gun."
I winced. Not that I hadn't been saved by Scarlet's shooting on foot, but I imagined it wasn't going to do us a lot of good in a space battle with fighter jets and space armor. "Sorry," I said sheepishly. "I didn't realize the sword was actually a lightsaber."
Scarlet blinked. "What's a 'lightsaber'?"
Yeah, it's hard pretending to be surprised that Scarlet didn't know something that just seemed so culturally ubiquitous to me anymore. "Oh, it's just a kind of energy sword. The voice in my head called it a void-burst oscillator or something."
"A void-burst oscillator?" Scarlet's eyes actually widened at this in a muted mix between awe and terror. "That's not an energy sword. That's a void-burst oscillator melee system."
"Um, okay. So...what does it do? I mean, it melts people with energy, right?"
"It creates a chain of explosions that generates an unstable tunnel to the void. Anything that gets caught in the portal passes through."
I blinked and stared at this redhead with fox ears. "The void."
"The void that melts people into walls and randomly abducts my arm and your throat."
"Among other things."
"Who makes these things?" I demanded in a raised incredulous voice.
"The Antecessors did."
Right. The "Antecessors". That was a name that had come up multiple times in our conversations by now. "The ones who built that big-ass space station."
I lazily waved a hand in agreement. "Right, the arkolo..." I began before trailing off, noticing the plural form of the word there. "...Wait, there are more of them?"
"Hundreds more, maybe."
I stared. I stared some more. Then I felt a migraine coming on. Cradling my face in my hand - or, if you were less charitable about this, "facepalming" - I muttered, "Right, you know what? I'm not even going to try and think about it." So I tried to not think about the possibility of hundreds of incomprehensibly large space stations out there with people on them trying to kill me. I slowly felt better about it as I instead thought of the fact that I still had no idea what was going on or what I was even supposed to do in this situation now that I had confirmed that I was lost in space. By which I mean I still felt like complete and utter shit. "So what do we do now that I managed to wreck our only way of fighting back?"
I had been with Scarlet for some days now and she still remained very difficult to read. She wasn't quite so impassive, however, that I couldn't recognize a mixture of both anticipation and dread on her expression. "Let's hit the helm," she suggested.
I obediently followed along. We floated - were lifted - back up through the hole in the ceiling to the floor above, and navigated two of those pristine white corridors. I still did not have a good idea of what this spaceship's layout was like, but I had this weird feeling that I'd have to learn it, and soon.
The double doors to the helm slid silently open, and the dull lights inside the familiar triangular room gently brightened. Computer consoles brightened with dozens of graphics that I had no idea how to read. Blue holograms began to project themselves, including a digital interpretation of our immediate surroundings in space. I couldn't help but notice that the icon representing our bird-like ship seemed to be orbiting a sphere-like hologram that looked very much like a star. I glanced out the window into the night sky of outer space, and sure enough, an orange-ish star burned beyond it, rippling in a sea of fire.
So that's what stars look like, I mused. Actually, looking out the window towards the star, I thought it would be a lot brighter. Then it occurred to me that maybe the windows were darkening the view outside, acting like sunglasses to prevent the star from cooking us alive.
"So," I sighed as I stopped before the holographic map at the center of the helm, pretending I had any real idea of what any of it meant, trying to keep the tone light, "we're not lost in space are we?" I mean, I was. I, Artemis Chan, was now very far from Earth and very much lost in space. But Scarlet didn't need to know that. No pressure, right?
"No," said Scarlet reassuringly as she crossed her arms and stood beside me. "We were low on fuel, but I kept the ship near the local star for our star scoop. I wanted to discuss our options with you."
"Our options?" I repeated, totally clueless and mostly wondering what a "star scoop" was; I couldn't quite get the image of our ship shoveling fire from a star out of my head. I had already seen a ship extend an arm to whack me with a fire sword, so maybe the stupid imagery in my head was not as stupid as it could've been, under the circumstances.
Scarlet at least looked admirably calm as she sucked in a deep breath. "We are two people on an Antecessor vessel with no registration or support. Even if we could dock anywhere, we'd probably be killed for this ship." She pursed her lips before concluding, "So we need to talk about our next move, put our heads together and figure out what we can do."
Half of that flew over my head, and I was entirely ready to admit it. "Look," I sighed truthfully, because I was a very truthful person, "I have absolutely no idea what's going on, where I am, how I got here, or what to do. I barely understood your explanation just now, but getting killed is very bad. I don't know if you have any great ideas or not, but that's better than nothing, which is precisely what I have."
Scarlet regarded me for a moment before nodding in a way that seemed almost anxious despite her best attempts to mask it. Her fox ears literally flattened as she whispered, "Athabasca. I...know someone at the Athabasca shipyards that can help us with camouflage and registration. But..." Scarlet pursed her lips again, and her hesitation seemed a lot more obvious this time, which certainly made me nervous, "...it would've been nice if you had other ideas."
"Are the, uh, Athabasca shipyards bad?"
"No, not really," Scarlet admitted in the kind of way that made me think she was trying to appear less uncomfortable about the proposition for my sake. "Unless..." she trailed off, giving me a concerned look. "You...haven't ever crossed the Congregation, have you?"
"I'm...assuming that's not a gathering of aging suburban soccer moms with nothing better to do with their lives."
Scarlet gave me that impassive look that I'd come to associate with her thinking "what the hell are you talking about". "I'll take that as a 'no', then," she said mildly. All things considered, I was impressed at how well she could pretend that she wasn't thinking about how I was a complete dumbass to my face.
There was a moment of silence. Scarlet looked pensive and thoughtful while I looked like I was busying myself analyzing all the pretty holograms around me. After about thirty seconds, I finally gave up; my anxiety was getting the better of me. "So...?" I started, hoping that Scarlet would fill in the blanks somehow.
Scarlet closed her eyes and sucked in another deep breath. "Alright," she finally allowed as she exhaled. She gave me a look; and when I gave her a kind of awkward, lopsided, forced, "hell if I know anything" smile - or what passed for a smile under the circumstances - she nodded and moved towards the helmsman's seat. As she slipped into comfortable leather furniture, holograms popped up all around her, presenting her with what I could only assume were interfaces and readouts and options. "Athabasca it is."
I was not filled with a sense of confidence when it took her about five minutes to actually awkwardly navigate through those holograms and set us on a course to Athabasca.
Past the windows of our ship, outer space stretched and lit up before sending us into a tunnel of that devilish, infernal light of the void.