"So explain to me," I started, pointing out the "windshield" of our spaceship, "why the void is bad but this void is good."
We didn't actually talk much on our way to this "Athabasca" place. As light outside the window flowed past us at blinding speeds, as our ship soared through a tunnel of green energy, Scarlet remained glued to the helmsman's seat, rarely ever taking her eyes off the holograms around her that presumably provided her with information from a hundred different sources. I, meanwhile, had taken a seat on the other side of the triangular room. Holograms surrounded me too, but I had no idea what any of it meant, nor the significance of this chair I was seated in. Was the person sitting here supposed to fulfill some important role on this ship? Co-pilot? Radar? I had no idea. I just wasn't ready to spend an entire hour standing around as we hurtled towards Athabasca at speeds of "faster than light".
Some smartass in high school once told me that traveling faster than light was theoretically impossible but was a thing in sci-fi stuff. I told him that I wasn't some high-tooting physicist; I was going to a community college to learn how to be a mechanic, so he could stop showing off how smart he was and shut up. In more polite words.
We hadn't actually spent all our time in the void. There were points where we dropped out of the tunnels of green light, spending hours cruising in the dark expanse of what was supposed to be "normal" space. I couldn't tell why we were doing it; maybe I should've listened to that smartass sci-fi nerd. The point was that Scarlet's reticence felt like a combination of trying to actually focus on important things and trying to give me space and trying to figure me out, whereas my reticence stemmed almost entirely on trying not to look like a completely crazy dumbass, something I had thus far been doing such a good job at.
Scarlet didn't look up from her holograms, but neither did she sound annoyed or distracted as she pointed out, "I'm not an expert."
Yeah, well, until yesterday, I had never been dragged off into outer space. Normal outer space, even, not the void or whatever, which everyone and everything had thus far been trying to tell me was very, very bad. What I actually said, though, was, "Me neither."
Scarlet nodded readily at that, accepting this; I kind of wished she was less immediately accepting of the fact that I was a massive dumbass. "The way I've always had it explained to me was like skipping stones across water. That the void has different...depths. When a wayfinder opens a path through the void, the ship doesn't go too deep into the void, where it stays at a...shallow depth." She gestures with her hand as she draws upon an analogy: "It's like skipping a stone across water, where you're using the surface of the water to bounce to stone on, where you're trying to keep it above water and not let it sink before you get where you need to go."
Honestly, as far as analogies went, that was actually pretty understandable. Granted, I still didn't know what the void was or how it facilitated what seemed to be faster-than-light travel, but at least I knew now that we weren't going to start losing body parts to reality-bending alternate dimensions or whatever.
One of the computers surrounding Scarlet's seat made a beeping sound; I had enough pattern recognition skills to figure out that this was the jingle that played every time we were about to exit the void light tunnel and back into reality. Scarlet turned most of her attention away from me as she fiddled with her holograms. She seemed like she was becoming increasingly familiar with what she was supposed to do every time she sent us hurtling through the void, but there was still a hesitant deliberateness to her actions, a clear hint of unfamiliarity...or a clear hint that this was something with a low margin of error. Probably both.
I wouldn't claim that I wasn't still nervous, but I did feel a bit better about it. At best, Scarlet was still inexperienced about this kind of thing, but had the prerequisite knowledge to manage with just the right amount of cautiousness. At worst, she was actually some kind of genius who had managed to figure all this out on the fly. I certainly would not be able to step into the cockpit of an airliner and fly it with no prior training.
"We're leaving voidspace," Scarlet announced as she placed her hands on the joystick, speaking aloud in a way that seemed like it was more for her benefit than mine, "in three, two, one..."
With a thwump sound, the entire ship seemed to shudder a bit as a brief flash of light transformed the tunnel of void light into the darkness of outer space. "Darkness" here was a relative term, though. Colorful, glowing clouds hung against the backdrop of the blackness of space, giant puffs of nebula floating at what were probably mind-boggling distances. The stars out here shone and twinkled in different vibrant colors. It was actually a really pretty view of outer space, albeit one that made me a little nervous. I remembered what happened the last time outer space got too colorful.
For a few minutes, our ship seemed to simply cruise through space. After those few minutes had passed, I noticed that one of the stars ahead of us out of the windshield twinkled just a bit harder than the others.
A few minutes later, I realized that it wasn't a star at all.
I had actually seen it first as a hologram at the center of the bridge, a three-dimensional representation on a display I had recognized as the space version of radar or whatever. It was still floating in midair at some distance in front of that glowing representation of our own avian-like spaceship. The dots in my head had not connected then, but they were connecting now: Our radar had already detected this artificial structure when we exited the void. And now that it had grown from a twinkling pinprick to a marble-sized entity, I now realized that we were approaching what Scarlet had called the Athabasca shipyards.
I had actually been part of jobs that took place in our local shipyard before. Nothing actually related to ships, though; we had been there to fix a truck. And my boss had really just sent me there with "real mechanics" - ugh - to do paperwork and look pretty. My memories of those shipyards looked nothing like the space station floating in space that I was now staring at. Slowly growing in size right before my eyes, the best way I could describe the Athabasca shipyards was three giant metallic boxes connected by a network of three-dimensional lattices. It was as if three boxes or cargo containers were held together by the bars of a jungle gym. Except - even though we were apparently still at vast distances that made it difficult to tell just how large Athabasca was - the "cargo containers" were starting to look like they were actually the size of stadiums. Not nearly as huge as the "arkology" we had fled from the day before; in terms of manmade structures, the size of the arkology had been of a mind-boggling size. This one was significantly smaller, certainly more comprehensible to mere human minds, but certainly larger than any other artificial structure I had ever seen.
A beeping sound came from the cockpit where Scarlet was seated. She hurriedly fiddled with a few holograms before she did something right, because a moment later, a feminine voice was audible through the speakers: "Unidentified vessel, this is Athabasca Control. Halt your approach, and state your affiliation and intentions."
This sounded suspiciously like the kind of technical jargon that air traffic controllers would engage in. Not that I had ever heard them in person before, but I have watched movies. This was certainly nothing that puzzled Scarlet, who stopped our ship and replied through some microphone tucked away somewhere: "This is Scarlet, daughter of Qtesphon."
"Gesundheit," I muttered under my breath. I quickly noticed Scarlet quietly giving me a confused look, and I suppressed my embarrassment as I frantically shook my head and assured her, "It's nothing." Seriously, though, how did the name "Scarlet" come from a parent named "Qtesphon"?
Scarlet continued to regard me with that strange look, and I definitely felt kind of embarrassed by it, but that didn't stop her from continuing to speak to the voice on the other end of this phone call, presumably someone inside the space station that was growing alarmingly larger and larger beyond the windshield. "I'm requesting camouflage and new registration for a newly-acquired ship." She took a deep breath before adding, "I am vouched for by Miss Citrine." Then, in words that I instantly recognized as a kind of code or password: "'Inaction is the absence of action, not the absence of choice.'"
There was a moment of tense silence. Then: "Welcome to Athabasca. A flight plan has been sent to you: Land at Dock 2. There are no outgoing ships, so you should have a straight shot in."
Scarlet exhaled a sigh of relief, which by contrast made me nervous; I realized that this exchange just now had some kind of worst-case scenario that we just avoided. Probably something that involved more guns. "Flight plan received," my redhead pilot announced after her computers made another beeping sound, and our ship began to soar through space once more, flying closer towards Athabasca. "Thank you, Athabasca Control."
We were now within a sufficiently close distance to Athabasca that I could really kind of register how big it was, compared to the previous notion of "big" distorted by the vastness of nebulous distances. Scarlet was guiding our ship along some kind of preplanned flight path that brought us close enough that I could see light filtering out from lines of windows along the crisscrossing and interconnecting beams and pillars and lattices that looked increasingly like they were giant, multi-floor corridors. The three giant cuboid structures they connected were tiny compared to the arkology, but still dwarfed our own spaceship or any manmade structure I had ever seen, looking like they were at least three, maybe even four sports stadiums in size.
Still, it wasn't just in size that Athabasca would never have been mistaken for an arkology. The arkology had been designed with a luxurious but minimalist grace, with pristine white plates shielding a black substructure, adorned with golden decals. When seen from the outside, its shape kind of resembled a giant winged sword, surrounded by golden halos, almost like if a giant space sword had been on the receiving end of an angelic promotion up in heaven. Athabasca, on the other hand, was bland in an almost utilitarian manner, unadorned and uniform in a simple steel-like color that tryhard dudes with too-loud mufflers liked to call "gunmetal gray". There was almost something familiar about it compared to the arkology, as if I had returned from the surreal architecture of heaven and was now back among the more comprehensible infrastructure of the projects.
With her white-knuckled hands on the joystick, Scarlet decelerated our ship and flew us alongside one of the giant metallic cuboids for a bit before making one final turn, putting us on course with two parallel broken lines of lights inexplicably floating in space, leading to an open set of giant double sliding doors large enough to admit spaceships far larger than ours. These were almost certainly holograms and reminded me of runway lights at an airport. The double doors led into a large empty "room" that easily admitted our ship before ending abruptly in another set of heavy metallic sliding doors. This was probably a giant airlock that could probably admit ships that were at least twice as large as ours, a hypothesis that was quickly confirmed as Scarlet pulled our ship into a full stop inside the airlock, rotating lights along the walls began to flash and spin red, and - presumably - the double doors behind us silently slid shut as the airlock began to pressurize, with steam-like gasses beginning to blast into the chamber through giant vents.
It was in that awkward, almost tense silence that Scarlet suddenly spoke up from the pilot's seat, her words quiet but carrying a worrying amount of gravity. "I don't need to tell you this," she murmured without looking over at me, her gaze instead focusing on the double metallic doors ahead, as if steeling herself for what was beyond them, "but this is the dragon's den. The Congregation is dangerous. Do not provoke them."
Inwardly, I wondered just what about my behavior over our past week-or-so together had been interpreted as "provocative". Outwardly, I gave as serious a nod as I could muster, replying, "I'm not in the business of making enemies."
If Scarlet was skeptical about this, she didn't show it, merely nodding in acknowledgment as the double doors of the airlock in front of us made a loud, abrupt, metallic clanging sound, slowly sliding open moments afterwards. Scarlet waited for the doors to open wide enough before slowly gliding our ship through the airlock and into Dock 2 proper.
Just as Athabasca looked nothing like the arkology we had escaped from, the interior of this shipyard was completely different from the colossal dock where we had first found our ship. For starters, the dock looked deceptively smaller from the inside than the outside. Part of it was probably the existence of some kind of support infrastructure that comprised the outer "hull" of the dock, like the airlock we just passed through. The walls on both sides were obscured behind long aisles of cargo containers and warehouse racks where metallic crates were shoved away. The ceiling was similarly barely visible behind a network of metallic lattices and support beams, from which rows of powerful spotlights functioning as the primary source of illumination for the entire dock hung.
But it wasn't just the gunmetal, utilitarian layout of the dock that distinguished it from the arkology. The interior couldn't even be described as "spartan", in fact. There was a lot of scaffolding along the walls, along the cargo containers and warehouse racks, along the support beams up above, and most of them looked haphazardly thrown together with whatever was on hand with little regard for workplace safety. Signs of ad hoc repairs - replacement parts of vastly different materials and colorations and textures - could be spotted here and there. In contrast to the neatly-stacked containers back on the arkology, the crates and containers here were arranged in a fashion that could only be described as semi-orderly, as if the people responsible for maintaining these wares had understood the importance of categorization but couldn't be bothered to actually tuck them away properly, prioritizing ease of access and convenience rather than neatness. And the seemingly hundreds of tools and devices of all sizes scattered across the dock couldn't even lay any claim to organization, instead looking like they were left sitting around wherever anyone had last used them.
Beyond the arrangement of all the furnishings of a terribly colossal garage, however, the whole dock just had a very wear-and-tear look about it. Old sections of metal sported signs of rusting. Smears on the ground betrayed where grease had a tendency to spill, having since formed permanent stains no amount of cleaning could remove. Visible steam periodically leaked and spewed from aging, clattering vent coverings. Smaller sources of light at ground level to compensate for the shadows cast by the spotlights hanging from the ceiling rigging did little to alleviate that dark, dank look in aisles and corners. There were half a dozen of what looked like spaceships - either of similar size to ours or smaller - that also looked like they were aging and scuffed up, sporting burns and dents and scratches. And even before then, most of them looked pretty rugged, like they were aging military surplus stuff rather than the sleek sportscar look of our spaceship.
The whole setup was hardly dilapidated, but it was just a little run-down in a way that was somehow almost comfortingly familiar. The whole place had a very lived-in feeling, like this was somewhere people actually lived, rather than a surreally pretty, unnaturally sterile space where space Roombas actively erased any sign that I was actually there.
And speaking of lived-in: There were people here. For the first time in what felt like forever, there were scores of people here, doing their own thing. Better yet, they weren't shooting at us.
I actually got up from my seat and scurried over to the windshield to get a better look out of the ship and at the people scattered about. The inhabitants of the docks moved to and fro, busying themselves with all the machinery about, from tools to equipment to a handful of smaller ships in the corner of the dock. Almost all of them wore stained clothing of rough materials, covered in smears and moving with a kind of practiced, businesslike swagger that I was all too familiar with, the kind of "I work with machinery that can tear off limbs on a daily basis" attitude that belonged to so many mechanics. They didn't wear the kind of armor Scarlet did, the kind of armor that the people shooting at us on the arkology did, so I could clearly see all that all of them - like Scarlet - sported those weird animal ears and tails that I was still struggling to get used to. Didn't matter, though; they still looked human enough, and I appreciated the presence of company, even though a few of them were clearly carrying guns on their person, something I was increasingly allergic to.
The whole place was dank and dirty, but I definitely preferred a place like this over the clean, convenient, and hauntingly lonely atmosphere of the arkology.
Someone on the floor of the hangar was waving two flashing safety batons in a way that reminded me of ground crews at airports trying to direct taxiing airplanes. She was clearly performing a similar function, because Scarlet carefully hovered our ship over to the space directly in front of this air traffic controller before touching down; I could feel the floor below me tremble just a bit upon landing, but only just barely. The soft whining of our ship's engines slowly swiftly died off in the distance as Scarlet powered them down, the redhead in question exhaling deeply as if relieved that she had successfully landed without crashing into anything. Still, the tension did not seem to have entirely left her, as if we had only overcome one trial and were about to face yet another. After a moment in which she seemed to be emotionally resetting herself, she stood up from her seat, removed her gun holstered at her side and placed it on the pilot's console, looked over to me, and said, "Well, time to face the music."
That was deeply encouraging. Still, I nodded quietly and stood up myself. No use in backing out now. I certainly had no better ideas at this point.
The two of us left the bridge and worked our way through the corridors of our ship, navigating through a semi-familiar path that we ran through yesterday in our mad scramble into this ship. We soon found ourselves before a set of doors in what seemed to be the aft of the ship, presumably our way out. Scarlet messed around with some kind of hologram on the wall, struggling with the interface for a moment. Then...
announced a familiar voice in my head as the doors before us hissed and opened, as did a second set of doors beyond them; we had our own mini-airlock, after all, one that was apparently smart enough to know when it didn't need to do any serious depressurization.
This actually didn't surprise me as the atmosphere hit me with a soft blast of odors and sound that caused my hair and clothes to softly flutter. It came with the territory; garages, factories, and other such shops almost invariably smelled like gasoline, dust, mold, the carcass of a dead rat rotting somewhere, and unwashed sweaty dudes. And while the dock was humongous enough to not really qualify as an "enclosed space" where any sufficiently loud sound was overpowering, our surroundings were still filled with the cacophony of mechanical equipment, the rumbling hum of infrastructure, the chorus of shouts. It was all very familiar somehow, save for the smells here largely been unfamiliar to me (not surprising, I didn't think spaceships ran on any gasoline I had ever come into contact with) and the surprising amount of feminine voices echoing around (very surprising, something I'd almost never heard after graduating from my community college).
The rear set of doors collapsed into a ramp, the same ramp Scarlet and I had scrambled up amidst excitement and missiles and explosions the day before. We made our way down, quickly noticing a group of about a dozen making their way across the dock to meet us. Almost all of them looked like dockworkers and mechanics, all of them with a bewildering assortment of non-human ears and very non-human tails. I could easily recognize fox ears and fox tails - mostly from having hung out around Scarlet for days now - a few combinations that wouldn't have been out of place on cats or dogs, but I was pretty lost beyond that. It wasn't as if I had ever owned pets before.
At the fore of this formation was a notably better-dressed young woman, a brunette sporting a bobcut and - perhaps most noticeably - a pair of cat ears and a cat tail. She wore a short, sleeveless, form-fitting black dress made out of some synthetic material over a pair of thin, nearly translucent black tights, a combination that reminded me of some secretaries that either tried a bit too hard or starred in porn. Still, I had a feeling that this was what passed as business casual here in these shipyards.
"Are you Scarlet, daughter of Qtesphon?" asked the cat-eared girl, stopping within polite conversational distance with the dockworkers loosely forming a circle around us. When Scarlet replied in the affirmative, she smiled and bowed her head a tiny bit, and I instantly decided that I disliked her. I recognized the air of a venal, self-important customer service agent whose cautious professionalism stopped her from saying what she really thought about you, but who very clearly thought you had just walked into an establishment that was far beyond your class and means. "Welcome to Athabasca. I am Jasmine; I will be taking care of you today. I understand that you want camouflage and new registration?"
I liked to think that Scarlet was actually pretty sharp, although she showed no signs of recognizing Jasmine's character. The redhead kept a totally impassive expression as she nodded and answered, "I do."
Jasmine nodded and looked over at our ship, sizing it up and making quick mental estimates. "This looks like a Lodric-scale luxury vessel. New registration will not be impossible, but it will be difficult. Do you want camouflage for just the shell or the inside as well?"
"It'll cost you. I'm thinking...fifty million crowns or its equivalent, based on Imerisu rates. That's a conservative estimate; depending on the details, difficulties of fabricating registration in practice, what we find in the ship, it could easily be eight or ninety. I can keep it under a hundred. We have a wide variety of options for payment. Subject to negotiation, of course."
Scarlet nodded, but she didn't seem to actually be listening as she looked around the dock, as if searching for a familiar face. She did at least do Jasmine the courtesy of letting her finish before asking, "Where is Miss Citrine?"
Jasmine's perfect smile twitched just a bit, betraying what she really thought: That Scarlet wasn't nearly important enough for her to care about "I'd like to speak with your manager". "Miss Citrine is preoccupied at the moment, I'm afraid. Congregation business, as I'm sure you understand. I assure you, I am more than pleased to come to an arrangement with you."
"Scarlet," came a voice, and although it was soft and sonorous, it carried across the loud, spacious dock with all the clarity of a keen blade, dividing the crowd as if they were the Red Sea. "What did I tell you about swiping luxury ships?"
Up to this point, I had seen two sides to Scarlet: Mostly kind and helpful in a stoic, understated manner; and a compartmentalized coil of desensitized, unemotional murder. But as the dock around us quieted down at the presence of this voice, a voice whose owner sauntered easily over towards the two of us, I saw a third side to Scarlet. She looked like a nervous student being called before the principal at a Catholic girl's school, head bowed a little and shoulders hunched a little. Her hands were even clasped in front of her in an almost girlish manner, which somehow just seemed a little ridiculous given what I had seen her do since we first met. Her fox ears were drooped back, her tail lowered. I had no idea if the body language of foxes were in any way close to the body language of dogs, and certainly not when they were on an otherwise humanlike person, but I recognized submission there, something that made me feel intensely uncomfortable.
The redhead still managed to speak clearly, though: "Don't do it: Too conspicuous, too easy to track, the previous owner is probably connected." Then she added, in assurance, "It's not a luxury ship, Miss Citrine."
Compared to the small crowd of similarly-aged young women, Citrine was a cat-eared, cat-tailed middle-aged blonde looking like she was in her forties or fifties. But time had been kind to her. It wasn't that she was younger than she looked - faint lines were already forming under her eyes and cheeks, and her high cheekbones accentuated the slight gauntness of her features - insomuch as how she had aged very gracefully. The years had not taken away from her classical beauty and sharp eyes and fine features and thick locks of long hair, and I would've been delighted if I could age half as well as she did. She clearly knew this, too, dressed as she was in a shoulderless dress with high slits and a thick fur scarf, confidently showing off her long, slender legs without reservation. There was a very classy style there, like a veteran singer at an upscale bar of some sort back in the Roaring Twenties, a sharp contrast to her current industrial surroundings. She even had a long, reed-like pipe in between her fingers, the kind you smoke out of. In spite of her sharp visage, there was a kindly air to her, the impression you get from a somewhat distant aunt who nonetheless has you over sometimes and sneaks you some money so you can buy snacks without your mom knowing about it.
"Oh?" Citrine raised an amused eyebrow as she came to a stop in front of Scarlet, a full head taller than the redhead. As she did so, her free hand lazily reached out for Scarlet's face, like an aunt caressing the cheek of her favorite niece. Citrine's fingers did brush up against Scarlet's face, but then it went up and back to those fox ears, scritching behind them as if Scarlet were a dog. It was weird enough watching a humanlike person do this to another humanlike person; it was even weirder to watch Scarlet's reaction, her face mutedly twisting with the slightest hints of uncomfortable and vulnerable...and feel-good at the same time. There was a soft blush there too, as if Citrine were doing something inappropriate to assert dominance.
I had to fight down my own blush; watching this go down as I stood right next to them suddenly felt incredibly and intimately intrusive.
Citrine glanced over Scarlet's shoulder at the admittedly luxurious-looking ship we came in on before returning her gaze to Scarlet, smiling in the kind of way that somehow communicated "it's cute that you're lying to my face" and "well, you probably wouldn't lie to my face that blatantly". "Well," she announced, finally dropping her hand from Scarlet's ears, and my companion actually allowed herself an exhale after that, as if she had been holding her breath all this time, "I'll take your word for it." She took a whiff from her pipe, blowing smoke into the air, and then turned to me. Her smile seemed friendly enough, but I still struggled not to flinch at the attention. "Who's your friend?"
Scarlet had quickly composed herself in the few seconds I took my eyes off her, answering, "This is Artemis. She helped me with my previous job."
"I thought your previous job was with the Laswyn Consortium."
"They broke the first rule of arkeology."
"Ah," Citrine clucked her tongue, sounding almost a little surprised. Then she shrugged. "I thought they were better than that. Tells me what I know." She returned her attention and her matronly smile to me. "Artemis, was it?" Her hand came up to my face, as if to touch my cheek in place of a handshake. "I'm Citrine, daughter of Calea, a Praetor of the Congregation."
I didn't dare slap the hand away, but almost entirely by instinct - without really even thinking about it - I took an abrupt step back, my muscles tensing warily as I did so. Even without having seen what I had seen, I wasn't a very touchy-feely person, and wasn't used to that kind of physical contact. Or maybe it was a bullheaded pride overriding my good sense; I didn't like being condescended to. Either way, despite my throat locking up a little, I forced every bit of respectfulness I could muster into my tone as I gave a deep nod of my head and replied, "It's nice to meet you."
Scarlet was looking over with an unreadable but alert expression. Jasmine looked more openly stunned, staring at Citrine from over her shoulder as if expecting orders. The crowd, too, watched with bated breath. But despite a moment where her eyes widened slightly in surprise, the cat woman merely laughed, no hint of malice or threat in her voice. If anything, she sounded almost teasing as she dropped her free hand back to her waist, cooing, "Ooh, touchy." Her laughter faded off, and that friendly smile returned to her face as she said reassuringly, "You have nothing to fear. The Congregation treats even exiles well."
This was the second time the word "exile" had been mentioned since I first arrived in outer space - Scarlet had mentioned it a lifetime ago - and I had no better understanding of what that meant. But I was sure that I had plenty to fear, no matter what Citrine said, no matter how friendly her words or kindly her air. I wasn't just being prickly and standoffish because she was getting all inappropriately touchy-feely with Scarlet - whom I didn't really know but kind of looked up to a bit at this point by virtue of her having risked her own neck to save my life a few times now - or whatever. I didn't know the first thing about mobs or organized crime or whatever, but you don't survive around neighborhoods I grew up in without at least having that gut feeling of who was in one.
It wasn't as if I didn't already have my suspicions when Scarlet first mentioned the Congregation, but I was sure now that they were basically the mafia. And Citrine was the mafia donna. The boss lady.
...Or maybe she was the local mid-level boss? How far up the totem pole was "running a shipyard" around this part of the universe? Actually, that part was kind of unimportant. What was more important to me was that Scarlet - who up to this point had seemed like a pretty good decision-maker - had run to the mafia for help. In fact, she seemed to already know them to begin with. That seemed like a really bad idea. Why did I throw my lot in with her to begin with?
Oh, right, because on a space station full of people shooting at me, she had been the one person who didn't. Life sucked.
Lazily half-turning towards Jasmine - who bowed her head without even being directly looked at - Citrine asked, "How much did you think providing camouflage and new registration was worth, Jasmine?"
"Forty million, Miss Citrine," the sleazy cat-eared saleswoman quickly replied. "No, thirty-five million, perhaps. No more than sixty."
That hadn't been what you said before, you little bitch. Still, business here still seemed dependent on knowing the right people. This was just the first time it had ever been done in my favor.
Looking back at Scarlet, Citrine smiled indulgently, "Whatever happened with the Consortium, I do hope you at least got a bit of the cut."
Scarlet hesitated, forcing every bit of meek respect into her tone as she murmured, "I...have another arrangement in mind, Miss Citrine. One that I think you'd be interested in."
"Respectfully, it would be easier if you started camouflaging the ship first."
Citrine raised an eyebrow. I could tell that she was skeptical, but that the gears were running in her head, like she was balancing a whole bunch of different things in her head, weighing her options. After a moment, the complicated expression disappeared from her face, and she merely smiled. "Is that so?" she asked rhetorically, again reaching out to stroke Scarlet's hair; Scarlet, in turn, bowed her head meekly at the gesture. Turning to Jasmine, Citrine commanded, "Get your girls started." And as Jasmine bowed and began barking orders at the dockworkers nearby, Citrine almost cooed to Scarlet, "You must be tired after everything. I promise our crews won't take long. Would you like to use our lounges? Robin misses you."
Scarlet nodded, whereupon Citrine gave one of the dockhands nearby a small nod, and the mere gesture was enough for the dockworker to give a quick bow before gesturing for the two of us to follow her towards one of the distant doors an entire ballpark away leading out of the dock. The two of us had barely taken more than a dozen steps when Scarlet looked around, noting with muted surprise that Citrine had not moved, her back still turned to us, looking our spaceship up and down as her crew of dockworkers began embarking through the rear ramp. "Will you be staying here, Miss Citrine?" she asked.
Citrine lazily swiveled her head just enough to give Scarlet a sidelong looked, and the corner of her lips tugged into a smirk. "I have to see what kind of deal you're offering me, do I not?"
The dockhand didn't need to lead us too far. Our journey took us to a set of double doors at one end of the dock, depositing us into a metallic corridor that were probably the aforementioned beams and pillars and lattices connecting the larger, boxier, Dock-2-ish parts of the Athabasca Shipyards. The worn nature of the shipyards here didn't stray too far from the dock itself: Aged stains on scuffed metal, pipes running across walls and ceiling vibrating with hums and the occasional rattle, large sheets of tapestries hung up irregularly here-and-there as if in an attempt to personalize an otherwise deeply industrial space.
The corridors were sparsely populated; this was not some kind of bustling spaceport. Not that we were actually taken very far past the dock's doors. The dockworker leading us had made it a few dozen feet before depositing us through a sliding door and into what's supposed to be a lounge about the size of a high school classroom. There was obviously a much more committed effort at decorating this place: The walls were colored wine-red, curtains and even more tapestries of similar colors hung from the walls, the room was furnished with a plethora of cushions and low couches and low tables, and the entire place was lit by the dim but warm glow of a small chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The whole setup had a strangely Middle Eastern vibe in broad strokes, like something out of an old adventure cartoon. Only in space this time, so infinitely more surreal than all of the starched white passageways in the world.
I let a few seconds pass after the dockworker closed the sliding door behind us before exhaling: "That went well, I guess?"
"It could've gone worse," Scarlet allowed with a nod, moving over to the cushions on the floor and settling herself onto them as if she was on a couch, stretching her legs in a way that almost seemed like she was half-reclining on the floor like a bum. Still it, she seemed sufficiently relaxed even as she simultaneously looked tense, as if she was forcing herself to calm down. I, in the meantime, remained standing, partly because I was still a little anxious myself - Scarlet's own visible trepidation wasn't helping - partly because the lack of real chairs disincentivized sitting. Sure, I've sat on my mattress before and have had to sit down on the floor against a wall when my community college lecturers ran late, but it didn't mean I had to like it. I preferred chairs. Low seating was weird.
"So," I allowed after another moment had passed, pacing the lounge a little and noting that one of the larger tables had plates of food. Possibly snacks, by the looks of it, not that I could identify any of it. Still, I was feeling hungry enough that I gravitated towards the area around the table, casting glances at anything that looked palatable to my poor, humble, Earthling tastes. "You didn't tell me that the Congregation was the mafia."
"What's a 'mafia'?"
"Mafia? You know, organized crime?"
"They're a syndicate."
Was that supposed to be an euphemism? Or was this just the official terminology here? "Fine, 'syndicate, whatever. How was it you got to know Citrine?"
Scarlet visibly hesitated for a moment. "She has...helped me out before," she allowed after a moment. Another moment passed before she suddenly saw fit to add, "Also, this room is bugged."
I blinked. "Oh." Suddenly, this moment of innocuous, relieved conversation didn't feel so innocuous or relieving. I supposed it was good that Scarlet told me about this so that I wouldn't say anything completely stupid, although now it felt like we had just shown our hand to whatever listening devices or secret surveillance cameras were hidden in this lounge. "Should you, uh...be telling me that? Out loud?"
"Miss Citrine knows that I know."
Well, good enough for me. "She seems to like you," I offered.
Scarlet's nod of polite agreement is a bit slower and more deliberate this time. "She believes that I'm a good investment."
Certainly, I had some doubts about Scarlet's judgment now that I was aware of her associations with the mafia - "syndicate", whatever - but it's not like I was any position to even pretend being better-informed about the situation at hand or the madness I had been thrown in ever since I woke up in a space station one day. "Well, for what it's worth," I shrugged. "I think you're good." Then I quickly clarified, "Uh, a good investment."
For what it was worth, Scarlet took my compliment at face value and said simply: "Thank you."
I nodded and elected to let the subject drop; I wasn't a touchy-feely emotional sort of person that dwelled on beats like this. In fact, I was incentivized not to, having hovered around the low tea table with dishes of snacks on them. The foods still looked alien, and it's not like I was super comfortable with eating food being offered by a cartel - "syndicate" - but at this point, food felt like it was going to be a very nice distraction. I wasn't famished, but I felt like I could use something in my mouth. "So the room is bugged," I said to Scarlet, pointing at the snacks on the table, "but, uh, is this...safe to eat?"
"It's not poisoned," the fox-eared redhead assured me. Then, less reassuringly, "If they wanted to kill us, it wouldn't be now, it'd be in a few minutes."
I supposed that was a mixed blessing. One part of that reply probably warranted more attention than the other, but my brain was prioritizing my craving for food at the moment, and I suppose it was better to die with a full stomach than without. Besides, of all the plates with alien foods that I didn't recognize, one dish resembled steamed meatballs - the kind of dish that you'd maybe find at a dim sum or whatever - except they were a bit redder than anything I was familiar with and looked like they were glazed over with...well, something.
There weren't any utensils, so I decided that this must be finger food. The meatballs weren't sticky to the touch as I feared, thankfully, the glaze having hardened. I popped one into my mouth and was pleasantly surprised at the taste. There was definitely a bit of weirdness to it, a taste and texture that I couldn't recognize, mushy in a way that was reminiscent of dried paste. Which normally would be alarming, like I was eating rotted food or something, but it also had a nice sour-and-spicy flavor to it, a bit like hot and sour soup in meat-paste form. I helped myself to another meatball, and another. I wasn't feeling adventurous enough to try the other, less-recognizable dishes, but if space cuisine was going to be like this, then it wasn't going to be an entirely miserable experience after all.
It would've been great if the moment had lasted. And I was admittedly a bit distracted by food, content on postponing the inevitable subject, if only for a minute or two. But in between bites, I decided to ask Scarlet the pertinent question: "So you said they may try to kill us?"
"Yes," she replied in a matter-of-fact manner.
I really couldn't bring myself to be surprised about this anymore. Still, I nodded almost blithely and asked: "Will it involve guns?"
The lounge's only door slid open with a hiss, and to my great anxiety but not to my great shock, a stream of people flooded in, all of them dressed in the kind of combat gear Scarlet sported, the combination of semi-futuristic-looking tactical catsuits combined with a select choice of plates from a knightly set of armor. Oh, and all of them were carrying guns, of course, which they pointed at us as they swiftly formed a semi-circle around us, ready to riddle us full of holes.
And it was after all her lackeys had filed through with guns that the familiar sight of Citrine marched in, her auntlike, seemingly unflappable composure twisted into an expression of confusion and anger and horror and shock, even as she demanded, "What. The. F...!"