It had been two weeks since I first arrived in outer space, and that had been two weeks where I had guns constantly pointed at me. A change of setting, it seemed, was not actually going to break this pattern.
Actually, sneaking a glance at Scarlet, I wasn't entirely sure what to feel about Scarlet looking entirely unsurprised by this development either. I mean, clearly, she expected this to happen, and might have actually set it up this way. Still, couldn't we go just another day without being under threat of being shot at?
After spending all of our time together being a suave, confident, sexy middle-aged lady, Citrine now looked positively livid, standing as she did at the door of the lounge behind her row of about a dozen goons pointing guns at us. Thrusting a finger in the direction of the hangar - or at least the direction I suspected was the hangar - she snarled, "That is an Antecessor ship."
Scarlet nodded with all the gravity of someone confirming the weather outside: "It is."
"I have a proposition. One that will benefit all of us."
Citrine's eyes narrowed. This was not a woman who enjoyed being in a position where someone else was in-the-know and she wasn't. But I somehow also knew that this was a woman who wanted more, wanted a leg over others, played all the angles. This was someone with ambition, and wasn't going to be too torn up over who she needed to step on to get there. She was far too pragmatic and reasonable to not give Scarlet a chance to explain herself. "Go on," she said in a dangerously even tone.
Although there was still a hint of submission there - as if to telegraph that she was very much not here to cross Citrine - there was a bit more backbone to Scarlet now, as if she was also trying to communicate that she was negotiating from a position of some kind of advantage. "It is as you say: A 'luxury vessel' attracts too much attention. If this ship isn't camouflaged, sooner or later, someone will realize that this is an Antecessor vessel. Word will surely travel back to the Empires, something that no one wants. If camouflaged, though, we can operate off the ship. As arkologists, as freelancers. In return, we send you technical data of the ship. You get to understand how Antecessor technology actually works, for the low price of camouflaging our ship and letting us do what we do best."
Citrine's eyes narrowed. She hid it well, but it wasn't that hard to tell that she had taken the bait, that the wheels in her head were spinning. She was still running the odds in her head when she coldly asked, "You want me to let you walk away from my doorstep with the discovery of the millennium."
"Is it the ship that's the discovery of the millennium? Or the ability to build more ships just like it?"
There was a spark that was dancing between Citrine's eyes now. I wasn't sure what was going on, but something about Scarlet's terms excited her. That didn't stop her from demanding, "Explain to me why I need to play your game instead of torturing you for the information you know."
"It wouldn't do you much good," Scarlet explained coolly, which was very good, because I very much did not like the phrase "torturing you for the information you know". "The ship is keyed to Artemis' essence. It's useless without her." Which was the most bullshit thing I had ever heard of, but Citrine's eyes narrowed like this was complete normal, and I realized after a moment that my personal worth had just gone up astronomically.
I wasn't actually sure this was a good thing.
"Besides, you want her - us - out there with the ship. If understanding Antecessor tech was as simple as disassembling its parts, everyone would have been able to replicate it by now. What we need is technical data, how Antecessor tech works when it's actually running. Who better to collect the data than us? Two freelance arkologists with no affiliation to the Congregation? You get all of the benefits with none of the blowback."
Citrine was doing her best to maintain her poker face, but whatever Scarlet just said - and I understood very little of it - it was obvious that my fox-eared companion who had gotten me into all this trouble had hit the nail on the head. It took Citrine only several moments of quiet contemplation - moments that we spent on the receiving end of pointed gunbarrels - before asking, "What guarantees do I have?"
Scarlet bowed her head, some of that deference she almost naturally seemed to show Citrine coming back. "You're the Congregation," she murmured. "I would never cross you."
Citrine's eye narrowed a little as she observed, "This ship changes that equation quite a bit, doesn't it?"
A moment of awkward silence ensued, even as Scarlet's brow furrowed ever so slightly. Which annoyed me a bit. Citrine was obviously tugging at the bait, someone who was clearly interested but playing coy. She was trying to sound difficult so as to maintain the upper hand in negotiations - an upper hand that she did not feel that she enjoyed despite literally having a dozen goons who were still pointing their guns at us - but it really wasn't too hard to tell that she was interested, that she was posturing, that she just needed one last, tiny push to sign onto a deal that I clearly didn't actually understand, but was somehow the deal of the century. Millennium. Whatever.
So I took a risk, mustered what little bravado I had remaining, and sighed explosively: "Fine, what do you want?" And once I was certain I had everyone's attention - a muted but startled look from Scarlet, an alert look from Citrine in what felt like a combination of surprise and suspicion - I continued, "I mean, you're not dragging us to some dark room right now, which means you think Scarlet has a point about us being your patsies. You like the idea, but you want to make it work." I slumped my shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. "Fine, how do you want to make it work?"
There is again a tense moment as Citrine regarded me, her grim countenance changing very little as she stared at me, Scarlet trying very hard not to look like she's tense and nervous. Then the moment passes, Citrine recovers some of her cool, and she tilts her head slightly towards Scarlet as she wryly remarks, "Your friend is blunt."
Scarlet clearly felt that this was not the worst of all possible reactions, because she seemed to relax just a hair and allow, "She...has her moments."
Hey, Citrine actually seemed like she was buying my angle; hook, line, and sinker. Didn't I deserve just a little bit more credit?
The cat-eared lady quietly considered everything that had transpired thus far, looking between Scarlet and myself as if trying to detect any sense of falsehood. Then she reached out with both her arms and gently pushed down the guns in the hands of her two nearest lackeys, and just like that, the room full of security guards were no longer pointing their guns at us. I actually exhaled a very obvious sigh of relief. It wasn't good for negotiations, but I couldn't quite help it. It was great not being on the business end of the barrels of a bunch of guns.
Citrine had the grace to ignore my obvious outburst, instead producing her reed-like pipe from her belt, and using some kind of device to light it. It took her a moment to blow a mouthful of smoke into the air before declaring in a matter-of-fact manner to Scarlet: "I get to put one of my own on your ship."
Scarlet looked Citrine in the eyes and nodded agreeably, replying, "We could use an engineer as long as she acts like crew. Knows to obey orders."
"I will have bugs installed on your ship. I'll tell you where some of them are. Not all of them."
"For technical data only. No audio, no video, nothing that can track us or spy on us."
The pipe went to Citrine's lips again, and I got the sense that she was maybe not all that entertained by this back-and-forth negotiation. "You're pushing very hard," she observed; it was a simple remark, devoid of any hint of hostility in her tone, but there was just something about this middle-aged woman that successfully conveyed a sense of intimidation.
Thankfully, Scarlet held her ground, admirably juggling between submissiveness and assertiveness where her dealings with Citrine were concerned. "You want technical data, not information on the odd jobs we pick up," she said politely, but her position wasn't any less firm. "If you do this, we won't look very hard for the bugs you don't tell us about. We won't take any jobs against the Congregation, of course. At least, not any job we know is against the Congregation."
Citrine made a show of considering these new terms carefully, but I had a feeling that - aside from any final details to be hammered out - this was a done deal. Indeed, the cat lady turned her head once more in the vague direction of the unseen hangar with a distant, absentminded look and noted, "She looks like a Lodric-scale ship. A crew of three will be stretched thin."
Scarlet nodded and - in an exchange that clearly relied on subtext I didn't understand - promised, "I will ensure anyone else we take on remains silent."
There was a moment of thoughtful quiet before Citrine glanced at one of her goons and cocked her head towards the door. Immediately, the dozen-or-so lackeys in space tactical gear quietly filed out of the lounge. The door automatically slid shut behind the last of them, leaving us along with Citrine. "The rest of the Congregation doesn't need to know about this arrangement," she said sternly, her voice dropping in both volume and tone. "Not until I'm ready to tell them about all the technical data we've pulled. No need to complicate things"
"I'm not familiar with anyone else in the Congregation, Miss Citrine."
Even if I wasn't familiar with the inner workings of the mafia, I had been around the block. I knew workplace politics when I saw it. I was certain now that Citrine was middle management for the mafia - upper-middle management at best - not its boss. Whatever Scarlet was offering her, Citrine was trying to use us for her own prestige inside her own organization, and Scarlet was banking on this. Honestly, I was almost impressed. I wasn't entirely sure if Citrine was dancing in Scarlet's palm or we were dancing in Citrine's, but this was pretty cool. At least, cool in the sense of "this would make a really impressive story, I'd like to survive it and never have to go through it again".
The cat lady in question nodded in an almost absentminded manner, as if she was actually preoccupied with adjacent concerns. Her pipe was produced from a pocket, and she lit it once more, inhaling on its aromatic fumes. Then, with a smoky exhale, she turned towards me and asked, "What about you, Artemis? You've been quiet all this time, but it seems like you've been the one doing the work behind the scenes. Is this arrangement satisfactory to you?"
I was doing work behind the scenes? This was news to me. Still, I didn't see the need to correct her preconceptions. I would let her make her own educated guesses. "I owe Scarlet a debt of gratitude," I replied simply. "And I trust her judgment."
Citrine regarded me for a moment, presumably trying to get a read on me, trying to figure out my angle. Which would've probably been more useful to her if I actually had an "angle" beyond "boy, I'd like to not get shot anytime soon". She remained passively contemplative - schooling her features and suppressing any expression that might give away her thoughts - before allowing, "We don't have the resources for an extensive camouflage, not here in Athabasca. We'll do the preliminary work, enough to fool basic scans. I will arrange for a contact in Anaffa to handle the rest. She will be...appraised of the situation."
For her part, Scarlet bowed her head deeply, and I found my survival instincts kicking in as I hurriedly mimicked her motion. "Thank you, Miss Citrine," she replied humbly. "I couldn't ask for more."
Some of Citrine's amiability had returned, as if a degree of normalcy had reasserted itself. Whatever it had been, the initial shock factor was gone, and the middle-aged cat lady was now contenting herself with calm puffs of her pipe, even if the easy, auntlike smile had not yet returned full force to her lips. "We'll spend the next few days discussing the details of this arrangement as my girls look through the ship and figure out how it works," she declared, turning towards the door that automatically slid open upon her approach. Unsurprisingly, I could see some of the armed guards still waiting outside. Citrine herself largely ignored them, although as she made her way out of the lounge, she stopped at the doorway and paused for a moment before quietly allowing what passed for a respectful nod to Scarlet, "That was...very impressive. Keep...doing what you're doing."
Scarlet bowed her head in what was supposed to be a gesture of acknowledgement and gratitude. Citrine merely nodded before walking past the doorway, and the door slid shut behind her, leaving Scarlet and I alone in the lounge once more.
I immediately slumped to the cushion-filled floor, an explosive exhale escaping my lips. It didn't take me too long after that to reach over to the low table and grab another one of those meatballs. I didn't even care that its texture was kind of paste-y in my mouth. I just wanted to eat something after all that tension, even though my stomach was doing somersaults. It was probably just comfort food syndrome kicking in. For her part, Scarlet didn't react quite as dramatically as I did, but she definitely seemed a lot more relieved, if her deeply-slumped tactical pauldrons were any indication.
I let the silence stretch out just long enough to start to be awkward before venturing, "Well, we didn't get shot. Good job, us."
Scarlet nodded lightly in what seemed like polite agreement. "They'd take us out of here to do that," she informed me helpfully as she, too, slumped down into the comfort of the cushions, "to somewhere easier to hose down after."
I wasn't sure what to make of how calm she was at this prospect. I wanted to say that it was unnerving, but I was getting startlingly accustomed to this side of Scarlet at an alarming rate: Fatalistic and compartmentalized. "Right," I allowed after giving my thoughts a moment before giving up on that. "Good. You're the expert on being shot at, I guess."
"I would prefer to be an expert on other matters," Scarlet replied with a straight face. I wondered if that was the closest she came to a joke. Not that I had too much time to ponder on the subject: I heard the hissing sound of an automatic door sliding open and a small chiming sound. Not the same door the two of us and Citrine and her goons had used. Instead, a smaller entrance on the far side of the room slid open, a side door hidden within the wall that kind of reminded me of a maintenance hatch that I had not previously noticed, admitting two girls.
The first of this pair had dogs ears and a tail of some breed that I would have recognized had I been a dog person, although I admit that wasn't quite the first thing I noticed about her. She was short and slender in an ephemeral way, the insubstantial, clinging fabric of her aggressively short, translucent negligee-like dress revealing far more than it hid. Behind her was a second girl: A little taller, a little tanner, a generous figure made all the harder to ignore due to the similar attire. And "attire" is a generous word here. Cat ears were perked up on her head with a matching tabby tail gently swaying behind her.
Both of them looked like they'd gotten lost on the way to a modeling shoot, and very much not the family-friendly kind.
"Hello again, Mistress Scarlet," the doggirl said with a bow and a curtsy - not that she had much in the way of fabric to properly curtsy with - giving a mischievous smile as her body squirmed and fidgeted in an almost offensively and excessively feminine way.
"Robin," Scarlet greeted. She was obviously distracted, but she managed a smile for the girl anyway. It was apparently all the invitation Robin needed, because in an instant, she had crossed the room, settled down beside Scarlet, and half-climbed into her lap, clinging to her in a way that made me very much start to think of excuses to leave the room for a little while. Unfortunately, this distracted me from the true threat to myself.
A wave of perfume hit me before I heard her voice. "Hello, Mistress Artemis," the catgirl said as she wormed against my side, and not particularly modestly. With not even a little bit of dignity, I shot to my feet, barely missing bumping heads with her.
"Uh...hi?" I managed, looking down at this mildly-startled catgirl clinging onto my leg. Somehow, being this close to her didn't help matters, not when I had an ample view of the catgirl's cleavage under the loose, tiny, shoulderless top that resembled a thin piece of frilly fabric tied across the chest. Which was a silly thing to pay attention to because we're all girls, a thought that was severely undermined by the giggle that Scarlet's companion let out to the right as Scarlet's hands reached somewhere that I vaguely registered as "deeply inappropriate". Robin's hands, for their part, were gently undoing the straps and buckles fastening Scarlet's armor plates to what was otherwise a relatively overdressed combination of tunic and trousers and boots.
Which was really as far as I got in terms of paying active attention to them. Later, I was going to have to reckon with the fact that a space lesbian foxgirl had apparently shared a bed with me and then brought me with her to a space station run by the gay space mafia. Right now, the only thing I could really focus on was how inexplicably tongue-tied I was about the attention I was receiving.
"I'm Rowan," my new companion introduced herself with a smile and a very fetching tilt of her head. The little bell on the collar around her neck jangled again as she did so. Because she was a cat, I vaguely assumed somewhere in the back of my distracted head. Things were distracting. "I'm here to help you relax, courtesy of Mistress Citrine."
I didn't immediately do anything beyond nod dumbly. Maybe it was my frozen, oblivious stare, or my lack of either a tail or ears - I saw her eyes flick between my waist and the top of my head more than once - but something seemed to cause the smile to get just a tiny bit strained for the shortest of moments. It took me a few, and I was pretty proud that it took me only a few given the circumstances, but I abruptly recognized it as the expression of every cashier I'd ever seen listening to a middle-aged customer's joke about how debit readers keep changing. I say "every cashier I'd ever seen" because I couldn't exactly have seen my own face.
She was working. Of course she was. What did I think was going on here? This still made things awkward, but it helped, weirdly enough. As if a sense of distant normalcy had been injected into the situation.
My mixed feelings were compounded as Rowan rediscovered her best customer service face as she beamed and sultrily asked, "We do have very nice baths available, if that sounds nice to you?"
I was both relieved and horrified. On the one hand, I'm glad I wasn't so off-putting that Rowan was having second thoughts, and there was a rational reason why she was staring at me. On the other hands, the rational reasons were not really of any comfort to myself: My clothes were filthy, my hair was a nightmare, and the closest I'd come to a shower in days had been splashing water on myself from the sink back on the spaceship in lieu of a chance to seek out a shower. I wasn't just some weirdo she was expected to fawn over, I was a gross weirdo she was expected to fawn over. Customer service truly was a universal hell.
"Oh, uh...sure," I allowed, trying not to visibly cringe, trying to play it cool, trying not to blush, except...dammit, I was already blushing. "That sounds good. A bath, I mean."
I tried to ignore the relieved set of Rowan's shoulders as she softly took my hand in hers - much to my surprise - gently pulled me in the direction of the lounge's main door, and said: "Please follow me, then."
That would mean leaving Scarlet, the only person I actually knew on this space station. One spare glance at her, though, was additional motivation to enjoy a nice shower. Scarlet and her scantily-clad dog-eared companion were already whispering sweet nothings to each other, and although I had come to enjoy the typically taciturn Scarlet's company, I really didn't want to be in the same room as that.
The hallways Rowan led me down were the familiar surroundings of industrial corridors personalized with decorations and adornments, mostly in the vein of tapestries, trinkets hanging from threads strung up from the ceiling, and even the occasional graffiti. This was a prettiness I was getting pretty used to pretty quickly, actually, like decorating a workshop as a living space. We didn't have much in the way of company, though, and the corridors were mostly empty. The dockworkers were probably working at the docks, and security was probably doing their security things. We did pass two people separately - a wolf-eared woman who passed us and paid us no mind, and a younger fox-eared girl who grabbed at Rowan's ass playfully, even as the catgirl pouted and pointed out that she was keeping me company.
"Don't worry, Mistress Artemis," my chaperon was telling me as we continued on our merry way. I was wondering if she should be more worried - I was about ninety percent certain after that ass-grab that Rowan wasn't wearing anything underneath that aggressively short and tantalizingly loose microskirt - when she finished, "We're used to seeing people work long hours before they've a chance to bathe."
Oh. Well, that...was possibly a comfort? And a good segue away from any potential conversation about underwear or lack thereof? "I'll...take your word for it," I allowed.
Looking at me with a twinkling gleam of curiosity in her eyes, Rowan asked, "Are you an arkologist too, Mistress Artemis?"
"Something like that?" I allowed hesitantly. Scarlet had certainly dropped me enough warning signs about talking too much here, and it was probably easier to just let people assume things about me without actually volunteering everything.
For better or for worse, Rowan actually seemed to regard me with something akin to admiration - like I was the modern-day Indiana Jones or something - as she wistfully sighed, "It must be quite exciting when it isn't just for work. Sailing the stars, exploring arkologies, discovering hidden artifacts..."
"Getting shot at," I muttered under my breath, mostly for my own benefit.
"Well, you're still alive!" declared Rowan happily in a tone that was meant to sound impressed, but mostly startled me. I had not actually intended for her to hear me say that. I wondered if having cat ears meant that she had better-than-human hearing as well, something I needed to keep in mind in the future. "You must handle yourself very well."
"I guess," I allowed vaguely, trying not to think of all the times over the past week in which my life was saturated with screaming and running away and wetting my panties.
Okay, so I didn't actually wet my panties, but.
The walking didn't take that long. A sliding door opened automatically upon Rowan's approach, and I was swiftly hit with a wave of pleasantly warm steam. The room inside seemed like a completely different world than the one outside. Old, worn tiles made an effort to chase itself around the floor and up the walls in brightly-colored mosaics, like an artist working with a limited palette but doing his best. The air had a pleasant, steamy quality, enhancing the soft lighting. The steam came from a large pool and a surrounding constellation of smaller tubs in the center of the room, surrounded by columns, all of them raised slightly but still built into the floor itself. The whole thing was evocative of a Roman bath or a Japanese hot spring. Not that I had ever been to Rome or Japan, but regardless, this hadn't been what I'd expected when Rowan had suggested that we go to "a bath".
On a shipyard that had seen determined but ad hoc efforts to personalize a workspace as a living space, this seemed like a particularly extravagant effort, like someone had been trying too hard. Not that I was complaining.
I was still gawking when I felt Rowan's hands come in from behind me as she pulled my shirt up over my head. It was, fortunately, already unbuttoned enough for this to work. I'd like to say I took this coolly, but that would be a lie. I gave a sound something like an alarmed squeak, taking a step back from her in shock. "I can take them off!" I said, eyes wide. I was still trying to go with the flow and pretend I knew what I was doing and not make a scene, but I was not accustomed to total strangers trying to undress me.
She raised a hand to herself and laughed demurely. "Spacers usually aren't this shy," she said. "As you wish, though, Mistress Artemis."
Which, of course, meant that I had just low-key agreed to undress now, with her in the same room as me. I'd changed in front of other girls before, but that had never been under precisely these circumstances. I averted my eyes from the smirking catgirl, and set about stripping in the most utilitarian way possible, before proceeding immediately to the hot, inviting water. Going into it felt so good that for a few wonderful moments, I forgot all about my audience, until that wave of perfume struck me again.
Startled, I realized that Rowan was sitting on the edge of the tub, settling a tray with bottles and soaps down beside her. "Why don't we start with your hair, then?" She didn’t actually wait for me to respond before using a bowl to scoop up the hot water, and dumping it all over my head. Then her delicate hands were lathering something that smelled vaguely pleasant - scents I could not identify and could be space herbs for all I knew - into my tangled, filthy hair. "Just relax," she purred. Actually purred, which was, uh...a thing.
Once the painful part had passed by, I did actually just let myself relax, though. It was nice, soaking in the hot water, having someone else take care of my hair, occasionally remarking about how pretty and dark it was in a way that I hoped wasn't entirely fake. In fact, I had almost begun drifting off when I felt those same hands begin to guide something warm and soapy over my arm. My eyes snapped open, seeing that Rowan had finished with my hair, and had moved on to gently scrubbing my skin with a soft sponge. She laughed at me again. "Relax!" she said. "I'm not going to bite you. Except by request." And only laughed again as my cheeks heated.
Inch by inch, I forced myself to relax and accept Rowan's gently teasing care. What was the worst that could happen?
...After everything that had been happening to me, I was not sure I should be tempting fate by asking that question.
We ended up staying in Athabasca for about four days. We were well-treated throughout, at least. I got to sit in on several meetings between Scarlet and Citrine where they hashed out details of their deal, talking about a few dozen things I really didn't understand, but felt compelled to nod along anyways like I totally understood what they were saying. The relationship between the two seemed, at the very least, more constructive. Of course, I was working from a baseline of "being threatened by guns", so maybe my standards were a little skewed, but we had returned to that weird dynamic where Citrine was the doting aunt and Scarlet was the demure niece who knew not to piss her off.
Aside from that, we were given guest rooms for the duration of our stay, along with the lounge that always seemed to be stocked with relatively nice things to eat. Robin and Rowan kept us company too, and after a while, it was really easy to forget that they were consorts whose company was part of their job and whose job probably also included reporting anything we said to their boss. At least, that was what Scarlet said. Regardless, putting aside Rowan's initial caution towards me, she turned out to be good company for someone who had been cooped up in an abandoned space station for weeks. She was honestly actually kind of sweet and talkative about a bunch of inane topics, which I otherwise would not have given the time of day for under normal circumstances, but which became a bit of a welcome distraction.
Granted, the whole "clinging on me while nearly naked, even while sleeping" part was a distraction in and of itself, but I was swiftly becoming accustomed to not paying too much attention to the details.
We weren't, strictly speaking, confined solely to our guest rooms and the guest lounge, and I had the opportunity to wander around the shipyards - albeit under the watchful eyes of armed guards - but there wasn't actually much to see. Or, at least, there wasn't too much to see that I understood or was of interest to me. Besides, I was taking the opportunity to learn a few things.
First, the internet didn't exist.
Or, at least, they didn't exist in the way I was familiar with. The Congregation grunts of the Athabasca shipyards, at least, were not glued to their smartphones in the way the modern society I was familiar with back on Planet Earth were. Certainly, they had devices they carried akin to smartphones or tablets - "ostracons", they were called - but they did not seem to be connected to a network larger than what was available on Athabasca. Sure, I eventually just asked some indirect questions - questions that were plausibly absentminded instead of "I'm a complete idiot" - but even cursory observations of the people around me suggested an almost workmanlike attitude towards their cons. It wasn't as if they were somehow more primitive or less technologically advanced, what with functions like holographic displays and what looked like calculators for what looked like high-level engineering math or whatever. But it didn't seem like they were constantly on their cons to check on social media updates or watch cat videos. Rather, they were simply used as tools. People called each other when they didn't have time for a face-to-face. Holograms and scanners provided what seemed like functions akin to digital rulers and voltage detectors. Otherwise, though, the cons felt more like flip phones or Blackberries at best - yes, I was old enough to remember those - than iPhones: Powerful and convenient tools that provided plenty of functionalities that nonetheless had not yet taken over many facets of daily life for whatever reason.
Second, I was probably being called an "exile" because I didn't have fox ears or cat ears or whatever ears. Or a tail.
I mean, I obviously had human ears underneath my hair. And on a space station populated by people with animal-like appendages, there were - at first - a few people who actually looked like they were normal humans, like me. They were a minority, but I could soon recognize the faces of four or five of them after spotting them a few times. It was a few days into our stay in Athabasca, however, that I was daring enough to approach one of them, and I realized they didn't just lack animal-like ears, they lacked ears, period. All of them had hair that covered over significant scars where their ears were supposed to be, a choice of style I strongly suspected was meant to deliberately hide those disfigurements, and I wasn't exactly in a hurry to pull down their pants to see if they had similar-looking scars where their tails were supposed to be. All four or five of them struck me as either excessively meek or standoffish to a fault. Given the connotations of the word "exile", I had a suspicion that I was operating at a distinct social disadvantage here. No one was treating me poorly, thankfully, although I wondered if that was just my status as Citrine's guest offsetting any other problems.
For the most part, aside from a few opportunities where I took a longer look at the odd curiosity - this was a workplace, after all, and I knew as well as any mechanic the loathing we have towards someone watching our work over our shoulders, so I never tried pressing my luck - the days passed uneventfully. Granted, we were also on the territory of a space lesbian mafia, so I was on my best behavior in terms of not causing trouble, not giving anyone reason to think I was thinking about causing trouble, and remembering Scarlet's warning about how parts of Athabasca were actually bugged. I spent most of the time with my aforementioned fox-eared companion, and the two of us spent most of the time being accompanied by Robin and Rowan. For what it was worth, they were almost embarrassingly good company. It was actually kind of impressive how they repeatedly made me forget that they were, in fact, working girls who were "on the clock", so to speak. I wasn't sure how comfortable I was about being doted on and fawned over by a barely-dressed catgirl who worked for the mafia, but Robin and Rowan just seemed...genuinely really friendly with the attitude of "this may be a job but it doesn't mean we can't enjoy it".
It didn't stop Rowan draping off my shoulders nearly-naked any less embarrassing, but that would be nitpicking.
Our stay eventually came to an end, however, and Scarlet and I were lounging in a lounge when a dockworker came in to tell us that our ship was ready. It didn't take us long to prepare for our departure from Athabasca. As much as we had settled in on the creature comforts of furniture and friendly company, we really had not brought much with us beyond the clothes on our backs. Mercifully, fresh changes of clothing had been provided during our stay. I didn't think they were new, and the space station didn't look like it had a clothing store, but the loose-fitting elongated tunic, pair of tights, and poncho were at least clean. Granted, the tights in question had a hole in the back where a tail was probably supposed to go, and this felt really weird for someone who didn't have a tail, but I wasn't going to complain too much about clean clothes. Besides, my worn, secondhand clothes that I had arrived here in had even been washed without warning one day by what presumably passed for the shipyards' laundry service.
"You'll come visit again sometime, right?" asked Robin from somewhere behind me. She was standing on her toes, pressing into Scarlet with her arms thrown around her shoulders; I was picking up some kind of synthetic fabric bag of my laundered office clothes and pretending I didn't see them being all disgustingly lovey-dovey.
"I'll try," replied Scarlet in a cool, noncommittal, but affectionate manner as she scratched Robin behind her dog ears, to which Robin made embarrassing noises. "You know how Miss Citrine is, though."
Rowan, for her part, waited for me to stand back up with my bag of clothes before sliding up to me, similarly openly affectionate in her forward yet submissive way. I tried not to think too much of her soft, smooth skin as she said, "It was nice to spend time with you. Even if you're very mysterious."
"I'm not trying to be," I grumbled a little. It was true. I was too confused at everything and too wary of saying anything particularly incriminating that could be used against me on a space station run by people with guns. I had not been trying to be mysterious as much as I had been trying to be careful about every single word said.
Rowan, thankfully, merely giggled at this and planted a gentle kiss on my cheek. "You're very gentle and nice," she whispered just slightly above my reddening ears. "Please take care of yourself. I'd like to see you again."
We extracted ourselves from our customary company over the last few days, leaving the lounge and returning to the corridors that would lead us back to the docks, guided along by the dockworker with her overalls stained with grease. Our short journey was mostly quiet, but I saw fit to fill the awkward silence with an attempt to tease Scarlet as I managed to force a playful smirk and asked Scarlet, "So...girlfriend?"
Scarlet blinked in what seemed like genuine confusion. "Who?" she asked, before my joke seemed to click for her. "Robin? No, she's just company."
"Didn't look that way to me." After all, Scarlet got really handsy with Robin in a way that communicated real chemistry. It was hard to imagine that Robin was just some stranger Scarlet was instantly willing to get intimate with.
I was hoping for a more embarrassed, flustered reaction out of my fox-eared companion, but she instead looked at me in muted bewilderment, which only reinforced the idea that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. "I enjoy her company," she said carefully, "but she belongs to the Congregation."
"Okay, right, sorry," I muttered, trying to pretend this attempt to tease Scarlet never happened. "Never mind." I guess it made a modicum of sense. How realistic was it to start a relationship with a hooker who belonged to a gay space mafia?
Thankfully, I didn't need to dwell on it long. The doors soon opened to the familiar setting of Dock 2, with its open industrial spaces and collection of spaceships. And it was then that I finally - after days of lounging around and trying to forget about why we were here in the first place - laid eyes on our spaceship.
When the term "camouflage" had been mentioned when we first arrived at Athabasca, I had not been entirely sure what that meant. Actually, throughout my entire stay, I had not been sure what that implied. Now that I was staring at what was our spaceship, though, I vaguely understood what Scarlet and Citrine had been talking about.
Our spaceship had been a sleek vessel of white and grays with a few gold outlines, a smooth vessel with an avian shape to it, a graceful work of art not entirely unlike some kind of abstract artwork of ceramic pottery resembling some kind of bird with outstretched wings. Whatever the dockworkers had done to our ship, though, it was now - at a glance - a deeply different vessel. Any hints of white sweeping hull were masked under rugged cafeteria-green armored plating, cut in harsh lines and sharp angles, complete with scratches and scuff marks. The graceful, filigree-like panelings in black and gold - some of which actually stuck out like fins or feathers from the ship's hull - were hidden under gunmetal superstructures that resembled the boom lattice of an industrial crane. Our spaceship now looked like it had more in common with the Fortune's Wings we had fought a few days ago instead of something we had taken from the arkology: Old, weathered, and beaten up.
In other words, they had taken a modern Porsche and converted its appearance into something that looked like a Toyota from the eighties or nineties. I guessed that was what they had meant when they were talking about "camouflage". Still, staring at the sorry state of our spaceship compared to how we had first boarded it, I did not know whether I should laugh or cry.
We were swiftly, curtly, but politely informed that Citrine wanted a word with us before we left. For better or for worse, Citrine was not the kind of person who deliberately made us wait to establish who was actually in charge of the relationship. She arrived within two minutes of us being informed that she would speak with us, wearing another sexy dress, complete with some kind of fur scarf around her neck. Her pipe, predictably, was still lodged between her fingers and her lips.
"You'll request permission from Anaffa Control to dock at Dock 7," she declared when she arrived, getting right to business. I was actually kind of glad that she did, rather than engage in useless, condescending posturing. "Tell them that Cerys, daughter of Wynna, has an arrangement with you, and that you are willing to remain in a holding position until she is available. After that, identify yourself to her with my passphrase. Cerys will take care of the rest."
For her part, Scarlet bowed dutifully and replied, "Thank you, Miss Citrine."
Citrine regarded us for a moment, and for that moment, she seemed almost...apprehensive. Then, with almost religious solemnity, she declared, "The void grant you safe travels. I am looking forward to profiting from this."
That second part sounded suspiciously like "this had better work out or else". I was thus very relieved when - minutes later - Scarlet and I were back on the bridge of our spaceship, flying back into the vastness of space out of the docks of the Athabasca shipyards. From my familiar co-pilot seat (or whatever kind of seat it was), I quietly watched as Scarlet carefully handled the joystick as she guided us on a path leading away from the space station we had become so familiar with over the past few days. Minutes later, when we had put appreciable distance between us and Athabasca, the stars outside the window flickered, pulled into lines as space before us formed cascading cosmic waves in our direction, and then we were once again barreling through a tunnel of brilliant green light that I had been assured probably wouldn't be stealing our arms or throats anytime soon.
For better or for worse, all of the refurbishing and "camouflage" had been done to the exterior of the ship. The inside was still the usual pattern of pristine and futuristic whites. Hints of bootprints from the dockwokers inside the ship - presumably getting all the technical information they wanted and planting bugs on the ship - could still be faintly seen on the floors, but our space Roomba was already hard at work cleaning everything up by gliding right over the stains. It wasn't freaking out, running and screaming across the ship, so I guess four days was enough for it to acclimate to its surroundings.
"So..." I allowed after a long, awkward moment of silence had passed, guessing at our next destination based on really obvious existing context. I wasn't actually "guessing" as much as I was just trying to make casual conversation to fill in the void. "Anaffa?"
"Yes," Scarlet nodded agreeably without volunteering much more.
"Is that another space station?"
"It's where I'm based out of."
Oh, so it's Scarlet's home space station. That was...nice. Probably. "It's not run by another scary space mafia, is it?" I asked cautiously, wary about all the colorful people I had become acquainted with over the past few days. Then, upon Scarlet's confused look, I corrected, "Sorry, 'syndicate'."
"Ah," I muttered sourly. "Of course. Wonderful." Because clearly, after everything that had happened thus far over the past two weeks, more complicated scenarios in which I remained a complete idiot was exactly what I needed.
At some point, I was going to have to own up to me being a complete ignoramus from another planet with no experience with outer space and spaceships and the void and all this other bullshit, and simply ask Scarlet to explain everything to me. Today was not that day.
For a long moment, both of us just quietly stewed in our thoughts, appreciated still being alive, watched the tunnel of light from the void stream past. Okay, that was just me, but I could project myself onto Scarlet. Who - after that long moment passed - suddenly remarked with a straight face, "So I didn't see you sleep with Rowan."
I sighed. This was going to be a long trip.