Although Hail’s headaches remained unsolved, it really wasn’t feasible for the Bluebeetle to continue diverting from her normal course, so things went back to normal, for a while. Life had a very familiar rhythm to it, a comfortable one, the only one that Hail had ever known. He tried not to let his head bother him too much, resigning himself to living this way. The pain was less bad than the looks of pity that he got, not just from his mother, but from the rest of his family as well. It was only Grace, who refused to pity him, whom he could bear to spend a prolonged amount of time with.
The ship returned to her route, picking up her usual shipment of drugs from producer and beginning the long, long circular trek that would ply their cargo out to several different black stations and planets. They completed this kind of loop every couple months, though they usually picked up other things en route. There were the occasional smuggled passengers and black market goods of a cleaner variety, like ores of gold or other precious metals that had been mined in illegal facilities that would be sold to flood various markets. His family trafficked in most things that would pay, which meant almost anything.
Once things were up in space, it was fairly easy to get a pirate to move them from one planet to another; it was the getting things up from the surface of a planet that tended to be difficult. Out in the inter-stellar regions, unless someone was actively on a ship’s tail and in a faster ship, or knowing where a ship was going to jump into, pirates were nearly impossible to catch. The same could not be said of the tiny little sub-light vehicles that moved goods around in system.
The Bluebeetle was going to jump into the outskirts of a system, and most of the crew were occupied with the usual preparations, separating out the cargo that was to be unloaded into the waiting smuggler ship to distribute it down to the occupied planet. Hail and Grace were not participating in this activity. Grace had annoyed her father enough that he had sent her away to go scrub down the showers, and Hail knew that having the whole number of his family scrambling about in the bay would have made him feel too terrible to help with anything. So, he was helping Grace clean the communal bathrooms. He didn’t mind very much.
“I told Cast that you’ve been teaching me how to play cards,” Grace said. She was on her knees, scrubbing heavily at the tile grout.
“And Cast couldn’t tell you were lying?” Hail asked. He was wiping down the shower walls with a sponge. “No wonder he loses.”
“But you are teaching me.”
“You’re not learning anything. Especially about Cast’s tells.”
“Telling him you’re teaching me is going to make him up the ante.”
“Just going to make you lose harder.”
“All in the game, Hail,” Grace said. “Someday you’ll give up your secrets enough that I’ll be able to beat you.”
“My mom says I have obvious tells,” Hail said. “You really should be able to.”
Grace made a face. “Does your mom win against you?”
“She doesn’t play cards,” Hail said. “Doesn’t believe in it.”
“Couldn’t be me,” Grace muttered. “Have we jumped in yet?”
“Tired of scrubbing?”
“Just trying to figure out how much longer we have to keep doing this for.”
“You should learn not to talk back to Glory, and then you won’t get sent away to clean when everybody else gets to unload.” God’s Glory was Grace’s father, and while he was overall one of the fiercest members of the Bluebeetle’s crew, this had only taught Grace that if she could annoy him with no real consequence, she could annoy anyone.
“Like you’ve never talked back to your dad.”
Hail smiled. “I know how hard I can push. But I don’t mind cleaning. So it wouldn’t even be a punishment.”
“You’re the worst.”
They continued to scrub, trying to bring the white tile of the bathroom up to a mirror shine underneath the dull bulbs in the ceiling. They were talking about nothing when a wailing alarm began to sound, and the red emergency lights started flashing on the walls. Grace jumped up, but as she did, a resounding thump rocked the ship, and she stumbled, tripping over her bucket of soapy water and falling to the floor. Hail helped her back up as he stood. His head was throbbing, probably with the sound of the alarms and the flashing lights, but Grace’s obvious panic wasn’t helping either.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Collision?” Hail suggested, but he suspected that the alarm would not have sounded first with a collision. “You’d better get to the saferoom until this clears up.”
“Fuck no,” Grace said, pulling her knife out from her belt and menacing the air with it.
Hail frowned “We’d better leave the ring.”
Grace nodded. They were quite close to one of the exits from the rotating ring, so they slipped out of the bathroom and through the halls, until they could enter the little chamber that would slow their rotation to nothing relative to the rest of the ship. The feeling of gravity fell away until they could exit, clambering with their hands to move along out into the dark hallways of the 0G sections of the ship. Although the regular lights had remained on in the rings, in the rest of the ship they were all off, casting Grace and Hail in the monochrome red of the emergency lights. Grace held her knife between her teeth.
Their ship had not been attacked in years, but they drilled for it all the time, just in case. The last time it had happened, Hail had been young enough to need to go shelter in the saferoom. Grace was just on the cusp of that now, but she was intent on participating in any fight that might happen. Hail was resigned to it. Fear was creeping along his shoulders, stiffening and jerking his movements. His knife was still in its holster at his hip.
“We should go to where everybody else was unloading,” Grace whispered, even though there wasn’t a reason to. “That way we can find out what’s going on.”
Hail nodded. They were on the wrong side of the ship from the bay that was being unloaded from, so they would have a long way to go. They proceeded slowly through the hallways. The alarm had caused all the emergency doors to slam and lock shut. Whenever they came to an intersection, they had to stop, and Hail carefully checked the pressure gauge on the door to ensure that they wouldn’t be exposed to a vacuum by accident, then keyed in the code that would open the door. Once they slid through, they shut it back behind them.
It was a tense and silent journey through the bowels of the ship. Grace took the lead somewhat, though it was more for her to reassure herself than anything else; they both knew the way and could have found the path through, even in pitch darkness and alone.
The tension grew between them as they went. It was not a good sign that they had not encountered any of the other members of their family, even though they were making their way directly towards them. Probably no one had thought that Hail and Grace were going to come this direction, and so no one was thinking to look for them. The Bluebeetle was huge, and its hallways twisted to confuse invaders. Hail and Grace may just have picked the wrong route. But this thought was not as reassuring as Hail wanted it to be.
Grace’s fear suffused the air, and Hail’s head throbbed, making it hard to think straight. He wondered if he should say something to comfort her, but the look of grim determination she was holding on her face with every ounce of strength in her told him that she wouldn’t appreciate it.
As they turned one corner towards the next door, they were hit with the acrid smell of melting rubber, and the edge of the door was glowing: the seal of the door was being cut open from the other side. Hail brought Grace up short by grabbing her collar-- she hadn’t noticed until he silently pointed. They still had probably thirty seconds before the door broke open, maybe less.
Hail quickly checked the pressure gauge on the door. Good. No matter what happened, they weren’t going to be exposed to vacuum. He tried to pull Grace away. Given that they had no idea what was coming from the other side, he had a duty to protect her. She struggled out of his grip, shooting up towards the “ceiling” of the hallway and pressing herself right across the mantle of the door, so that it was highly unlikely that anyone entering would see her immediately, unless they themselves were oriented the exact right way. Hail wanted to drag her away, but the door was almost open, and he didn’t have time. Grace pointed back down the hallway, towards the corner, and Hail had no choice but to dodge back and hide behind the corner, out of sight as the door finally broke open.
The invaders came through the door, not noticing Grace. Her trick wouldn’t have fooled any spacer, but it fooled these three. They didn’t have the instinct to think that someone could be oriented in the gravity-less space differently from them, and would have never expected someone to descend from the ceiling. All the invaders were wearing space suits designed for limited trips and maximum mobility-- the oxygen packs were flat and small on the back, and the helmet was only slightly larger than the head itself, though it still restricted their range of vision and ability to turn their heads. That was good for Grace, at least, though not for Hail, who was directly in their line of sight. All three of the suited people had some sort of insignia on their chestplates, and though Hail couldn’t read or identify it in the dim red light, he was sure it was an official marking of some kind. Imperials for sure, then, not pirates.
Grace stayed silent and still for a moment, long enough to let them go past, but then she let out a whooping cry as she dived off the ceiling towards them, knife arm outstretched. Hail, hearing her yell, shoved himself off the wall and rocketed towards them. There was no way he could leave her alone, since she was intent on fighting, so he hadn’t had much of a choice.
When Grace slammed her shoulder into the nearest one, sending them both tumbling through the air, it was clear that she, a half-grown girl at best, was the same height as they were.
Hail didn’t have any ability to change his course once he was moving, so he was lucky that Grace’s tumble had knocked the group into total disarray; the two she had not taken down fired on Hail as soon as they saw him, with small pistols that were already in their hands, but their shots missed by a mile, and the recoil pushed them further back. The sound assaulted his ears, echoing through the corridor, but the pain of it barely registered over the adrenaline coursing through him and the spike of his headache behind his eyes.
For some reason, all he could think of as he flew through the air, his knife in front of him, was how stupid these people were for using guns. They wouldn’t even work if they were in vacuum, and they were hard to aim in close confines, not to mention more likely to damage something critical-- throw a hole in a wall and let all the air out-- than anything else. Stupid.
Hail collided with the closest invader, catching his throat with his elbow and his waist with his legs, knocking them upside down and slamming Hail back-first into the nearest wall. Hail was used to this kind of change in perspective, and what it felt like to have his whole body-force hit the wall, so he was completely unfazed, but his captive was disoriented. The man thrashed, trying to get away, and Hail’s vision wobbled in his eyes with the pain, fear coursing through him. He kicked away from the wall, sending them both sailing down the hallway, away from Grace and away from the third invader. The third man tried to get into position to chase Hail, but was slowed by his own lack of coordination in 0G, and was unable to get past the tumult of Grace wrestling with the other member of his force.
The man in Hail’s arms tried to get his gun into position to shoot Hail, but Hail was faster, stronger, knew what he was doing, and his knife was already in his hand, and his hand was right where it needed to be.
He jammed the knife directly through the weak seal that held the man’s helmet to the rest of his suit, feeling the initial resistance of plastic and rubber and fabric, then the easy slide of air, and then the new, sick hit of blade into soft, yielding flesh.
For just a moment, he felt the knife in his own throat, the panic as blood welled up, the pain, the sudden knowledge that he was going to die. Hail couldn’t move-- his head was on fire-- he was caught with nausea. But he didn’t have to move, just held the man close, stopped his vain thrashing even as the bright blood filled his helmet, globs of it contained and splashing against the glass. The man’s motions stilled, and some of the haze lifted from Hail’s thoughts, allowed him to move again.
Grace. Hail tore his eyes away from the man he had killed and looked for her. She was still wrestling with the man she had collided with, unharmed but grunting, wrestling over her knife that the man had tried to wrest from her, both her feet hooked onto a hold in the wall to give her more leverage. Hail was distracted, and didn’t register the third man, the one who had been slow to chase him down the corridor, until he was right on top of him.
Hail’s knife was still trapped in the throat of the dead man in his arms, and when the third invader swung his knife towards Hail’s face, Hail was unable to move to get away.
The blade glinted in the red light. Bright, serrated on one edge, triangular. It moved towards Hail’s face with preternatural slowness, and he felt what the man he had just killed must have felt in the moment that Hail’s knife pierced his suit. Pure terror.
Everything else fell away, even the pain in his head. It was just himself and the knife blade, centimeters from his eye. It would go right through it, into his brain, and there would be nothing left of him.
He couldn’t even close his eyes.
And then, his head throbbed, and for no reason that Hail could explain, the knife blade slid away from his face, whizzing harmlessly past his ear. The man who had been attacking him reared back, like he had been shoved, and struggled to right himself.
Hail didn’t have time to think about whatever miracle had saved him, and he just ripped his own knife free from the dead man’s throat and threw himself on his attacker, scrambling and trying to gain purchase. He was more evenly matched with this man, or at least he lacked the element of surprise, and he was flagging. In all of their tumbling, he managed to earn himself a deep cut on his arm, and couldn’t manage to get his knife beneath the invader’s chestplate.
He caught a glimpse of Grace, who had cracked her invader’s helmet open with her knife, and was trying to drive her knife down through the crack into his skull, clinging to his back with her legs, even as the man rolled to shake her off.
The scrap in the hallway was strangely quiet except for the cracks of metal on plastic as their knives hit armor or they crashed into the walls, and Hail and Grace’s heavy breathing. It was unclear who was going to come out on top in the fight. Though Hail and Grace had the early advantages of surprise and adeptness in the environment, they weren’t wearing armor, and they were tiring quickly. Grace was holding on for dear life, and Hail hoped the knife she had stabbed into the helmet of her man would kill him quickly. Hail was doing all he could to stay conscious past the pain in his head, and dodge the swipes of his assailant’s knife. He could barely find any opening of his own to retaliate; his knife kept slipping and scratching off the man’s armor, unable to find purchase.
Blood from the cut in Hail’s arm pooled in great blobs in the air, and when the man swung his knife he stabbed through one, scattering it in droplets all around.
Down the hallway, the door Hail and Grace had entered through opened, and Grace’s father, God’s Glory, sped down the hallway, his own long knife in hand. The man Grace held twitched his last, and Grace let go of him.
Hail shoved himself away from the man he was fighting, kicking him in the chest towards Glory, sending them both away from each other. Glory grabbed the man out of the air. He was taller than the man by more than a head, and probably twice his weight, even with the suit. Glory brutally dispatched him, his knife moving faster and harder than Hail could process. He felt the pain in his chest, though, and Hail cursed his imagination for supplying him with the feeling of Glory’s blade sinking in the unprotected area beneath his armpit, through his ribs, into his heart.
There was a moment of strange stillness in the hallway as Glory tossed away the body like so much trash, Hail clutching his still-bleeding arm and breathing heavily.
“We could have handled that, Dad,” Grace whined. Despite the confidence in her voice, with the adrenaline slipping out of her, she was trembling and newly afraid.
Glory slapped her, open palm across the face, and she hit the wall, hard. “You should have been in the saferoom,” he said, then wiped his blade on his pants. “And you will be going there, right now.”
Grace just rubbed her burning cheek, totally undeterred. Hail admired her confidence.
Since Hail’s profusely-bleeding arm meant that he would be useless in any fight until he got it stitched up by the ship’s doctor, he escorted Grace to the saferoom in the heart of the ship where they waited until the all-clear was given.
While he was there, biting his lip as the doctor put antiseptic and stitches on his wound, he listened to the story of what had happened, as much as anybody could piece together from the chaos. The Bluebeetle had been intending to drop off a shipment of drugs to one of their usual customers in the Altas system, the customer coming far out to the edge of the system to meet them. Either they had been betrayed, or their customer had been followed, because when the Bluebeetle made her jump in, they had immediately been swarmed by Altas’s police force. The police had boarded the Bluebeetle and there had been ensuing fights throughout the ship as the police attempted to take control. They were getting thoroughly rebuffed, a fact that Grace took no small pride in, sitting there huffing up her chest and looking admirably at her own knife, which she had used to kill a man. Hail’s knife sat firmly back in its holster on his hip.
As soon as members of Hail’s family had been able to get to the bays and launch their dogfighters, they had also chased off or destroyed all of the small, sub-light police ships that had been in the area. Even though it had been a complete victory for the crew of the Bluebeetle, the all clear was not given until the ship’s clock had ticked down all its eight hours to jump out of the system, leaving the bodies of the police behind, drifting in space.
They had gotten greedy, people said. The surest way to actually kill pirates was to launch a conventional warhead at the ship, to destroy the whole thing utterly, but people rarely ever did that. In the case of fights with other pirates, the purpose of fights was always to capture the rare and precious stardrive that moved the ship. Here, with these police, they must have wanted to make an example of Hail’s family, intending to capture them and put on a show trial and executions, to make the cost of piracy clear. But they hadn’t known what they were getting into, trying to take pirates alive. None of Hail’s family would ever tolerate that.
Hail’s head was killing him from being trapped in the saferoom with so many of his family members. The close quarters and air heavy with stress made his vision grey out at the edges. Their family had lost a few people in the fight-- one dogfighter had been shot down, and two people had been killed in a corridor scuffle, so they weren’t without losses. Some people were quietly weeping or praying once they heard the news. Everyone was exhausted, sad, and tense when the all-clear finally sounded, and Hail rushed out to his own room as soon as he was able to.
He went directly to bed.
In the stifling saferoom, he had barely been able to think straight, but alone in his small room, laying on his bed, staring up at the dark ceiling above him, he couldn’t stop replaying his own fight in his mind. His hand clenched and unclenched with the memory of holding a knife.
Hail had murdered someone, killed him directly. He hadn’t seen the man’s face through his helmet, or heard his voice, and he wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse. He had certainly held him, though, his arms wrapped around his small, strangely fragile body, even with the armored spacesuit he was wearing. Perhaps his memory was already distorting the sensation; he hadn’t had time to feel powerful during the fight. He had been frightened, and acting on instinct. He could admit that, even if someone like Grace wouldn’t.
Did he feel powerful, even now? No, he didn’t. He wasn’t sure what he felt. Lucky to be alive, mostly.
It had been horrible, how his imagination had told him how it must feel to have been the one being killed, what the knife in his throat would have felt like, the blood bubbling up and stopping the air from passing between his mouth and lungs. The panic had overwhelmed him for a moment, then. It didn’t now, and Hail could pick apart his thoughts rationally. It had been such a powerful sensation of pain and fear, at the time, but he couldn’t bring it back in quite the same way, now that he was laying in bed thinking about it.
His hand blindly fumbled at his bedside table, picking up his knife and pulling it from its holster. He wondered how accurate his imagination had been.
Which way had he plunged the knife in? He traced the tip of it across his own throat, finding the angle, pressing just hard enough to dent his skin but not hard enough to break it. The feeling it invoked was a ghost of a memory, without the crushing fear that had been with him until the man had died in his arms.
He pulled his knife away from his throat and looked at it, holding the blade up to his face, remembering the way the other intruder had nearly stabbed his eye. Slowly, Hail tried his movements. Perhaps he had moved his head by instinct to get away, let the blade slip harmlessly past his face. But no, he had been frozen, hadn’t he? And the man had been knocked back, like something had hit him.
Hail sat up in bed and flipped on his bedside light. No matter which way he played the moment over in his head, he couldn’t figure out what had saved his life, what had diverted the gleaming blade from its course at the last possible instant.
Idly, he balanced his knife on his calloused fingertip, wiggling his hand to keep it standing up straight for as long as possible. There had been a strange feeling when the knife had come towards him, one that was more than the panic and thoughts of his imminent death. His headache had cleared, if for just a moment.
It wasn’t so bad now, Hail thought, or at least not as bad as it had been in the saferoom, with everyone right next to him. He focused on the pain, poking it like he would poke at a loose baby tooth.
The knife wobbled on his finger. Hail thought about his headache, the relief he had felt for its momentary abatement. His thoughts were blessedly blank for a moment as he focused on nothing but that throb, deep in his head.
The knife wobbled sideways, too far for Hail to correct with the easy, natural motion of his hand. It was going to fall on his bare leg, but in the instant that it tipped, with his mind so blank and empty, the pain in his head calmed in one cool wave, and the knife froze in place in the air, hovering like there was no gravity here to pull it down.
He stared at it, then laughed. It was a panicked laugh, one that didn’t have humor in it as much as fear and surprise. Tentatively, he touched the handle of the knife, wondering if it might shock him. It didn’t, and as soon as he held it with his own hand, the strange sensation slipped away, and his headache came back in full force.
Hail could not bear to consider the implications of what he had learned right this moment, and certainly wasn’t going to try to repeat his experiment, so he put the knife back in his holster, put that on his bedside table, turned off the light, and fell asleep.