PART XIMature

There is a vast sea of stars that twinkle like diamonds contained within the ever expanding universe, and yet it is a trans galactic gulf of nothingness; a void deep as the fathoms of imagination, and deeper still, engulfing everything in an eternal chasm of chaos. Endless matter floats within this darkness like specks of dust, scattered about through the regions of immeasurable distance calculated by light-years. In these ominous reaches of drifting particles, suspended motes, and titanic flecks, a tether of doom stretches beyond limitation, spindled by some omnipresent Clotho, that binds the souls of living mortal together, entangling them in a bond of inevitable fate.

A flying spacecraft lacking any distinct features, except for perhaps the passengers onboard, was wandering through the blank gaps of space, among the cosmic beauty surrounded by a constant vacuum of preemptive death. It was gradually traversing through the places less traveled as if searching for something. The vessel itself was a standard hub accompanied by three separate decks; presumably the usual crew, engine, and cargo areas of a normal spaceship. Its greyish metallic frame had stripes of blue and orange paint traced along its edges, and it was kept in fair condition; there were a few minor dents and scrapes that were apparent, but overall it remained fit and flyable.

The engines of this vessel were roaring as it ventured farther into one of the infinite, obscure nooks of the cosmos. Through one of its portholes a youthful face was peering out and gazing at the wonders that unfolded before the eyes.

The alien was a girl from the planet Ne'cenf; her head was small but slightly elongated, her ears were large and round, and a soft fur covered her epidermis. Her petite frame was dressed in typical low-income attire; that is to say she was wearing ragged denim jeans for trousers, with an opening in the back for her bushy tail to poke through, as well as a baggy t-shirt that had holes around the neckline and sleeves. Upon the shirt was a faded print of the Gubazat sunflower; a plant noted for its resilience and determination. Not on her feet, but not very far from her either, a pair of unmatched slippers were laying adjacent to one another; the larger and dirtier of the pair was tilted on its side, lazily leaning against the other. Her amber orbs flashed while she stared out of the porthole, revealing her to be no more than thirteen or fifteen years of age.

She was sitting peacefully upon a cot in a tiny apartment designated to be her room, most likely located on the crew deck. There was little more in this room than a pile of books and thick-paged manuscripts in the far corner, an electronic music player that could only play three songs and was attached to a crackling audio speaker, a squeaky motorized fan blowing about the dingy air that filled the apartment, an old Earthian keyboard, and a tatter cot; resting on the makeshift bed was a manual dedicated to the teachings of multidimensional engineering, a few hand-bound notebooks, a writing utensil, and of course the young Sibyl.

She was intently listening with one of her round ears for any sign of movement outside of her room, ready to scoop up the manual and thumb through its myriad of pages, should any alien barge into the room unannounced. However to her delight, she was satisfied with the little amount of noise that is usually heard on most every spaceship; a few grinding squeaks and a dull voiceless groan. She casually rose from the cot, and creeping over to a panel of switches that stood out upon one of the walls of the apartment, she flipped one of them. A sputtering sound emanated from the ceiling. After she activated the rundown ventilation system that was overhead, Sibyl retrieved one book in particular from the pile in the corner. When she returned to the cot, she opened the contraption designed to appear to be some inconspicuous tome, and in the hollowed out spaces of the counterfeit pages, she withdrew the objects hidden away inside this secret box.

A moment later there was a smoking capsule pressed between her lips, and the young vixen was lighting the tip that directed outward. She quietly coughed as her semi-virgin lungs inhaled the burning astro turf. The vapors rose up to the ventilation shaft, but a thick mist began to accumulate. When she had finished half of the device, she concealed the false book among the pile once more, then drew near to the keyboard enthusiastically.

"Poor uncle will be upset if I neglect my studies," she thought to herself ponderously, stroking the keys of the instrument quietly, "but I'm bored out of my mind. All of these names, dates, formulas, and impossible calculations are driving me crazy. Oh, what I would give if he said, 'Young lady, your lessons are in poetry and the arts. Study the works of the long forgotten Marza or Shakespeare; resurrect the creations of Hallando or Da Vinci; mimic the soulful style of Bluesy Muse or Sippie Wallace.' Oh, if only..." She rolled her eyes, and added doubtfully, "that would be the day." The sound of a simple melody faintly played as she continued contemplating to herself. Finally she resolved, "it'll do well to relax for now, otherwise I might become like one of those mindless smooth brains." She shuddered at the idea of it.

Sibyl hummed in perfect harmony along with the melody that resonated around the small apartment. It was a tune from her childhood; a buried memory that effortlessly surfaced to soothe her aching heart. Most of the remnants of her earliest remembrances were nothing more than broken fragments, yet a ghostly mirage of her parents endured, as well as a solitary song that was sung to her in a florescent garden; both were now found only in her dreams.

The music mustered enough noise to rouse her uncle, and in a moment the door to her room suddenly burst open, then the distraught alien shuffled himself inside. He was an Ashaun with a medium build; his humanoid flesh was covered in freckles of white, though his skin was colored crimson. Erecting from the edges of his brow were miniature thorns, and when provoked to a position of frustration, much like the one he now bore, his expression looked slightly unsettling. He was clothed in equally impoverished garb; his dirty woolen shirt was tucked underneath his grease-stained overalls, and the legs of his pants were rolled once or twice before resting at the ankle, revealing the tips of steel-toed boots that were rather weathered. Although not many knew of his existence, the one's that were acquainted with him, and were not Sibyl, addressed this Ashaun as Murdoc.

Comparing them both at the moment their eyes met, it seemed the only commonality one could divine between them was the similar expression painted on their faces; each looked rather impatient or greatly annoyed. Murdoc was fixed into one of his more predictable poses, and he was glaring at the young vixen who was shying away from her keyboard. She was returning a look twice as vexing and scornful.

"When will you learn to knock?" Sibyl cried as she retreated to the only remaining safe haven available, then she dropped down onto the cot, arms akimbo.

"I wasn't aware I needed permission to enter any areas of a ship that belongs to me," Murdoc said reproachfully.

"When that area is my room, you do!"

He sighed. "The room is yours, we both agreed upon that...and it's true, but that room happens to be onboard my ship." He eyed her up and down scrupulously, then he continued, "I see you have been ignoring those text books again. You need to study, young lady, or you won't be able to pass any of the university's entrance exams."

Sibyl seemed irked by the subject as she replied angrily, "not all entrance exams are the same, you know! If I applied to one of the art academies-"

"Art academies," Murdoc erupted with the ferocity of a volcano, "art academies! What nonsense, Sibyl! What utter and absolute nonsense. I won't hear of it. You already dwell in poverty; you know the maddening pangs of hunger, and the sore muscles of cramped quarters; you are friends with the emptiness that envelopes this ship, and wave kindly to the celestial bodies that rarely greet you in return. Don't you want more than this - a life outside of some nameless floating shell; hot meals, comfortable bedding? An art academy can't offer you these things, but a degree from a university-"

"It sounds as if you are urging me to leave your ship," she snapped with little hesitation, "have you finally become intolerant of my presence and wish to be rid of me? Is that your aim, uncle?" Her voice was cold as ice, and they chilled the fiery temper of the Ashaun.

He crossed over to the cot and sat down upon it, surrendering to the grief that had struck him from the idea of her absence. He began breathing heavily for a moment, but his composure was unstirred. He gently replied, "when you're gone I will be the loneliest alien who lost the only treasure he ever cared for. I have nothing more than you and this ship, and when you enter a brighter future, I pray that you find enough pity in your soul to remember a pathetic wretch like me; even if you forget all about this damned box we call our home." His voice trembled with despair.

Moved to tears, Sibyl sat nearer to her despondent uncle. "How could I ever forget your kindness, uncle? When my parents died, you were generous to take me in. I know it hasn't been easy for us. I can still recall the nights that you went without, so that I could eat what little there was. You always hated it when I cried..."

"Yes, your tears rend my heart with agony, but I must admit, it's because your cries are so pitifully adorable that I cannot stand them. Still, you are my niece, and I'd suffer any hell if it meant you'd be saved. That's why I wish you would pursue your studies more diligently; that way you don't have to suffer alongside me anymore. I love you too much to believe that this is all I have to offer you, this terrible and uncertain existence - Sibyl I am ashamed!" He threw one of his arms over his eyes to hide the tears that formed as he shouted, "forgive me!"

"There, there," she said in a supplicating tone which comforted Murdoc, "I know you mean well; always has my best interest been your top priority. Come now, uncle, cheer up. You know you caught me playing that keyboard when you entered, and yet how could you be furious that I spend time indulging some fancy with it? Wasn't it you who bought it as gift for me?"

Murdoc did not respond, but as he struggled to wipe away the genuine dismay of his expression, he nodded as if it say, "that's true, that's true."

"I remember you telling me how you had come to purchase it, too. You saved and stowed away a fraction of whatever pittance of money you picked. Little by little that amount accumulated into what you calculated to be enough to settle down on Plebe. You had it in your mind to see I was educated, from the very start. Then one day I accidently set fire to the interior of your ship, you recall it just as I am now...I see it in your eyes. You smile, but back then you were in such a rotten mood when it happened. The damages were so expensive, and you were left with no choice but to exhaust your savings; even that wasn't enough for repairs."

It was his turn to console his niece as her melancholy mind recollected her role in the story. At length she continued, "you told me not to play with the fuses, but I was so stubborn. I guess I've always been that way. I set fire to your ship, and was so ridden with guilt afterward that I ceaselessly cried and cried."

"That's certain," Murdoc stammered, "I thought you would bawl your eyes out of your head, and you hardly ate a thing..."

She acknowledged and continued, "my face was washed by tears alone, and night after night I wept; nothing could end the guilt I harbored, because even then I loved you. As I recount this, I feel the wet warmth on my cheeks as I did then. Oh, these tears!"

Briefly they both paused to give each other time to sniffle and wipe their tears away, then she recounted, "it was during one of your dealings with a traveling hoarder, who took a particular interest in galactic oddities; you were pawning some of your personal belongings away in order to complete the repairs of your ship. Noticing that keyboard," she pointed to it, in case his memory was at all muddled, "among the copious medley of junk, you by chance inquired about it; curious to study its design and functions. The moment the first note leapt from it my sadness subsided. The spell of endless despair was broken! I've always been a burden haven't I, uncle? You place my best interest above any of your own. How unfair this life is - I burn your ship, and you spoil me with a gift."

Murdoc sobbed alongside the young vixen, unable to dam up the flood that broke through his eyelids. A feeling deep in his heart constricted the beating organ, squeezing it into a woeful submission. He had no words to utter, but he coughed on the choking feeling of gloom, while in his thoughts he cried in tormenting agony, "and more unfair this life is still - I kidnap an innocent child, and she graces me with the affections of a real niece!"

"No more, young lady," he finally muttered out as he struggled to lift himself from the cot, sniffling as he did so, "no more of this sentimental talk. You know my condition-cuh, cuh," he coughed again more hoarsely than the last, crossing over to the entryway.

"Uncle, that cough is getting worse all of the time. You need to mind your health."

"Of course, my dear," he agreed, "of course. Perhaps a bit of my medicine will do some good. It might help ease the pain." He halted at the entryway, then he added, "assuredly my condition can't get better with all of this smoke floating around."

Sibyl, now finished drying her eyes, blushed with embarrassment. "You could smell it? Why didn't you scold me for that as well?"

Her uncle shrugged casually, "I can only provide so much for you; scraps of food, old books, music machines - the rest is up to you. Only you can live your own life, no one else can live it for you. Besides, I'm keen to your condition just as you're familiar with mine. You have a sorrow deep in your heart that cannot be ignored; that is your condition, and in turn you alleviate it, if not for a little while, with your own kind of medicine. My heart is frail from age, but yours is made tender from the despair of your past. How charitable you are, young lady, to hurt so much and yet care even more for me. I'll leave you be for now." He closed the door of her small apartment, after apologizing for the intrusion, and began travelling in the direction of the main hub, coarsely coughing as he shuffled along. The moment he arrived he sat, or rather threw himself into the pilot's chair, and heaved a sigh so heavy it was weighed down by some immense burden like a titanic anchor.

Murdoc was still and silent as he slouched over the dashboard, interrupted only when he loudly hacked up some slimy matter in the hand he was using to cover his mouth. Examining this rather gooey substance, he became dreadfully alarmed. "The girl is right...my condition is worsening...cuh, cuh!" Removing a handkerchief from the pocket of his overalls, he wiped the fluid away from his hand, then coughed into the garment uncontrollably. Finally his episode passed, after expelling and expectorating more greasy green slime out of his throat.

"Damn," he weezed, "I can feel that tight grip on my heart again. Whenever I look at her!" There was a feigned fraction of anger, but that was swallowed up by the sincere sorrow that took ahold of him. "I deserve this bloody fate. I deserve a slow and painful death. Every agony I feel is payment for the past. Why did I rob her of the future she was supposed to have? Why does Sibyl love me so? Oh, Mandel! Sanha! You were her parents, and I've done my best to love her as you would've - if I haven't done so, forgive this miserable bastard."

He bitterly sobbed, and just beyond Murdoc's porthole the whole of the universe was staring through at him with thousands of starry eyes, which seemed to spotlight his despondent demeanor. He felt crushed like some miniscule insect that is squished without much of any notice or consideration. In contrast to other, more worthy organisms, he was just a microscopic germ that had retreated into recession after spreading the disease of his own destitution. The misfortune of his story was just one of the countless, unseen tales of suffering and dismay that unfolds daily in galaxies far and near.

Then a dark idea, darker than the blackness of the scenery pouring through the porthole, coyly entered his mind. He mechanically moved his arm to one side of the pilot's chair, and in his grip he felt the cold press of a familiar friend. Suddenly the Ashaun withdrew a sidearm from a concealed holster; he could sense the weight of weapon as he worked it free from its resting place. Bullets teasingly rattled in its chamber.

"Maybe, it would be easier, if," he hesitated and shuddered at the thought, but nevertheless it was still on the forefront of his mind, so he continued, "if, if, if I don't let Sibyl go down with this sinking ship." His hand was shaky and twitched violently. Murdoc slowly raised the sidearm to his head; his breathing was labored, much like his efforts to tame his spastic nerves.

"How ashamed you must be, Sanha, and what invisible glower of judgments you must be casting at me, Mandel. I've caused your daughter so much suffering, so much grief, and in return she delivers endless love. She is a capable girl - no, no, young lady," he reassured himself, "that's right, a capable young lady. She'll get along fine without me...probably better even...."

A tension jittered his body when the barrel of the weapon scratched his head in a provocative manner. Murdoc offered up one final thought. "This is it, I will greet whatever hells await me beyond this mismanaged dump I call life. Good-bye Sibyl, you were the only fortune I ever had the luck to obtain."

Not a trace of reserve was in his clutching grasp; all was quiet in the hub, and the noticeable clinking of bullets rattled even louder as his hand shook. Feverishly he swatted away the sidearm from his head with the other hand. "What am I doing?"

The heavy hand dropped, but resilient as a springing weed or Gubazat sunflower, it jumped back into place, only more fixed. His thoughts were the only thing that paralyzed his trigger finger. "Am I that much of a coward? Yes - yes I am! But what of Sibyl? She has sacrificed herself for my sake, living a despicable life that I brought upon her. It'd only be fitting to die like this."

Murdoc stiffened, and he was resolute to pull the trigger, but no thundering bang ruptured the chamber. Not even the slightest flash flicked from the weapon. He repositioned it so that his mouth was full of metal, and sucking upon the cylindrical barrel, he redoubled his resolution. Then a grossly picturesque daydream previewed in his mind; it was that of his darling Sibyl haplessly stumbling upon the sight of her semi-headless uncle with his brains painted all over the walls. That was enough for him to spit out the sidearm and weep woefully.

Amid his sobs, like a minute beacon of hope, a very minimal beeping upon the dashboard caused Murdoc to start. Examining the reason for this random occurrence, he quickly realized that his spacecraft's scanner detected the aforementioned something it had been searching for. It was alerting him that, somewhere in the distance, another vessel was nearby.

Though this was the beginning of the possibility of good news, the Ashaun was wary of this sudden intervention, which prevented him from again mustering the strength to end his own, vexatious life. Once he ran through the necessary tests, however, he felt more willing to bargain with that last remaining gambler's chip called hope.

"Ah!" he exclaimed to himself, rubbing his hands together as one does when honored a final opportunity for redemption, "we may yet be saved. It seems like there's another ship out there which isn't propelling in any direction. By the looks of it, the ship's emergency signal has been active for a long time. No visible signs of life onboard...either it's been abandoned, or the poor bastards never found the help they were seeking, but their tragedy could be our triumph - let's hope, for your sake Sibyl, for yours, let's hope this is our big score."

Retrieving the weapon from where it fell during his internal struggle, Murdoc shuffled himself down a corridor. In a few moments he was standing outside of his niece's room; the heart wrenching harmony of an angelic voice mingling with heavenly melody echoed from within the apartment. The Ashaun sighed, feeling a tremendous pressure upon his heart, and knocked.

"Who's there?" was the response, playful and sprightly.

Murdoc curiously wondered if there was any preconceived notion that it could be any alien other than himself. "It's me," he said flatly from the opposite side of the door.

The portal opened and Sibyl gingerly stepped out of her room. She gasped when she discovered how pale and melancholy her uncle appeared. "Uncle, what's wrong? You look absolutely troubled!"

Misery had yet to release its hold on Murdoc's brow. He attempted to rub it away, but only succeeded in mopping up the wet perspiration that accumulated there. When his glance beheld the young girl, there was a feeling in his chest like being struck by lightning several times over.

"A ship - cuh-cuh," he began, coughing hoarsely, but cleared his throat. "A-a-ahem. The scanner found a ship, and as far as I can tell it's nothing but scrap. We've got some picking to do." Murdoc's head whirled around for a second, then he leaned weakly against the nearest wall.

"Uncle! Your coughing is so harsh. Wait here, I'll fetch you some medicine." Sibyl hurried away, bidding that the Ashaun rest while she received instructions on where to find the medicine. When she returned, she clutched a tiny glass jar; the contents of which, upon first inspection, seemed to be granules of sand colored violet in hue. The medicine only filled a quarter of the transparent container. She unsealed the jar and wafted it under Murdoc's nose. "Breath it in, slow and steady now. Deep breaths, uncle, deep breaths," Sibyl instructed.

He snatched the jar from her, wrenching it from her hand, then he shoved it up each nostril, snorting deeply as he did so. Immediately his symptoms waned, and once more he was on his feet.

"My thanks, Sibyl." His voice sounded stronger, returning to its normal octave.

They then traveled to the hub as swift as Murdoc could shuffle, and with the assistance of his niece, he successfully plopped himself into the pilot chair. Steering his spaceship smoothly, he gradually attached it to the drifting vessel. According to his dashboard, though the fading emergency signal had been initiated and was resounding, there was no power feeding its batteries, computer systems, or engines. To remedy this, Murdoc clicked a few knobs, turned a switch, and instantly his spaceship began to charge the dead battery cells using its own power source.

After quitting to the cargo deck, they fitted themselves into protective suits that not only emitted oxygen, or whatever foreign breathable gas that was pumped into the five different air tanks, but also repelled harmful chemicals and hazardous vapors as well. Sibyl was next in line to perform her specified duties. It was simple enough to open their own cargo door, but breeching the other vessel's door required a particularly acquired talent. The young vixen, with proper electronic tools in hand, approached a foreign looking keypad that granted access into the unknown.

In a moment the keypad's exterior was unscrewed; its stringy, flashing innards were a series of thin wires and systematic circuits. She methodically clipped three of the exposed wires, then carefully inserted each one into a handheld device. Sibyl commenced busily navigating its glowing touchscreen.

Murdoc arrived in time to see his niece turn the last screw in place, and tap upon the panel with an expression of satisfaction. The Ashaun had two large sacks slung over a shoulder, and he was shuffling along with a hovering pushcart in front of him, which doubled as a makeshift walker.

"How is it coming along, young lady?"

"Just finished," Sibyl replied with a haughty smile, "not much of a challenge, though. Think you can guess the code?"

"Hm," Murdoc contemplated, then shrugged. "I haven't the faintest idea. What is it?"

"Unimaginative is what it is," she said. "It's 1-1-2-2-3-3-4. I think it's the same as the last one we picked." She pressed the corresponding numbers of the keypad, then the rumbling giant door of the other vessel creaked as it slowly retreated upward, and a great portal opened before them. They peered at the scene of an empty, pitch black cargo hold. Inside, it was as silent as a graveyard, and no matter how hard they strained their eyes, the scarcity of light disclosed very little detail and obscured any initial observation.

The Ashaun leaned over and said sternly, "you know the drill; no risking our lives over funny business or heroics. We get in, we pick it clean, and we get out."

"Yeah, yeah," she retorted, feeling rather annoyed. "You tell me that every time, but when are you going to let me be the one holding that shooter? You promised I could," she whined pleadingly.

He nearly surrendered the sidearm, yet at the last moment he tossed the sacks and Sibyl caught them. Then he prodded her with the pushcart, which she begrudgingly grabbed the handrail of. "Maybe next time, young lady. This 'shooter' isn't for children."

She rolled her eyes and sighed, then tossing the sacks over a dainty shoulder she replied, "You always say that. I'm not a child anymore, you know?"

Murdoc shushed her, and had strode only a few steps into the hold before he was hit by a barrage of inquisitive questions coming from his niece. "Just a minute, Sibyl, just a minute..." Dipping into the pocket of his overalls, searching just beyond the slime-filled handkerchief, Murdoc produced a red rod as thick as a pipe; with the click of a button, illumination beamed out from a glass eye on one of the rod's ends. "Stay close, looks like there's not much gravity in here," he whispered cautiously.

They ventured into the passage, floating and groping along as best as one can inside a spacecraft with its gravity balancer and inner lighting network turned off. They disappeared into what looked like the mouth of some ominous metal cave mouth. The beam of Murdoc's flashlight revealed bulky containers that were drifting through the atmosphere of the cargo hold, engaged in some silent and timeless slow dance.

He hastily overturned some; Sibyl feverishly inspected others; together they desperately searched every single one, but they were all desolate or barren.  

"Looks like it's already been picked clean, I don't see much of anything in here." The poor Ashaun had wagered his hopes, and this defeat was to be expected, but the blow stung him nonetheless. He looked sour faced behind his suit's mask. "There's nothing here for us, Sibyl. Let's leave," he said with blatant disappointment.

"But we haven't checked anywhere else yet," Sibyl protested.

Murdoc thought to himself, "how awful you are to tempt me, mistress of chance." Then he responded to her persuading pouts, "I guess it might be worth it to have a look around. Maybe we can find something of value. But you can return the pushcart to the ship. I doubt we'll need it..."

It was necessary, as they traveled around the darkness of the vessel, to use a tunnel-like system of ladders, which were comparatively like narrow esophagi. They delved deeper by this means, and before long they were in the crew deck. The most distinguishable observation Murdoc surveyed was the lack of escape pods. "Looks like they got away after all," he murmured to himself with a tone a relief. The second most discernible feature of the deck was also the most disheartening; there was absolutely nothing of value to be found, and certainly nothing useful either, but the young vixen did acquire a working flashlight of her own, and soon she was pleading for permission to explore elsewhere.

Murdoc acquiesced. "Not too far off, now," he repeated to her, but his demands were ignored. The wily and willful spirit of the Ne`cenf was in possession of her body, and she ventured out of sight, vanishing into a shadowy passage. He shrugged and sighed, "some things never change."

He continued rummaging through one of the deck's apartments, designated as the kitchen onboard this abandoned and eerily quiet vessel. The icebox had not refrigerated its contents for quite some time, and though his mask was protecting him from chemicals, atoms, and microscopic particles, an unbearably nauseating odor passed into Murdoc's nose when he lifted the lid open. He hurriedly hovered over to a pantry, waving his hands about in vain attempts to waft away the horrid stench of the icebox. Not only were his bargaining chips down, but he was nearly out of them; the pantry was completely bare.

"Damn," he spat angrily, though regretting he had done so, when remembering the mask of the suit he was wearing rested in front of his face. The spittle smeared, blurring his vision. "And damn again. This is a pointless waste of time. I got my hopes up for nothing."

He had little time to wallow in the frustrations that vexed him, however, because there came a sudden noise that shocked his heart with one of those thunderclaps that frequented him, like blows to a punching bag. A frightful shriek, distinctly recognizable as Sibyl's, resonated in the distance. Instinctively Murdoc shouted, "I'm coming, my dear!"

He traversed down a corridor, using whatever structures jutted from the wall to crawl along as quickly as he could. He arrived outside the main hub at the exact second Sibyl was frantically fleeing from the place, and when they collided in mid air, she embraced Murdoc trembling in a way that terrified him.

"What is it, Sibyl? What happened to you?"

She said nothing in response, but guided the Ashaun into the hub and toward one of the pilot's chairs. The beam of Murdoc's flashlight scanned it; sitting in front of the dashboard, dressed in a dark and dingy jumpsuit, was an alien still harnessed to the seat. It was beyond impossible to identify the species of which kind of alien its ancestry belonged to, however, because its body had recently succumbed to decay. In the regions where a head and neck usually attach on humanoids, there remained only a stub; everything else was missing entirely.

Not entirely, perhaps; circulating around the hub, floating like black dust motes in the shadow, were chunks of rancid flesh and rotten brain tissue, and something that may have once been an eyeball.

Murdoc started in horrific surprise at the gruesome discovery. He was transported back to the not-so-distant past, when he was enveloped in a daydream much like the nightmare he had just strayed into. "Poor bastard," he thought, then he moved to embrace Sibyl again, silently begging for the atonement of some secret sin that never occurred.

Sibyl was ordered to return to the other spacecraft, more specifically to her bedroom, and too terrified to defiantly protest in her usual youthful obstinacy, she quit the abandoned vessel, relinquishing the large sacks to her uncle.

Meanwhile, Murdoc recommenced the search of the hub, but every time he opened a compartment he did so with the most extreme caution and uneasiness; half expecting to be greeted by more disturbing scenes. To his great relief, followed by an even greater dissatisfaction, every last compartment of the hub was entirely empty.

The last thing for him to do was frisk the corpse, though once or twice he considered omitting the unpleasant task. Levitating over to it, Murdoc patted the jumpsuit in hopes to find anything of monetary value. As he did so, he examined one of the arms of the dead alien in curiosity, upon discovering a slight deformity on the appendage. The wretch had been branded with a marking of the fleur de rocaille, which is to say in layman's terms, when among the living this now corpse was once labeled a scavenger.

Scavengers are one of those entities in the universe desperately seeking to survive off of the crumbs that fall from the meager morsels of others. The Cosmic Order condemns them as one would an Earthian cockroach, or a cockroach from any other planet for that matter, but they are more like outcast wolves; when driven from their packs, or rather society, they are doomed to aimlessly wander, feeding upon the scraps of fate, never having more than 'just enough to get by.' Scavengers roam, sometimes alone but usually in small groups, from the far corners to between the obscure nooks in almost every star system. Unlike the galactic pirate, who is more fierce, bold, and cunning, the scavenger simply preys upon abandoned and forgotten spaceships, stripping them of valuables in a frantic and guerilla manner known as picking. Usually the metallic skeletons yield little profit, but tales of scavengers striking rich, though rare as they are, often lure desperate wretches that are on the brink of absolute hopelessness. 

This picking of unclaimed goods, however, is an illicit act punishable by the Cosmic Order. Aliens practicing the illegitimate profession are deemed a threat to cosmic security, and if they are caught doing so, the proper punitive actions are taken; one of the lesser evils being the branding of the criminal, permeating the fleur de rocaille into their flesh.

Something suddenly recurred to Murdoc's mind, and he felt his body jostle or twitch when a particularly painful memory passed over him. He began to soothingly rub a phantom injury in his shoulder, as one does when relieving a stinging or biting sensation, or perhaps even the sensation of a slow poke with smoldering steel.

"Wait a minute," he said, the tone of his voice inflecting to a height coerced by unforeseen revelation, "wait just a-minute. If this ship had scavengers onboard at one time or another, maybe there are some secret compartments I overlooked. Oh, let it be so!" The Ashaun may have been low on bargaining chips, but he wagered his hope against the cold calculations of unpredictable chance.

He hurried back to the dashboard, and though its patterns and layouts were foreign to him, he intelligibly worked the buttons until he could sense his body gradually descending to the floor. Not only was he able to restore gravity to the vessel, but the emergency overhead lights flickered before illuminating Murdoc's surroundings. The ghastly scene of the dead alien was presented in full, gory detail. He dared not to gaze at the cadaver longer than necessary, and he attempted to erase all thought of it completely. As he shuffled to depart to another passage, he slipped on something akin to a squishy sponge and nearly reeled over.

When Murdoc finally returned to his own spaceship, Sibyl's eyes were fixed upon the cargo door and she was eagerly awaiting the Ashaun like a loyal familiar. She had been sitting with a posture that portrayed nervous anxiety, but when her uncle emerged through the portal, she sprang to her feet and rushed over to him.

"Uncle, you were gone for so long. What happened? Are you hurt? Did you find anything?"

The mouth to the ominous metal cave closed, and while he shut both of the giant doors, Murdoc remained relatively silent, aside from the sounds of shuffling feet. He had a meditative expression, but it was outlined with a serious sadness. Sibyl became disquieted. "Should I take that as a no?" she asked.

"Hm?" Murdoc shook himself from a despairing daydream. He could sense an imaginary serpent constricting his heart. "Easy my dear, easy now. I'm just fine. As for what happened, there is nothing to report. The damn thing was picked clean, like I said. Wait just a minute, why are you here and not in your room?"

She couldn't help curiously peering over her uncle's shoulder, and perceiving that one of the large sacks looked larger than before, she clasped her hands together and hope resurfaced in her youthful complexion. "I decided to wait here in case you needed me. It was picked completely clean, you say?" she inquired with an extracting smile, "are you sure about that?"

Murdoc murmured a few words, then he spoke more audibly. "Hm...not entirely."

"What did you find?"

He sighed. "Nothing more than prepackaged Napalis noodles and dehydrated bread, but even that is starting to spoil." He turned the sack over, and all of its contents spilt onto the ground. There were also about eight small boxes of Earthian mint tea, two strips of seaweed wraps presumably from Okea Saltoon, and a single bar of soap.

"All of this?" Sibyl's amber orbs beamed brightly as she gazed at the slim pickings. "You really found all of this? You're amazing, uncle."

Murdoc finished stowing away his spacesuit, and after restoring it to its proper place he replied in a sullen voice, "it still isn't enough to relax our belts, Sibyl. We better continue rationing our meals. No more than one a day, like we agreed." The thought of food suddenly provoked a common commotion in both of their stomachs, and a simultaneous grumbling erupted.

"Have you eaten yet today, young lady?"

"Not yet," she responded sheepishly.

"Hm," Murdoc mumbled, and a scornful look clouded his brow, "I told you to have your meal before your studies."

"I wasn't hungry then," Sibyl lied. Her metabolism burned like a furnace that was never satisfied. "Besides," she quickly added to conceal her deceit, "it sounds like you are just as famished as I am. You're supposed to be minding your health, remember?"

"My health? I think you're right, my dear, I should pay more attention to my health. And you should concern yourself less with it." He could feel a terrible cough welling up in his throat. "Be good to me, Sibyl, and boil some of those noodles for us. Put on some tea as well. Hurry along now. We shall dine together."

The young vixen soon disappeared, after gathering up the purloined provisions. She traversed to the crew deck with a swift and sprightly step.

Murdoc stood like a statue. He lost himself to dreary thoughts. "Nothing. There was absolutely nothing! What I would give to find the smallest fortunate on one of these abandoned ships...I would give anything, that is, anything other than Sibyl. All I wanted, for her sake, was to find the slightest speck of treasure; a pebble of pearl, a grain of garnet, a drop of diamond. Even a damned gubul would have been better than nothing." Moist tears surfaced under his eyelids. "And yet Sibyl's face; how happy she was when I showed her what I found in those secret stashes. Seaweed wraps and soap! This is the inheritance I offer a niece that never belonged to me. Cruel fate, mistress of misery, you are again victorious." He surrendered to his hopelessness, watching his last bargaining chip be claimed by the sly, smiling, wickedly unpredictable chance he bet against.

The Ashaun retired to the hub in a foul mood, mouth coughing and gait shuffling. While Sibyl hummed a tune, preparing their meal on the cookers, he skillfully detached his spacecraft from the floating vessel. The metallic tomb was no longer visible on any of the scanners. The beeps of the emergency signal ceased emanating from the dashboard once Murdoc's spaceship fled far from the scene of utter disappointment. In a moment they were navigating through the infinite expanses of the universe, once again in search of the means for a better life.

 

 

 

 

The scavengers discover the remnants of another drifting heap in the next installment, and what remains of Blu and Ogdan is explained.

 

 

 

The End

25 comments about this story Feed