The crew deck was replaying the same mechanical symphony inside the spacecraft, and the pitched creaks penetrated the ears of the Ashaun. The noises were vexation incarnate; each dull grind or jarring groan drove like a whip at his already star-worn patience. He was sitting at a three-point table that wobbled on creaking joints, yet it acted more like a rocking chair than anything else. It was the only real table in his possession at the time, and upon its dotted, water-ringed surface there was a small bowl dancing to the crescendo of the crew deck. Inside it, yellowish contents issued a thick veil of rising steam. Next to the overly animated porcelain bowl, sliding as if it were skating on really thin ice, was a dish presumably filled with old water; dipped into the rippling liquid, sunk to the very bottom of the cup, was a leafy anchor. A minty aroma filled the air around the dish, but to Murdoc, it was an unwelcomed stench.
"It's bad enough," he complained to himself, "that I have to force myself to eat the same thing again and again, day after day, one meal at a time..."
He slurped up a mouthful of bland Napalis noodles; there was little to taste, but they offered a distinctly unappetizing sensation as they gradually slid down his throat, like creeping caterpillars burrowing inward. He loathed the feeling. Then he drank some of the tea, but that only upset him more. Ever since his first sampling of the Earthian mint tealeaf, Murdoc concluded that the taste was particularly disagreeable to him. His opinion had not changed now that the umpteenth sip washed down into his stomach with a sickly splash. It only greased the path of the caterpillars, or were they snails? He winced in disgust.
"Damn," he said aloud, wiping away the dissatisfied spittle lingering on his lips, "I guess the old saying is true - nothing good ever comes from Earth!" He finished the meal, though it took greater effort than can possibly be translated, and after the dishes were cleared the Ashaun retired to an apartment arranged as his bedroom; though judging by its size and organization, it could have been mistaken for an untidy cupboard. Laying himself down upon a shabby looking patchwork cot, which rattled against the faded steel walls, he closed his eyes for repose. There was little rest in his mind. Woefully his thoughts turned to his niece.
Tears of regret, mingled with guilt, dripped down onto the balled up, oil-stained jacket he was using for a pillow. "Later," he thought resolutely, "later, it will be this time - I'll really do it this time."
Meanwhile, Sibyl was slouched in the pilot's chair, occupying the hub as sort of second auto-pilot. In her lap was another one of her educational manuals, this one being dedicated to the field of astrophysics and the basic fundamentals of wormhole travel. It lay ajar, and tucked between two mountains of white pages was one of her hand-bound notebooks, which was also opened. Her hand was wielding a writing tool, but she was not scrawling formulas or scribing algorithms, like she had promised to do.
Her extremity was gracefully gliding the pen along her notebook, and dreamlike designs etched themselves in dark ink. Every so often she would raise her amber orbs to the closest porthole, gazing at the shimmering stars just beyond it, in want of inspiration. Only a second or two would pass before her eyes gravitated back to the notebook; her imagination piqued by curious fantasies. She really took after her mother.
"Poor uncle," she said aloud, possibly to her celestial companions outside the porthole, who twinkled sympathetically and lent a friendly ear, "he's been so temperamental lately; ever since he has run out of his medicine. I can't blame him, though. Without it, his condition has been rather poor. I'm sure all of that coughing keeps him awake. That must be it! I hope the picture that I'm drawing for him will bring a little cheer." She paused, raising a round air and listening intently. Gradually she sank back into a stasis that vaguely resembled an alert relaxation.
"I know he worries about me," she went on, "but he should mind his health more." A moment later she heard a faint voice of conscience that sounded strangely like Murdoc's. It said something, most likely saying it reproachfully. "Yes, yes, and I should mind my studies more," she answered back with a shrug, "I guess some things can't be helped."
While she pondered about the uncertainty of her distant future, drawing an abstract reflection of the incredible ardor her uncle bore for her, and coloring it with the many personal sacrifices shared, an object of the most miniscule proportions was haplessly drifting along like a dust mote in the dark. It was so far in advance of Murdoc's spacecraft that it went unnoticed. Attached to this unseen speck was the same invisible tether of doom that entwined the two scavengers; the same string that stretches farther than any cosmic entity or galactic giant, currently towing the spaceship closer and closer to the unseen dot.
It was not until Sibyl turned her eyes away from her notebook, again in want of inspiration, when a foreboding feeling passed through her frame. She squinted, endeavoring to strain her sight and gaze upon some inconceivable flake of monoatomic proportions, but it was like peering through a pool of vantablack. Still, a strange sensation surfaced inside of the young vixen.
"What's this? Is there something out there?" she asked doubtfully. Suddenly, with the intuition of a Llarktk shaman, Sibyl sensed the tugging of invisible tether. She became very eager, kicking her legs in childish fashion while she flailed about in the pilot's chair, repositioning herself to gain a better view. Now she could feel an itch on her bushy tail, and instantly all doubt disappeared. "Something is out there. Maybe it's a ship! I hope that it is. Uncle has had to put up with noodles and mint tea for so long, I wonder if he has forgotten what a real meal tastes like...I sure have."
The instant a mirage of food was introduced to her imaginative mind, a grumbling commotion that rivaled rumbling rockslides escaped her stomach. "Oh please," she added once it finished interjecting, "please, let it be a ship!"
The anticipation was accumulating with each passing minute. Sibyl commenced pressing buttons and twisting knobs on the dashboard. Scanners were activated, monitors flickered like strobe-lights, but there was nothing on the screen; certainly no emergency signal or relay beacon resonating through the ghostly silence of outer space. Soon she could see the object through a porthole, as microscopic as it remained in the distance, but the scanner returned blank disappointment. Doubt resurfaced in her spirit.
"It has to be a ship," she said with a tone of pleading desperation, "please, oh please be a ship, and not some stupid asteroid." The features of the drifting matter were indistinguishably vague; it was lumpy, malformed, and when examined against the pitch black canvas of the universe, too distorted to ascertain if it was anything of interest.
As the spacecraft journeyed along, Sibyl perceived that whatever it was, the object was drifting slightly off of their course. They would have to deviate from their original path in order to further inspect it. This idea was more than satisfactory to her, because she was distended with that indomitable curiosity conceived by youth, but she considered her uncle's opinion about the matter.
"He wouldn't be very happy if I strayed off course to look at an asteroid without permission. It might even put a strain on his temperament, and the last thing I need is another lecture about wasting resources. But if it is a ship, I'm sure he would sing me praises. There might even be medicine too, if, if it is a ship," she said reassuringly.
"However, if it is a ship," she hazarded in sullen tones, "but an empty one...he would be even more heartbroken when his hopes were raised up only to come crashing down. It would be all my fault. What should I do?" She contemplated upon the affair for several more minutes. Then another tug from the invisible tether roused Sibyl's curiosity.
At length she resolved to relate the news to Murdoc, and discover what he would desire of the dilemma. "After all," she noted, "this is his ship."
She stowed away her drawing, then arriving at the crew deck with a swift gait, Sibyl gently rapped upon the door leading into her uncle's bedroom. There was no answer, nor a single sound emanating from the apartment. Quietly she crept through the doorway, then she approached Murdoc as he lie in a state of grave stillness.
Prodding him with the faintest tap, addressing him with an equally unobtrusive tone, she whispered, "Uncle?"
Murdoc, as peacefully silent as he was, had not slept at all; the torments of deep mental anguish refused any form of repose, despite all efforts and overwhelming exhaustion. When he heard the knock at his door, he quietly rolled over, facing himself away from Sibyl before she had entered. With the few seconds that he was spared, the Ashaun cleared away his tears and feigned a breathing pattern that resembled a state of slumber perfectly.
When she had touched her uncle, he instinctively stirred. A sharp pain had impaled him, and the mixture of her voice with the gentle contact sent a vicious quake through his entire anatomy. He jolted from the cot with an unexpected agility, causing Sibyl to flinch from the surprise. Murdoc moved to grasp at his chest where the bullet emblazoned with his name had struck, but he perceived the young vixen's surveying glance, so he brushed passed his writhing chest and rubbed one of his stiff shoulders instead.
"Ah Sibyl," he said wearily, "you're here already are you, or did I oversleep? Tell me, is it time to switch navigators?" His voice sounded hoarse and bitterly dry.
"No, you still have a few hours before it's your turn to steer," she replied with velvety softness.
"Then what is it? Did something happen to the ship?" A flash of concern knitted his thorny brow.
"Nothing is wrong, it's just-"
She was reluctant to reveal her intuitive hunch, now that she was standing there in front of the Aushan, who looked severely injured and more mauve in the face than ever before. She was regretting her sudden intrusion, and her speech stuttered until falling flatly into babbling stupor.
Murdoc patiently awaited an answer. "Hm?"
Finally she blurted out in one breath, "there's a ship out there not far from us."
His eyes widened at the mention of such a prospect. Many countless hours had passed since he last heard such good news. "Another ship. Are you sure?" He beamed as joy ascended his spirits beyond the farthest reaches of the universe.
"Well?" Murdoc's smile, still stretching out in deflating bliss, shrank back into tightly compressed lips of doubt and anguish gradually.
"I'm pretty sure it's another ship." Her confidence waned. Sibyl scratched the back of her neck, nervously averting her attention away from the Ashaun in shame.
"Pretty sure? What's that supposed to mean? Either it is a ship, or it isn't. Out with it, young lady. Is it a ship, or a waste of resources?"
"I can't be certain until I get a better look, but we would have to veer off of our course to do so, and that's why I'm here now," she said as her tone sifted into agitation, but almost immediately she checked herself and added sweetly, "do you think I should check into it?"
Murdoc, being the gambling alien that he was, prepared another wager against the heartless entity known as chance. "Help me to the hub, my dear, and we shall both check into it." Together, arm wrapped in arm, leaning upon each other like a pair of starving and wounded wretches, they departed from his stuffy bedroom.
Moments later they arrived at the hub, and gazing beyond the portholes, both of the scavengers quietly assessed the affair. Sibyl anticipated with immense hope that her uncle would answer her positively. However, he studied the scanners, as well as worked the flashing dashboard. He checked the monitors scrupulously, but he was unsatisfied, leaving the Ne`cenf rather disheartened.
"It's just a rock, Sibyl." He broke the silence with blatant disregard of the flatness of his answer.
"That can't be true. It's a ship, I just know it is!"
"Oh?" he said with marked suspicion, "and how do you know it's a ship and not some floating heap of scrap metal or stray asteroid? It could be abandoned debris. Why do you say it's a ship? Hm?"
She looked nervously at anywhere but her uncle's focused gaze. "I-I can feel it," Sibyl remarked weakly.
"Feel it? Just take a look for yourself, young lady," he replied as he pointed a finger to one of the portholes, "that thing doesn't even have a distinct outline, nor a trace of engines. The scanner isn't detecting anything remarkable about it; no life forms, no power sources." Murdoc added with a discerning authority, lowering his finger, "It's a damn rock."
"It's a ship," she retorted forcefully, folding her arms and refusing with absolute stubbornness to now believe otherwise. Her obstinacy was as immovable as any mountain.
Murdoc sighed and snorted. "Our fuel is already getting low, Sibyl. If it's not a ship, we'll have to resupply sooner than later, and in this solar system that won't be cheap."
"But if it's a ship, and we find something valuable inside, we won't have to worry about that will we?" The naivety she projected, coupled with the reassurance that flared in those amber orbs of hers, coerced a smile upon Murdoc's moping face.
"Very well," he said, surrendering to the whims of his niece once his sternness wavered, "we can fly a little closer and see for ourselves if you're right. Just a little closer, though." The delight Sibyl expressed, after her uncle consented to the exploration, was all of the profit he truly needed from the sudden detour. If his heart was not being constricted with agony at that very second, it would have melted into a puddle.
The spacecraft propelled along through the remote regions of the galaxy, gradually approaching the deformed object that drifted like a stone stuck in an endless, bleak vacuum. They drew nearer and nearer, until they were finally in viewing distance, then at once they both widened their eyes; Murdoc was dumbstruck, and Sibyl was absolutely astonished, if not secretly pleased with herself.
"You see, uncle? It's a ship after all!" She jumped up and down, bouncing with glee.
"Hm," he stroked his chin, surveying the vessel, "not much of one, that is."
"I wonder what happened to it?"
"Galactic pirates, maybe, or likely it could be some snare that was set here by rangers to catch scavengers like us," Murdoc blurted out, then noticing Sibyl's stagnant reaction as she stopped jumping with joy, he quickly added, "either way, the thing's pretty beat up. No wonder the scanner didn't detect any signals." A gloom surfaced in the tones of his voice as he continued, "the damages are extensive, Sibyl. I may not be able to attach my ship to it. Might've been better if it was a rock. I could damage mine, you know."
"We're already this far," she responded resolutely, "we can't give up now. I believe in you, uncle."
Another pang in his arteries caused the Ashaun to wince. He could sense something greasy welling up within him. "Go on," he said urgently to Sibyl as he shooed her away, "and prepare our gear. If I manage to make the connection, we should be prepared to pick it as fast as we can."
When she disappeared from the hub he struggled for a second or two, then a fit of coughing seized his body. His muscles tensed; his lungs locked; green slime ejected from his mouth into his handkerchief, then he became faint. Dizzily he retained what sparse consciousness he had, catching himself before nearly dropping from the pilot's chair to the floor.
Eventually the episode subsided and once he regained his composure, Murdoc, with shaking hands, manipulated the dashboard using familiar fingers. The undertaking of attaching his spacecraft, though difficult and jeopardizing as it was, proved to be successful without any accident occurring. After all those years living the pathetic existence a lowly scavenger, he had not lost his touch.
"That's odd," he thought to himself, finalizing the assessment of the damaged vessel and wiping cold sweat droplets from his brow, "there's still some battery power left in it, somehow - oxygen too...Why didn't the scanner show this? Is it really that battered? Whatever happened to the damn thing, it looks like it was intentional."
His portentous notions possessed his appendages, and instinctively Murdoc equipped his sidearm as a necessary measure of precaution. With the weapon in hand, he quit the hub and rejoined Sibyl in the cargo hold. The young vixen was fixed in a posture of contemplation, and an expression of puzzlement was evident upon her face. She had been preoccupied with making several attempts to gain access to the damaged vessel, but any form of standard infiltration seemed improbable, if not impossible. When it was made obvious that her efforts were useless, she angrily tossed aside all electronic devices in frustration.
"It's no good. We can't get into it like this. The detriment is too great. What should we do now?" She seemed impatient and quick tempered.
"Hm," Murdoc said as he slipped into his respective spacesuit, mulling over the last possibility that remained, "it seems to me that there is only one thing left to try. It's a little old-fashioned, but the ratchet might work. A manual breeching seems risky, however, because if this is some trap set by rangers, we'd be undoubtedly guilty if caught, and I already have the flower." He rubbed sorrowfully at his marked shoulder.
Sibyl understood the uncertain dangers that the circumstance entailed, and agreed it would jeopardize them completely, but to turn away now was undeniably futile; the vessels were already attached to one another. The promise of gain, minimal of a profit it may be, conducted her hope as she disappeared for a moment, only to return with the ratchet at the ready. It was hurriedly surrendered to her uncle.
This semi-efficient cutting machine, known as a ratchet, was contrived by engineers for the purpose of splitting the densest of metals and hardest of rocks, both of which can be found on the same planet, known as Volgon; coincidently once worshipped as an immortal and indestructible divinity among ancient alien races from distant home-worlds. Scientists had been baffled for centuries at the elemental makeup found within the planet, but inevitably they were able to invent a piece of equipment capable of extracting Volgon's metals and rocks; the former being surprisingly malleable, and the latter invaluably precious.
The device itself is a three foot long, half foot wide cylindrical machine. It is complete with space-age technology, electronic activation, an adjustable tripod, and external touch screen computers. It uses a concentrated laser beam, powered by a hyper-battery located in the core of the device, to penetrate through any solid material, and the reason for calling it a ratchet is because a simplified acronym is time efficient. The acronym roughly means a Robotic Armament Terminal for Concentrated and Hyper Erosion Transmission; of course outside the Earthian language these words would be translated otherwise, but the term 'ratchet' is usually borrowed regardless.
There are two key setbacks with this device, relatively speaking. From a military perspective, it is well noted that machines which run on hyper-batteries are unable to be engineered no more than a few feet, so monolithic weapons of conquering imperialism are out of the picture - at least for now. The other is that, though the lifespan of such a device is lengthy even to longevity's standards, a ratchet's maximum potential is constantly reducing the moment after it is manufactured.
Needless to say the one in Murdoc's possession was well past its 'best-when-used-by' date; when he operated the machine, the light of the laser was faint and almost completely transparent, and its cutting power was as nearly ineffectual as using a piece of floss to saw through diamond, or a spoon for complex brain surgery. At length, however, an aperture was created. Murdoc set aside the ratchet. He was panting and gasping for breath, apparently drained of his energy, much like the machine was.
His demeanor displayed all of the signs of physical weakness. When it came time to make their entry, Murdoc stopped his niece suddenly and cleared his throat, preparing another last minute lecture, or 'speech of safety.'
"Now remember, Sibyl-"
"Oh, not this again! I know, I know, you don't want any heroics. We get in, we pick, we get out," she concluded, her expression being blindingly blasé.
The Ashaun frowned. Was he really that predictable? Was this the only life Sibyl would ever know? The young vixen, with her big eyes and bushy tale, was no longer the little girl she used to be. A determination to change the course of her future, by means of whatever measure he could find, took hold of him like never before. A longing to improve the quality of her life surfaced out of the dark and screaming agonies of his heart. Suddenly he found himself blurting out before thinking about it, "do you want to hold the gun this time?"
A blank stare was returned to Murdoc. Sibyl was stunned. She had not anticipated his question, readying herself to catch another earful of blatant and pointless lectures instead. When her bafflement passed, she quickly responded before her uncle could recall his words. "The shooter? Really? I'll do it. Yes!" She instantly became giddy with excitement.
When he entrusted the weapon to her, he was half thankful he had done so. Even lifting the sidearm was an endeavor he struggled at, because he still lacked strength in his aging and expended muscles. The other half, however, was clouded with concern at her overly enthusiastic eagerness. He attempted to give her instructions on its use, but Sibyl hastily swatted his hands away, claiming that she 'already knew' how it operated. All Murdoc could do was shrug, feel as good as one can after willingly endangering their niece, who happened to be following uncomfortably close behind them with a loaded weapon, and squeeze his way through the newly created aperture. He used his hovering pushcart as a crutch as he shuffled forward gingerly.
The surroundings inside this spaceship was just as wrecked and despairing as its exterior was. An intrusive stench lazily lingered in the atmosphere. Both of the aliens shuddered, and naturally Murdoc would have regurgitated if he had not forced himself to swallow the vomit rising in the back of his throat. He almost dropped his flashlight when they had noticed that, on almost every surface, crusted and caked like thick layers of dark sediment, was the remnants of fecal matter and alien refuse.
"Disgusting!" Sibyl cried out. "What kind of filthy aliens would do something like this?"
"Probably desperate ones, or maybe deranged," he thought, but did not answer in return. Instead, the Ashaun began to explore in search of a passageway beyond the refuse-smattered deck, carefully watching his step as he went along. He discovered an entryway, but in that moment, when his searchlight light expanded beyond the threshold and into another area of the spacecraft, his eyes grew wide. Murdoc's expression was convincingly grim.
Sibyl had yet to see what he was studying gloomily in the dark, but she became concerned nonetheless. "What is it uncle?"
"Wait where you are, young lady, and be ready to shoot that thing if I come running back this way."
She grew very anxious, and the weapon rattled lightly in her trembling hands. "But what-"
"Shsh! No more questions," he demanded sternly. His seriousness trumped Sibyl's curiosity, and she obeyed. Slowly the Ashaun shuffled his feet forward, sideling the wall of the passageway with absolute alertness. There was an icy sensation that chilled the blood circling through his veins. In what he guessed was the hub of this ruined vessel, like two lumps of decaying matter, a pair of bodies laid in a state of suspended animation. He stared for a moment, unsure if these aliens were alive or dead. When his courage gradually rallied, he called out to them. The reply was ghostly silence. He address them again, louder and more audibly, yet the response was the same. "Probably dead," he thought. He exhaled a sigh; a mix of relief and pity. Then he nearly leapt out of his spacesuit.
"Are they alive?" Sibyl quietly approached from behind, unnoticed. Her voice broke the overbearing stillness.
"Sibyl!" Murdoc gasped. After a few panicked breaths he said, "I told you to wait over there."
"I only came to see what was happening. I wanted to make sure you were all right." Her eyes glanced at the unmoving bodies. Perhaps at an earlier time in life, she would have been much more frightened at the ghastly sight, but after witnessing the headless corpse of their last picking excursion, and being tortured by its lucid image in her dreams, the young vixen was now a little more desensitized. Instead of being gripped by fear, she was more overcome by inquisitiveness. A second later she was crossing through the entryway to get a better look at the scene.
Two aliens were lying in supine positions; their overall appearance was unpleasant, if not repulsive. They had become emaciated. Their gaunt and starved physique was terrifying only because it was a fate the pair of scavengers struggled every day to avoid. Sibyl could not help but feel sorry for the unfortunate wretches.
Murdoc, wishing to regain his authority in the situation, said commandingly, "you look around for anything important or hidden. I'll check these two." He stepped over the one whose face was covered in a light blue garment, and began groping the clothes of the larger one. "An Anupamen," he said in a whisper of amazement.
While her uncle busied himself searching the cadavers, Sibyl casually opened several compartments hoping to find anything of value. That is when her gaze gravitated toward a bulging, many-pocketed duffle bag stuffed into one of the compartments of the hub. Gradually she strolled over to it, then began to investigate its contents. What she found was startling to say the least. Inside this bag was a myriad of electronic devices, each being of military-grade, and they were all surprisingly intact. Then she found medical supplies and a first aid kit; this unexpected treasure trove swelled her with excitement. It had been a long time since the scavengers possessed any useful medical supplies, and her hopes of finding proper medication for Murdoc's condition soared. One pocket in particular gave Sibyl a bit of trouble, but after a few jerks it nearly ripped open. Almost instinctively she cried out, "jackpot!"
Spilling to the floor all around her were tiny capsules packed with astro turf. She could barely contain her delight.
Murdoc was quick to approach, wondering if she had stumbled upon a new source of sustenance. When he arrived next to Sibyl and saw what she had discovered, he rolled his eyes. "That's enough, young lady. Ready the pushcart; there are a few things in here worth a bit of value that we can pick. Hurry along now."
She begrudgingly crossed the chamber as Murdoc began studying the contents of the duffle bag for himself. Before exiting the hub, she noticed that the Ashaun had forgotten to search the other body. A strange interest halted her movement. She stood looming over it, curiously staring at the baby blue scarf that was resting upon its face. Sibyl bent down and hesitated, then reached for the garment. Pulling it away, she unexpectedly discovered the thin features of an Earthian; he was relatively handsome, apart from being more of a skeleton than a man. His final expression was etched in sadness.
"I suppose you won't be missing this anytime soon," she said quietly to the docile cadaver, "what a cute scarf." However, before she could fully stand upright again, she let out a horrifying scream.
Something had latched onto the Ne`cenf, and was gripping her with such firmness that its strength pained her. It was one of the Earthian's bony hands. When she looked down, her eyes met those of Blu's; his face looked as pale as death, but now his expression was fixed into a feral rage, like a rabid wolf foaming at the mouth. Yet just as rapidly as he had grabbed the young vixen and came to life, he let her go and shuddered violently. He was staring at the outline of a female figure, and for the briefest moment he thought he was actually dead, eternally reminiscing upon the image of Jinnie. However, he came back to reality when he was noticed that he staring at the end of a sidearm's barrel; one eye was peering at the tiny black hole of the weapon, which readied itself to deliver a big bang capable of rending his brain into bloody clumps, scattering them about like tiny galaxies.
With the weapon still in her possession, Sibyl pointed it at the Earthian and before any reaction could transpire, she fired. A succession of loud blasts filled the hub, until Murdoc was able to shuffle over to her, quickly seizing the sidearm from her. Ten shots were fired, and if Blu's natural luck had reached its end, he would have really been deceased. Fortunately, not a single bullet had struck him.
When he had begun to realize the direness of the situation, remembering the current circumstances he had been left in, Blu immediately blurted out incomprehensible gibberish, mostly as a result of the rapid resurgence into reality. The scavengers exchanged glances of uneasiness and confusion, until they heard a word they were familiar with. The Earthian had exhausted most of his galactic vocabulary uttering a few single words in as many languages as he knew.
"Food," he kept begging in repetition, "food. Please, food. I need food." Then he fainted once more into a dormant blankness, but not before snatching his scarf from the prying hands of the Ne`cenf.
"The pushcart," Murdoc shouted to Sibyl anxiously, "we must fetch the pushcart!"
The next installment explains Murdoc's true relationship with Sibyl, and a promise is made.