Blu eventually returned to the grimness of reality, but when he opened his eyes, it was as if he had not opened them at all. His surroundings were dark, his vision was obscured by vague shadows that blurred and blended into one another, but the metallic creaking and hissing pipes suggested to him that he was still alive. He wanted to move his body, but his limbs felt frail and too feeble to respond to his impulses. He attempted to raise his voice, maybe call out for help, but he could not remember what had happened or where he was, so he thought it better not to say anything at all. Then he recalled someone trying to steal his blue scarf, and immediately he squinted his eyes and franticly peered from side to side.

Suddenly, the Earthian found himself tightly shutting his eyes as a bright light flashed from overhead and remained constant, like a grand star rupturing into a super nova only to remain suspended in a perpetual explosion of incandescence.

Sibyl had flipped a switch and was now entering her bedroom from the corridor beyond it. Just outside the doorway was the hovering pushcart, and on its surface was a freshly cooked meal of Napalis noodles accompanied by a slender dish. Blu could guess by the potent odor that something smelled strangely like mint. He grunted incoherently.

"Ah! you're awake. I half expected to find you dead on my return. You must be hungry, because you look like a starved twig, so please eat. This is for you." The young vixen served Blu the bowl and dish, then she added, "careful now, don't eat it all at once, or your stomach will punish you for it."

"," he replied weakly.

Tasting the meager sustenance, though it was nothing more than a bland meal with next to no flavor or detectable delicacy, he nearly wept as the food fumbled around his teeth and fell to his stomach. Blu could not recollect the last time he had eaten anything; it had been far too long, and a man cannot live on crumbs alone.

When more of his vitality was restored to his anatomy, he instinctively inquired about his scarf.

"Oh yes, that thing. Don't worry, I'm having it washed. The scarf, well, it was a little dirty and had stains on it...mostly blood stains..." Then Sibyl checked her manners. She remembered that this Earthian was still a dangerous looking ruffian, or menacing marauder, or some kind of deviant, at least in her mind. She reached behind her back and withdrew her uncle's sidearm.

Sibyl immediately targeted Blu in its crosshairs, but curiously he did not flinch or even jostle in the slightest, as most aliens do when flashed with a wild and loaded weapon waiting to fire off. Instead, he sat there quietly slurping up his food, slowly and steadily. His casualness chilled her like a bypassing blizzard.

"Just because I'm giving you food doesn't mean I trust you. Who are you? Are a scavenger? A slave trafficker? A galactic pirate, maybe? What were you doing inside that ruined ship? Are you a criminal?" Sibyl's hands and voice trembled as she spouted a flurry of questions in one elongated breath. This caused Blu to faintly smile. When she noticed his reaction, she added as a warning, "this isn't a joke, you know? I'm not afraid to use this. I'll plug you..." She paused briefly. "Full of holes," she concluded with failing confidence.

"I remember you now, little one. You may not be afraid to shoot at me, but judging by the way you are holding that gun, I reckon you'll only miss me again. As for your inquiries, allow me to properly introduce myself first. My name is Blu." He extended one of his hands as a gesture of peaceful intent. Sibyl stiffened, nearly over-squeezing the trigger.

Blu continued, recoiling and relaxing his arm carefully, "I'm not sure what title I merit anymore, but I guess if you'd like you can call me a bounty hunter. Don't look so surprised. Now, what was I doing onboard that ship, you ask? Simply trying to live another day. I reckon one such as yourself can sympathize." He had taken his time assessing the quality of the bedroom he was in, as well as the condition of the Ne`cenf's ragged attire. It was easy to guess that she was acquainted with her squalid surroundings.

"Live another day? What do you mean by that?" She could feel the weapon begin to gradually lower in her grip, weighed down by empathy, but she still had it pointed at him.

"I'm more than happy to answer your questions, truly, but may I call you something other than little one? I don't want to give you a reason to use that thing, and I'm not sure how you like the nickname." Blu raised the dish of mint tea to his lips and sipped on it leisurely.

She remained silent for a moment, uncertain if she should reveal any information to this complete stranger. However, after much hesitation she hazarded, "S-Sibyl. You can call me Sibyl."

"That's quite a lovely name. Well then Sibyl, one more question if I may. When I was rescued, I assume there was another alien close by; an Anupaman to be exact. Tell me, is he..." Blu made the appropriate gestures necessary; she at once understood.

"I'm don't know if he's dead, not yet anyway," she began, "my uncle is checking-n-no. No more questions." She trained the sidearm once more upon him, this time concentrated like a pinpoint.

"All right, all right, no need for violence." He lazily placed his hands, open-palmed, up into the air in that unmistakably universal fashion of surrender. This relaxed the young vixen temporarily, and calmed her jittering nerves. He continued speaking in a voice laden with confidence, "you see, we were on that ship fleeing from rangers, but-"

"So you are a criminal!" Sibyl cried out accusingly.

At that moment the slumping form of an Ashaun, slowly succumbing to the heaviness of star-worn burden, appeared at the doorway. This sudden approach by Murdoc caught Sibyl's attention; her head turned, only for a sliver of a time, then her hands felt completely empty. They both gasped helplessly as Sibyl was disarmed.

Murdoc shook himself from the horrific shock and naturally rushed to intervene, but he only planted one foot past the threshold before halting into a perfectly frozen statue. A severe pain was hammering his arteries.

"Not so fast, old-timer, or I'll 'plug' the little one here, full of holes too." Blu lied with a straight face as hard as stone, and though Murdoc was a gambling alien who took a particular interest in betting against chance, he folded under the pressure of his opposition. Sibyl was terrified, unable to stop her bushy tail from nervously swishing back and forth.

"If you have any weapons," he continued, "I would suggest tossing them in here. Nobody has to get hurt, just do as I say." His reassuring tones were drowned out by the screeching of metal gears and the barrel bobbing up and down, which was beginning to sway in Blu's enervated grip.

A very familiar looking katana was gently thrown to the foot of the shabby cot he was sitting on. A sidearm that Blu was more than familiar with followed shortly after the sword, but it clanked upon impact with the floor beneath the cot, missing its intended mark.

His eyes narrowed. "And what are you doing with my effects exactly?"

The seriousness of the situation summoned the less tainted portions of Murdoc's honesty. "I-I wasn't going to use them on you. I swear!" His constricted heart flailed with fluttering rapidity, bringing pallor and cold sweat to his face. His breath vacated his lungs. Grasping at his tortured chest, Murdoc appealed desperately to the stranger. "Please, cuh-cuh, don't hurt her, she's all I have!" His pleading expression was the epitome of infallible truth.

This last statement engaged Blu's upmost interest; it rang in his ears like a raucous church bell flung into an echoing ravine. For a moment he drifted into a daydream, or rather flashed-back to the wretchedness of a mournful memory. He remembered the agony; he recalled the fear; he could never forget, no matter how many blows to his head, the pain of losing all he had. When he finally returned to the affairs transpiring before him, he sighed a deep sigh distended with misery.

"Rest assured, you can feel at ease. I won't hurt you or your furry companion here. As an act of faith, here - catch." He gingerly threw the weapon, and it crossed the room to Sibyl. She struggled to snatch up the sidearm on her first try, juggling it between her hands and nearly dropping it on her second try, but at last it was secured. When she had a handle on it, in a moment of impudence, she moved to retarget Blu. It was lifted only midway before stopping; she desired to point it directly at the criminal, but the razor-edged tip of his katana, inches from her head, suggested she do otherwise.

"Too slow, little one, you are far too slow. If I wanted you two dead, it wouldn't be difficult to make that happen. But the way I see it, it's like this - you saved me, and since I haven't hurt either one of you yet, we are just about even. I'd like to pay for the meal, too."

Blu's head started to spin, blood rushing to his brain like tiny red-celled commuters hurrying through cranial traffic. The dizziness caused him to stumble backward and slump down onto the cot again. He rested his head upon the hilt of the sword, attempting to regain his composure, but his body was still too feeble from malnourishment. His breathing was labored; heavy heaves and pain-filled panting emanated from him in stertorous strains.

Sibyl was about to lift the weapon threateningly again, but a gentle hand seized the top of her own. "That's enough, my dear," Murdoc said sympathetically, "there's no need for that."

"But Uncle, he's a criminal! He said so himself," she protested.

"Yet he handed back the weapon, and said he owed us for the food. He's certainly not going to loot us...not much here to loot anyways. We can all lower our guard for now," he shifted his glance to Blu, adding in a solemn tone, "as a measure of good faith."

Sibyl pouted stubbornly as she turned to face the Ashaun, and like so many times before, a deep rooted anguish sprang forth and sprouted its agony in every direction of his heart. He winced. "Go on," he began, interrupted by spurts of suppressed coughing, "cuh-cuh, go on and check to see how the other is fairing. Your medical knowledge is far beyond my own. Go on now, cuh-cuh it's all right. I want to have a little chat with this one. Cuh-he-cuh." His words ended in wheezing breezes.

She was reluctant to depart from her bedchamber, not wanting to leave her dear uncle in the company of a self-proclaimed criminal, but after Murdoc's insistence began to tread the lines of demand, Sibyl obeyed. She disappeared into the corridor behind her, hurrying to another area of the spacecraft.

"That's quite the companion you have there, old-timer," Blu said as he reclined back against a hard and particularly uncomfortable wall, "but I have to admit the whole 'uncle' thing is a bit fucked up. I reckon I've met some sick aliens in my day, but giving each other incestuous names-"

"It's not like that!" Murdoc retorted hotly.

"Oh," remarked Blu in a demeanor of embarrassment, "my apologies. I guess I should have asked first. Please understand, I'm more acquainted with the scummy side of the universe. Forgive my offence."

"Granted," he replied bitterly, then added rather indifferently, "speaking of acquaintances, are you familiar with the Virtus S-9 solar system?"

"Is that where we are?"

Murdoc shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. What's your, cuh-cuh, answer?"

Blu replied after a brief reticence, "yes, I'm familiar with that particular solar system."

"Any recent trips there," the Ashaun asked coyly, "that you can remember?" He glanced downward at the custom-made pistol rattling against the floor, shuffled forward, then stooped over and retrieved it gradually.

"I visited the cathedral on Seir not too long ago. Its quite the planet I reckon. Peaceful scenery, glistening shorelines-"

"You don't say," he interrupted flatly, "cuh-cuh, never been there myself. What's your name stranger?" Murdoc balanced the weapon in his hand, measuring its weight. A cloud was brooding in his mind.



"And?" Blu blinked in confusion.

"Don't play dumb now, cowboy. You're that wanted bomber, Gilliam Rook, who attacked the Office of Rangers. They're spending a lot of money and, cuh-cuh, and effort looking for you..." Murdoc dubiously dragged his tongue along his dry lips. It was difficult to decipher what he was thinking.

"I reckon they would be - I made quite a mess for them to clean up."

Murdoc, whose expression had been unwaveringly stern since his entrance, frowned at this. Then his mouth leveled out into a crack-lipped line. After a moment of restrained pursing, his face curled into an auspicious rictus, succumbing finally to a laughter that shaded his crimson cheeks. His hilarity ceased when slimy mucus interrupted the laughs, turning them to wet coughs.

Blu sat as still as permafrost, though he was surprised at the Ashaun's reaction. "What's so funny?"

"A mess," he said after expectorating into his handkerchief, "that's an understatement if ever I heard one. A mess? More like a disaster. You caused a lot of headaches doing something that stupid."

"I'm assuming they're hurting in other places too," Blu replied humorously, "I've been known to be quite the pain-in-the-ass, at least to those who cross me." Then he glanced sidelong at the Ashaun, inquiring straightforwardly, "is that where you intend to take me? So you can collect a little reward for me?"

"A little reward?" Murdoc smiled a strange smile, but Blu could not determine of it was sinister or not. "A bigger reward than you think, cowboy. I, cuh-cuh, I was thoroughly searched twice while passing through that solar system. Someone really wants to get their hands on you."

He tensed his muscles. Murdoc casually raised the sidearm and inspected it closely, though the barrel was aimed right at Blu. "More than just one out there, I'm sure. But if you think you're going to turn me over to the rangers without resistance, then-"

"Remarkable, really," Murdoc said rhetorically, ignoring the vigilante. "A fine piece of, cuh-cuh, of craftsmanship. Modified in nearly every way to improve its performance in a fire fight, and if I'm not mistaken, this thing can bounce bullets like they're made of rubber. Pistin continues to amaze even me."

Blu was bewildered, as well as a little disquieted, at the observant eyes of the Ashaun. Not many aliens would be able to deduce the ricochet effect of the weapon, and even fewer could guess the name of the alien responsible for customizing it personally. "Say again?"

"In the right hands," he continued, unfazed by the inquiry, "this could fetch a high price by itself." Murdoc attempted another toss, the pistol went airborne and arced across the room, and Blu caught it expertly. "Both you and your effects could really make me rich."

"Then why arm a captive?"

"You're no captive, Blu, and certainly I'm no captor either."

"Who are you then? I reckon you have a name, old-timer." Blu, in a measure of good faith, set aside his weapons. Though they remained within arm's reach, the Ashaun breathed easier.

"Call me Murdoc, please." He added with slight reproach, "and I'm not that old." An urge to cough impeccably itched at his drying throat. He wavered and wheezed.

"Sure," Blu replied doubtfully.

"Fine," he conceded with a gargled grunt, "cuh, I'm not that young either, I get it. But if it wasn't for my niece, you'd be a lot closer to the void than me. Remember that, Blu."

"And I'm much obliged. My debts will be repaid-"

"You're damn right they will, cuh." He parted his lips to say more, but the Ashaun's raspy voice was replaced by a faint scream; unlike the usual squeals echoing in the spacecraft, this distinct shriek was a cry of pure terror.

"Sibyl? Sibyl! I'm coming," he shouted, shuffling out of the bedroom, "hold on!"

"Murdoc, wait-"

Blu was left alone reclining against the uncomfortable wall; his limbs felt languid like loose bootlaces. He was determined to discover the source of the interruption for himself, but his body would not allow him to traverse more than a few paces before he would collapse, so he began to form a plan of action. He surveyed the apartment quickly; he studied his weapons ponderously; he saw, just beyond the threshold of the bedroom, an overlooked pushcart hovering in place like a floating canoe.

Meanwhile, Murdoc arrived at the area of the crew deck in which his lodgings were located, and he beheld a sight of bewilderment; a very pale and pugnacious Anupaman was pounding away with heavy fists upon an apparently locked door. Sibyl's voice could be heard just behind the metallic barricade. She was shouting for help.

"Open up," roared Ogdan, "and I'll teach you a lesson you won't one points a pistol at my face!"

It should be noted that although Blu was a cosmic polyglot with a remarkable understanding of several alien languages, neither Murdoc, Sibyl, nor even Ogdan possessed this precious ability.

Whatever Ogdan was crying out at the Ne`cenf beyond the door, it did not sound welcoming in the least. Murdoc crossed the chamber, rushing wildly at the bony brute, and threw three jarring jabs into his side. This only irked Ogdan more, and with one meaty hand he shoved the Ashaun to the floor. "If you're looking for a fight too, I'll kick your ass. Just try me!"

"Quit attacking us, you bastard," Murdoc shouted hotly, "we saved you-" His request was unintelligibly received, and a hard punch to his jaw nearly knocked him unconscious. The amount of strength in the strike, though considerably lessened by emaciation, was still quite impressive.

"Want another one?"

"I don't know...cuh-cuh, what you're saying...but leave my niece alone."

"I'll take that as a yes." Ogdan curled his fingers into another fist while grasping Murdoc's woolen shirt by its collar.

The locked door leading into Murdoc's tiny bedroom opened at that moment. Sibyl could hear her uncle's voice on the opposite side, and since the pounding had ceased, she decided to investigate what was transpiring in the crew deck, in hopes to sate her curiosity. When she saw the Anupaman looming over Murdoc, readying to deliver another unwarranted blow to his head, Sibyl instinctively pounced. Her teeth sank into the assailant's skin with bestial force.

Ogdan flinched and swatted violently at the young vixen. "You little runt, I ought to-"

"Let them be, horn-head," a cool voice said in a quelling tone, "they rescued us."

He turned his gaze upon Blu, who was laying on a hovering pushcart and using the sheath of his sword like a makeshift paddle to prod along the corridor from which he emerged. Ogdan grinned, but his rictus revealed a malcontent spirit behind the smile. "You," he began bitterly, "you, smooth-brain! You wrecked my ship and nearly starved me to death! Now that I know you're alive, I ought to kill you myself." He detached Sibyl from him with as much effort as one uses to tear away an inconvenient strand or ball of lint from their clothing, then he flung her carelessly to one side and approached Blu slowly. Before reaching the pushcart, however, he suddenly fell horn first to the ground with a weighty thud, lying perfectly still afterward.

As Murdoc staggered to stand, Sibyl assisting her uncle devotedly, Blu eventually broke the silence. "I reckon he'll be in a better mood once he wakes up again. He's not usually like that, I promise you. Ogdan only gets really upset when he feels threatened. You didn't happen to point anything at him, did you?"

Sibyl bashfully blushed. "I-I did, but you two are criminals."

"Whatever we are, it's in your best interest no to go waving your weapons around irrationally. Someone could get hurt."

"Right," Murdoc agreed while gingerly rubbing his sore chin, "thanks for the advice." Then he added, "anything else we should know about, cowboy?"

"He has quite the appetite, even for an Anupaman. Do you have anything to feed him with on this ship other than noodles?"

"Sorry, but what you get is what we have. Go on Sibyl, prepare a double portion of noodles for - what did you say his name was again? Ogdan?" Once Blu nodded with affirmation, he continued, "yes, go ready some food for Ogdan. He can have my share for the day."

"But uncle, your need to mind your health," she opposed.

The pain in Murdoc's chest struck like another thunderclap. "Save your worries, young lady, and just do what I say. We certainly don't want another outburst from Ogdan when he arises. Go on, cuh-cuh."

Reluctantly she moved toward the kitchen, looking back toward Murdoc with an expression of concern. He offered her a singular nod of reassurance before she departed. When Sibyl was no longer in sight, Murdoc withdrew his handkerchief and coughed, clearing his throat of the greasy slime welling up inside of him.

Blu watched on attentively. "My apologies for the scare, Murdoc. It may have been better for you to leave us behind when you had the chance," he jested.

The Ashaun shrugged as a familiar fog brooded in his mind like a cranial storm cloud. "Maybe so, but now you're in my debt," he said faintly as one does when addressing themselves, "a debt that will be settled soon enough..."

At length Ogdan finally regained his composure, after slurping down two bowls of Napalis noodles, listening to Blu explain their circumstances, and mildly complaining about his missing spaceship. His spirit was agitated, but once his companion lit the end of a smoking capsule and passed it to him, he was more assuaged. He apologized for his behavior very briefly, which Blu translated in a tactful manner, then he remained reticent for the rest of the day, mostly because he did not comprehend what was being said. Murdoc politely accepted the apology, patiently awaited for their vitality to rally even further, then conducted a tour of the vessel.

The vigilantes halted at the entrance of the cargo deck. "And this is the cargo hold," Murdoc concluded, "it isn't much, but it's the only other place we can fit you two."

"What did he say?" Ogdan asked.

"This is where we're sleeping."

Murdoc continued speaking as they whispered in hushed voices to one another, "we don't have any spare cots, but I'm sure if you push together a few of these crates it'll be just like a bed."

"We're supposed to sleep here?" Ogdan inquired disdainfully. "Is this some kind of bad joke? There's nothing in here to sleep on. Everything in here is metal. We won't get a moment's peace in here either, not with all of this noise." The cargo deck not only resonated but seemed to spawn the mechanical squealing of the spacecraft. A loud, voiceless groan emanated from one of its far corners.

"What was that?" Murdoc chimed in.

Blu firmly slapped the Anupaman on the shoulder and replied with a humble grin, "he thanks you for your generous hospitality, as do I. I reckon this will be just fine."

"Oh, good," Murdoc nodded appreciatively, "it's not much, but I'm glad you both like it. Now that the tour is over, let's discuss duties. While you're onboard my ship, you'll both be doing your part to help maintain it. There isn't a lot to do for chores, you see, Sibyl kindly takes care of those, but if either of you can pilot then you'll be put to good use. This ship can fly itself if need be, but I rarely rely on the automated piloting program. It's a bit outdated."

"You don't say," Blu remarked sarcastically. It appeared to him that everything about the spacecraft was outdated in some way or another. His surveying glance fixed onto Ogdan, who was looking at him like an alien ardently awaiting the answers to unspoken questions. "Murdoc said we'll be temporary navigators while we are his guests."

"And how long will that be?"

Blu turned to face the Ashaun, just as eager to learn the reply. "When can we expect to land next?"

"Right now we're navigating through the Kinovo solar system, and if my calculations are correct, we'll arrive at the planet Vosruc in about a week, give or take a few days. Once we dock there, you can repay me for my generous hospitality, as you put it."

"We'll be at Vosruc in a few days, horn-head. Be patient and try not to lose your temper until then."

Ogdan grumbled incoherently and crossed the cargo deck in search of a place for repose.

"My friend and I are feeling quite faint still, so I think we're going to rest a little longer if you don't mind."

Murdoc shook his head. "Not at all, Blu. I'll come fetch one of you when it's time to change navigators." He added a humble bow after speaking, quit the deck, and shuffled his feet toward the hub.

A few days passed in this fashion: a fair and equal rotation was agreed upon by all aliens onboard the vessel, navigation went on without any accident or incident, the meals they ate lacked any form of variety or substance, the vigilantes were grateful to once again be acquainted with soap and running water, and Blu gradually gained the trust and confidence of the scavengers, acting as a part-time translator whenever Ogdan grunted, "huh," or, "what'd they say?"

Then one day something very unexpected happened that completely changed everything.

Blu was by himself in the hub, piloting the vessel in complete silence, save the sizzling sounds of a smoking capsule burning between his lips. One moment his dark eyes were focused on the pool of placid blackness just beyond the porthole, and the next he was craning his neck to see who it was entering the hub in a steady, shuffling gait. "You're here early." Out of courtesy, he snuffed out the remnants of his astro turf.

Murdoc approached a vacant copilot's chair and sat down slowly. Once positioned comfortably in the seat, he produced a small bottle from a pocket on his oil-marked overalls. "A little early perhaps, but I thought a celebration might be in order. Hm? What do you say, cowboy? Are you a drinker?"

"I've been known to indulge," Blu replied as he brightened up, "especially when there's nothing to have but tea."

The Ashaun made apparent his absolute disgust of the subject with one convincing expression. "I hate that damned stuff."

"Then why drink it?" The sound of a lid twisting off and popping like a cork resonated around the hub.

"Sibyl tells me it's good for my health. I drink it for her sake."

"Are you sure you should be drinking that, if your-"

Murdoc tilted his head back, tipped the bottle upwards, and guzzled a fraction of the bottle's contents. After smacking his lips in satisfaction, and wiping away any remaining spittle, he offered some to Blu. Handing the bottle to him, he said reproachfully, "I already have someone monitoring my health, Blu. I don't need another."

The Earthian shrugged casually and swigged heartily from the bottle as well. He ascertained that he was drinking some form of Bongolurian brandy by the way it blazed a trial down his throat, like some kind of flaming salamander. "Potent," he finally muttered.

"And delicious."

Blu acceded with certainty, "and delicious; much better than tea, I reckon. I'm curious though, Murdoc," he added, "what are we celebrating exactly?"

He laughed, taking back the bottle of brandy in turn. "Why, we are celebrating good fortune. What else?" His reply failed to sate Blu's curiosity. He noticed this by the questioning gaze that seemed to fixate upon him. "You almost died, cowboy, if not for our intervention. Is that a good enough reason for you?"

"But why are you celebrating? Isn't our presence more of a burden than anything? I've seen the pantry, at least of what little is in the pantry anyway."

"For now, yes," he said flatly. "But I'm celebrating the prospect of promise on your behalf. You are indebted to me, you know."

The bottle was near empty when it was passed over to Blu. Slowly they both slipped into inevitable inebriation as the last of the brandy washed down into his stomach. "I've been meaning to ask you about that. What do you have in mind for repayment?"

That noticeable cloud, the dense fog of Murdoc's mind that brooded shadowy thoughts, began to take shape once more. "I was waiting to tell you until we arrived on Vosruc, but there's no sense in hiding anymore," he said solemnly. "I need you to help fund Sibyl's future education. There are some decent universities on the planet, and it's about damn time she leaves this stuffy ship for something greater."

"That's a noble desire, and one I certainly wasn't expecting. I have some money with me-"

"Had," he interrupted.

"Right," Blu conceded, "money I had, which is now in your possession. That should be enough for most of Sibyl's entrance fees. She'll get by on that."

"Get by? That's why I need your help, Blu. She's been living life too long 'just getting by.' Poor Sibyl, she deserves more and she always has. I should've never-" Then suddenly the Ashaun checked himself before accidently loosening his tongue too much, and perhaps revealing more than necessary. He shifted his eyes and lightly coughed nervously.

"Why not sell your ship after you land on Vosruc? It probably won't be worth much, but it could help you and her start a new life together."

Murdoc shook his head sadly and sighed deeply, "it's not that easy. I've been marked." Pulling back on the collar of his shirt, he pointed to an area of scarred flesh that was traced in a fleur de rocaille design. "Not many aliens are doing business with scavengers this side of the galaxy." He straightened out his attire, stiffing in his chair. "Besides, she'll be better off if I'm not holding her back. Please Blu, don't make a poor Ashaun grovel like a worm - say you'll help me out."

"On one condition," he replied enigmatically.

"Name it, and I will see to it."

"Tell me the details of the real relationship between you and Sibyl. I reckon there must be some reason she insists on calling you an uncle," Blu said with a voice laden in suspicion, "and if I don't like the reason, I'll refuse outright."

The moment a memory of Murdoc's past penetrated his thoughts, he could feel a tight restriction around his arteries. "No, I couldn't..." He added hurriedly, "you wouldn't understand," then coughed dryly into one of his sleeves. A terrible trepidation quaked his countenance.

"Jinnie," Blu said shortly.

After his fit of coughing subsided slightly, Murdoc inquired confusedly, "hm? Excuse me?"

"I have a daughter whose name is Jinnie. That's not her full name, though, it's Jinnella Vevi Rosivo Tillenani. She's Porese." Blu was surprised what had slipped passed his tongue in half-drunken slurs. The alcohol had turned him from laconic to loquacious in a matter of minutes, but that is the effect of imbibing Bongolurian brandy.

"Y-you do? Cuh-cuh, where is she now?"

His chilling gaze scanned across the hub and peered longingly at one of the portholes. "Out there, somewhere."

"You mean, cuh, you don't know?"

"No, I really don't, but I reckon I'll come to find out sooner or later," Blu remarked with unwavering confidence. Little did the vigilante know, at that very moment an invisible tether was gradually tugging him along closer and closer to that exact truth, towing him in the direction of some ultimate destiny or untimely doom. 

"So you see," he concluded, "I might have some understanding of your situation." The Earthian's eyes fixed once more onto Murdoc. He stared at him sternly, with an expression that cracked the Ashaun like pressure upon thin glass.

Stroking his chin anxiously, Murdoc felt rather reluctant to reveal his past to Blu. Eventually he broke the silence that was mounting between them, "hm," he said grievously, "if it means you'll promise to help the young lady, then I'll tell you, but, cuh-cuh, you must give me your word that you won't confess a breath of this to anyone else." He looked undeniably ashamed as he acquiesced to Blu's demand once the nod of agreement was returned to him.

His story began slowly as he trembled from a mix of grief and hesitation. The Ashaun's already abject spirits sank into an oblivion of agony with every recollection and remembrance. His speech was fragmented by his fits of illness, or by the stutters of his own inebriation, but at length he, as Earthian's would suggest, spilled the beans.

Initially, to avoid alarming Blu immediately, he spoke of his younger years being spent as an aspiring engineer, graduating from Star-Cadia Academy with high honors. While there he acquainted himself with a particular clique of aliens, which inevitably sealed his fate. Then Murdoc reminisced fondly, yet very sullenly, upon a certain Ne`cenf named Sanha Solyris, who apparently captured his heart the moment their eyes met. He became even more melancholy when he revealed that it was an unrequited love; Sanha was already the spouse of a Ne`cenf known as Mandel Solyris. The Ashaun did not fail to mention his devoted friendship to Mandel, though it was obvious that a tiny cloud of spite brooded upon his brow at the pronunciation of the name, but it was hurriedly replaced by an expression of deep regret; as deep as the infinity of space. In order to appeal to Blu before delivering the final blow, Murdoc attempted to alleviate the gloomy mood by regaling briefly his friendship with Pistin at the academy. This aided in answering questions that lingered in the mind of the vigilante, and provided a sliver of entertainment in the otherwise heavyhearted report.

After flattering the presently absent engineer known as Pistin for a solid twenty minutes, the subject of conversation eventually turned back to grim memories, interrupted only by the greasy slime that Murdoc expectorated when he exhaled. Drunkenly he spoke of minor successes that transformed into major failures, and he alluded to illegitimate practices that created a world of problems all there own. He was evicted from his house; he was denied employment at every turn; he helplessly watched on as his finances plummeted into near nothingness. The Ashaun was in steadily flowing tears when he informed Blu that Sanha and Mandel were the only ones who would take him in, like some stray wolf that lost its fangs and fur. For a while he admitted to some scheme that he plotted, but every endeavor to continue was met with resistance; the despair of his past had him weeping bitterly and badly wheezing. When his strength finally rallied, he recommenced to tell Blu of the scheme.

Mandel and Sanha were not eccentric Ne`cenf, but their combined careers granted them access to a wealthier lifestyle. A sinister idea was conceived in Murdoc's mind one day, and he thought to ransom their infant vixen, Sibyl. But the vileness of such a deed was trimmed in a silver lining; since he was a friend of theirs, Sibyl would be safe and secure with him the entire time. He had no intention of hurting her, in fact he was entrusted to watch over her from time to time, so they were comfortable with one another. Sanha insisted, or so Murdoc alluded through a waterfall of tear drops, that he should be considered an uncle. When he was made part of the family, he tried to call off the scheme but it was too late; the cogs of cruelty were in full turn. Every undertaking was in vain, so Murdoc thought he would pacify the ransom attempt by going through with it as hastily as he could. But things were rushed, and time was pressed. "Aliens make mistakes when they're hurried," Murdoc mentioned solemnly. His accomplices killed Sanha and Mandel, robbing and purloining any material possession they could carry, and crossed the stars never to return. He was left with a choice: would he abandon Sibyl and leave her to a dreadful fate, one in which if she was found there would be little probability it would be alive, or would he fulfill his role as an uncle and raise the infant?

When he finished, his handkerchief was wet and green. "And I, cuh-cuh, I almost left her behind too! I'm a miserable bastard, Blu cuh-cuh, I really am. Her parents are dead because of me..." He threw an arm up to cover his wretchedly wrinkled face, contorted by complete disconsolation.

Blu's countenance offered little supplication or succor. He was staring coldly at one of the portholes, but the point he focused on was light-years in the distance. Though it wouldn't be guessed, the vigilante was touched by tale, and indeed had more of an understanding of Murdoc's situation than either of them realized. After a tense stillness filled the air around them, he said, "I'll do it."

"Hm? Cuh-cuh!"

"I'll help Sibyl, I give you my word."

The tears did not cease flowing, but they warmed with appreciation. He could have embraced Blu like a brother, and even moved to do so, but a thousand thunderclaps ripped and tore at his heart that very second. Murdoc grabbed at his chest and fell to the ground, but he banged against the dashboard during his startling descent. Blu darted from the pilot's chair and attempted to assist the Ashaun.

There was a soggy layer of green, greasy blood around his lips. "No, cuh-cuh, it's all right. Promise me, Blu. Promise me you'll, cuh, look after Sibyl," he said in faint gasps.

"My word is my honor."

"Tell her, cuh, tell her, cuh-cuh, I love her." He was wincing and writhing from the tremendous pain that repeatedly punched at him with all of the strength of an Anupaman.

Blu gave an expression of bewilderment. "What are you saying, Murdoc? I reckon you can tell her that yourself. Now hold on, I'll get Sibyl-"

"No! Cuh-cuh, not her. I don't want her to see this. Go, cuh, tea...bring me tea."

Blu disappeared from the hub, vanishing down a corridor swiftly. The Ashaun, with exhausting effort, hoisted himself up into the pilot's chair. He was heaving heavily and choking on his own breaths, looking more star-worn than ever before. "I can do it this time," he thought to himself reassuringly, "I've confessed, and now I can do it. Forgive me, Sibyl, for everything. Farewell Ogdan, and farewell cowboy, she's in your hands now - take care of her. Good-bye ship, this is the end for me. Good-bye, my niece..." He pitifully wiped away the green slime from his mouth, which clung to his sleeve like oily strings before breaking off, then he began blindly groping around the seat. Suddenly in his hand, pressed firmly, was the feel of a familiar friend.

As the Earthian traversed back to the hub with a small dish of steaming mint tea in hand, a moment of pure silence instantaneously transpired. Briefly the squealing and screeching pipes hushed, seemingly all at once, and a total noiselessness overwhelmed the spacecraft. The absence of sound lasted only a second however, because just then, booming through the vessel like the echo made by one final hopeless howl, a singular blast from a sidearm rang forth with a bleak bang.

In the next installment, trouble happens on Vosruc and Blu is apprehended.

The End

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