Too late to stumble away. Far too late. Her face kissed the trembling ground long before she realized she’d been hit. Rubber met her foot, a literal third wheel between two sources of pain. Slowly, it pulped her bones with cold impunity.
Nan woke not with a start, but a pitiful groan. She enjoyed her dreams; nightmares even, were things to draw a passing thrill from. Three nights of reruns, however, were a bit much.
Her subconsciousness held no small fistfull of gall, leaving bloodstained sticky notes all over the fridge of her third eye. “You’re far from home, my girl. Likely never to happen upon a yellow brick road, and far too clumsy to wear ruby slippers.”
She squeezed her oversized pillow to her chest, a grey and black thing with diamond patterns that gave a woosh of air in protest. It wasn’t nearly as comforting as snatching up Greg or Gina.
Tighter she held on, but the pillow was incapable of squirming away in embarrassment, hugging back, or even giving her a little warmth in return. Ten seconds. Nan counted them alongside deep breaths. More than a practical allowance for despondent wallowing.
A silver medical bracelet fit snugly around her wrist; the sixth of its kind, and the source of many a headache. She sent two short flares of her trademark purple through it. Her trusty steed, now dubbed Slowsilver, hummed to her side.
Apparently, manifesting one’s sigil, using whym for signals, or pushing the body to perform better than it should were things people rarely couldn’t do. Technology adapted accordingly. Calling down lightning on foolish heathens took practice, or luck enough to be born with large reserves. Doing it well took more of both. Five broken bracelets in the bottom of her wastebasket stood testament to that.
This was a problem beyond incurring the sick bay staff’s silent disdain. As long as she was supposed to be chair-bound, automatic doors wouldn’t open without her rear end planted firmly on Slowsilver with the bracelet snapped shut. Damaging, or straying too far away from either summoned a pair of worried lian and a floating gurney.
She took some comfort in the familiarity of the morning routine. Washing, brushing. The little vanities that reminded her that she still cared about her appearance, even if a small voice questioned if there was still enough reason to care.
No. She was not doing the dour broody thing at the moment. Its time slot already came and went. She harrumphed, collapsing into her chair.
As Nan yawned, so did the deck with lazy, grudging signs of life. Aside from the few lab coats scurrying off to parts unknown, a smattering of people simply loitered. Quiet murmurings and fingers tapping away at tablets and projected screens reigned supreme.
It was a gentle place for the gently injured, stable people with new limbs or bandaged patches of skin who could use some autonomy, but still needed to be close to the dedicated medical deck above. What space was left got doled out to personnel assigned to a few non-volatile, non-essential research and development tasks
Her destination was a wall mounted terminal shoved into the space between a vending machine and a door. Blue swirling letters stood out against the soft browns and greys of the backdrop. “Guidance” was a five letter word in Common Script. Aside from that, and scrawling a butchered rendition of her name, Nan was completely illiterate. The translation spell left a mite to be desired. It was almost as if she only got half the cake slice Izusa promised for sitting through the renewal session without singing.
Nan fidgeted her legs. She wasn’t sure of what to be more appalled at, food bribery or her vocal prowess being weak enough to warrant it. She directed two short flares at the terminal.
Two long flares, then a longer lag time between each, then three short, three long, and three short again proved fruitless. Glaring also failed to produce results. The terminal had a button perched on a panel under its blank screen, just out of reach. It was a dishonorable option, a concession of defeat, but what other choice did she have?
“One short, two long,” offered a tenor voice from behind.
She paused mid slide, allowing herself to slump back into Slowsilver’s waiting cushions. “Oh? Thanks.” It was always a pleasure to see someone take time out of their day for a stranger, necessary or not. What kind of ears did he have?
Spider ears, whatever giant spiders, or murgumo as they were politely called, used for ears. Soft padding hugged his legs and main body, likely some kind of under ensemble for the armor his kind favored. Traces of whym leaked from a book attached to a chain on his front section.
Nan held back a gasp, but her smile was held taut by a string.
“Rixal.” The generously proportioned brown recluse mistook the uncomfortable silence for an introduction request. Today’s dose of social faux pas would have to wait a little longer.
Nan recovered quickly enough, she gave herself a mental pat on the back for not hesitating to accept Rixal’s “handshake”, though the effort was more like plunging into a jump before her thoughts locked her up at the edge. Without the cold press of metal against her skin, her fingers sunk into an expanse of soft hairs that warded against the sheeny exoskeleton underneath.
Juxtaposition, thy name is murgumo. The deadly predator felt like a teddy bear.
“Nan,” she replied. “Nice to meet you.”
“Isn’t it? Forty thousand people and less than half are interested in anything that doesn’t involve geek speak. Not that there’s a thing wrong with it, I just enjoy witnessing a particle lance in its natural habitat more than spawning one.”
It was a sentiment she could understand. An ecology lab practical didn’t run the risk of putting her to sleep like a lecture.
“What does a particle lance look like in its natural habitat?”
“Wouldn’t you know?”
Nan shook her head. “I wasn’t into sci-fi before I died.”
The way Rixal shifted his main body made the classic up-down appraisal obvious. Nan had to remind herself that he was not determining the best way to eat her. “You’re reclaimed then. Thought you were one of Precept Johannes’ Marines, they have a habit of busting up their legs.”
“Nope, my legs came pre-busted, but they’re fine now. I’m just stuck with this until I can prove it.” She walked around the chair a few times to make her point, the only oddity left was a floating sensation, courtesy of her dependence on Slowsilver.
“They gonna unshackle you soon?”
Shackles were the perfect analogue. Walking meant an embarrassingly slow shuffle if she didn’t want to risk stepping past Slowsilver’s alert threshold. If she pushed it in front of her, it would push back before reaching anything resembling a decent pace. Hence the name and her continued tolerance of the thing.
It gave her a clear goal at least: ditch Slowsilver. Everything else could come after that. Even outside of rehab sessions, she worked on turning her undead shamble into a perfectly respectable walk, and then a sprint.
Nan gave Rixal a nod. “Now if I have anything to say about it. I won’t survive another day in this.”
“Agility Trial Two?” Rixal asked.
“I think so.”
“It’s on the way to my stop, no need to be seen with a guidance fairy.” Eight tiny shoes would have made Rixal’s turn an in-place tap dance. Nan bit her tongue at the thought. Her guide’s pace dithered, eventually settling to accommodate Slowsilver’s meager maximum speed.
Maintaining a cool demeanor was simple enough. At least until their path fell into three turns in quick succession that set Rixal’s limbs clicking heavily. Her imagination stabbed her neutral expression in the liver with an image of Chitani flanked by Rixal and another murgumo performing on stage. The tophats, tailed suits, and canes bombed the corpse.
“Ahem.” Nan turned an errant chuff into the falsest of coughs.
“You mentioned a Johannes guy in charge of the Marines. Isn’t the Margrave our boss?”
“She’s chief of everyone but the Marines. They’re crown troops, here to make sure we play nice.” The last few words were spoken in the same tone people roll their eyes to.
Rixal made a grinding motion with his fangs, as if he had difficulty breaking down some invisible morsel. “It’s still weird calling her that: Margrave Chitani.”
“Wasn’t she born into it?”
“Huh!” Rixal’s hairs quivered. Rather than the controlled vibrations of speech, his fangs spread to release a low screech.
Nan didn’t know the slightest thing about helping humans through a heart attack, let alone a murgumo. “Are you okay?!” Panic gave way to action. She stood, fully prepared to kick Slowsilver past its alarm threshold. Get help first, worry later.
Rixal held out a shaky forelimb. “I won’t be if you keep trying to slay me!”
Nan aborted what she would have liked to call a vicious roundhouse windup that more likely resembled a peeing dog with all of her nonexistent martial arts experience. “Slay you?” she asked.
“Chitani’s not some fat clan head. Used to be another gold-a-dozen merc captain cramped up in a boarding barge. We got lucky; snagged a crippled Federation missile carrier that managed to break her FTL. ID check told us that we’d caught none other than the FCV Longbow. Half mystic crew, terror of Star Cluster Nieth, sixty cruiser and up sized kills to her name. The crew surrendered before we had a chance to check if their legs were curled. Chitani was in such a sour mood that she promised them a refill if someone beat her in a duel, not one taker. Too starved to fight.
“The LCW paid us the full bounty and offered to take our little barge away for a fancy title and ‘a home suitable for heroes’. We thought we’d be getting the Longbow, she was sitting right next to us in the docks. We got the Vespa instead.”
There were exactly no situations where Nan would agree to a straight fight with Chitani, magical abilities notwithstanding. She would be equally hesitant to allow someone else to do it. Seeing someone torn in half wasn’t on her list of preferred unique experiences.
“That’s disappointing.” Nan handed over her most sympathetic sigh. It was a safe bet, given Rixal’s tone of voice. She could express something close to condolences without commenting on how smart she thought the captain of the Longbow was. Life was preferable to freedom under many circumstances.
“Tell me about it.” Rixal clicked his fangs.
At a wide glass door, Rixal called a halt. She entered, turning back for a parting wave. “Thanks for the help,” She said.
“No need for that, you could have found the way yourself.” Rixal swept one forelimb across the other. “Make it a clean kill, milady.”
Nan’s lips curved into a smirk. “I’m not some noble.”
“Not yet, but reclaimed folk have a pretty good chance of getting a name, ya?”
The door hissed shut. It was frosted, but not enough to hide Rixal’s brown blob heading back through the way they came.