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[personal profile] keaalu posting in [community profile] memento_vivere
     Unwilling to entertain any more unwanted and unwelcome company, Blink spent much of the remainder of the journey in her cabin, asleep, emerging only briefly to eat or bathe. Each time she woke, she added a few more sentences to her very long, very slow text conversation with Skydash – but it seemed her friend was just as dormant, as responses were a very long time coming, often after Blink herself had gone back to sleep.

     She saw Lunete only a few times more, briefly, in the galley, but even she seemed somewhat subdued. Whether it was out of regret for involving Kainda, who was clearly interested in only “the Skydash thing”, or just plain loss of interest, Lunete didn’t volunteer, and Blink didn’t ask. Although a small part of her was quietly disappointed, the greater part was relieved to be getting some privacy.

     The ship was only a few days from Brume when Skydash called Blink to the hold, to make plans in preparation for disembarking. The jet had already made the necessary arrangements to hire a small private hangar in the primary travel hub, but was struggling on the finer details of what extras Blink would need.

     While her friend finished their bookings, going still and quiet as she spoke to guest services via her own internal relays, Blink lay back in the giant nest of unspooled pipe and cable in the corner of Skydash’s ‘room’, staring at the distant ceiling and listening to the senior steward’s departure message.

     Attention all travellers. We would like to advise that this vessel will be returning to normal space in two standard days, for our arrival at Brume. Orbit will be held for a further two days. Disembarking travellers should now discontinue their use of hibernaculum sleeping aids in preparation for leaving the vessel. Staff will remain on hand if assistance is required by any passenger. Brume is our next scheduled stop. Thank you for travelling with us.

     “Almost there,” Blink said to herself, quietly. Just one more sleep, and they’d be making preparations to head down to another new world – quite possibly, chasing yet more shadows. They had no idea if Frond’s people would be there, or just the echoes of another long-since-vanished species. And if there was nothing there… then what? What if they’d never been there?

     You’ll be stuck in this frame for a veery long time, that’s what, her pessimistic side filled in, helpfully. It was enjoying its time out, clearly.

     Blink grimaced and pressed a hand to her abdomen in a futile attempt to stop the sense of unease writhing around like eels in her stomach, but it refused to go away.

     “Hey.” A gentle finger nudged Blink in the shoulder, making her jump. “You still in there?”

     Belatedly, Blink realised that Skydash had been talking to her. She glanced over to meet her friend’s gaze, and managed to find her a wan little smile that wasn’t quite echoed by her eyes. “Sorry. Just anxious. What did you ask?”

     “Just wondered what you were thinking. You looked awfully distant, there.”

     “It’s nothing much. “ Blink bumped her cheek against her friend’s hand, appreciatively. “Not sure if I’m glad we’re nearly there, or scared by the idea.”

     “Scared?” Skydash arched a teasing brow. “We’ll be able to escape that wretched medusi - what more do you want?”

     A feeble snort of laughter escaped Blink’s lips. “Yeah.” She sighed, tiredly. “It’s another place to have to learn to live in. New systems to figure out, new customs to learn, new people to try and convince I’m something I’m not…”

     Skydash ruffled Blink’s hair. “Aw, now you’re being melodramatic. After Hesger, this’ll be easy.”

     “But they all knew who I really was, on Hesger-!” Blink covered her face with her hands and muttered into her palms. “No chance of being arrested for, for… claiming I had a certain body part I don’t actually have.”

     “You’ll be fine. You keep on trying to convince me you’re some bumbling idiot that couldn’t convince anyone of anything, but you’re doing fine. Lunete hasn’t figured it out yet, has she? Or Kainda?”

     “Only because I’ve only seen her a few times.”

     Skydash watched her for a few seconds, quietly. “Seriously now, Bee.” She leaned a little closer, lowering her voice. “What’s really bothering you?”

     “I told you-”

     “Bee. I might not be able to read your mind, but I can tell when you’re trying to hide something.” Skydash vented air in a little sigh. “Not talking got us in this mess in the first place, remember?”

     “I know. Old habits. I don’t want you getting frustrated by me always complaining about being worried about something.” Blink snorted a laugh. “And that makes me more worried. Stupid, self-fulfilling cycle…”

     A big finger stroked her cheek, gently. “…please?”

     The fessine looked away, her lips compressed to a grim line. “…what if we can’t find them? And I don’t mean, in Brume. I mean, at all. Ever.”

     Skydash forced a jolly tone. “Well, we keep looking until we do!” But she didn’t sound convinced, either. “And I mean it. We’re not giving up on this. We get you repaired, and go home, or we don’t go home.”

     Blink let her gaze drop back to her hands, fingers laced over her chest. “In other words, we spend a lifetime roaming the galaxy, looking for something that doesn’t exist, and you have to watch as I slowly get old, wither away, and die before we find anything. Then! You get to go home empty handed, to find Dips and Flash have grown up without you-”

     A big finger carefully covered Blink’s lips, muffling the fessine’s protests. “No. That’s not how it’s going to happen, I promise you. Those creatures have gotta be here somewhere, and we’ll find them.”

     Blink shot her a tired grin, lopsided with bleak humour. “We helped seal them out, remember? Closed all the little holes in Surkea, so the big, hungry, crazy ones couldn’t get through.”

     “Oh, come on. They changed you into a laima. Even if it wasn’t all the way down to the atomic level, they still refit you into an organic body. Can you imagine the power they’d need to do that? How in the deepest Pit would two children be able to keep something like that sealed off in another universe forever?”

     “Because they helped us do it? They sealed themselves off. They just needed someone on this side to finish the job.”

     Neither friend really had anything that could follow that. The silence hung over them like a cloud.

     Blink coughed. “Sorry. Talk about tearing hope down as fast as you try and build it up. Don’t reckon I’d know an optimistic thought if it got up and bit me.”

     Skydash smiled thinly, and stroked her hair. “There’s a difference between being scared of things outside your control, and denying your self-worth because you’re scared someone’s going to forget you exist,” she murmured. “But we’re going to get through all of it, together, whatever happens. Right?”

     Blink pursed her lips, and nodded, just once. “Right.” But try as she might, she just couldn’t quite get the weight she wanted behind her words.

     Skydash recognised the unspoken doubt in Blink’s manner, and decided that pursuing the matter right now probably wasn’t going to help. She sat back again, and let her hands drop back to her lap.

     “So, my turn.” Blink sat forwards in the heap of cable, visibly trying to square herself back up, and lifted a finger for emphasis. “What’s got you worried?”

     “…darn it. Foiled.” Skydash summoned an uneasy smile. “I was still deciding what I should do, and you beat me to it, so I guess I better make a decision. Well. I hate to ask you this, but.” She cycled a pulse of cool air, as though to steady herself. “Would you object to going down to Brume on the shuttle, with the other passengers?”

     Blink stared up into her face for several seconds, hoping to find an explanation in the soft grey features. “…what do you mean? Is something wrong? Is something damaged-?”

     “No. It’s that… Kainda person.” Skydash shook her head, struggling to find the words to verbalise her concerns. “She’s a predator. She worries me – maybe more than she should? I don’t know. I think she’ll try and keep in contact with you even after we’ve disembarked. I know she wants to get her hands on me, and I don’t want to make her any keener to get hold of my technology than she already is.”

     “Well, I know that. We can both see through her act.” Blink took one of Skydash’s limp hands, and drew it to her chest, possessively. “I’m not going to be a pushover, Dash, I’m not going to tell her anything else about you, however long she follows me for.”

     “That’s not quite what I meant. I know she’s going to be hard to avoid, but I trust you to keep my secret. It’s more… I don’t know.” Skydash took a second to compose her thoughts. “She looks at me – a big mechanical life form with a vague resemblance to a laima and apparently no other special qualities – and already sees something she could sell for a lot of money, to the military. What do you think she’d do if she found out I was a shape-shifter as well? That I can fly, carry passengers, traverse deep space? That I’m armed, with some of the best weapons our kind have?” She rested her big hands on her friend’s shoulders, as gently as she could. “For both our safety. Please. Let me land on my own, so she can’t tie the space-ship to you, too.”

     Blink covered Skydash’s fingers with her own, and silently digested her words.

     “We both know she doesn’t respect boundaries, and she’ll use whatever resources available to get what she wants,” Skydash went on. “I doubt she’ll feel the smallest compunction from spying on us.”

     “And we have to start our search in the primary city,” Blink agreed. “It’s the only place we’ll be able to find any good information on Frond’s people, and if they’re anywhere on Brume, it should be there. But that’s where Kainda will be staying, too, isn’t it?”

     “From what you’ve told me, that’s what I’m thinking. She could just pick up her yacht and fly away, I suppose, but something tells me she probably won’t. Not immediately, anyway. Not until she’s lost interest in us. It’ll take long enough to get her to go away now – she’ll be even more determined to latch her grapples into my wingtips if she finds out I have any other special technology.”

     “That’s if no-one on the crew thinks it’ll be a good idea to tell her,” Blink added, glumly. “I know she has contacts aboard, somewhere.”

     Skydash’s forced smile grew a little more genuine. “Now that I think is less likely. She’s had the entire voyage to ask the crew about me, and-… I guess hasn’t? At least not in detail, as she’s not been back here, and hasn’t confronted you about it. I don’t think she’s anywhere near as smart as she thinks she is.”

     Reluctantly, Blink nodded. “I’ll join the shuttle tomorrow,” she agreed. “Will you fly yourself down?”

     Skydash nodded. “I’m small – comparatively – so I’m one of the first out. That should give me plenty of time to get planetside without too many, ah, ‘observers’.”

     Deflated, Blink stared at her feet. “I should have just stayed in my cabin. I’m sorry I brought the predators along. I never thought-… well, like usual I just never thought, end of story-”

     “Hey.” Skydash gave her a careful swat on the arm. “Stop that. You could hardly not eat the whole time we’ve been travelling, and I kinda encouraged you to get to know that little busybody.”

     Blink leaned quietly into her fingers, and felt the subtle weight of her friend’s cheek coming to rest against her hair.

     “We’re just going to have to work around it, huh. It won’t be long. We’ll either find those things, get you fixed, and go home… or we’ll not find them, and move on. Kainda will be out of our lives so fast, we’ll barely remember she was ever in it.”

* * * * *

     Blink headed down to join the passenger shuttle early, hoping to be able to find somewhere unobtrusive to sit – away from most of the foot traffic, and not right against the central aisle. She arrived to find the vehicle still almost empty, giving her plenty of time to try and get comfortable, choosing a seat at the end of a row mid-way down the cabin, next to a small viewing window. She peered out through it, but could only see the faintest outline of docking gantries in the gloom. It’d be nice when they were underway, at least – she’d finally get her first good view of the new world at which they’d arrived.

     She tried to relax into her seat, but the well-flattened cushion had endured a small eternity of abuse, and the safety belt either cut awkwardly across her chest, else it tried to choke her. She cast an optimistic gaze around the cabin, but all the chairs looked like they’d taken an equal hammering.

     Just have to endure it, for a little while. Won’t be long, and compared to Tevak’s basement? This is luxury. She let her eyes drift closed, and tried to get comfortable. Perhaps the whisper of sedation still lurking in her blood would help her snooze. She imagined watching Skydash swoop down through the clouds, right outside the little window, crisp white contrails streaming like bright banners from her wingtips.

     As it happened, Blink did nod off, for a while, listening to the soft hubbub as the ship filled with passengers, but the rustle of feet nearby and a whiff of a familiar perfume bumped her out of her comfortable dreamland. She opened her eyes to find her visitor perched on the front of the seat, leaning forwards in an attempt to get into her line of vision.

     Lunete’s ears perked forwards at seeing Blink wake, and a smile lit her face. “Hello!”

     “Lune.” Blink inclined her head ever so slightly in greeting. “Inda not here?”

     “We’re in the nicer bit, up front.” Lunete pointed at the soundproofing screen dividing the basic carriage from the more expensive seats; artfully styled to look like a thick curtain, darkened subtly by the faint silhouettes of people moving about on the other side. “Do you want to come and sit with us? The view is better. Seats are nicer too.” She bounced on the spot, for emphasis, and winced. “Softer, if nothing else.”

     Blink considered it for a fraction of a second (nice seats, comfort, and maybe a hot drink?), before shaking her head (Kainda and awkward questions). “No thank you. I’m comfortable enough here.” She patted her safety belt. “It’s only a short trip.”

     Lunete looked around herself. “Where’s your thing?”

     “Skydash? Getting shipped down to Brume by cargo carrier.” Blink offered a flicker of tired smile. “You didn’t think I was going to use my allocation of hand luggage, did you? Not to mention, these seats are a little on the small side.”

     Lunete dropped her gaze to her toes, sheepishly. “Yeah, no. That was stupid. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Trying to make conversation, I guess? Sorry.”

     “And I appreciate the thought, but-… I’m not really in a talky mood right now,” Blink apologised, half-heartedly, hoping the fessine would take the hint and leave her in peace. “I just want to get my feet back on solid ground, for a while. Get these sedatives out of my brain, get my project finished, and go home.”

     “Where are you staying, in Brume?”

     Blink actually laughed – a hard, cynical little bark. “After everything Kainda has said and done… you don’t seriously think I’m actually going to tell you?”

     “I’m not asking for Inda.” Lunete covered Blink’s fingers with her own. “It’s for me. And for you. You’re going to be lonely, if you can’t find your friend straight away. I thought it’d be nice to talk, every once in a while. We don’t have to meet up anywhere you don’t feel safe.”

     Blink glanced down at their hands.

     “Inda has an office in the primary city. I won’t be hard to find. If-… if you wanted to.” Lunete’s ears perked forwards a little, hopefully.

     Blink turned her palm upwards, and gave Lunete’s fingers a little squeeze. “Maybe,” she lied. “Thank you for caring enough to offer.”

     Lunete leaned forwards and gave her a quick kiss on the nose. “I know you won’t.” She smiled sadly. “And I’m sorry I involved Inda. Just promise me you’ll travel safely, wherever you end up.”

     Blink watched her finally depart, slipping through the increasing throng of other passengers and disappearing through the curtain into first class. She couldn’t help a tiny pang of disappointment… but it was probably for the best, right? Lunete would run for the hills (or the police) if she found out who Blink really was. She folded her arms, and turned her attention back on the gloom outside the window, listening as the last few passengers boarded.

     It’s not like she would be able to go home with you, anyway, so don’t be ridiculous, she scolded herself. Or were you thinking a pet laima was a good idea?
     Finally, with a series of bone-deep thumps that felt to Blink like they echoed up out of her own stomach, the docking clamps disengaged and the shuttle drifted free of its connection with the hibernaculum. It was wonderful to be able to see the stars again, instead of dull pictures on the grey walls, the glorious studs of light burning bright in the velvet dark.

     Even that vista was going to be short lived – beautiful night skies weren’t precisely what Brume was known for. The planet swelled like a frosted marble in her window as the shuttle made its approach, living up to its name with thick white swirls of cloud and mist obscuring huge portions of the surface. Through the breaks in the cloud, Blink was just able to make out wide expanses of dark blue water, or the thick blanket of trees. Her heart sank – she’d known from the start that Brume was sparsely populated, but from this angle? The place looked almost uninhabited. If Frond’s people weren’t living near any of the small cities, they’d be impossible to find.

     Give yourselves a chance, Bee. You haven’t even started looking for them, yet!

     The shuttle dipped down into the fog, its wingtips stirring the miasma into vortices. Blink rested her forehead against the cool window, and smiled, sadly; she wouldn’t even have been able to see Skydash, in this white soup, let alone admire her dance through the clouds in the way she’d daydreamed. Finally, they pierced the clear bubble of the port’s giant weather-shield. Fog lifters kept the short runway clear; the pilot’s final approach was almost as smooth as one of Skydash’s, with scarcely a bump to be felt as the vehicle touched down on the hard surface.

     They rolled to a halt next to the main terminal. To Blink’s relief, separate exits allowed passengers off the shuttle – one in the front, for the few first class passengers, and two at the rear, for basic class – so she’d have time to gather her thoughts and plan her next step without also having to deal with having Kainda watching her. That would have been the last straw; she already felt like a stretched spring, close to snapping under the tension, [adrenaline] demanding that she elbow her way past the dawdling masses, and to bolt for safety before the medusi spotted her… It took every ounce of self-control to resist the urge. To be able to vanish into the reassuring obscurity of the crowd would require patience, she reminded her jittery body, and not drawing attention to herself! She fixed a smile into place, hoping it didn’t look too much like an uncomfortable grimace, and stood back to allow an elderly drae-zaar to hobble past.

     After a small eternity of gritting her teeth and walking slowly, she reached the short exit ramp, and made her way down it, at the rear of the crowd, scanning the throng for Kainda’s family. She couldn’t see Lunete, nor Kainda, but it didn’t make her feel any safer – she’d never met the other members of Lune’s family, and knew they could both be watching her even now. Skeida, they could have been sat right behind you on the shuttle, and you’d never have known it. Worse, she now had to somehow make it all the way across the spaceport to the long row of private hangars she could just see in the distance, peeking from behind the transcontinental terminal. She knew which individual block she needed to get to, it was just getting there without being followed that she felt might be difficult.

     The shops in the terminal entrance formed a bottleneck. For many weary travellers, this was their first chance to buy essentials in over a month – and everyone seemed to have had that same idea to do so, thronging around the shelves for the over-priced but easily-located goods. It was already mid-afternoon, and no-one wanted to have to waste precious daylight making another journey to locate a shop outside.

     Not willing to try and negotiate her way through the crowd, Blink selected a drink and a news journal from one of the complimentary vendors and settled on one of the chairs in the lounge to wait, watching from the corner of her eye as the crowd slowly filtered through the building and away. She stayed in the lounge until only a handful of passengers remained – mostly non-laima, with young families and unfamiliar faces. If anyone was going to follow her? She now stood a fair chance of spotting them. Time to make her move.

     Blink stood and stretched, artfully, set the news into a recycling bin, and ambled away, casual as possible, towards the public bathrooms. She’d already investigated them, briefly; one big facility to cater for all the genders and species making their way through the port… and more importantly, with more than one exit. She walked boldly in, and past the handful of travellers freshening up in front of a huge bank of mirrors. Somehow fighting the urge to run, she headed straight to the far end, around a corner… and through the staff door, into the cleaner’s access corridor.

     She took a moment to catch both her breath and her balance – her heart was already racing, beating an excited tempo that echoed in her ears – before navigating her way around the untidy heaps of janitorial supplies and wet mops, and out into the staff corridor.

     She expected to immediately be confronted by the staff bustling behind the scenes, but nobody spared her a glance. Perhaps they were used to lost passengers wandering through, looking for the way out? Or perhaps she looked like she belonged there, an untidy waif working behind the scenes, watching with hopeful eyes as travellers passed through, but never with the means to join them. She threaded her way carefully up a wide access tunnel, past the laundry, past the loading dock behind the shops and restaurants, and up the wrong side of the gleaming glass walls of the passenger walkways. It reminded her of her life back at tiao’I spaceport more than she cared to think about – the great ugly dirty monster, skulking around behind the scenes where she wouldn’t unsettle the tourists.

     Don’t think about that, she scolded, waiting at a corner while a laden baggage trolley rumbled past. That was Old Blink, melodramatic and maudlin. You’re not her, any more. You got a second chance at a new life, and I swear I am not going to let you screw this one up.

     She peeked around a corner and found her target in sight, just the other side of a cryptically-marked area of tarmac, covered in a small selection of vehicles. After a hasty glance around to check for moving traffic (and more importantly, stalkers), she darted across the hard-standing and through the door into the private hangar.

     Finally, Blink allowed herself to breathe normally, relaxing back against the cool door with a long shaky exhale of relief. Made it. She prayed silently that she’d actually got here without Kainda or her spies managing to follow.

     “I was beginning to think you’d been accosted again,” a familiar voice said.

     “Ugh. Don’t even joke about it,” Blink groaned, letting her head bonk back against the door. “I saw Lune on the shuttle. They might yet have followed me, alll around the spaceport.” She twirled her finger in the air for emphasis.

     “Well, we’re safe enough in here. I’m not planning on letting anyone else in unless I have to.”

     Although it could have probably fitted two or three good-sized yachts, the garage was currently empty, except for their meagre belongings. Even Skydash looked small, for once; had she stretched up as far as she could, Blink doubted her friend would have quite been able to reach the ceiling. The holographic perimeter was already in place around her, marking out an ample chunk of the floor – although now, it was a plain blue ribbon, marked only with a couple of glyphs that indicated simply Private.

     “I thought it was tempting fate, keeping ‘display model’ active,” the jet explained, wryly, gesturing briefly with the cloth in her hand before resuming her fastidious polishing. “Don’t want anyone else thinking I’ve been stolen, if we end up having to share.”

     Blink approached over the concrete floor, polished smooth by hundreds of travellers; the cold felt wonderful against her tired feet. “You think we might?”

     “Eh, I don’t know. Harbourmaster said probably not, as it’s not the peak season for tourists, but if there’s a sudden influx of folk determined to see the fog for some reason, we might have to.”

     Behind Skydash, Blink found her own accommodation. Tucked up right in the corner was a small, simple camp-bed, little more than a thin mattress in a low-slung metal frame. Blink plopped her weight down on it, experimentally. Although it creaked alarmingly, it held up, and felt comfortable enough. She nodded to herself, pleased. No stray springs dreaming of freedom to prod her as she slept.

     “How was your trip down?” Blink crossed her legs, tucking her feet up onto the bed.

     Skydash curled her lip. “Wet.”

     Ah. That would explain the current labour with a polishing cloth. Blink chuckled. “I thought you’d have expected it from the name.”

     “Huh. I thought ‘brume’ was meant to evoke a sense of misty romance, but no. It’s just a heavy, muffling… seafog. ” Skydash flapped her hands. “I think we’re onto something, you know? If I were one of those creatures we’re looking for, and I was going to live anywhere in the entire galaxy? It would be here. Where I could blend in with the weather. Ugh.”

     “You’ve been listening to your uncle too much; you’re catching his allergy to bathing.”

     “I like baths just fine,” Skydash demurred, with a wag of a finger. “I just also like being the one to choose when I have them.”

     Blink smiled patiently, and held out her hand. “Give me the rag and I’ll help out.”

     Skydash drew the cloth closer to her chest, suspiciously. “Is that a subtle way of telling me to stop whining?”

     “No, it’s me telling you, unsubtly, that I’ll do your wings. Give.”

     Skydash pursed her lips. “So you’re going to guilt me into silence instead?”

     “…and this one-time-only offer is being withdrawn after a count of ten, nine, eight…”

     With a melodramatic huff of warm air from her vents, Skydash settled on the floor next to Blink’s camp bed, wings towards her friend. “This is blackmail, and totally unfair.” She flicked the cloth over one large shoulder. “You know I go insensible when someone’s playing with my wings.”

     Blink chuckled, and leaned forwards onto her knees so she could reach properly. “You’ve been sat on your own, in a dirty smelly cargo hold, pretending to be some brainless automaton, for almost fifty days, because sometimes I don’t know when to stop talking. Am I not allowed to apologise for not being able to keep my mouth shut?”

     Skydash glanced back at her, and allowed a flicker of a sad smile to touch her lips. “All right,” she said, quietly, after a second or two. “Apology accepted.”

     Blink got to work on her friend’s right wing, the slimmest trace of a smug smile clinging to her lips. “Plus, I want to. Indulge me.” Beads of moisture had left Skydash’s pale enamel freckled with watermarks, and it would take more than just a rub with a rag to get her up to her usual glossy shine, but a good bit of elbow grease would get the worst off.

     “You know, I have a little confession of my own to make. I did a quick scout around the area while I was waiting for your shuttle to come down.” Skydash gave a frustrated little shake of the head. “Unless I was almost skimming the treetops with my undercarriage, I couldn’t see a damn thing, Bee. I’m going to be about as much use to you as wheels on a speedboat until this stupid weather clears.”

     Blink placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder, leaning forwards against her. “You don’t have to be out there, physically looking, to be useful,” she argued, fondly. “If it was just me, plodding the streets of the capital, reading old books and news articles for hints? I’d be old and grey before I found anything. If not for all the information you and Uncle Star found already, we wouldn’t even be here on Brume in the first place.”

     Skydash leaned her head back, so they brushed cheeks. “You know it was mostly him found it all.”

     “I also know when you’re being modest, you glitch.”

     A contented quiet settled on the little garage, for a while, broken only by the occasional squeak of springs and the deep rumbling of Skydash’s fans, the musical purr of a satisfied kitten.

     The subtle rattle of the door attracted the blue jet’s attention. Wary of uninvited guests, not even her friend and her enthusiastic work with the rag could quite get well-drilled defensive protocols to stand all the way down.

     Fortunately, the cause of the rattle was neither a guest, nor uninvited. “Hey, Bee?” Skydash twitched her wings. “Quit polishing. Your dinner’s here.”

     “Eh?” Blink peeked out from around Skydash’s left wing, to watch as a small duSkai pushing a trolley came through the door. It looked pale, and somewhat lost; she elevated her voice a fraction; “Hello?”

     “Oh, excellent, you’re still here.” A swirl of relieved blues and greens blushed across the creature’s skin. “I couldn’t see you. I was worried you’d changed your mind.”

     “Honestly?” Blink wriggled past the protruding wing and out to the floor. “I hadn’t actually been expecting dinner. My friend must have ordered for me.”

     The duSkai smiled, beakily, and offered a plate – plain white, with a plain white lid – and a simple white flask. “If you’d leave your dirty plates in the cabinet just inside the door when you’re done? We can collect them later, without disturbing you.”

     “Thank you.”

     “You’re welcome, sir. Good evening.” He bowed steeply, and backed away through the door, leaving the travellers once more in peace.

     Skydash watched as the door closed. “Tch. And you never even noticed.”

     “Noticed what?” Blink set her plate carefully onto a clear patch of floor, then went to retrieve a pillow from her bed.

     “He called you ‘sir’. You’re not as bad at faking it as you keep saying.”

     Self-consciously, Blink rubbed her side. “Typical. Getting better at it, just in time for me to not need to wear it any more, haha.” Her terse expression looked more like a grimace than a smile. She plopped the cushion onto the floor, and settled cross-legged on it in front of Skydash. “You ordered this for me?” She lifted the lid from her plate, carefully.

     Skydash nodded, pretending not to have noticed the obvious change of subject. “I doubted you’d remember to do it yourself, after spending all that time on appetite-suppressants. I hope it’s something you like.”

     “Thank you. It certainly smells good.” Blink found a more genuine smile, and gestured towards the spiced meat with her fork. “And it’s nice to have my appetite back, a bit.”

     “That’s good.” Skydash watched her friend scoop up an enormous mouthful of food. If this was just having her appetite back ‘a bit’? That would make for one healthy appetite, and then some. She added, ruefully; “Kinda would like some ‘supper’ myself, but I guess I’ll have to made do with sunbathing, tomorrow, while I surf their computers for information. If the sun ever manages to get through this ridiculous cloud.”

     “I’ll check around in town tomorrow,” Blink offered, muffled, trying not to look too guilty. “Maybe I’ll find somewhere there sells fuel refined enough that you could use it…?”

     “Honestly? I’d rather not risk clogging my filters, especially not when I can’t just go and plead Spotweld’s help in cleaning them.” Skydash poked her friend’s nose, gently. “You can just buy me a treat or six when we get home.”

     Blink finally managed to swallow without choking. “Deal.”

     “So long as it’s not that horrible fizzy stuff.”

     “I still don’t get why you don’t like it.”

     “The fact you ate my experiment and didn’t die doesn’t make it a legitimate confectionery, Bee.”

     Blink smiled sheepishly, and took refuge in her dinner. “All right. No fizzy stuff.”

     While Blink quietly finished eating, Skydash got to work on the computer terminal next to their sleeping quarters, trying to figure out – once again – how someone with her sheer size was meant to work the tiny interface. It would probably have to be another hard connection; she internalised a sigh of frustration. Forcing compatibility with alien hardware always upset her self-repair, but… it had to be done. Just gonna have to put up with it, for now. Then go plead my case to auntie Sepp when I get home.

     For what felt like the fortieth time, something chirped against her communication relays. She gave Blink a glance, watching her carry her empty plate over to the cabinet next to the door, but the laima didn’t seem inclined to explain it. “So when are you going to tell me what that buzzing thing is?”

     Blink gave her a puzzled look, heading back to perch on the edge of her bunk. “What buzzing thing?”

     “The one in your bag. It’s been pinging a signal off my antenna for ages.”

     “But I don’t have anything in my bag that would-…” Blink’s words petered off as she tipped her meagre possessions out over the bunk. “Tell me I didn’t go to all that effort for nothing…” After a very brief rummage through the small selection of well-chewed stationery and empty candy wrappers, she groaned and picked a strangely heavy, thumbnail-sized black disc out of the detritus. “Lunete put a homing beacon in my bag when she came to talk to me.” Her shoulders sagged, defeated. “I should have known it wasn’t so simple as a little friendly chat. That’s why no-one followed me across the port. They know exactly where I am already!”

     “May I?” Skydash took the device carefully from the small fingers, then lifted it in front of her face, and examined it closely. “You know what? I don’t think they do.”

     “She put a homing beacon in my bag, Dash. How can she not know?”

     “It’s a pretty basic little job – I doubt it’s got the power to bypass official channels. Security blocks unauthorised transmissions in the harbour area, to stop interference with shipping traffic control. It’s why I’m going to have to use our assigned frequency to speak to you once you head out into the city. I’d wager that the most they know right now is that you’re still on site, as they’re not getting a signal from you from outside it.” Skydash pinched it carefully between thumb and forefinger of each hand. “One quick little twist and they won’t know anything at all else.”

     Blink felt alarm shoot up her back and prickle her hair. “No, wait,” she blurted, spontaneously. “Don’t break it, leave it.”

     Stopping just short of snapping the disc, Skydash quirked a brow, lips curling ever so slightly in a smirk.

     “That wasn’t what-…” Blink felt her face get hot again. “Oh shush.”

     “I never said anything.”

     “You didn’t have to.”

     “Hey, you’re the one that wants to keep it, so you can hook up with your friend from the sleeper again.” Skydash held out her hand.

     Blink scrambled for an excuse, taking the disc from the huge fingers. “What I meant was, it’ll make her suspicious if it suddenly goes off the air, and then she’ll come looking for us. If it’s still working, she might even think I haven’t found it yet.”

     “Because it won’t be completely obvious we’re staying at the port when it suddenly stops responding at the end of each day, or anything.”

     “Then I’ll try and put it in someone else’s bag when I go into town tomorrow. Attach it to an animal or something. We just have to get them chasing shadows for the next few days. Right? By then, we’ll have found the creatures, or we’ll have moved on.”

     Skydash inclined her head and nodded. “All right. Good save. I forgive you, this time,” she teased. “And that wasn’t a bad suggestion, either.”

     Blink poked out her tongue.

     “Next question.” Skydash lifted a finger. “Had you thought any more about how we’re going to find these critters? We don’t know what the folks of this world call them, and I don’t think it’ll work if you wander around asking, excuse me, have you seen any creepy, cryptic sentients made mostly of mist and confusion, lately?”

     “Well, um. I did sort of think I’d go into the city, and ask around. You don’t think it’ll work?” Blink held out her left hand, palm upwards. “Frond said this was the key to finding myself, right?” She traced the larger whorl of scar with the opposing index finger. “I thought it’d be a good idea to get out and see if anyone out there recognises it.”

     “They’re gonna ask you how it got there.”

     Blink hesitated, for a moment. “…so? Can’t I just tell them?”

     “I suppose you could.” Skydash frowned, uneasy. “I’m just worried that you’re gonna have to put a pretty positive spin on it to keep people from running away.” She put up an apologetic hand, sensing Blink was about to splutter excuses. “Whatever you say, those creatures were pretty darn scary, Bee. We don’t know what the people here will think, assuming they’ve even heard of them. What if they think you’ve been bewitched, or something? Or that you’ve done something seriously wrong for them to leave a mark like that on you?”

     Blink filled in the rest of the sentence. No one will want to help, because they’ll all be scared of being punished for helping you. She closed her fingers over the scar. “I’m beginning to think that maybe I should just aim for a result that’s only a fraction above abject disaster, then I won’t be disappointed.”

     Skydash covered the clenched hand with both of her own, like a giant protective blue cage. “I’m scared, Bee. There’s so much we can’t plan for, and you’ll be out there alone and I won’t be able to help you if you get in trouble, and-” She forced a smile and swallowed the rest of her sentence. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to dishearten you.”

     “Don’t be sorry. I guess I just want to get this all over with, so it’s a good job someone’s thinking for both of us.” Blink hunted around in the little debris pile still on her bed, until she unearthed a pen. “How about if we copy it out on paper…?”

     Skydash watched Blink struggle for a minute or two, before delicately intercepting the pen. “You’re struggling. Let me.”

     Blink huffed, but let her take it. “I can’t help it if Frond decided to imprint her symbol on my writing hand.” She settled more comfortably, cross-legged on the small bunk, holding out her scarred palm while Skydash redrew the image on a small piece of paper carefully torn from the back of her diary. “This won’t get me out of having to explain what it means.”

     “Perhaps.” Skydash didn’t look up, concentrating on manipulating the tiny pen. “But at least you won’t have to explain how it got on your palm. You could have copied this drawing from anywhere.”

     Blink stared down at her hand, and sighed, softly. “What if we can’t find them.”

     Skydash glanced up. “We move on to the next spot on the map, and the next, until we do.” A smile ghosted over her lips. “We’re not giving up on this. You hear me?”

     “…it’s a big galaxy.”

     “I know. But we have plenty of time – and a big family. You know they’ll help us if we ask.”

     “If you ask.” Blink managed to smile back, reluctantly. “Are you almost done?”

     Skydash nodded, holding back a sigh; another blatant change of subject, but no point challenging it right now. Instead, she held out the slip of paper. “Good enough?”

     “Perfect.” Blink compared the crisp, perfect replica of her scar with her own wobbly attempt, and concluded that hers would have just confused people. She safely stowed the tiny folded square of paper in a pocket of her satchel. “I just hope I can figure out where to go to see if anyone recognises it.”

     “Most places have some sort of library, I don’t know why Brume wouldn’t,” Skydash soothed. “Or a tourist information centre; it’s a holiday hotspot after all. And if you can’t find either of them, we’ve got access to plenty of maps here, I can be looking for other options while you’re out. We could look for a local journalist or a newsroom or something, if need be. We have plenty of options.”

     Blink laughed, uneasily. “I’m not sure going to the press is such a good idea. We already have Kainda grasping at our tailfins, we don’t want to attract more predators.”

     “Eh, it’s an option. Who knows a city and its gossip better than a journalist? It’s not like we’re going to give them reason to suspect anything about us; you’re getting pretty good at being a spur, and I’ll… keep out of the way, I guess?” Skydash poked her friend’s nose, gently. “Spirits up, eh?”

     Blink captured the finger in both hands. “Spirits up,” she agreed, with a small sigh, leaning against the big digit. “I’m sorry. I’m a tired, grumpy crosspatch again. Maybe I’ll be better in the morning.”

     Skydash quirked a brow. “You want to sleep already? We’ve not been here long.”

     “I feel… muggy, Dash. I’m scared, and stiff, and probably still full of sleeper drugs. I know we could be getting things done, but I just want to sleep, right now” Blink swiped one eye with the heel of her hand, and stifled a yawn. “Could you listen out for anyone approaching, for me?”

     “Sure.” Skydash cocked her head, curiously. “Why?”

     Blink glanced away, sheepish, and felt her ears flatten down. “Well, I, um. Need to, uh.” She patted her chest with her fingertips, gingerly. “I’m sore.”

     “Oh, I see-… I’ll do one better.” Skydash settled herself in front of the bunk, facing the door, and hitched her wings a little, to form a makeshift wall. “This all right?”

     Blink touched one wing, stroking her fingers over the leading edge. “Fantastic. Thank you.”

     She unbuttoned the shirt and let it slide off her shoulders, then wriggled out of the stretchy undershirt. Sore purplish skin peeked from beneath the layer of bandages; she winced, stiff, before beginning to unpeel the wrappings. Her chest ached, but it felt so good to be able to breathe deeply again.

     Once undressed, she settled the shirt loosely back around her shoulders, and spooled the bindings lightly into a roll. It would be fantastic just to be me, for a while. She closed her eyes and massaged her temples, and wasn’t entirely surprised to feel her fingers trembling.

     “It’ll be all right. I promise.” Skydash murmured, softly. She leaned closer, stroked Blink’s straggly hair back from her face, and kissed her brow, gently. “Sleep well, crosspatch. Hope you feel better tomorrow.”

     For what felt like an inordinately long time, Blink lay awake, staring at the dark ceiling. She wasn’t sure if it was fear, anticipation, or simply the abrupt lack of sleeping tablets – or even indigestion – but she Just. Couldn’t. Sleep. The featureless gloom provided no distraction from the grim thoughts swirling through her mind.

     What if we can’t find them? What if they’ve never been here, what if no-one knows what I’m talking about? What if they were here, but mysteriously vanished the same time we sealed up all the holes in Surkea? What if they’re extinct? What if we did kill them all? And Frond was the last? She wasn’t weak because she was so far away from them, she was weak because she was the last of her kind.

     What if I end up dragging Skydash all the way with me to some even more terrible fate? What if she’s right and these things are horrible and vengeful and might punish her for trying to help me? Maybe I should go it alone, now we’re here in Brume, until I’ve got a feel for them and know I won’t be putting her at risk.

     She listened to the soft, reassuring drone of Skydash’s air-conditioning fans cycling. The murmur of white noise would normally be enough to send her off into dreamland, but not tonight. Part of her just wanted to lay awake and listen to it, in case it was the last chance she got. Or possibly go and snuggle up.

     Snuggle was a word not precisely in the vocabulary of a machine. Massive, heavy, hard bodies weren’t really compatible with it – plating didn’t yield in the same way as skin and muscle. That wasn’t to say that physical closeness wasn’t desirable – the closer together you got, the better your static envelopes could harmonise, allowing sharing, supporting. To know each other, intimately. It frightened some – especially when it became impossible to hide your unease when it flared in your field. When it became impossible to hide the fear of being left behind.

     Blink curled on her side, and watched airport lighting trickle across her friend’s smooth armour. A tug dragging a trailer of luggage rumbled softly past the garage, orange lights flashing. Two day-glo members of security staff passed by in the opposite direction, swinging torches and chattering softly.

     Skydash’s words as they’d left Hesger spoke to her out of the dark. You’ll always be my friend. I hope you can still be the third in our trine. I just don’t know if I dare trust you to be anything more than that, any more.

     Blink let her arm trail out from over the covers and reached for Skydash, but she was just too far away.

     “…Dash?” Can I sleep with you? Just this once?

     Skydash sounded mostly offline, managing only a little questioning noise that was mostly static.

     Blink swallowed the question, guilty, and folded her arms around herself instead. It was stupid anyway. “Sorry. It doesn’t matter. I can talk to you in the morning. Sleep well.”

xx,xxx out of 50,000 (to be updated later)

(A portion of this was written waaaay back in March. The remainder is new, from NaNoWriMo)