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Story Notes:

a279;This is a story collaboration with Kolossus, who owns J'Kabi. Setting, original characters, and plot belong to the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

Author's Chapter Notes:

Per Amicitia ad Astra — Through Friendship, to the Stars

Part one of 5 planned.

I couldn't breathe.

My hands scratched at my neck, eyes bulging out as the vacuum of space stole the last of the air from my lungs. It was cold. So cold and yet so hot as unfiltered radiation threatened to cook me even as I froze. Desperately, my tail waved around behind me, searching for something,†anything†to latch onto. I was an expert climber. If I could just find a solid surface, I could start making my way toward the airtight door that separated me from Engineering.

Something bumped me. I wrapped my tail around it and pulled myself to it. The momentum set us both spinning, and my heart sunk. It wasn't attached to anything. Tears freezing in my eyes, I tried to see what I'd grabbed onto.

It was a severed leg.

I wished I could have screamed. I tried to throw up, but the pressure differential between the inside of my body and out had molded the flesh of my esophagus together. As my consciousness started to fade for what was surely the last time, one final thought filtered through the pain.

How had it come to this?

* * * * *

"Name?"

"J'kabi. J-apostrophe-K-A-B-I. No last name."

I stood on the edge of the table, dressed in my finest jumpsuit. Pure white with pink trim that matched my skin tone, immaculately cleaned and pressed with the decorative metal cufflinks polished to a mirror finish. I'd broken out my grandma's tail rings too, each silver band carved with intricate leaf patterns representing the Aizi trees from back home.

Across from me, seated in a dingy grey rolling chair, a human male typed my name into the application. His jumpsuit was greyish-brown and rumpled, the Captain’s insignia on his lapel scuffed with years of neglect. His wiry black hair was unkempt, tight braids coming undone in a couple places. He looked like he'd just rolled out of bed. Which he might have! I knew these shipping crews worked long hours, so I wasn't about to judge a man for getting his sleep while he could!

"Age?" he asked, squinting at the readout through wire frame glasses.

"Twenty-five," I said brightly.

"Is that by the UGSC?"

"Sorry, what does UGSC stand for?"

"Unified Galactic Star Calendar."

"Oh, right, right…" I said.

Of course. I knew that. I brushed a lock of my white bob cut out of my face, a little nervous. My species was the newest member of the interstellar community, having just achieved spaceflight 15 years ago by our local calendar. I was only 10 when the word came through that we were not alone in the universe. Suddenly there were new measurement systems, cultures, languages, and technologies that we had to catch up on. It was all a little overwhelming.

Especially in a place like this. We were on AŽa, a hub world connecting the vast majority of the known populated systems. Dozens of species from across the galaxy came here to trade and do business. Boasting over 80% of galactic trade, AŽa was the economic center of what the humans called the Kepler Region, the Yii called the Plavidicus Expanse, the Mulvidians called Krrak'hata, the Seirogi called Aa'ach Otn…

You can see why I got confused sometimes.

"Sorry, I'm twenty-two by the UGSC."

"It's no problem… height and weight under 1 unit of Galactic Standard Gravity?"

"Twenty-nine point four-three-eight centimeters, and 580.632 grams."

"Perfect… you're an Aizu, correct?"

"Yes sir! Interstellar newcomers looking to find our place in the stars!"

"...biological profile green, aaaand done! Last question: why do you want to fly with the†Horizon's Promise?"

I drew myself up to my full height and puffed out my modest chest. Tips from the global job market primers I'd been given in school ran through my head. Sell your strengths, downplay your weaknesses, and show all the bigger species what the Aizu can bring to the table.

"Well sir, I want to learn and do as much as I can for both the galaxy and the people back home. Independent shipping gives me the opportunity to visit new worlds and learn firsthand how the galactic economy functions. I may be small, but I'm quite skilled at electrical engineering. I'm certified for installation and servicing on all ship systems built to galactic standards. I hope to be able to demonstrate the usefulness of my brothers and sisters so that more Aizu get the opportunities that I have to join the interstellar workforce!"

The Captain smiled, amused. That was a positive reaction, at least!

"You can get off your soapbox, kid. I like Aizu. You're teeny, so you save me a full ton on cargo mass, and you can squeeze between the hulls on your own so I don't have to buy a miniaturizer. You're hired. Welcome to the crew…"

* * * * *

I got you, Kabs… just hold on…

There was a voice in my head that wasn't my own. Was this an afterlife? No, that was stupid. Aizu didn't even have a concept of an afterlife. Which meant, to my surprise, that I was still alive.

With a pneumatic hiss and the rustling of canvas, wind blew across my face and ruffled my hair. An emergency atmosphere pod! Air! I sucked down a giant breath and immediately threw up, my vomit floating in front of my face like a sickly green cloud. Dimly, the sound of a biohazard detritus vacuum passed by my head.

"Well, you puked, so that means you're alive at least. Here."

Something cold and metallic pushed through my lips. My mouth was filled with foul-tasting gel. I gagged and tried to turn my head to spit, but two fingers gently pinched my cheeks and held me in place.

"It's antirad and vitamix. It tastes horrible, but you need to swallow it so you can heal. You were in hard vacuum for almost a full minute."

I did as I was told, swallowing the disgusting mixture as fast as I could manage. Almost instantly, my queasy stomach stilled. Vitality began to spread through my limbs once again. I flexed my fingers, toes, and tail. Everything hurt, but as far as I knew, everything was still attached.

As my mental faculties began to return, I recognized the voice. I had been rescued by Cygnus, the lead engineer aboard the†Horizon's Promise.

Cygnus was an Ancient, a species so old that their original name had been lost to time. Some said they were the first sentient species to evolve in the Milky Way, millions if not billions of years ago. Their home system's star had gone supernova before my planet had even cooled enough for life to form, and they had been space nomads ever since. If there was one person that could have survived, it was no surprise to me that it was her.

I turned my bleary eyes on her face, heavy exhaustion making me feel like I weighed a full ten pounds. A vast expanse of starry skin and two glowing eyes like twin suns stared back at me with a worried expression.

"Thank you," I croaked.

"Don't talk, you'll damage your vocal cords. Get some sleep and let the vitamix do its job."

I was placed against a soft abdomen. Warm skin pressed against my cheek. Though my vision was still hazy, I saw the outline of frayed fabric that had been jury-rigged to maintain modesty. She had not escaped unscathed herself.

Underneath me, the majesty of the cosmos played out across her bare skin. I had been placed on a patch of nebula, softly glowing reds, whites, and pinks swirling under my small body, interspersed with red and blue stars. I saw the blue light of a pulsar across from me, on the left side of her abs.

I curled up on this tapestry of stars, cuddling my tail to my chest. My fingers gently traced the darker pink patterns in its skin; a habit I'd had since I was a baby.

Thank you…†I said again, but this time in my mind. Somehow, I knew in my heart that she'd hear it.

Rest up, Kabs. You're alive, and that's enough for now. I'll keep us that way. I promise.

* * * * *

"Siggy! We got an Aizu! You still down for the buddy program?"

That face had emerged from under a dismembered reactor control console the first time I'd seen it. Her cheeks were smudged with grease, though pink and purple markings still shone through here and there. Her hair was done up in a loose bun to keep it out of the way. Those otherworldly eyes made me a little nervous at first, but looking back all I could see was the sparkling friendliness that emanated from within.

"Sure thing, Skipper!"

"Come give her the grand tour. Mrrghak't'ha, take over for her."

A heavy snort came from behind, and an eight-foot tall, scaled humanoid edged past the captain with surprising grace for his size. A Mulvidian! I'd never seen one up close! Now that I had, I was suddenly very glad that he wasn't the one who'd signed up for the buddy program.

Siggy stood, wiping her face on a rag. Her right hand was almost entirely covered in red and pink markings that mixed with white on her forearm, her dark skin only peeking through in a couple spots on her fingers. I wondered what species she was. I'd met plenty of humans, plenty of Seirogi, and now a Mulvidian. I didn't remember encountering someone like her before, but that wasn't saying much. AŽa was such a big place, with so many species all intermingled. I could have walked right past a group of her species and never even noticed.

I hopped off the little platform on the captain’s shoulder and scampered my way forward on the railing. Us Aizu were tree-dwellers, so I felt quite at home anywhere I could climb and jump. I landed on a handrail and wrapped my tail around it, smiling up at my new "buddy."

"Good morning, Siggy! My name is J'kabi, it's nice to meet you!"

She giggled, and the starlike spots that speckled her neck and chin seemed to glow a bit brighter. Up close, she was strikingly beautiful. She had a heart-shaped face with a cute nose and full lips that were upturned in a smile that radiated happiness. A soft blue corona encircled her glowing yellow eyes.

And her markings! Now that the grease was off her cheeks, I saw that the pink and purple ripples on the left side of her jaw extended over her upper lip and across the bridge of her nose, shot through with streaks of teal underneath her left eye. Similar cloudy swirls covered her forehead and wrapped around to encircle her right eye. Underneath all the whirls and eddies, her skin was a deep, deep blue like the sky at twilight.

"Good morning to you too, J'kabi," she said, her voice warm and welcoming. "I'm Cygnus, or Siggy to some of the crew."

"That's a pretty name! What culture is it from?"

"It's a bit of a mixed bag." Cygnus unwrapped her bun. Shimmering purple hair cascaded over her shoulders, falling to the middle of her back in loose curls. I felt my breath catch in my throat. "My†full†name is Aliota Sygnati Teriam, which in the Ancient language means 'Arm of the Galaxy' or 'Galactic Horizon.' Our nomad fleets use the arms of the Milky Way as a horizontal reference point—it helps to mitigate rolling."

My little heart skipped a beat. An Ancient! A real, live Ancient! The first of the spacefarers! I silently cursed the rushed education I'd been given on galactic species. While Humans, Mulvidians, and Yii merited a full chapter each, the Ancients had barely been given a paragraph. I knew next to nothing about them. We weren't expected to ever meet one, and here I was not just meeting one, I was going to†work†with one! There was so much I could learn from her!

"I gave that explanation to some humans I used to fly with, and they made the connection to Cygnus, which is a cross-shaped constellation they use to navigate to AŽa from their homeworld. They started calling me Cygnus, and it's stuck ever since. And now†this†crew calls me Siggy, because our pilot Ot thought Cygnus sounded a little like Si'gei—'Star Girl' in Seirogi. So I've got a Seirogi nickname of a Human nickname of an Ancient name."

I nodded along in what I hoped were the right spots, trying to conceal my silent panic as best I could. I was so excited, so terrified, and so awestruck. I was going to work with an Ancient! I was the luckiest Aizu in history right now. If this went well, I was going to be the poster Aizu for our interstellar outreach program.

Okay, J'kabi. Deep breaths. Remember: active listening, don't interrupt, and pour on the compliments. You want her to like you.

"That's a lot of nicknames," I said.

Okay, that wasn't the†worst†thing I could've said, but I definitely could've done better. I was starstruck, okay? Both figuratively and literally!

"We've got a few of those around here," Cygnus said.

"Oh? Like what?"

"Well, you met the captain. We mostly just call him Skipper or Skips. Down here in Engineering it's just the three of us, so just stick to Siggy for the moment." Cygnus gestured to the Mulvidian. "He's gotta like you before he lets you call him anything but Mrrghak't'ha."

I swallowed, nodding a little nervously as I watched the hulking brute very delicately disassembling the console behind us.

Cygnus leaned in close and whispered to me. "Once he warms up to you, it's Mrrg or The Mrrgster." She spoke a little louder. "He†hates†Mrrgerburger, but he lets me call him that because I'm his only friend."

Mrrghak't'ha barely glanced up from his work. "Siggy, I swear to Krangkt, I'll shove an impact wrench so far up your butt, I'll finally be able to dismantle the cryo chamber surrounding your heart."

Cygnus didn't rise to the jab, turning her attention back to me.

"I'm sure if you stick around long enough we'll find one for you too."

"I'd like that," I said, looking down shyly.

"I†love†your patterns, by the way. Do they have any special significance?"

I beamed her a wide smile and presented my arms and tail for further inspection. My bubblegum pink skin was patterned with stripes a few shades darker on my arms, legs, back, hips, and tail.

"Thank you! On my homeworld, we live in Aizi trees, so this striping helps us hide among the leaves!" I gave my pure white hair a toss, and winked my blue and purple eyes. "Our hair is the color of their flowers and our eyes are the color of the stamens, so when a bunch of us huddle up in the same tree, it looks like it's blooming."

"Oh, that's so cute!"

My heart swelled with the compliment. She sounded genuine more than polite. She might really be interested in me! Okay, return the compliment, return the compliment.

"Thank you very much. I've got nothing on you though. Your markings are incredible."

"Awww, thank you!" Her stars sparkled again. Success! "I don't know if we have any cool evolutionary reasoning to go along with ours, but in Ancient legends we say that when we adopted space as our new home, space also adopted us."

"Well one way or another I love it. I think you look beautiful."

"Uh oh, Siggy!" Mrrghak't'ha said from inside the console. "I think she liiiiikes you!"

"Shut up, Mrrgerburger; it's her first day. Let Kabs do a couple trips with us before you start laying into her."

My smile widened. "Kabs? Is that my nickname?"

Cygus returned the smile. A whorl in the nebula on her cheek almost touched the corner of her mouth, seeming to draw the smile out wider.

"I'm trying it out. Let's see if it sticks…"

* * * * *

Cygnus was crying. As I clawed my way back to consciousness, I felt the abs under me heaving with sobs. I tried to move, to comfort her, but even lifting my head sent spikes of white hot pain through my brain. I was nowhere near recovered yet.

I curled up against the abs, clutching my head, when all of a sudden the pain subsided. At the same time, Cygnus let out a shuddering breath.

I had known her long enough now to understand what was happening. The Ancients had tactile telepathy. One touch, and they could feel what another person felt, think what they thought, and know what they knew. If a person was injured, they knew where and how bad. If those injuries were painful, they could take that pain for themselves while the injury healed.

That's what she was doing for me. She was shouldering my pain all by herself while I slept. Immediately I sat up, but the white-hot stab behind my eye sockets that followed nearly made me throw up again.

Are you okay?†I heard in my head, and an outpouring of despair washed through my mind with it. Suddenly I was leaning against the edge of our little emergency atmosphere pod with my own body laying on my abs, tears streaming down my cheeks.

I fucking†told†Skipper that we couldn't go FTL through the Arcturus system! The planetary collision there had scattered micro asteroids across a billion square kilometers! We're not a fancy gas freighter; we can't maintain kinetic shielding with the power draw of FTL. One rock the size of a blueberry, and we're toast! But nooo, Skips wanted to play space cowboy and take the slingshot route. Well,†look who's right and who's†DEAD!

No. Wait. I hadn't told Skipper any of that. These were Cygnus's thoughts, in Cygnus's body. I moved my tail, and I felt the friction in both my tail and the abs my tail was resting on.

Then I was back in my own body, and my thoughts were my own.

Sorry… You don't need all that.

I frowned.†You†don't need all that. You're dealing with all this pain and anguish, and you're trying to take mine too?

You were whimpering in your sleep. I couldn't just let you suffer while I have the ability to do something about it.

Well stop it. You shouldn't have to take all of my pain, all of your pain,†and†the responsibility of keeping us both alive. Let me handle my own pain, and then once this vitamix goop finishes fixing me, we can figure out how to stay alive together. Okay?

Okay…

Slowly, my pain began to sink back into my body. It felt like I was leaching it straight from her skin. The sensation traveled from our points of contact all the way up my body, until it reached the spots it was coming from. Fuck, there were a lot of spots that hurt. Ow… okay fuck, ow…

I-I don't suppose whatever medkit you have has any painkillers…?

No bio-green… there's blue, and there's red. I don't fucking know why we even†have†red, there hasn't been a Yii on board as long as I've flown with this crew.

Sorry, I'm still bad with the color codes. What's the difference?

Blue is poisonous to all but humans, and red is for arsenic-based DNA.

Oh…

Hands ruffled through a cloth bag. Ampoules clinked together as fumbling fingers scraped them from their elastic holding bands.

Hold up… there's some green sedative. That might help you, but it's dosed for my size, not yours.

I tried my best to control it, but a shuddering whimper was forced out of my nose as pain shot through my spine. It felt like I'd been stabbed between every individual vertebrae all at once.

Don't you dare,†I thought as the pain started to leak out again.

Well what do you want me to do?!

I… I don't know. But not that…

I rolled onto my back, panting as the pain in my spine returned at full force. My eyes were squeezed shut, but I fought back any attempt Cygnus made to try and steal it away again. She had enough to worry about without taking that too.

Hold on, I have an idea. Open your mouth?

I opened my mouth, the joints in my jaw cracking. I had been clenching my teeth while I slept, and now the muscles on both sides of my head were sore. The tip of a subcutaneous injection needle rested on my lower lip.

Prepare yourself… this is probably gonna taste worse than the vitamix.

Cygnus depressed the plunger for less than a second. A single drop of sedative oozed from the needle and dripped onto my tongue. My face scrunched as the bitter, chemical taste made me cringe hard enough to lock up the muscles in my neck and shoulders. I snapped my teeth shut and forced myself to swallow. Cygnus's finger gently massaged my neck as I tried to work up enough spit to swallow again. It tasted awful. The worst thing I'd ever put in my mouth.

That's the best I can do. I couldn't control the dose any better than that, so I hope that'll be both enough and not too much…

How will we know if it works?

I'd never get the answer to my question. With the bitter taste still on my tongue and burning down my throat, I was put back to sleep as instantaneously as though a switch had been flipped.

* * * * *

Meal times were my favorite. The nature of my job had me spending more of my time outside the inner hull than in it, running down wires and patching circuits, so most days this was the only time I got to socialize outside of the engineering crew. Don't get me wrong, I loved the engineering crew! Cygnus was always so friendly and Mrrghak't'ha had started warming up to me after only a couple of weeks. I felt safe calling him Mrrg now, though any more than that and I was scared he'd try to eat me. There were some pretty big lizards back on my homeworld—hence why we lived in the Aizi trees—so I was naturally much more scared of him than I probably should have been. He was actually really sweet, truly!

The†Horizon's Promise†had a crew of eight. There were the three of us in engineering who handled the stem-to-stern maintenance, a bridge crew consisting of Captain, Pilot, and Navigator, and the Loadmaster and Assistant Loadmaster who handled the cargo. All in all, the species dispersal on the ship was three humans, two Seirogi, one Mulvidian, and one Ancient.

And, of course, one Aizu!

The Seirogi, Ak and Ot, didn't often eat with us. While they were carbon-based like the rest of us, their primary source of food was a sort of thick syrup of dissolved nutrients and minerals that was so concentrated it would be incredibly toxic to the other species on board. To prevent cross-contamination, they tended to eat directly after the rest of the crew.

As such, I didn't get much time with them beyond passing in the halls on my way back to Engineering, which made me a little disappointed. They were the most fascinating to me, because they deviated from the humanoid template the most. They had four arms and four legs, supporting an insectoid abdomen, an armored thorax, and large, bulbous heads with two sets of compound eyes and a retractable proboscis between two sharp pincers. I loved the way the light reflected off their iridescent, bluish carapaces, and the sound of their chitinous feet tapping down the passageways.

Cygnus and I always went to lunch together. As a part of the buddy program, Cygnus had the responsibility of ferrying me to and from any locations within the ship. Ships built for multispecies crews had to factor in the largest species that could be expected to operate aboard, and as the Mulvidian could grow to over ten feet tall, the inside of the ship was a massive cavern of metal and glass for someone of my size.

To keep me out from underfoot and save me the calories I'd spend hopping after her, Cygnus carried me. She had been issued a little shoulder platform that I could stand on, but most days I simply sat in her hand, tail wrapped snugly around her wrist.

"Hey, look who it is! Siggy and Kabs, the bookends of spaceflight!"

Mei, the†Horizon's Promise's†navigator, always greeted us this way. Once it had become common knowledge that our two species were the oldest and newest interstellar partners, everyone teased that I was a baby who'd been saddled with Galactic Grandma. I pouted in front of them, but truthfully, I didn't mind it! I was really fortunate to get such an experienced mentor, and no amount of teasing was going to dampen my mood.

"Humans still have physical books?" Cygnus shot back. "I thought all your trees went extinct like a thousand years ago."

Mei placed a hand on her heart, faux shock on her face.

"They didn't†all†go extinct. We saved the Joshua trees. Humans have a habit of preserving ancient relics of times long past… that's why Skips hired you, after all."

"And here I thought it was the human urge to be a colonial 'savior' to the native species."

"Okay, ouch. You're talking to the colonized here, not the colonizer."

The particulars of human society still baffled me. They were among the most biodiverse species in the interstellar community. Even amongst our own crew, the three humans we had looked nothing alike. The captain's skin was a rich, dark brown, with hazel eyes and black, wiry hair that he kept tightly braided to his scalp. Mei, by contrast, had paler skin with yellow undertones, almond-shaped brown eyes, and pin-straight black hair that she pinned back in a bun with two sticks. And then our loadmaster, Harun, had skin that was somewhere between the two, the darkest eyes of them all, and an impressive, well-kept salt and pepper beard. I didn't know about his hair; he always kept it covered with a beautifully embroidered cloth scarf. It was hard to believe they were all the same species, sometimes!

Unfortunately, from what little I'd learned about their culture, humans seemed to forget that about each other too. This wonderful variance in appearance had been used to fuel wars, explain bad luck, or even punish those that did not match the dominant cultural hegemony simply for existing. This was all a couple thousand of years ago at this point, of course, but humans had one of the longest-running memories of any species I'd ever come across.

Cygnus leaned over the table, giving Mei a kiss on the forehead.

"There," she said. "For your bruised ego."

"Fuck you."

"I'd say buy me a drink first, but that shit you humans make would kill me."

"It kills plenty of us, too. Just slower."

I was still… unclear on the relationship between Cygnus and Mei. It was obvious that they flirted, but Cygnus and Mrrg flirted too, and that was explicitly established as non-romantic by both parties. Cygnus got a bit more sexual in her flirtations with Mei though, and her starry cheeks sparkled when they engaged in verbal banter. To my knowledge, there wasn't anything going on between them, beyond an obviously close friendship, but… I wasn't sure.

To be fair though, I wasn't sure about a lot of things with this crew. The galactic social interaction primer we'd gotten in school had not covered insults as a primary source of communication. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that everyone on this crew hated each other. Yet six weeks aboard had shown me that this was not the case at all. As Cygnus explained it, if you're new and they're nice, they haven't decided if they like you yet. If you've been around for a while and they're still nice, they probably decided they don't like you.

Or something like that.

"May I interrupt the verbal fencing long enough to ask for the salt?" Skipper said. "It's on the counter over there."

"I'll get it!" I said brightly, unwrapping my tail from Cygnus's wrist.

I crouched low, my long, digitigrade legs curling under me like springs. I might be small, but I was tree-born from a planet with gravity three times the galactic standard. That countertop was well within my reach.

I kicked off from Cygnus's hand, soaring ten feet across the room with a grace and precision that would have made my ancestors proud. Mei let out a surprised "oh!" and Mrrg chuckled. Both him and Cygnus had seen me do this many times.

I landed lightly on the counter, my bare feet only skidding a little bit on the polished metal surface. The three broad toes on each foot had pads on the distal phalanges that gave me a better grip on vertical surfaces. However, they had evolved for trees, not metal and glass. I'd run face first into walls many times by now after an uncontrolled skid, so I considered my slight stumble here a win.

I squatted down before the salt shaker and wrapped my arms around it, ready to make the leap back. It was almost a third of my height and maybe half of my body weight, but that would be no problem. Galactic Standard Gravity made everything feel light to me.

Except it didn't budge. I frowned, tugging harder. It stayed put right where it was. Oh, right. Like everything else that wasn't bolted to the hull, the salt shaker was magnetized. I tried tugging from the top to see if I could break the magnetic seal by pulling at an angle, but all I accomplished was scooching it a couple inches across the countertop.

"Uhh… maybe I can't get it…"

Mei practically squealed.

"Oh my God, this is the cutest thing I've seen in my life!" She fanned her eyes, nearly crying from cuteness overload. "She's too little to break the magnet on the salt shaker!"

Cygnus came to my rescue, freeing the salt shaker and placing it in my hands. I sat in her palm, my cheeks dark pink with embarrassment.

"Don't worry about it Kabs," she said, her glowing yellow eyes squinting as she smiled. "I feel the same way every time Mrrg asks me to grab one of the big wrenches."

I smiled back, squeezing her wrist with my tail again. She had a way of making me feel comfortable and included, despite my size. My embarrassment was already beginning to fade away…

* * * * *

"Warning. Oxygen levels nearing critical levels. Air quality: poor. Estimated time to total depletion: ten minutes."

A sharp hiss of air roused me from sleep. My head, though foggy, wasn't pounding any more. I slowly stretched my tired, cramped limbs, and received no more pain than was to be expected. Either Cygnus had started stealing it again, or the vitamix had finished healing me.

"Oxygen levels rising… Warning. Oxygen levels low. Air quality: poor. Estimated time to total depletion: twenty-six minutes."

Cygnus was still leaning against the heavy canvas wall of our little safety pod. She looked tired. The glow of her starry skin was dim, and her eyes had dulled to a dark orange. The colors in the nebula beneath me were faded, almost muddy now.

"Welcome back," she said, her voice low and cracked.

Cautiously, I cleared my throat. It was a little scratchy, but otherwise okay. I trusted it to hold if I spoke out loud.

"How long was I out?" I croaked.

"Two days. Bummer for you; you woke up right as our oxygen ran out." Cygnus held up a small circular canister. "Just emptied the last of it."

"What happens then…?"

"The pod has a built-in CO2 scrubber, but I've damn near burnt it out by now trying to extend our air supply. We might get another hour out of it, after this O2 runs out." She sighed. "And then you'll fall asleep again, and not wake up."

"And you?"

"I've got these." She held her hand out. In her palm were about a dozen blue capsules. "O2 pills. They won't do you any good though; your body can't break it down the right way, and even if it could, most other species can't absorb oxygen through their stomachs. I figure I'll get another day or two before I join you."

My tired, sluggish mind struggled to cope with this news. I had less than an hour and a half to live. Granted, I'd lived for nearly three whole days longer than I expected to, but that didn't make much of a difference in the weight of this news.

"We have to get out of here…" I mumbled.

"Ninety-nine percent of scenarios where I open this pod end with your blood boiling in your veins, and this time I can't save you. I'll be fine a lot longer than you; space won't kill an Ancient until we suffocate. But I can't fit between the hulls, and Skips cheaped out on a miniaturizer after he hired you. I need†you†to help repair the ship."

As I woke up more, my mind became more alert. I was still sluggish from the low quality air, but it was enough to spot a kernel of hope in the dourness of our situation.

"You said ninety-nine percent… what's that last one percent?"

"A fucking miracle, and something that's probably too traumatizing to even suggest."

I pushed myself up on her abs, looking her dead in the eyes. I drew myself up to my full height of just under one foot tall, and curled my tail upward into an S shape to make me look bigger. It wasn't†much, but it was all I had, and I knew how to use it.

"Aliota Sygnati Teriam, don't you quit on me now. If there's a chance, even a†small†chance, that we can survive this, don't you think it's worth trying?"

Cygnus's eyes flared up a little brighter. A soft smile pulled at her lips, showing me that she still held just enough hope to maybe pull us through this. I forced myself to smile back, despite our circumstances. We could do this. I believed in us.

"I'll hold you to that," she said, and a little twinkle graced her starry cheeks again. "All right, there's†one†idea that lets you survive the pod opening, at the very least, but you won't like it."

I vaguely waved my hands at our dingy, humid little capsule. "I don't like†this.†How much worse can it be?"

"I'll let you decide that after I tell you…" I wasn't sure I liked where this was going. I couldn't quite put my finger on why, though. "I can survive in hard vacuum. You can't. Neither of us have a space suit. So, if you really do want to make it out of here alive,†I'm†gonna have to be your space suit."

I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. Surely she wasn't suggesting… what I thought she was suggesting.

"What do you…?"

"Every opening into my body is naturally airtight. So here's my idea: I swallow you, and carry you out of here in my stomach. The O2 pills will be constantly letting off oxygen for you to breathe and me to absorb through my stomach lining, so we'll both have more than enough air. The second we find one of your vacuum suits, I bring you back up, you get dressed, and we'll get to work fixing this ship."

My legs reacted before my brain had even finished processing. My body sensed danger, and when my body senses danger, it puts as much distance between me and the danger as possible. I shot straight up, hitting the roof of our canvas pod with a soft†plap.†There was practically no gravity, so I hit a bit harder than I expected, knocking the wind out of me. My grippy toes found purchase on the rough material, leaving me hanging there upside down, staring down at Cygnus.

"Excuse me, you want to do†WHAT?!"

"Calm down, you're wasting air!"

"I-I… I know I said we should try anything, b-but I mean really, h-how do we even know that'll work? I'm like a sixth your size; will you even be able to swallow me? A-and if you really can s..s-swallow me… c-can you really, truly, a hundred percent guarantee that you can get me b-back out?"

To answer my concerns, Cygnus's skin undulated as she flexed each independent muscle group individually. Every segment of her abs, each band of muscle on her obliques, lower chest, mid chest, upper chest, at least three different groupings in her shoulders. Her neck swelled as she sequentially flexed every muscle around the biologically complicated area in a clockwise circle.

Her mouth opened, and I stared straight down her throat. The inside of her mouth was a dark black that shone blue where the light from the emergency pod's overhead LEDs hit it. I watched in horrified fascination as a wave rolled up her esophagus and across her tongue where an impressive number of muscle groups all contracted and relaxed, first in tandem, then in syncopation. Most humanoids had around 8 muscles in their tongue; I counted over twenty.

As if to show off, once the very last muscle on the tip of the tongue finished flexing, the wave of contractions traveled back down her body. This time every strand was flexing individually, turning her skin into a writhing mass of fast-twitch muscle fibers all competing for the processing power of my poor, oxygen-deprived brain. I was both disturbed and oddly fascinated, staring enraptured into her open mouth, then her chest, abs, and sides.

"Ancients have complete control over our musculature," she finally said. "Direct for skeletal, general for intestinal, but still more than enough to get you down and back out without injury."

"That's amazing," I said, still staring at her. "I… I-it doesn't make me any l-less nervous th-though…"

"Here, watch."

Cygnus scooted directly under the LEDs, opening her mouth again so I could see every little detail all the way down to the back of her throat. My transfixed brain studied the details of the mouth she was trying to stick me in. Her teeth were white and well-kept, soft cheeks a little bluer than her tongue sagging over the tips of her lower molars. She had no tonsils or uvula, the arch of her throat undecorated. Over the edge of her tongue, deep back past the point of no return, there was a solid mass of muscle where the opening of her esophagus had been just moments before.

She held up one of the O2 pills, then set it on her tongue. Without shutting her mouth, a ripple rolled across her blue-black tongue, ferrying the pill to her throat. My eyes followed its progress back. My jaw was clenched so hard my teeth hurt, and my nails were digging into my palm. Yet I couldn't look away as the little blue pill was shuffled to the back of her mouth with nothing more than the flexing of her tongue.

As she went to swallow, the mass in the back of her throat shifted. Air bubbles popped as slimy folds of flesh slithered against each other, rotating around to reveal a set of soft flaps that opened downward to reveal her throat once more. The folds of her esophagus gaped open to accept the pill from the back of her tongue. She was purposely doing this slow, so I could catch the whole process.

The pill vanished, the flaps closed, and her throat rotated backwards, toward her spine.

"They're called airlock sphincters," Cygnus said, reading the millions of questions on my face. "At rest, the opening rotates about eighty degrees, and those flaps form a one-way valve. Completely airtight."

Her abs clenched, and the process started all over again. The airlock sphincter unraveled itself in a marvelous display of biological engineering, and the pill popped back out onto her tongue, completely unscathed.

"W-wow…" I said.

"If I can do that with a pill, I can absolutely do that with you," Cygnus said, then swallowed the pill again. "I promise you, I'll take good care of you. This is only until we can get you a vacuum suit, okay?"

"I-I… I-I'm scared, Siggy…"

"Believe me, if I was in your position, I'd be feeling the exact same. But this is the†only way†we both survive this."

"Thousands of years of evolving ways to†not†get eaten are disagreeing with you…"

"Warning. Oxygen levels nearing critical levels. Air quality: poor. Estimated time to total depletion: twelve minutes."

"...b-but I g-guess we r-really don't h-h-have a choice, huh…"

"Not if you want to live, no," Cygnus said, turning behind her to activate the CO2 scrubber in the pod wall behind her. It stuttered and belched a couple sparks, but a well-placed smack ended its complaining, and it hummed to life. "We're down to the wire here. It's now or never."

Reluctantly, my toes released the roof of the pod. I gave a little kick off the canvas, drifting back down toward the floor. Cygnus caught me in the tender embrace of her hand, and placed me gently on the ground. I pressed my cheek against a cloud of space dust on her thumb as her hand withdrew.

"Here," she said, nudging a little wand-like thing about half my height into my arms. "Laser sterilizer. You're covered in sweat and your own puke. I'm not swa—er…" she hesitated as my eyes got wide again "…inserting†you like that. Your, um, your clothes will have to go too."

I stopped dead in the middle of setting down the sterilizer. "I gotta be†naked?!"

"J'kabi, please. Modesty is the least of our concerns right now."

I pouted my lip out, turning my back to her and my attention to getting clean. The laser sterilizer was a handheld bar that was meant to be waved over an area to remove contaminants before applying medical aid. Just like the salt shaker though, it had magnets in the handle that allowed it to be attached to a surface either horizontally or vertically so the user could have both hands free.

I very carefully set the bar on its end, the strength of magnetic attraction ripping it from my fingers at the last centimeter. It wobbled on its end for a moment like an antenna in solar wind, but thankfully settled upright. Magnets were a bitch for me when I was feeling well; in my current state, I don't think I could have even budged it if it'd fallen over.

I snuck a furtive glance over at Cygnus. She had her back turned to me, respecting my privacy. With trembling hands, I slowly began to peel my top off, revealing more of my pink, striped skin.

As I tossed my shirt aside, I finally took stock of my body. I felt shrunken. I had a thin frame at the best of times, and it was even thinner now. Having eaten nothing but a few mouthfuls of vitamix in the last half-week, my ribs were starting to show beneath my breasts. I was actually quite gifted in the chest for an Aizu, something I was at least a little proud of. I had almost a handful on either side, though now, they were nearly flat against my chest. What little width my body retained was in my hips and legs, though not as much as there should have been. The form-fitted waist of my pants was loose and starting to slip down. I'd probably lost close to 60 grams, an unhealthy amount of weight for someone as small as I was.

I tried not to think about how much easier I was to swallow now…

I shimmied my pants off my waist, my nose wrinkling as the smell hit me. Cygnus was right not to want to… well, anyway, I was stinky. Living in an atmosphere pod without a shower would do that to anyone. I was quite hygienic, normally!

Balancing on my tail, I stretched the hem of my pant leg over one broad foot, then the other. Stepping out of my pants, I shimmied the tail hole down until they fell off onto the floor, and that was it. I was naked, about to take a laser shower to appease a much larger woman who wanted to eat me.

Needed†to eat me, to save my life,†I reminded myself.†Deep… well, you can't take deep breaths right now… um… slow breaths, J'kabi.

I turned on the laser.

The little contraption whirred to life. Sensors identified its orientation, my orientation to it, and the size of the area requiring sterilization. It deployed itself accordingly, telescoping upwards to match my height. A vertical line of blue light washed back and forth over me, and my front side was very suddenly clean as the events of the last few days were vaporized from my skin with a sound like angry mechanical bees.

I repeated with my back, then presented my armpits, the bottoms of my feet, the insides of my thighs, my ears, the underside of my tail, and anywhere else I could think of that might be dirty still. I only stopped when the sterilizer chirped, a green indicator light informing me that I was clean enough to perform surgery on. My pink skin had gone reddish, I smelled like ozone, and my hair was standing up like I'd been electrocuted.

I look good enough to eat…†I thought wryly.

"L-Let's get this over with," I sighed, battling residual static electricity for control of my hair.

Cygnus spun around. I covered what little breasts I had with my hands, crossing one leg in front of the other to shield my nethers. I felt my cheeks burning with embarrassment. I'd never been naked in front of anyone before. The embarrassment coupled with what was about to happen made me tremble in place under the gaze of those twin suns.

Cygnus, for her part, was very careful to respect my delicate mood. Though I couldn't tell where she was looking, her gaze seemed to hold my own. They didn't waver, didn't wander down my body like I was some piece of meat, and didn't size me up in a sexual manner. The compassion with which she regarded me reminded my panicked mind that this was my friend. She wasn't a predator, coming to gulp me down to fill her belly out of hunger; this was my friend, who was doing her very best to save us both from the hell our lives had become. Looking back into those warm, glowing eyes, I felt a little of my fear dissipate.

"W-wait…" I said as she reached for me. "You… you should probably swallow me headfirst. I-If you try to go feet first I'll start kicking, and I d-don't want to hurt you…"

Cygnus nodded. Without breaking our shared eye contact, she placed her hand on the floor in front of me. I hesitated, but only for a moment. The air in my lungs was deeply unsatisfying, and it was getting worse with every breath. It was now or never.

I stepped onto her palm, and she lifted me up.

"Don't worry, Kabs. I'll take care of you. I promise."

I half-smiled, unable to speak. My tiny heart was beating a mile a minute. I was biting the inside of my cheek so hard it hurt. Everything felt tingly, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. My tail nervously wagged, the tip curling and uncurling.

"I trust you," I finally said, my voice barely above a whisper.

She opened her mouth. Her hot breath washed over my face.

I shut my eyes.

She pushed my head past her lips.

The moment my cheek pressed against her tongue, I was overcome by a sense of calm that cut right to the center of my soul and banished my anxieties. I felt the warm embrace of Cygnus's mind envelop my own, a strong, steady rock to cling to in the maelstrom of my own emotions. I poured all of my fear into her, my primal urges to flee, my anxiety that even this would not be able to save us. She took in everything, and returned only hope, love, and assurance that we would live to walk on natural ground and breathe the atmosphere of a planet again.

It was overwhelming. My mind was not built to handle a connection such as this. I had no experience, beyond the brief linking two days ago. My physical nudity was all but forgotten as every aspect of my sentience was laid bare before her, like pages spread out on the floor for her to sift through. She walked the halls of my mind with impunity, stopping here or there, taking memories of my homeworld, my birth tree, and my family and sending them to the forefront of my mind.

My head pushed forward into her throat. A solitary spike of fear pierced my heart and was just as quickly washed away. Once I was calm and stable again, I felt Cygnus's mind retreat from my own. Yet I knew that she was still there, ready to soothe me the second I needed her.

My senses returned. It was wet, slimy, and oppressively tight, but also… soft. It felt comforting, in a way, like a warm, tight hug. I wasn't sure if that was my own thoughts or the residual calm that the Ancient had instilled in me. In the moment, I was simply grateful that I found positive sensations in the experience.

I began to feel movement from outside the esophageal walls. Bands of muscle contracted, then pulled away as Cygnus adjusted the musculature of her neck to make more room for me in preparation for the next swallow. Pulsing arteries on either side of me retreated, the flow of blood still audible, but muted. Her trachea dropped and pushed outward toward her chin.

She claimed my shoulders, drawing them almost tenderly into her with soft peristaltic contractions. I felt them slide out of their resting alignment, bending forward toward my chest. The Aizu could rearrange a few things to fit too. We weren't high on the food chain, so being able to squeeze into small spaces like knotholes, root clusters, or between dense branches was essential to our continued survival. Our collar bones were made of cartilage and the joints in our hips had a fair bit of give, allowing us to squeeze through any crack wider than our heads.

Ironic that an evolutionary advantage against predators made me slide down throats easier.

Even with the help of my flexible body, I felt the sides of her neck straining, stretched nearly to their limits to accommodate me. I winced. This couldn't have been comfortable for her. Small as I was, I was still much larger than anything she ate on a regular basis. I was surprised she hadn't gagged yet.

No gag reflex,†Cygnus said, her voice in my head bringing a reassuring warmth.†We lived so long in a sterile environment with no danger of poisoning that we lost it.

Strangely, I found I already knew that. In fact, I knew that Ancients born on hub worlds like AŽa, where species from all biological profiles intermingled, were starting to re-evolve their gag reflexes. But not Cygnus. She was star-born, on a habitat in the horsehead nebula that had been spun up to 1G so the children's bones would develop right. It seemed that I'd been gifted some of her memories, too.

Th-thump, th-thump, th-thump.

I was passing her heart now. I felt every beat in my chest, a constant reminder that I was†in†her, surrounded by her vibrant vitality. It was so steady, yet so dominating that I felt my own heart slow to match its rhythm. We had become perfectly in sync, body and mind. I felt a wave of emotion rising inside of me at the thought, and I almost started crying. I was closer to another person than I ever had been or ever could be again, and it felt so beautiful.

My hips joined me in the warm embrace of her soft flesh. My foot gave a little kick, and I felt an inquisitive probe brush my consciousness. I tried to send back that I was okay, but I didn't know how, really. Before, I could focus on the area of contact between our bodies, and just kind of… think in that direction? It was difficult to explain, because it was a sensation that very few people had the capacity to even grasp.

Which direction should I think in if she was all around me?

I'm okay,†I thought, over and over again, hoping she would get the message. I felt a small prickle in the back of my head, and the querying thought left me.

My hips were past her collarbones now. It was all downhill from here. Ahead of me, the esophagus was twitching and contracting. Probably another airlock sphincter, opening wide to accept me into her stomach. The thought was still uncomfortable, but between the boundless intimacy and my own acceptance, it was no longer panic-inducing.

A ring of muscle stretched over the top of my head at almost the exact moment Cygnus's lips closed around my shins. Open ahead, closed behind. Only one way to go.

My tail was slurped through the Ancient's lips like a noodle. Hot, massaging flesh caressed my feet, ushering them down to join me as I was expelled from the esophagus into her waiting belly.

It was utterly dark inside her. Aizus had good night vision, but that still required light. None penetrated the flesh that now enveloped my entire form. I felt my way forward on the slick, pliable floor, my hands sinking deep into ridged flesh that crawled over my hands up to my wrists. It was so, so slimy in here.

With the bad came some good. The gentle fizzle of the O2 pill deeper inside reminded me that fresh, oxygen-laden air was in here with me. I breathed in through my mouth, a little scared of what it might smell like in here, and finally felt my lungs fill to the brim. The fog in my head cleared almost immediately, my senses suddenly coming into sharp relief to transmit the details of my surroundings to my brain.

It was wet; that was the first thing. I felt stomach juices washing over my hands as they sunk into the pliable stomach walls, ripples grazing my breasts. There was a bizarre, almost gelatinous consistency that squished under my contact points, quickly coating me in slime.

It was much louder than I expected as well. Though the heart was less powerful than when I was traversing her gullet, the steady beating still dominated this space. I both felt and heard the air filling her lungs, the walls above and to the sides outside of my fleshy prison encroaching as her diaphragm pulled down. Below me, the occasional gurgling bubbles of air in her intestines filled my ears with squishy, soggy groans.

The last thing I noticed was the heat. My home planet orbited closer to our star than most other worlds, so I was used to heat. I'd always felt a slight chill in my bones everywhere else. The climate controls were always too low for my comfort. Even on this ship, with a Mulvidian on board! Sinking into this stomach, I was the warmest I had been since I left my home behind. I found comfort in it, mixed with a tinge of nostalgia and homesickness.

As I pulled my tail through the sphincter, Cygnus's mind brushed my own, offering comfort and support.

Are you all right?†she asked.

"I… I think so…" I said aloud.

Surprisingly, I†was†all right. At least, more all right than I had expected myself to be. The steady beat of her heart permeated my surroundings and helped to ground me. I found it oddly difficult for my own heart to break rhythm from hers, which did wonders for my anxiety. Since I was small my heart was still beating faster; two beats to her one. But it wasn't racing.

A wave of knowledge about my surroundings followed. This gelatinous goo was the result of some kind of chemical reaction between her stomach acids and her stomach muscle, a protective layer not secreted, but created as a byproduct of achieving chemical equilibrium. Similar to how aluminum exposed to air developed a layer of aluminum oxide that prevented rust. I appreciated the tie back to a more banal example. As much as I loved learning about the biology of other species in the galaxy, this was far more up close and personal than I'd ever wanted to get. My mood was still fragile!

The heat got an explanation too. There were two main killers in space: the pressure drop and heat loss. Cygnus had already demonstrated how her species dealt with the lack of pressure. To combat heat loss, they had developed high-heat bodies coupled with incredibly dense, insulating fat not unlike the blubber of some seafaring mammalian species. A half-inch of an Ancient's fat layer was comparable to the insulation in the†Horizon's Promise's†inner hull.

Still blind, I rolled myself over, clumsily pulling my knees to my chest and then walking them down the stomach's curve as gently as I could. It was really quite malleable in here, and I wasn't taking up very much room. I could adjust myself quite easily.

I laid on my back, trapped air bubbles rolling up my spine and escaping between my shoulder blades with little†splrtch†noises. The warm gel layer quickly formed to my body. I tried to stretch my leg out, but I bumped the wall a lot sooner than I thought I would, making me jump.

"Could you… could you swallow my headlamp? The dark is making me claustrophobic. I-it's on my belt."

Of course.

I felt myself sink down, then float off the bottom of her stomach, the laws of inertia wanting me to remain still while she moved around me. Stomach juices floated up with me, touching my legs and sides before she leaned forward and I heard them impact the wall of the stomach again.

A few seconds later, slimy flesh folds slid against each other as the esophageal sphincter rotated back into the open position, and my headlamp landed to the right of my head with a thick splat. I fumbled blindly for it, raking my fingers through the gel until I snagged the headband with my pinky.

Precious light flooded into the stomach, and I got my first look at the inside of my Ancient companion. As it turns out, the inside was a lot less decorated than the outside. Her stomach was the same midnight blue as her mouth and throat, with occasional, sparsely placed stars that did little more than reflect my light. The gel was clear, giving a slick sheen to everything. Deep wrinkles ran through the muscle on all sides, the roof sagging down like pillowy curtains. Though a few drops still floated in the air, the juices in here clung to these ridges and ravines, held in place with surface tension. I saw the O2 pill floating in one crevice, gently bubbling.

That was something else that had gotten explained by Cygnus's knowledge transfer, though this one wasn't natural. The O2 pill didn't actually contain O2, it contained carbonic acid. Carbonic acid was produced in all oxygen-dependent, carbon-based life, and was used to transport carbon dioxide from the cells to the lungs for removal from the body. In Ancients, however, it was carried to the lining of the digestive tract and broken down into glucose and oxygen in a form of lightless photosynthesis that provided both emergency calories and a few more minutes of traversal through hard vacuum. This much of the process was natural, and could be attributed to the natural development of a space race.

With these building blocks in place, ancient Ancient geneticists had used gene editing to modify their species' stomachs so that carbonic acid could be introduced orally, and achieve the same effects. Over a few generations, their entire species' reliance on the scarce and aging materials needed for space suits was edited out of their DNA.

The idea of such a thing was absolutely mind-boggling to someone like me. With every explanation inserted into my head, I felt the millennia of existence between our two species ever clearer. The earliest-known Aizu civilization was a mere 25 thousand years ago. We were barely a blip in the universal timeline compared to the Ancients, and for the first time, I really started to appreciate the gravity of that title. While we were just dipping our toes into the galaxy beyond our little dirt ball, they had conquered the natural challenges of their planet,†lost†that planet, and then†readapted†to the most inhospitable environment in the entire universe. They were, indisputably, the Ancients. Being not only in the presence of, but also†inside, someone of such incalculable grandeur, I felt completely insignificant.

Hey, none of that kind of thinking,†Cygnus chided me. Whoops. I kind of forgot she could hear my thoughts.†You're nowhere near insignificant. In fact, you're†more†significant than me right now.

"How?" I scoffed. "You're amazing! You don't even need a space suit. Outside of this bubble, I'm useless…"

Okay, that's not entirely true,†Cygnus said.†I just forwarded you a snippet of the knowledge we got transferred back in school. I guess without the context of growing up on a colony ship, it makes us sound a lot cooler than we actually are.

"What do you mean?"

I mean that just because we†can†survive without a suit doesn't make it the safe or practical thing to do. One cut and we lose all our pressure protection, and we're just as dead as any other species. It saved us parts for the air systems, but that's about it.

"Okay, but I was in a medically induced coma for two days because I was out there for less than a minute. I'm literally†in your stomach†right now because I can't handle it."

"And I can't handle electrical repairs in places with three inches of clearance," Cygnus was talking out loud now. I felt her voice reverberate through me, transferred to my body through the stomach walls. "Call me amazing all you want, but I'm just a walking atmosphere pod right now. All I'm good for is keeping†you†alive, because†you're†going to get us home."

"R-really…?"

"Look, you said you trusted me. Well… I trust you. This situation needs†both†an Ancient and an Aizu. So let's stop comparing hrrghk to krrng, and make some graahkh."

"…You've been hanging around Mrrg too much…"

A sharp stab of grief washed over both of us. I wasn't sure which of us it came from.

Silence filled our mental link, both of us wrapped up in individual thoughts. There were no words, just memories. Laughing faces, greetings in hallways. The way Mei cried when experiencing too much of any emotion, happy or sad. Mrrg's reaction the first time Skipper had him try a lemon. Harun's warm smile, and quiet, devious humor.

I hadn't gotten to know Harun very well. He kept to himself, down in the cargo hold with Ak. But the few times I did get to spend with him were some of my favorites in the crew. He had a talent for guiding conversation into absurd territories that kept us from noticing the sneaky little things he'd do. A couple weeks ago, he'd held a very in-depth conversation with Mrrg about Mulvidian culture, and just kept passing him the salt while they talked. Mrrg wouldn't even notice, and would salt his food every time before setting it back on the table. There was a pile on his plate by the end of it. That meal had ended with Mrrg jokingly performing a traditional Mulvidian mating chant for Cygnus, while Harun and I tried to sneak more and more chopsticks into Mei's bun before it ended.

I think it was his leg I'd clung to when the ship first ripped open.

"Do you think anyone else…?"

"No," Cygnus sighed. She did her best to mask the grief that accompanied it. "I've been pinging the internal net every hour, and nothing. I think we're the only ones left…"

For the first time since entering her body, it was my turn to send comfort. She responded with a fleeting flash of gratitude.

"Well, we won't be the only one's left if we waste the last of our air feeling sorry for ourselves… it's time to get moving."

I felt her mind envelop mine, drawing me out of my body to meld with her again. I nestled back into the soft cocoon of muscle. The pulse of her veins grew stronger and stronger in my consciousness, and I closed my eyes, letting our hearts beat as one once again.

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