No One Left Behind

by Aoime Kouchou (あおいめこうちょう)
illustrated by gabrielsknife


The charge-chuffs chafed Alizarin’s wrists. The scales beneath the cold metal bands were cracked and breaking. He stopped struggling a few days ago, after a Thrihar had jabbed electric prods against his back. If he had been anything less then a Sirocco, the electrical current would have seriously hurt him.

He was grateful for his scales and for his feathers. Both kept him warm in the dank confines of his small cell. When he wasn’t tied up to the lighting pipes like a piece of meat, he….

Alizarin didn’t want to think of what those rancid insectoids made him do. He didn’t want to think of all the disgusting manner of beings he’d seen, or the acts they inflicted upon his body. The last one, and his tentacles, made Alizarin’s stomach churn.

He’d heard the cries of other prisoners as the Thrihar dragged them out of their cells. Some of their shouts didn’t need translation; they were as desperate as his own. He’d heard a Maa’rish war cry that made his blood chill. He heard the fearful quiver of a Phydocian’s mourning wail. Other prisoners replied, trying to give their fellows hope.

Alizarin wondered if there was any hope to be had in a place where they didn’t care if you pissed on the floor.

The electronic lock on his cell door buzzed open to admit the cleaning robot for Alizarin’s cellblock. A hover-unit detached to inject him with nutrient fluid. The injections were cheaper then gruel, but left his stomach empty. He spat on the unit’s camera sensor. He had nothing else to take his aggression out on.

The hover-unit reattached itself to the rest of the robot as a mechanical arm from the base crept out to clean its sensor. It rolled about, cleaning the messy gifts he’d left it. The grinding of its oil-deprived tracks made Alizarin tuck his sharp, equine ears against his head, not knowing if he wanted to help the thing or head-butt it out an airlock.

His horn itched. His tail was a slashed pennant that draped behind his legs. If he closed his eyes, he could see the countless stars of Phraithei’s sky. In his dreams, he was there, chasing Theo between the trees. His mate’s pale skin glowed a pinkish-white from all the bioluminescent fruits Alizarin fed him. Alizarin had his light back, had his mate. He was home

Shrill tracks tumbled over the doorway. The door slammed shut. Alizarin sighed. If he hadn’t spat on the little robot, would it have stayed just a moment or two longer? It had been his only company for the past twenty-four hours.

A soft whicker tickled his throat. Without his hands free, he couldn’t fully communicate his thoughts and feelings. Theo had learned it only because he’d been raised on Phraithei. Theo was special. Theo had always been special to Alizarin.

Part of him was grateful his mate couldn’t see him like this. The rest of him wished Theo was there. They would have underestimated his mate. Everyone always underestimated Theo, which was how Alizarin liked it. They looked at him, the flashy pilot, the sexy eye-candy, and ignored his fleshy bipedal computer at the communications station. Theo got them out of all sorts of danger.

He hated that the last memories he had of Theo were of him throwing Alizarin his clothes. Alizarin had left the safety of Python’s interior to cool off in the space station where they were refueling. Theo had wanted to go chase some comet; Alizarin wanted to go home, and maybe officiate their status as mates.

Maybe Theo had been right. There was plenty of time for that, when they were closer to Phraithei. Had it really been so unreasonable to wait?

It was all meaningless now. Alizarin didn’t even know what part of the galaxy he was in. There were no windows around him, only pipes and metal and a slender table bolted to the wall that dug into his thigh-scales.

He closed his eyes and tried to get a little more sleep. It was the only freedom granted him.

His ears perked up the faint, steady pulse of two flat boots, clicking against a metal floor. Alizarin clacked his flat teeth together in a Sirocco insult. It was probably another Thrihar drone or some new robot the hive had acquired. It took no less then two drones to control those on his cellblock. Sometimes three, if the Maa’rish or Alizarin were being called for. They knew better then to gloat over him after he’d bitten off an antenna from one of their bruits.

Alizarin shifted his balance to soothe his stiff legs. Hours of confinement in such stiff quarters were transforming the posture of his spine into a wanton bow. If one of those buggy bastards wanted a piece of him, he would need all his limbs sound. He would let the Thrihar know he was not a Sirocco to be messed with.

The steps drew closer to his cell. He could hear the tick of metal against metal, but it was taking longer then usual for the door to open. Alizarin cocked his head to the side. Odd. The Thrihar had bio-scanners on the locks.

The lock tumbled and the door slid open. Alizarin prepared to lash out with a kick but froze.

A dark-haired Terran stood out in the hallway. He was well built, for a member of his thin-skinned race, but stood a little short against Alizarin’s full height. Threadlike traces of steel outlined the lower lids of his electric-blue eyes. A thick, quilted leather spacer’s coat covered his simple shirt and jeans. Worn blue and white medic’s patches covered the upper sleeves of his coat.

Alizarin struggled against his charge-cuffs. His low whinny summoned the Terran before him. He watched the light-sensors within the Terran’s ocular implants retract and turn to take in all the light they could.

He had been there when Theo had gotten the implants. He’d been there, holding Theo’s hand when the pathei pollen conquered his senses one by one. When Theo had opened his eyes, after the surgery, he said he was glad Alizarin was the first thing his new eyes had seen.

Theo’s lips broke into the bright smile his eyes could no longer offer. They could blink, they could narrow, and they looked damn sexy in the midst of their lovemaking, but Theo’s eyes were all glass and transistor. He needed help to show the full effect of his feelings. “I bet your arms are stiff as hell. They haven’t been feeding you right.”

The door slid closed behind Theo.

“You know. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said,” he reached up to pull Alizarin’s cuffs off the magnetic ring. “And I think we do need to take that trip home. Just for a little while. I mean, if it means so much to you…I wouldn’t mind.”

A small stiletto pick extended from his fingertip, allowing him to manipulate the interlocking plate between the bands. The lock whirred; the loops of electro-wire darkened, then retracted back into the plate. Theo caught the plate before it could fall to the ground, lest the security sensor alert the main computers to what was going on. He stuffed the plate into his coat pocket.

The chill of the cell, combined with the excitement of being free, made Alizarin shiver until Theo pulled his coat over his mate’s shoulders.

“Check the breast pocket. I got you something.”

Alizarin tugged the coat open and rummaged inside. His eyes brightened as he brought out a small bundle and untied the string with his teeth. Several small orange flower petals scattered across his lap.

Theo reached out his hand to stroke Alizarin’s freckle-scales. The Sirocco leaned into the touch.

“I hope this can tide you over for a bit.” The medic lifted a petal to Alizarin’s lip-scales.

He nibbled them, bit by bit, to feel the warmth of his mate’s fingers brush against his feathers. Theo sat down on the tabletop so his mate could perch atop his lap. They cuddled and nuzzled one another until all the petals were devoured. Alizarin ducked against the medic’s chest to rub the base of his back-curved horn against Theo’s shoulder.

“I missed you too, baby.” Theo pushed kisses against the Sirocco’s head-feathers. “I looked everywhere. I wanted to tell you I was sorry. I must have spent days at that damn station.”

There was too much metal-stink on Theo’s skin. The medic stiffened as Alizarin curiously sniffed his chest.

“‘Rin,” Theo choked, “I’m sorry.”

Alizarin took hold of Theo’s arm and pulled back the sleeve. Theo’s fingertips were encased in metal. Slender steel veins connected joints together; a small synapse dipped into the middle of his palm. Theo flexed his fingers to show the range of motion.

“I had a few upgrades…I had to…”

Alizarin let loose a shrill, angry squeal. Theo saw the punch coming – Alizarin made sure he saw it – and swerved out of the way. The Sirocco’s fist left something of an impression on the titanium plate.

Theo grabbed his hand before another blow could come. He wrenched Alizarin against his chest.

“It’s because of this I could find you at all. Calm down. I’m not even fifty percent. I still bleed. I still have most the organs I was born with.”

Another shriek escaped Alizarin. He pushed close enough to Theo’s face to bump his nose against the medic’s forehead. He pounded his fists dangerously close to Theo’s ears. The Thrihar had taken him away from his mate, and now Theo was letting the metal come between them? The Thrihar, all the things they made him do; Alizarin leaned back so his cry might reach the ceiling.

Panting hard, he pealed his fists from the wall. Theo lifted his hand, his fingertips delicately tracing over the Sirocco’s horn. Their embrace was automatic, instinctual; Theo patiently listened and watched Alizarin’s heartfelt signs. The more he explained his feelings, the more cliché they seemed. He ended his display by blending the signs for “I’m sorry” with “I love you.”

Theo covered Alizarin’s hands, “I love you too. And I’m sorry. I should have known better. I…I wanted to save this for when…well, there’s no better time, is there?”

Alizarin cocked his head to the side and whickered curiously. Theo lifted his hands slowly, so the Sirocco could see the whole range of signs.

“I love you. I don’t ever want to be without you again.” He made the motions for “I love you” as he said Alizarin’s full name in Standard. “Would you bring me into your herd?”

Theo made the hand-sign for “my stallion,” then patted Alizarin’s chest.

Alizarin didn’t let him make another sign. He pushed his lip-scales against Theo to join their breath in one, powerful kiss. The pads on his palms, that protected his people from shadowed thorns, prevented him from feeling Theo’s silken hair. When they made it back to their home planet, the two of them would have bioluminescent flowers and leaves braided into their manes. The medicine-makers would return the shine to his scales, so that he could be the true stallion his mate needed during their mating ritual.

His mate, who loved him enough to brave deep space. Who loved him enough to be here, to hold Alizarin on his lap and propose. He leaned in close to rub his horn against Theo’s forehead. There wasn’t anyone he wanted more to be with than Theo. No one was more deserving of his life’s breath – the things Theo called kisses, and gave without restraint. There was no one else who could give him the forgiveness his body needed.

He gazed down into Theo’s eyes. ‘They made me do so many bad things. Objects and hands and other things. I cried out for you. One tried to give me pleasure, but he wasn’t you. And now I’m…I’m not yours anymore.’

Theo reached up to cradle his mate’s cheeks. The scales were smooth and leathery; the feathers slick but dry. Just touching Alizarin, being near him, feeling his breath splash across his scales was enough. Tips of dull red headfeathers tickled Theo’s cheeks. Alizarin must be miserable; he hadn’t been able to care for his body in weeks.

Their lips touched again, then a third, and a fifth time, Alizarin seemingly desperate to do something. Unite them, possibly, but Theo wasn’t sure. What he did know was that he could feel his mate’s warmth through his thin t-shirt. Theo reached up to slide his fingers down the slope of his mate’s horn. The growth-ridges gave the slick black horn its texture. It didn’t feel much different then the scales. Hard, but alive. He followed the slope down to Alizarin’s forehead, so the Sirocco could feel the warmth of his fingers.

Alizarin arched into the touch. Only Sirocco lovers knew how sensitive the base of the horn was. A low, echoing trill escaped Alizarin’s throat. Theo did his best to mimic a Sirocco’s purr. Once, he’d asked his mate if it would be better to have a vocal chip implanted, so that they could speak to one another in Sirocco. Alizarin told him he’d rather hear his mate’s true voice then some synthesized imitation.

Theo growled through a rough version of Alizarin’s name in Sirocco. To confess one’s love involved a complicated series of hand motions, as well as growls, trills and chirps that no Terran larynx could fully reproduce. Theo tried his best, and even smiled when Alizarin’s cheek-feathers rose in a Sirocco blush.

Alizarin ducked his head against Theo’s neck and lapped his slender tongue against his mate’s throat. Theo’s hands traveled down the firm curvature of Alizarin’s back to grip his taunt, scaled buttocks. Reds, yellows, and bright oranges made fantastical splotches across Alizarin’s crimson scales. When the feathers were clean, their grey-white tones made the scales shine brighter. Theo brushed his touch down tracks of milky scales. When Alizarin was back on Phraithei, the medicine-makers would help bring the bioluminescent shine back to those scales.

The Sirocco shivered as he parted his thighs. Alizarin pushed the brunt of his heavy sheath against Theo’s lap. He purred soft enough to let his point be known.

“You want?” Theo groaned, “Now?”

Alizarin nodded. The Sirocco pushed his hands beneath Theo’s shirt, down his back and ground his hips against Theo’s. The medic grabbed Alizarin tight.

“Bright Light,” Theo whimpered, “Get these damn pants off me.”

Alizarin shook his head.

“No! What do you mean no?” Theo had to stop his kisses so the Sirocco could explain his thinking. Alizarin used sensual, slow signs to emphasize his point. “Right, fast…right. Oh, Light, I know…’Rin, I missed you too.”

Alizarin smiled and plucked a clean rag out of Theo’s jacket pocket to shove into the medic’s hand. He winked as he whickered.

Theo blushed, “Y-yeah. Wouldn’t want that, huh?”

Alizarin whickered a laugh as he unbuttoned the front of Theo’s pants. He easily snuck the medic’s stiffened cock out from between the folds of cloth. A few longing, teasing strokes brought Theo to full erection. The Sirocco licked his dry lip-scales, but reached up to grip the low-hanging conduit pipes that hummed along the ceiling. Alizarin pulled himself up, then slowly, purposefully, slid down. Theo guided himself within Alizarin.

The medic’s eyes grew wide. He could feel the difference between his mate from weeks ago and the starved being rutting against him. There was evidence of Alizarin’s last patron still within him. Someone had taken his Alizarin. Their eyes met for a moment. Alizarin whickered out the only Sirocco words that didn’t require hand-signs.

Help me.

Theo took hold of Alizarin’s hips and pushed all of himself inside. If his mate wished it, he would replace the stink of those other, unworthy beings. He would fill the void they left within his mate. He would love, and touch, and give back what had been taken from his mate.

“‘Rin,” Theo felt his mate’s tail curl around his ankle, “Oh, Light, ‘Rin. Baby, love you.”

Alizarin clenched his thighs. He held on to the pipes as he set their rhythm. Theo brought his touch to the front, to cover his mate’s sheath with the rag. He used the tips of his fingers to massage and pleasure the taunt flesh beneath. When he felt the muscles move beneath the downy feathers, he reached beneath the cloth to touch the tip of his mate’s rising shaft.

Theo smiled up to his lover, “Already so wet for me.”

Alizarin leaned in to gently butt his nose against Theo’s forehead. Theo traded the insult for a kiss to the Sirocco’s chin and a quick buck of the hips.

“When we get back to the ship,” the medic growled, “We’re not stopping. Ever. Never.”

Alizarin began a counter, but stopped in mid-whicker to cry out. Theo hurried to set his strokes to his mate’s down-thrusts. He could feel it rise in the pit of his gut. He could smell it in the musk of Alizarin’s feathers. Theo’s lips parted to drink the air. His hips quickened.

“Come for me,” Theo snarled. He pulled an arm behind Alizarin’s back to pull him closer. The whole of his mate’s length throbbed against his hand. “Come. Come!”

The pipes snapped between Alizarin’s grasp as his roar echoed outside his cell. The lights flickered out; sparks arced between the frayed ends. The electronic locks on the door tumbled open.

Theo panted hard against Alizarin’s chest. Seed stained the rag between them. His mate was full of their love, their lust and their power. Alizarin shuddered through the medic’s aftershocks. Theo didn’t let him go until Alizarin’s shaft relaxed back into his sheath.

Theo groaned as their bodies parted. He tossed the rag aside so that he might hold onto his mate.

“Love you,” he whispered. “Alizarin, I love you so much.”

Alizarin used his horn to brush away strands of sweat-damp hair from his mate’s forehead. Theo pushed his lips against Alizarin’s to complete their kiss. Only lovers and parents shared their breath with another. It was a sign of the utmost love for a Sirocco.

Alizarin allowed him inside to taste the flavors of maa’trii petals mingling with Alizarin’s natural spice. Theo’s hands tangled between feathers of his mate’s mane. It felt so good to taste him again!

When their breath parted them, Alizarin nuzzled the medic’s cheek. His blood was up, his feathers puffed and his scales slicked. He nipped Theo’s ear and told his mate he gave Alizarin strength enough to take on a Maa’rish army.

“Oh really?” Theo’s smile turned dangerous, “Will Thrihar do?”

Alizarin growled low. He plied several insulting hand-signs to emphasize his anger. He had heard the other trapped souls on his cellblock. He knew they had suffered as much as he had. Eyes wide, he leapt off Theo’s lap and quickly moved his hands as he described one of the voices he’d heard. It took a second attempt to ensure Theo got the message.

“You’re kidding me! A Phydocian? Here?” Theo leaned back against the wall. He half-heartedly watched Alizarin’s dance-lecture. “You’re right, we have to save him! There are so few left.”

He’d never seen a Phydocian, except in the history book files in school. They were a secretive people, whose intimate connection to a planet could provide much needed resources for the population. A single Phydocian could make a planet prosper for thousands of years. Many sought them out to sell on the black markets. Precious Phydocian children were stolen from hospitals; young adults were nabbed from the streets. Theo didn’t want to think how the Thrihar drones captured a Phydocian. How many people did they kill? What horrors did the Phydocian suffer? What all had Alizarin suffered?

Theo leaned over his lap, murmuring, “I only came to save you. I was so stupid. There are others here who-”

Alizarin knelt down to silence his mate with a kiss. He whickered softly, signed slowly. His mate hadn’t known what all was here. His heart led him, and for that Alizarin was grateful. Theo nodded.

“We’ll free them. We’ll save the Phydocian.” He nodded as his mate diligently signed his plan to Theo. “Yes. I can do that. Yes. You’ve spent a long time planning this out, haven’t you?”

The Sirocco pushed another kiss to Theo’s lips. His cheek-feathers crested shyly as he whispered more heartfelt signs. He’d never once thought Theo would leave him to this horror. He looked into Theo’s eyes and expressed more trust then his voice and hands could express. Theo returned the kiss.

“I believe in you too, ‘Rin. I love you so much.”

As Alizarin pulled him into a tight embrace, Theo closed his eyes. He belonged there.

“I’ll give you back your light,” Theo clutched his mate tight, then felt him slip free. “I promise you.”

Alizarin took hold of Theo’s hand. The time for talk was over.

The Sirocco led his mate down the hallway. He chirped left, then right; a few members of avian races tried to reply. A Maa’rish prisoner fought against his charge-cuffs, only to roar when they electrocuted him. Alizarin pulled Theo down the hall until he heard the reply he sought. He pointed to the cell door labeled V-19.

Theo unsheathed his probe-pick and attacked the electronic lock. With a twist of the wrist, he disengaged the motor from the tumbler. As his fingerpick slid out, Alizarin grabbed his wrist. The worried look in his eyes made Theo frown.

“Don’t worry so much. I won’t get any more augments. I promise.”

Alizarin kissed the back of the medic’s hand. He wanted to remind Theo of the cyborg’s they had seen, just outside the mines of Riter. Their empty, glassy eyes and the welts from the stones their fellow workers threw at them. But, as he lifted his voice to speak and his hands to sign, a sorrowful cry rolled out of the cell.

“The Phydocian,” Theo whispered. He followed his mate inside the cell.

Chin-length black hair curled about the second most beautiful face Theo had ever seen. A pair of long green-white wings curled around to shield the Phydocian’s body. Traces of an intricate snowflake pattern added colour to his pale cheeks. His pale grey eyes widened as Theo led Alizarin inside the cell.

Alizarin made very gentle motions as he whispered his whickers. Theo translated them as softly as his voice would allow,

“He says we aren’t going to hurt you. We want to help you get out of here. His name is Alizarin. Mine’s Theo.”

“My name is Thetic, bonded of Halconnon,” the Phydocian’s voice trembled, “And I miss my owners so much.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll get you down.”

As Theo cracked open the charge-cuffs, his hand brushed against the Phydocian’s wrist. His skin was so cold, it made the metal in Theo’s skin contract. He flinched away; a small ice-burn faded from his skin. The charge-cuffs clattered to the ground at their feet. Alizarin grabbed them before the sensors could alert the main computers.

“Please, forgive us,” Thetic hung his head as he massaged his wrists. The snowflakes along his arm slowed down to a languid reel. “My…my friend…she’s very upset.”

Theo stroked his hand. Phydocians were said to harness the powers of a planet into their own bodies, through a process they called bonding. It allowed them fantastic abilities few understood. With the Phydocians’ help, whole planets had been rescued from the brink of destruction. Phydocians were so sought after, governments bent over backwards to make them comfortable.

He looked over Thetic’s slight frame; he barely came up to Theo’s chin. The Phydocian winced away meekly, and hid behind his massive wingspan. Theo shook his head. He’d been in space so long, he’d forgotten how withering his stare was. He bowed down and held out his hand in gentlemanly fashion, “You’ve already bonded yourself to a planet?”

“Yes. It was the second happiest day of my life. After being chosen by my owners.” The Phydocian smiled. “I guess now, it is my third, for seeing you open that lock for me has taken its place within my heart. You and your mate have my thanks.”

“How did-?”

“My friend, Ciele, showed me the life-threads running between you two.” Thetic’s wings curved about his shoulders like a cloak for his nudity. “I’m sorry. I don’t have much strength, but please allow me to search for my owners. They are here somewhere.”

“Here,” Theo reached into his pockets and handed Alizarin and Thetic palm-sized EMP lock-breakers. “You two run and use this to open all the cells you find. Bring them to the T-junction,” he pointed to the far end of the hallway “We’ll sort everything out then.”

Alizarin quickly butted his horn against Theo’s shoulder before he bolted down the right walkway. Thetic took the left; Theo stayed on the middle path. He closed his eyes a moment to activate the sonic emitters in his throat. As he walked down the corridor, he whistled the anthem of the Terran Free Colonies. The sound shattered the electronic frequencies in the cellblock.

Wires shorted out. Lights flickered. Cell doors slid open and charge-cuffs dropped off tired wrists. The most beautiful representatives of a thousand races crept out of hiding. All stripped of their clothes, their dignity, their will to choose. A slender Vulpid, with his luxurious black hair and twin black fox tails, fit behind a hulking Maa’rish gladiator. Two Mhoran twins wound their ropy tails around the other as they embraced in the middle of the hallway. A trio of ill-cared for Triptychs helped those who had been trapped so long, they could not walk.

At the end of the hallway, where the three cellblocks joined, Alizarin and Thetic met him with their captives. The battered and abused individuals, ambassadors of a thousand different races, joined together. Some looked for friends, lovers; some just fell to the floor and wept for joy. Two Maa’rish ran to embrace one another. Alizarin held out his arms to draw Theo to his embrace. Thetic rushed for the three Triptychs.

“My owners,” the Phydocian lifted his hands, “We’ve missed you! Batha. Bathmei. Bathqua!”

The pale giants swarmed around Thetic. The Thrihar had stripped the Triptychs of all but the cloth masks that covered their eyes. They touched their palms to Thetic’s chest and joined their soft song with his.

Theo and Alizarin blinked. Thetic’s open display of affection with the three Triptychs shattered the medic’s popular understanding of Triptych relations. Triptychs were the expensive servants of kings and businessmen and to see three Triptychs standing together in one place was unheard of. Theo wondered if, somewhere, a Ballique Triptych Master was choking on his meal.

“These are your owners?” Theo asked.

“Yes, and my friend and I have missed them so much.” Thetic tried to curve his green-black wings around two of the Triptychs while holding his arms around the third. Their pale hands stroked the Phydocian’s skin; the swirls of snow became a blizzard beneath Thetic’s skin. The most bruised of the three Triptychs looked to Theo and growled, but the sounds resulted in an entry unknown on the medic’s internal translators. His response was an automated,

“I’m sorry, but your language isn’t covered in my translation patch.”

Alizarin growled and jabbed his mate in the side. Theo retorted in quick Sirocco fashion with a head-butt to Alizarin’s shoulder. It won him a snort in the face and a possessive tail wrapped around his hips. There were too many around them; Alizarin signed to his mate how he could not be trusted around all the naked, broken-hearted males. Theo just leaned in and nibbled Alizarin’s ear-scales,

“You’re the only nut for my bolt, baby.”

Alizarin playfully jabbed him in the gut, only to let his hand be captured. His thicker fingers didn’t thread well between Theo’s five-fingered grasp. The warmth of his mate’s palm drew Alizarin that much closer. Such a connection was a deep vow between Sirocco lovers, for partners rendered one another partially mute; palm-to-palm was a Sirocco kiss.

Thetic turned to address Theo and Alizarin. “Bathmei asks about the Thrihar. Are they dead?”

A few of the other captives caught wind of the conversation and many turned to look at Theo. Too many eyes made Alizarin flair up his tail. Instinct lured him behind Theo in preempted defense.

“All of the Thrihar are incapacitated in their imaging chamber. In approximately twelve point six minutes, the gas canisters I left there will dry up and they’ll wake up. There are only twelve of them on the ship. They are not warrior drones! This barge is only eight strikes from the nearest GU security station. If you all swarm the imaging chambers, you’ll catch the Thrihar completely off-guard.”

The two, tall Maa’rish stepped up. The dark-haired Vulpid joined them. The Vulpid didn’t have the height or the muscle the Maa’rish did, but the force of his presence more then made up for it. Theo tensed instinctively; it wasn’t every day he saw two of the more dangerous races, in the same place, at the same time.

One of the Maa’rish grunted down to him. “They took our weapons from us.”

Theo checked his internal maps and located the weapons’ closet in the span of a blink. “Forequarters, second deck, port side. Number F dash two twelve. There should be enough weapons for the lot of you.”

The Maa’rish were satisfied. They took off down the central hallway with several other angry, vicious individuals. Alizarin whickered in astonishment; Theo agreed.

“I hope they win too.”

Very few remained with them. The dark haired Vulpid looked Theo in the eyes.

“I would know the truth from you. Did you send those creatures off to die, spaceman?”

“Not if those two warriors get there before the sleep charges wear off. But I don’t know. Do you think twelve Thrihar hive-drones can survive a pair of very angry Maa’rish? And they looked like they were mates. I hear they’re an army unto themselves.”

The Vulpid’s lips curved into a dark semblance of a smile. “Such a waste of energy.”

Theo shrugged in mock understanding. Alizarin stepped between them to whicker and sign. Thrihar or no, they all had better things to do then chat beneath the emergency lights. The Vulpid, the Triptychs and Thetic all looked to Theo for the translation. Theo only smiled as he shook his head.

“He says he’s taking me home. My ship is small, but I’m sure we can fit a few more aboard.”

The Vulpid’s bowed curtly. “My name is Manji. I have no prey and my sword was broken in my master’s name. You have my life for however long it takes to repay this debt.”

Alizarin shook his head and snorted.

“He says as long as you don’t think we’re easy meals, he doesn’t care how long you stay.”

Manji nodded his head. Thetic and his owners stepped forward. One of the Triptychs whispered a low, cautious trill.

“Um,” Thetic crept towards them with his owners in toe. “My owners know their way around a ship. Maybe, if we might join you…?”

“I’m sure we’ve got the room,” Theo shrugged, “But Python might be a bit cramped.”

The bruised Triptych rumbled. Thetic translated, “Bathmei says anything’s better then where we were.”

The other Triptychs nodded in agreement. Each of them had their hands on the Phydocian; Theo spared his mate a moment’s glance. He wondered if there would ever be a day he would let Alizarin go.

Theo led them all down the twisting corridors, past scorched walls and broken doors. Thetic stumbled only to be picked up by one of his owners. Theo had difficulty telling which Triptych was which, given that all three were identical in size and appearance. Manji darted ahead of them to unlock doors. The Triptychs helped Theo pry the cargo bay doors open for the others. Alizarin smiled and whickered joyfully when he saw their ship.

Python perched on the edge of the barge’s docking bay, her wings extended for hasty departure. Her talon-thrusters had left scorch marks in the floor tiles. She was still covered in her black and white primer, an improvement from her once bright military-issued plumage. Veins of core red and blue pulsed through her many feather thrusters. She was of Phraithei, as he was, and no doubt longed to return.

Theo leaned in close to the Sirocco’s side, “Python has missed you. I couldn’t keep her under twelve strikes.”

Alizarin gently head-butted Theo towards the gangway. Manji followed the Triptychs and Thetic aboard. As soon as Theo stepped on the ship’s platform, he synched into Python’s central electronic field. He ordered the back-hatch closed and the engine online. Lights flickered to life around them as they ran to Python’s control quarters. Alizarin, and Theo after him, slapped the dent in the doorway for good luck; it was the little rituals that reminded Alizarin that he was safe.

Alizarin leapt into the pilot’s seat as the thrusters hummed through out the ship. He grabbed the control gloves from their armrest chargers. The command visor curled over the top of the chair to give him full view of Python’s condition and her surroundings. Holographic keyspheres, cast from the armrest imagers, blossomed beneath his fingers. He had the Python off the ground before Theo was finished linking with her computer systems.

“‘Rin, let me get the doors open,” Theo warned. His mate’s roar disrupted his efforts to break back into the barge’s control systems. “I know you want out! Just hang on!”

Manji took a seat at the security panel. A quick once-over gave him full display of Python’s weaponry. “I would not advise any violent actions. A hull breech would destroy the structural integrity of the barge and trap us inside.”

Thetic and two of the Triptychs kept themselves resigned to the guest seating while the third, most bruised Triptych went to the forequarters. Theo shouted over his shoulder,

“Core’s a two-man job on Python!”

The bruised Triptych growled a sour note. One of the others uncurled from Thetic’s side and hurried to the spare seat. They sat down as one; Python illuminated the console before them in blues and greens. They balanced the pressure within the ionized core to give the thrusters more power. If Theo had free hands, he would have applauded them.

Alizarin roared for Theo to hurry with the bay doors.

“Keep your scales on!” The medic weeded his way through lines of code. He over wrote command protocols and disabled the barge’s toeing hooks. He got the green light; Alizarin trumpeted as he watched the bay doors open. “There! Punch it!”

The Sirocco dropped his hands to engage the accelerator. The cargo bay doors skidded across Python’s shell as she sprang free into open space. Her thrust left three neat scorch circles in the barge’s heatshield. Theo and Manji quickly locked themselves into their seats. Thetic and his Triptych clung to one another as the forward thrust of the ship pushed them into their seats. The two Triptychs at the controls looked back towards them, but couldn’t leave their seats.

“‘Rin! Take it easy!” Theo cried out. The onboard computers were screaming between his ears. “You’re gonna crash us at this speed!”

Alizarin saw stars rush past him. His deft fingers worked out calculations before the computers asked for them. He brought up star charts, and plotted a course with the shortest distance between the nearest docking station and Phraithei. They would get in contact with the Galactic Union. He would see those Thrihar bastards on a penal colony for the rest of their dreary little lives for what they did to him. He would collect his reparation credits and restock the ship. They could figure everything else after they landed in Fethahei Intergalactic Port.

Gradually, he eased his hands up from the throttle position. The systems calculated the trajectory and the speed; it would take ten to twelve hours to reach the closest waystation. The force melted over his body as he relaxed in his seat.

He heard Theo’s laughter boil up from the communications terminal. “That was one hell of a ride, ‘Rin.”

Alizarin engaged the autopilot and slipped out beneath the visor display before it tucked behind the chair. He rushed for Theo’s waiting arms. Theo lifted him up for a quick spin and a welcome kiss.

“I missed you so much,” his mate’s smile made Theo’s heart-core skip a beat. “My love, my life – everything I have is yours.”

Alizarin whinnied as Theo held him close. He invited Theo’s hands over his as he brushed through meaningful signs.

“You’re right. You are absolutely right. I don’t ever want to fight with you again. Ever. Never.” Theo scattered kisses across his mate’s horn. “I want to take you back to Phraithei. I want to shine with you. I’ll do anything you want.”

The Sirocco reached up to stroke Theo’s cheek. A polite cough erupted from Manji.

“While it is not my place, might I remind you two that you are not alone anymore.” Both of his tails curved about to cover his lap. “Might I also remind you that many of us are still unclean and lacking certain accoutrements? Clothing, for instance.”

“Oh,” Theo took a moment to study the Vulpid’s features. Manji didn’t cover himself, but glared angrily; lithe, spunky and tall enough to look Theo in the eyes. Not to mention easy on the eyes, but Alizarin looked much better to Theo’s ocular processors. “Well, I don’t really see a problem with that.”

Alizarin thumped the back of Theo’s head. Shrill neighs were accentuated with rude hand-signs. When Theo tried to physically soothe his mate, Alizarin gave Theo’s middle a squeeze with his tail.

“What?! It was a compliment!”

Laughter twittered from the rear of the zone. Thetic, his wing around one of the Triptychs, clutched his sides. His laughter spread smiles across the control zone. Despite all they’d gone through, it was nice to see they hadn’t lost all happiness.

“See? He gets the joke.”

“No, no,” Thetic fought to still his laughter. “Not you. Ciele was just saying how much you stand out.”

Theo took hold of his shirt collar, “Well, I can fix that-”

Alizarin let loose a shrill whinny and slapped the back of Theo’s head once more. He repeated the same quick hand-signs over and over: No! Mine! Bad!

Manji choked nervously into his hand. “Might I also request that the Sirocco wear a translation collar? So that his fellow crewmen will be able to understand him outside the presence of his prey.”

A low rumble rose up from the forequarters. The bruised Triptych rose from his seat at the core controls as he stammered through growls and purrs. The way the sounds came to his voice sounded more lyrical then Alizarin’s whickers. The way the Sirocco cocked his head to the side was proof enough that he didn’t understand the Triptych any better then Theo could. Thetic and the remaining Triptych hurried towards the brothers at the consol.

“My warrior raises a valuable point,” Thetic turned towards the others. The Triptychs all drew close to him, as if to both protect and hide him. “We are all cold and miserable and in need of a good bath. I feel horrible about imposing, but do you have such things for us?”

“I still don’t see why everyone is in such a rush to get dressed.” Alizarin butted his horn against the medic’s shoulder. Theo grunted. “All right, all right! I stocked up just before I left Phraithei. Here, crew quarters are this way.”

illustrated by gabrielsknife

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