Aldora wasn’t one of those people. She liked the dark quiet of deep space, especially in the depths of observed night on the Aquila. Like so many other nights, she sat in her customary faux-leather seat at the navigation console, bathed in the electric lights of neon nav screens and digital displays, reading over their established star chart and plotted course for the fourth time. Finally, assured everything was running smoothly on course (well, as smoothly as things could run on a ship crewed by low-profile bounty hunters), Aldora allowed herself the rare indulgence of leaning back in her chair and staring past the glass viewport into the darkness of space rushing past them in a blur.
She gave a contented sigh as she watched the sight; somehow it never got boring to her. Aldora enjoyed looking into the vast expanse of deep space, relished how it enfolded the ship, her, and the rest of the crew in a blanket of shadowed stars. She could almost feel the cold of the invisible dark matter just beyond the ship; sometimes she imagined she could reach towards it if she placed her hands on the bulkhead just beyond the nav console. It was something she had done only once, and the feeling—something like a mix of terror and wonder—had unnerved her, made her promise herself not to do so again.
Not that her boyfriend, Shane Kelworth, who also fancied himself the captain, couldn’t pilot the Aquila well enough in a pinch. Aldora and the crew just went along with it, but they made decisions together as a team, and it was a useful enough moniker that she had never felt the need to challenge him on his captaincy. Plus, Shane had admitted early on that she was the better pilot, while also arguing that he was the better shot with a pulse pistol. Aldora hadn’t seen a reason to disagree, considering the bounty hunter’s fighting pedigree, and so they had fallen in lockstep quickly. They had been together six years, long enough for some couples to get married, but neither of them felt it was the right time. Their chosen shared career—stealing money from the galaxy’s various rich and infamous and subsequently running for their lives—didn’t really lend itself well to wedding invites and a luxurious venue.
Thanks to their newest crew member, Tause the Harteen, a gifted hacker who had cracked the most secure subroutines in the outernet, they now had a way into one of the biggest banks in the Outer Planets. Even with the Aquila’s rickety outernet connection on the stellar relays and their sub-par computing gear, Tause had still been able to hack into the largest bank on Gumteka, a substantial base on a large asteroid. Gumteka base was a software hub that, according to Aldora’s Datapedia research, had used to be a mining colony for the Pelknir people, just inside the Pelkni solar system.
It was only several light years away from Ormec Five, still too close to their recent escapade in Aldora’s opinion. After Shane had escaped the Ormec Five station with Tause in tow, Aldora had quickly had her hands full as she steered the Aquila out of the ship garages and immediately had enemy ships on their tail firing scalar missiles. Aldora had clenched her gloved fists around the steering wheel and whirled the ship past Ormec Five’s comms relay to dodge the assault, the brazen hostility a courtesy of the various groups that had just lost some of their best operatives, thanks to Shane’s more deadly skills that he preferred not to talk about.
Lucky for them, however, the one thing Aldora and Shane had spent the most financial investment on in the past solar cycle was their phase drive, brand new and hand built from Reticulan engineers in the Inner Planets corridor. Aldora generally didn’t like any psi-active species as a rule, and Reticulans had the strongest telepathic abilities amongst recorded Alliance species. Yet, the craftsmanship of their technology was worth the price of feeling one of the small, bug-like aliens peeking into her mind for a few moments, not to mention the outlandish sum of credits (even at a generous discount). Nevertheless, their Reticulan phase drive had easily carried them into sub-light speed past the security drones and numerous squad ships that had chased them into the deep nebula reaches beyond Ormec. The chase was a testament of how angry Tause’s hacking adventures had made the various criminal groups in the Outer Planets, who didn’t appreciate losing their operatives or funds.
“Sucks to be them,” she said to herself with a smirk at the memory of their escape, as she continued staring into the deep.
The job on Gumteka wasn’t going to be easy, Aldora knew that. They didn’t do disguises well. Subterfuge wasn’t exactly their style; both she and Shane preferred to burst in, pulse pistols blazing and the Aquila engines running hot to get them out quickly. However, it was too much money to not at least try (“several trillion trillions of credits in the vault, Friend Aldora,” had been the Harteen’s words verbatim), and Tause had already downloaded the bank’s schematics and the floor plans to their individual PADDs. All there was to do was get to Gumteka safely, use their new fake IDs to get onto the station, and spend the next two weeks planning the job before doing it.
The key to their success would be the participation of their newest crew member, an Ilnurian. The Ilnurians, a mammalian humanoid species closely resembling a hybrid of a bear and a lion, were a somewhat secretive people, fierce warriors who lived in roaming tribes known for their fighting strength. Having evolved on Ilnur, a planet with twice the gravity of Earth, the Ilnuri could lift three times their weight in battle, and had carried their bloodlust beyond the stars. They had even given the Draconians a run for their money in several wars during the times of the Crimson Empire, before humanity and Earth had joined the Alliance.
As if he had read her thoughts, the Ilnurian crew member in question, Delnar M’ukal, entered the cockpit with loud footfalls, being too tall and bulky to move at all quietly. The pair often gathered to chat late at night, letting Shane and Tause rest, as both the captain and the Harteen were early risers. Aldora turned in her chair to watch the tall alien, clad in his customary silver jumpsuit, mutter a curse in Ilnuri under his breath as the man barely missed smacking his forehead on the doorway, and he stooped to clear the door before once again rising to his full height.
“So, I see I’m not the only one who’s up late tonight,” she said, and smiled at him. “Evening, Delnar.”
“Good evening, Liege Aldora,” said Delnar solemnly with a stilted bow, but he smiled, a wide grin of razor-sharp teeth, which seemed to gleam against the dark fur of his mane.
As troubling as the sight was for humans, Aldora now knew that, like her own kind, Ilnurians smiled to show trust, so she smiled back, showing her own teeth in turn.
She nodded at him.
“Wish you weren’t still calling me ‘liege,’” she said, but she turned back to the view port and her view of deep space just beyond.
“May as well sit with me a bit,” she continued, “I’m just checking the autonav controls for the night. What’s in the mugs?”
“Ah, thank you, Liege Aldora,” said Delnar, ignoring her request and sitting down with a huff in the other chair, placing the tray and mugs against the edge of the nav console.
She finally turned to face her fellow crew member, staring as he held out a steaming mug towards her.
“I decided to make yuli tonight for you and I,” he said, his chest rumbling with what sounded like a purr. “It is a drink of celebration for an accomplishment or endeavor, a tea native to Ilnur. Our job on Gumteka being imminent, this night calls for a toast. I had several bags left in my pack once I joined the ship. Please, try it.”
Aldora nodded her thanks and took the mug, raising it to her face to smell the scent wafting from the top: it was heady and light, but also fragrant, like a chai tea with fruit.
“Smells wonderful,” she said, and raised her mug towards him, watching as he did likewise.
“To the crew of Aquila, and a job well done,” she said.
“To our honor and strength,” said Delnar, “and may we taste victory!”
Aldora raised her eyebrows in surprise as she sipped; the tea tasted amazing, with hints of apricot and cardamom. She could feel the drink warming her in the chill of the ship, which tended to run cold even when they had spare credits to spend for extra heating.
As she slowly sipped the tea, feeling its warmth seeping into her, Aldora considered Delnar’s role in their upcoming heist on Gumteka. Under their current plan, Delnar would pretend to be Aldora’s bodyguard while she took the role of digital lock inspector to enter the bank. Shane would enter the air ducts and rendezvous with them just inside the vault. Meanwhile, Tause would stay logged in to the bank computers he had hacked into while on board the Aquila and be their operator, monitoring the mission in real-time (while keeping the engines running in case they needed an evac). Once inside, Delnar would overwhelm any guards they ran into as they infiltrated the bank vault by force.
It wasn’t a great plan, but Delnar was an excellent fighter by Ilnuri standards, amongst the best they had ever encountered in the Outer Reaches. Whatever or whoever they couldn’t lie their way through once inside the bank was Delnar’s role to take out, by whatever means necessary, and Aldora knew the man didn’t shy away from a fight. Quite the opposite, as she and Shane had found it necessary to forcefully pull Delnar away from a battle on previous missions.
She smiled as she lowered her mug, watching as Delnar drank deep from his own mug before lowering it, his long ears twitching, his fangs clacking as he snarled in satisfaction.
“Ah, that’s great!” he said, setting his mug on the console, and grinned at her. “Warms the blood, perfect right before a job, or a battle. Thank you for sharing with me, Liege Aldora.”
Aldora sighed and placed her own mug aside; there was that title she insisted he didn’t use with her, again.
“Look, Delnar,” she said, her voice hesitant, “you really don’t have to call me ‘liege.’ It’s strange to hear you say it constantly. Do you think you could try not to—”
She trailed off as she saw Delnar frown, a mix of anger and devastation on his face. He growled in frustration, his tufted ears flattening against his hair, and she knew that she had deeply upset him with her request.
Idiot, she admonished herself silently. He’s the key to the whole job, and I insulted him!
Before Aldora could utter any sort of apology, she startled in her seat as Delnar stood suddenly, closing the distance between them.
“I see that I must remind you of the terms of my joining your crew,” he said quietly in his deep voice, and slowly knelt at her feet.
If anyone else had entered the bridge, they would have seen just how large the Ilnuri man was: even on his knees, he easily towered over the shorter human woman sitting at the console.
“I am your servant for life, your aln’muka,” said Delnar, his golden eyes narrowing at her, furred ears bent back against his head, and Aldora could see he was deadly serious.
“‘Liege’ is the title of honor we Ilnuri give to those for whom we have sayeru aln,” he continued. “Please do not deprive me of the honor of serving you properly, Liege Aldora. This includes my title for you.”
“Sayeru aln, ‘debt for a life,’ yeah, you told me,” said Aldora softly.
“I—I’m sorry, Delnar, I’m still—not used to this arrangement, you being my servant,” she said.
“It’s very jarring for me,” she continued. “Humanity has tried extremely hard to move away from societal power imbalances for the past thousand years, and we still haven’t been entirely successful. Please–don’t take my uneasiness with this custom as a personal slight against you. I really don’t mean it that way!”
Delnar rumbled out a pleased laugh, nodding, his ears twitching and the fur of his mane fluffing up a bit. He rose from the floor and sat back in the adjacent chair, sipping his tea before waving a claw at her in apparent forgiveness.
“That is to be expected, Liege Aldora,” he said. “Even we Ilnuri are patient with humans. I would dare say that most of our combined species grant your kind much social leeway, for your potential for both kindness and violence. You are still the newest member of the Alliance, so it’s only natural for things in deep space to be strange to you.”
Aldora laughed with a shrug, nodding and turning back to the viewport.
“I’ll grant you that, and on behalf of humanity, I thank you for your species’ patience with us,” she said. “Lately, though, deep space is the only thing that makes sense to me.”
She gestured at the viewport, the darkness of space beyond.
“I’m glad I’m a pilot, all the time, because I get to see this,” she said. “I know a lot of other species, even most humans, don’t care for space travel, for this view, but I love it! I always have.”
He had watched those blue eyes during their duel together, watched as they gleamed with her own human-born bloodlust as Aldora had held her own against him in the ring. Her fighting spirit and skill had won his respect and shown the rest of his crew not to underestimate the ability of humans in combat. Once she had stood over him and spared his life at the edge of her dagger blade, both of them exhausted and bloodied, Delnar had known he had made the right decision to pledge himself to her.
Delnar took a large sip of his yuli before he set the mug down again and spoke.
“I see that, in being drawn to such a view, you have the g’ish bucham, Liege Aldora,” he said, and Aldora turned and looked at him, the unspoken question in her eyes.
Delnar raised a claw at her, then pointed at the viewport and the depths of space just beyond.
“In Galactic Standard, the phrase is ‘darkness sight,’” he explained, “but in Ilnuri it is g’ish bucham. It translates directly to ‘sighted in darkness.’ These people often make the best pilots, for the shadows of the stellar depths do not shake their minds. They keep balance, using their intuition in the deep of the stars to guide their way. In so doing, they keep their crew and ship safe, and they rarely get lost. It is a cause for great honor.”
“I thank you for saying so, Delnar,” she said, nodding at him with a small smile. “I pray that my abilities as a pilot and a fighter will be enough to finish this job with our lives.”
Aldora sighed heavily, before shrugging at him, leaning back in her chair.
“I don’t want to always do these jobs, though, Delnar,” she said. “We all get older, someday, and I’m not going to want to continue this line of work into my old age. Space travel wears on us humans a good deal. We didn’t evolve for it, so this is a younger person’s game Shane and I are in, and we both know it. If this job on Gumteka goes well and we’re able to get even a fraction of the payoff…”
“Then we’ll all be able to do what we want,” said Delnar, nodding and giving her a wide fanged grin.
“What will you do as a rich human, Liege Aldora?” he asked.
“Honestly?” she said, and turned back towards the viewport, staring into the deep.
“I would just take a moment,” she continued in a soft voice, “steer the Aquila back out here, and look out into deep space. Really, truly look. And I’d let everything in it guide me to the next step, rather than the other way around. I’d let myself be moved by whatever moves all the stars and planets and you and me, and everything else. I don’t claim to know what that is, exactly, only that I feel it the most when I’m flying in the dark. It’s what I love about being a pilot of this ship, living this life of danger and adventure. It’s not for everyone, I know that, but being here, right now—I know it will all work out! Job or not.”
Entranced by the sight of gleaming nebulae and dark matter beyond, Aldora failed to see the look of wonder on Delnar’s face as he tried to hide his admiration for his life liege and friend, without success. He knew there were far worse masters to serve as aln’muka, that his sacred duty might have fallen on someone he could not look up to. Over the years Delnar had heard from Ilnuri friends and kin about unsavory liege lords who held sway over their servants, men and women without integrity or honor, without inspiration. How blessed he was, then, to serve Aldora instead! He looked away, ears twitching atop his head, smiling and baring his fangs in genuine contentment: his liege truly was amazing! Her skill at the g’ish bucham would put any pilot on Ilnur Prime to shame.
At the same time, however, Delnar was just happy to be near Aldora, and his companionship with Shane and Tause was getting closer to what he had shared with his own pack before his life pledge. They were as close to family as Delnar could reach, and once again he felt his resolve strengthen in his heart. Not just to fight for them, but to protect them as best he could, and help them achieve their dreams.
“A fitting moment of victory, Liege Aldora,” he said, finally turning to her, “and I shall be glad to help you reach it.”
He watched Aldora finally snap out of her unwitting trance and flush in embarrassment as she turned back to him.
“Um—yeah, anyway,” she said, a bit flustered, “I’ll be glad to have you and the others there, Delnar.”
“Of course, Liege Aldora,” he replied, nodding. “There’s nowhere else I would rather be, than at your side.”
Aldora smiled at him gently. Together, the two friends, human and Ilnuri, settled in their chairs and turned back towards the viewport, watching the stellar depths glide past them as the Aquila guided them through deep space.
Towards their next adventure…and all the others thereafter!