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Out in the Black

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Andrew followed Kevin into the cramped pilot’s cabin. Wilds gave him a dirty look as he entered, still sore at him for what had happened to Gordon, but otherwise didn’t comment. The rest of the crew had quickly learned it was futile to complain that Andrew went wherever Kevin did. Still, it was obvious that she’d rather he wasn’t there, not only because the cabin really was too small for five people to fit into comfortably.

Boyd was in his normal spot at the helm, taking up far more space than was necessary. Andrew didn’t know his history, but he suspected he originated from a low-gravity planet, unlike Andrew and his twin brother who were born and raised on a planet with higher-than-average gravity, making them among the shortest adults he’d ever come across.

“Kevin,” said Wilds brusquely. “We found something.”

That piqued Andrew’s interest. There was nothing to be found this far out in the black; that was the whole point of them being here. They’d been out here for over fifteen solar days, drifting and licking their wounds following a near miss that claimed the life of one of the crew. Reynolds had been banging around in the engine room making alarming noises. Andrew half-expected her to blow them all up in her grief.

“What kind of something?” asked Kevin, his tone a mix of arrogance and curiosity.

Wilds gestured to the viewscreen. “Some kind of pod. It’s giving off a homing signal; that’s the only reason we found it.”

“Who is it calling?” demanded Andrew, aiming his question at Renee, who was sitting at her own console. She was probably the most talented communications specialist he’d ever met, her skills gained working for a giant, soulless organization that operated outside of strictly legal avenues. Not that the Fox’s operations were anything but illegal, but the majority of the crew was far too interested in bleeding heart altruism for Andrew’s taste.

“No one,” Renee answered, sounding slightly confused. “It’s not a long range signal, only one meant to prevent collisions. I’ve seen similar beacons used in asteroid fields.”

“What’s it doing out here?” asked Andrew in disbelief. They could spend a lifetime out here and never run into anything except space debris. It wasn’t a busy commercial port, or a commonly travelled transit lane, it was the goddamn empty expanse of space. And space was fucking big.

“Maybe it’s lost,” shrugged Renee.

“That’s beside the point,” said Wilds. “Do you recognize what it is, Kevin?”

“Looks like a supply pod,” answered Kevin, squinting at the readouts on Renee’s console. “The Empire uses them to ship goods long distances. I don’t know why one would be out here, though; they usually stick to commercial transit routes.”

“Trap?” asked Boyd.

“I don’t see how it could be,” said Kevin slowly. “This far out, who would it be targeting?”

“Maybe someone programmed its destination poorly,” suggested Renee.

“Possibly,” said Kevin. “We should bring it on board; check it out.” He turned to Andrew with a pleading expression. “It’s probably full of supplies. Could be something valuable in there.”

Andrew considered arguing just to spite him, but he had to acknowledge that the supplies inside could net them an impressive payday. When Andrew didn’t object, Kevin turned back to Wilds with more confidence in his stance.

“Fine,” sighed Wilds, as though she wasn’t interested in seeing what they’d found. She pinned Renee with a sharp look, “But you keep your eyes on it. If it starts transmitting our location or something, we’re dumping it and getting the hell out of here.”

“Understood, Captain,” replied Renee with an easy nod.

It took them most of the remaining solar day to bring the pod on board. Andrew had to encase himself in an environment suit and accompany Wilds through the airlock to harpoon the thing after Boyd carefully manoeuvred them as close as he could. By the time it was safely in the cargo bay, Andrew was regretting his lack of argument. The pod had better hold something worthwhile for all the effort he’d put into getting it.

It was completely black and the approximate size and shape of a coffin. There was something eerie about it that made the hair on the back of Andrew’s neck stand up. He could already tell it was bad news.

Kevin made a strangled, choking sound as he got a glimpse of the large royal raven decal stamped on the side of it. Although he’d mentioned the Empire earlier, seeing evidence of their ownership was clearly too much for him. Under the stamp was an identification code: NE-1L.

An image showing a emblem of a raven's head wearing a crown. Underneath the decal, are the words ID#:NE-1L.

There was no obvious switch on the pod, but Kevin had no trouble finding the control panel to open it, revealing a smaller, similarly-shaped white pod inside of it. Andrew briefly wondered if the whole thing was just made up of slightly smaller pods of different colours stacked one inside the other, but his musings were cut off by Kevin’s sharp inhale and involuntary step backwards.

Andrew was instantly on alert, crowding in for his own look at what upset Kevin. The inner pod was made of what looked like frosted glass, but there was a transparent area at one end of it. A pale, unconscious face was visible.

“Cryo pod,” hissed Kevin.

Wilds leaned in with interest. “Who is that?” she asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Andrew. “Space them.” He had no intention of letting anyone associated with the Empire on board. He’d promised to protect Kevin from them and he had no intention of breaking his promise.

“We’re not spacing an unconscious stranger,” scoffed Wilds.

“I’m in charge of security—” Andrew started to argue.

“And I’m the fucking Captain; I outrank you.”

“We’re pirates,” said Andrew. “None of us have military ranks.”

Wilds puffed up in affront. Technically, she did have an old, no-longer-used military rank, leftover from a failed rebellion against the all-powerful Empire. She forgot sometimes that these days they were all on the same level: outlaws who cooperated by necessity, not soldiers nobly working together towards a common goal. “It’s still not a democracy,” she retorted. “We’re not spacing them, especially before we know who they are and what they’re doing here.”

“We’re not waking them up without knowing those things, either,” countered Andrew. A dangerous stranger on board a closed environment like the Fox was a recipe for disaster.

“There is another option,” came Renee’s reasonable voice from the upper level of the cargo hold.

“You’re supposed to be monitoring transmissions from the bridge,” complained Wilds.

“Its homing signal can’t penetrate our hull,” said Renee placidly, “so I decided to come down and see what I could find out about it.”

“And?” asked Kevin impatiently. His show of put-upon impatience was impressive because up until a second ago he’d been cowering in fear away from the person in cryogenic stasis.

“I don’t know who that is, but my initial scans show the pod has massive data stores,” said Renee. “They’re likely heavily encrypted but they may hold useful information.”

“Good work, Renee,” said Wilds approvingly. “We’ll delay the decision of what to do with the pod until the data can be reviewed.” She sent a shrewd look to Andrew. “And since Minyard here is in charge of security he can review whatever you find.”

Andrew wished he’d kept his mouth shut and just spaced the pod after everyone had gone to bed.

Although he knew his way around encrypted files, his skills had nothing on Renee’s so Andrew let her do the honours. The others hovered uselessly, badly concealing their interest. Boyd and Nicky came down to join Kevin and Wilds in their nosiness; only Reynolds and Aaron kept away, in grief (Reynolds) and indifference (Aaron).

Renee plugged a datapad into the pod’s dataport, not willing to hook the thing up to their internal systems in case it contained hostile code. She hummed in appreciation as she worked.

“This is cleverly done,” she said eventually. “Anybody with less experience than me might have missed them all together.”

“Them?” asked Wilds.

“Video files,” replied Renee. “They’re hidden among the pod’s system files. They don’t have dates or names that identify them; only their size gives them away.”

After a few more minutes of fiddling, she sat back and the datapad’s holo emitters lit up, projecting a video image. It was a man with red hair, impressive scars, and one cybernetic eye that was completely black with electric blue light in place of a pupil. His shoulders slumped forwards, his entire countenance radiating exhaustion and defeat. Kevin made a small noise of surprise in the back of his throat.

The video was plagued by static, making the image jump and the man’s words stutter.

“A trap… a trap… a trap…” the words kept repeating in between heavy static, the man’s image shifting in and out of focus. Andrew noted the others eyeing each other in trepidation; maybe it would be easier than he expected to get them to agree to jettison their unwanted passenger.

Renee fiddled with the datapad and the video smoothed out enough for the man to be understood.

“...the signal—it’s a trap,” he was saying. His voice had a deep timbre and an accent Andrew wasn’t familiar with. “I’m not stupid enough to approach it, but I had a sudden urge to say ‘fuck it’ and go anyway. I’m tired. I’m tired of being alone. I’m tired of being nothing.” His one good eye was a fathomless pool, void of hope. Something in Andrew’s chest seized. He was very familiar with that expression, he’d seen it enough times in the mirror. “If I didn’t know how much pain he’d put me through, I’d go to him,” continued the man. “I’m ready for everything to end.”

The video cut off, leaving awkward silence in its wake. Kevin was pale and gaping dumbfoundedly at the space above the datapad where the man’s image had been projected, looking like he’d seen a ghost.

“Do you know him?” Wilds stiltedly asked Kevin.

Kevin shook himself once, like he was shedding water. “The Empire is made up of hundreds of thousands of officers spanning the known galaxy,” he replied peevishly. “I don’t know everyone just because I spent most of my childhood under the direct control of the ruling family. Plus, he looks to be a prisoner rather than an officer.”

“You think he’s running from them?” asked Boyd, eyes worried as he examined the stasis pod.

Kevin huffed irritably. “I don’t have any more information than you do.” He paused almost infinitesimally. His hesitation was unnoticeable unless someone was paying very close attention. Unfortunately for him, Andrew was always paying attention. “But I think we should keep him on board.”

“We still don’t know anything about him,” argued Andrew. “Other than someone dangerous is after him.”

“Watching more videos will help,” said Nicky cheerfully. “Not that it’s a hardship, huh? Watching a face like that?”

Andrew wanted to roll his eyes at Nicky’s predictability. Yes, the man in the video had been attractive but that was secondary to his obvious despair and hopelessness. The man was dangling at the end of his rope over a cliff; he needed someone to anchor him, not Nicky’s unsubtle come-ons.

Andrew backtracked. What the man needed was to get the hell off his ship and to take the danger he presented with him. But he knew with the way that Boyd, Wilds, and Nicky were looking at the pod with sympathy and with how Kevin was now looking curious instead of afraid that he’d run up against resistance if he tried to take that course of action without more proof of the threat the stranger presented them.

“Anything else?” asked Wilds. “Maybe some context about who he is?”

“I don’t know what the videos contain without watching them,” replied Renee, shaking her head. “And the date stamps make no sense; I can’t play them in chronological order. It’s probably going to take many solar days for me to fully unencrypt them.” She sounded apologetic.

“Alright,” nodded Wilds. “Minyard, stay here with Renee and go through the videos. Everyone else, I’m sure you have duties you should be doing.”

With groans, everyone turned away and dispersed. Kevin looked back over his shoulder once, eyeing the pod with speculation. Andrew had a sharp suspicion he knew more about the occupant than he admitted.

Andrew sighed and turned back to Renee. “Can you play that video from the beginning?” he asked.

He took a seat leaning against the cryopod as she reloaded the file. No need to stay on his feet while he searched for evidence that the man shouldn’t be trusted.

“Stardate 43989 point one,” said the man in the video tiredly. “Solar day two hundred and three. I finally tracked the beacon that’s been plaguing me. She would definitely beat me for how close I had to get to it, but I needed to know what it was. I was right to be suspicious: the signal—it’s a trap…”

Andrew rubbed his hand over his tired eyes and gazed blearily down at the datapad. Renee had bailed hours earlier, heading off to get some sleep, but sleep wasn’t something Andrew got a lot of, especially since he shared a compact cabin with Nicky and Aaron. The Fox had single crew cabins, four of them, which was fairly typical for a ship of its size. There were also two shared rooms with bunks, usually used for passengers or other transient travellers. Boyd, Wilds, Renee, and Reynolds had all been on board before the rest of them, so they had seniority over room assignments. Boyd and Wilds shared, so Kevin was given the fourth cabin because he was the reason they’d been invited to join the crew in the first place. Sure, Aaron had value as a medic, Nicky had talent for turning their rations into edible dishes, and Andrew was useful as added muscle, but Kevin was the only one of them that had a unique skillset. Pirate crews like theirs rarely were able to employ a navigator with such depth of knowledge of the Empire’s patrol routes and supply locations.

Before she’d given in to her need to sleep, Renee had been able to unearth two more partial videos. Andrew hadn’t learned much more about their unwanted guest except that he was quite sarcastic when he wasn’t dangling at the end of his rope, and that he was exceptionally careful about giving out any kind of identifying information even in his heavily encrypted personal log. Andrew had no clues as to his involvement with the Moriyamas; hell, he had no clues as to the man’s name.

In one video, the man sported a deep purpling bruise over his cybernetic eye and a stubborn set to his jaw. The stardate hadn’t been provided in the recovered portion, but Andrew suspected that it was earlier than the previous video. There was something lighter about the man’s countenance that suggested he hadn’t hit rock bottom yet.

He prodded gingerly at his eye. “I failed at making friends,” he said wryly, in a remarkably good temper for how much he must be aching. “I tried to stay out of it, but no one’s ever pretended that I’m good at keeping either a low profile or my temper. I kinda wish someone had taught me how to finish fights, though. Starting them is easy but—”

The video cut off there leaving Andrew curious about what he was going to say next. He huffed at himself. It couldn’t possibly be helpful or important. He flipped over to the second video.

“—talking to myself,” were the first coherent words after a long stretch of static. “I should be used to it, but being utterly alone out here in the void makes it that much worse. She’d slap me for making recordings but I can’t bring myself to delete them. They’re my only friends.” His resulting laugh was sharp and unpleasant and the grin that stretched across his mouth like a knife made Andrew feel like prey. “That’s probably the most pathetic thing I’ve ever said and there’s a lot of competition. I’m useless on my own. You’d think—”

Again, the video devolved into static, losing the rest of what the man had to say, leaving Andrew unfulfilled. He was… interested, which was unexpected. Very few things were able to grab and hold his attention.

He stood, stretching until his neck and back cracked. He’d have to wait until Renee unscrambled these videos and unearthed more. By then, he was sure he’d have lost whatever unwanted interest he was feeling.

The name was Nicky’s fault. Andrew spent much of his time alone, avoiding coming into contact with anyone else. It was an impressive skill, if he did say so himself, considering how small the Fox actually was. But everyone mostly stayed in their own areas, and Andrew spent most of his free time in the small so-called “security room” that was located just off the cargo bay. He was pretty sure it was a repurposed storage closet. The cryopod had been moved in there, out of the way, and Andrew had to keep close to it to continue watching the videos.

Still, he wasn’t able to keep to himself all the time. Meals were communal. Nicky was in charge of meal preparation and service and he insisted that they all eat together, barring any emergencies. Andrew (or Aaron) never said much or participated in the group banter, but it seemed to make Nicky happy that his cousins were present. He even periodically tried to draw them into conversation, despite how often they rebuffed his efforts.

“So, Andrew,” he said over breakfast, one day several weeks after they’d brought the cryopod on board, “what’s new with Neil?”

Andrew wasn’t planning on engaging with his cousin, but the strange question caught him off guard. “Who?” he asked, unable to hide how baffled he was.

“You know, Neil?” said Nicky. “The frozen dude in the box?”

“Why are you calling him Neil?” asked Kevin suspiciously. Andrew still hadn’t been able to corner him properly to ask about what he knew about the stranger. He was being evasive and more resistant to Andrew’s subtle questioning than usual.

“It says it right on the pod!” laughed Nicky.

Kevin looked disgusted. “It says en ee dash one el,” he corrected. “It’s the pod’s identification code.”

“Exactly,” said Nicky, nodding as if they were in agreement. “It identifies him as Neil.”

Kevin started a heated argument, which saved Andrew from having to answer the initial question.

The name stuck. It was easier and faster to say than “the man in the box” or “the frozen stranger”. Andrew even started thinking of the man by that name, since none of his logs disclosed his identity. He’d learned that the “she” mentioned several times in Neil’s logs was adamant about security and that she taught her lessons with her fists. As far as Andrew could tell she was dead or had abandoned Neil, and he was grateful for it. The things Neil let slip about her reminded Andrew too forcefully of Aaron’s terrible mother.

Andrew learned a lot of things about Neil from his frequently disjointed videos. He was a mouthy asshole (in a way that Andrew was appalled to notice he found disconcertingly attractive), his fuse was short and his temper flared red hot, he was resourceful and well-travelled, and that he was definitely running from someone powerful.

Andrew found himself more drawn to Neil than he had ever been to anybody before. He looked forward to watching his logs as Renee uncovered and unscrambled them, sometimes watching the same video multiple times. It was incredibly stupid but he felt that Neil was someone who would understand him. They seemed to have a very similar worldview and shared life experiences.

He knew he was being ridiculous. Neil wasn’t real, or at least the version of him in his logs wasn’t real. All Andrew was doing was fixating on someone unattainable and therefore safe. It wasn’t the first time. He was more than familiar with his self-destructive tendencies.

As Renee worked, the logs got more intelligible. Each one started with a star date followed by a solar day count. Andrew organized them into sequence as best he could, but he couldn’t yet discern what day one of the solar day count was. He had no idea what Neil was counting away from. His first day alone? The day he went on the run?

He expected Neil’s mood and mental state would steadily decline as he got closer to the date of the first video that Andrew had seen, but that wasn’t the case. He was maudlin in all the earliest dated videos, but his mood seemed to see-saw. Andrew even found videos dated after the one where he stated he wanted to be caught where he seemed relatively upbeat. Well, not upbeat per se. Sarcastic and whip-quick with self-deprecating insults but less resigned to his own death.

Based on the knowing smiles she gave him when she uncovered new videos, Andrew knew Renee at least suspected the way his thoughts ran with respect to Neil. It felt like she was teasing him, although gently. He pretended not to notice.

“I’ve got two new partials—one almost complete, I think—and a tiny snippet from a third,” she told him when they switched off after dinner. It was too cramped in the tiny room where the cryopod was stored for them both to spend any length of time there together, so she’d taken to doing her computer magic during the day and Andrew spent his nights going through the logs multiple times to glean all the information he could from them. His multiple viewings had nothing to do with liking to look at and listen to Neil.

Andrew nodded his thanks and took his usual seat on a small table, facing the upright cryopod. He flicked through the new files on the datapad as he waited for Renee to leave.

“Alright, Neil,” he said, once he could no longer hear her footsteps, “let’s see what you’re up to.”

An image showing Andrew sitting on a desk. He is holding a datapad to watch Neil's logs and looking at the cryopod holding Neil's frozen form.

He started with the near-complete video; in it Neil was practically vibrating on screen. Andrew had seen him like this a few times now, when his adrenaline spiked and he had no outlet. He felt an odd, uncharacteristic need to reach out and ground Neil with his touch, to let him know that he would eventually be safe. Andrew didn’t know what had happened to Neil between the video and the present, but no matter what it was he knew where he was now: safely stowed in a cryopod and out of the reach of the man he feared so absolutely.

In the log, Neil grinned. It was not a happy expression, it was cold and hard and mean. “—dred and seventy three. One of the Butcher’s Men caught up with me at the last outpost.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. He knew of the Butcher’s Men only by reputation. They were ruthless, efficient killers. The hammer in the Empire’s toolkit, flattening their opponents completely. One of them should have easily been able to handle a twitchy runaway like Neil.

“It ended like it always does,” shrugged the hologram of Neil. “I ejected his various parts out the airlock. I don’t know why they’re always so surprised. It’s like they expect me to still be a terrified child.” His smile turned even sharper and more chilling. “They forget I’m my parents’ son.” He fell silent, covering his mouth with a fist and digging his fingers into his bottom lip. “I can’t risk returning to that outpost. That’s the third one in less than a hundred solar days. Two could conceivably be a coincidence—”

“No such thing as coincidences,” muttered Andrew.

“—but it seems more likely that they’re tracking my ship somehow. I’d ditch it and pick up a new one, but that would definitely get the Empire on my tail. Which means it’s only a matter of time before they catch up to me.” Neil looked more than a little troubled. “I—” he cut himself off. The recording continued for another couple moments before Neil shook his head and turned off the recorder.

Andrew looked up at the cryopod. “What were you going to say?” he asked. The only response was the hiss of the pod’s refrigeration system as it let pressure out. “Did they catch up with you? Is that how you found yourself in there?” He shook his head at himself for asking questions which he knew wouldn’t be answered.

He queued up the next video, almost recoiling when Neil appeared. He looked worse than Andrew’d ever seen him. The scar next to his left eye was livid and red, looking brand new. The eye itself, which had been cybernetic in all the videos Andrew had seen, was real and filled with blood. His hands, too, were marked up with burns and slashes all of them fresh instead of faded. Andrew sat up straighter. This was the earliest log he’d come across.

Neil stared into the recording device and then away. “I’ve been alone for less than an entire solar day,” he said, his voice hoarse and unused, “and I’m already breaking her rules.” He gave a dry sob and huddled forward over his knees. “She’s dead; she left me.” Andrew expected more outward expressions of grief following those words, but instead Neil sat up straight and his face became set. His uninjured eye was completely lifeless. He stared blankly just past the data recorder for long enough that Andrew wondered if he was going to say anything else. Finally, he sighed and sat back. “He came himself to kill her,” he said bitterly. “We still almost got away, but she was too badly injured to make it far. She made me promise to keep going, but how am I supposed to do this alone? I make stupid decisions when I’m alone. Case in point.” He gestured carelessly. “I’m already making a recording with information that could potentially be used to find me because I needed to talk to someone and this is the best I can do. Otherwise, I’ll be taking a short walk out the airlock without a spacesuit.” He examined his hands dispassionately. “I need medical attention; I’ll have to hit the medical depot near Reddin. See if they can fix my eye—the vision’s gone completely. They’re mostly neutral there.” He shook his head. “I’ll delete this then.”

The video cut off, making Neil a liar. Andrew considered. This video was from day one. The controlling “she” had died in an attack that clearly left Neil grievously injured. Although he was getting some answers he wanted, he was still missing a lot of things he wanted to know.

“What are you still hiding?” he asked. “Why are the Butcher’s Men after you? Who are you?”

He obviously wasn’t expecting any response but the datapad in front of him sputtered to life, Neil appearing between bursts of static. “—I’m under attack—waiting for me,” the video cleared enough to show Neil’s face, wide-eyed and worried. “It must be the—abandon ship—cryo shipping pod in the cargo—” It dissolved completely into static. He frowned and poked a couple buttons on the datapad, but it didn’t clear anything up. He made a note to Renee to pay specific attention to that recording.

“Lots of new stuff tonight,” he said to the crypod. He could see Neil’s darkened outline but it was blurry through the frost-covered glass of the pod. “You’re hiding stuff, but I’m going to figure you out anyway. Right now, though? Right now Kevin and I are going to have a little chat about the Butcher.”

The four crew cabins were located underneath the corridor running from the common area to the pilot’s cabin and were only accessible from above. To access one, the entrance hatch had to be pushed in, revealing a ladder down into a cave-like small room. Andrew was jealous that he didn’t have access to one, unless he wanted to share with Kevin which he vehemently did not. Although, if he was sleeping in one of the rooms he would have had to do something about the locks because they were notoriously easy to bypass.

Case in point.

“Urrrghhh,” groaned Kevin as Andrew flipped on the lights in his room. He blinked blearily and shouted, “Garrrrrrgh!” when he caught sight of Andrew, hopping off the last rung on the ladder. “What the fuck? Why are you in here?” he demanded.

“Tell me about the Butcher,” Andrew said, taking a few steps forward to loom over Kevin’s prone form.

Kevin blinked several more times and then sat up, gathering his blankets around himself. “This couldn’t wait?” he asked irritably.


It took several more minutes of grumbling and complaints before Kevin was reasonably awake. Andrew waited patiently. If Kevin thought he could dissuade Andrew from getting the answers he wanted with his awful personality then he was gravely mistaken.

“Why do you want to know about the Butcher?” asked Kevin, shiftily. Practically everything about his mannerisms screamed, I am hiding something.

“You’re terrible at obfuscating,” remarked Andrew. “You recognized Neil.”

“Don’t tell me you’re using that ridiculous name, too,” complained Kevin.

“I won’t have to if you tell me his real name.”

“I don’t know it,” said Kevin, avoiding eye contact.

Andrew cleared his throat pointedly.

“I don’t,” insisted Kevin. “I don’t know who he is. He looks familiar, is all.”

“In what way?”

“I’ve only met the Butcher once and seen his picture in files another handful of times. Our frozen stowaway has several features in common with him.”

Andrew stared at him. “How stupid are you?”

“Hey!” protested Kevin, more affronted than he had any right to be.

“You think Neil is, what, affiliated with the Butcher somehow? His clone, his family?”

“His son,” supplied Kevin sullenly. “He’s rumoured to have a son.”

“And you didn’t advocate to have him spaced immediately? You thought he should stay on board? There’s nothing that he can possibly offer that compensates for the danger he represents. What if he brings the Butcher’s Men down on top of us?” Even as he said it, Andrew could feel the way he viscerally rebelled against the idea of killing Neil. If Kevin had just let him have his way to begin with then they wouldn’t be in this trouble.

“That’s not necessarily true,” said Kevin, suddenly finding his blankets of utmost interest. He watched his fingers avidly as he picked at the fabric.

“What are you talking about?” asked Andrew, his patience worn thin. “What’s not true?”

“That he can’t offer us anything.”

“Explain,” Andrew grit out.

Kevin finally looked up at him. “It’s just that he’s rumoured to know the location of Evermore.”

“You’re fucking with me,” said Wilds, her tone a mixture of anger and incredulity. “Evermore? It’s nothing but a fairy story. A daydream told to children.”

Andrew had kindly waited until the rest of them woke up at their normal times to tell them Kevin’s claims, but the captain didn’t seem particularly pleased with being presented with this nonsense over breakfast.

“I’ve never heard of it,” said Reynolds, finally out of her snit. It hadn’t been Andrew’s fault that Gordon had died—he’d thought himself invincible, left himself exposed and had taken a fatal laser blast—but he hadn’t gone out of his way to stop it, either. He’d warned both Wilds and Reynolds beforehand that Gordon was acting way too cocky. Reynolds was likely just as annoyed at him for being right as she was that he hadn’t saved Gordon.

“I thought everyone had heard of Evermore,” chuckled Boyd.

“I forget sometimes that you grew up rich and sheltered,” muttered Wilds to Reynolds. “It’s the ultimate Fuck The Empire story.”

“The story goes that once upon a time a group of clever thieves broke into the Empire’s treasury and made off with a cargo ship full of platinum ingots,” said Renee. “They hid the currency in some unknown location and then their ship was lost somewhere out in the black. It was never heard from again and none of them ever disclosed the location of the platinum, so there’s a hidden treasure out there for some lucky adventurer.”

“See? Fairy story,” scoffed Wilds.

“The particulars, yes,” said Kevin pedantically. “But the content? That has some truth to it.”

“You’re saying there’s a hidden treasure of platinum ingots hidden somewhere in the galaxy? And that Neil knows where it is?” asked Nicky dubiously.

“It happened when I was a child, probably five or six. The Butcher’s wife left him and took their son and a ship full of platinum with her,” said Kevin. “There’s an official reward for their capture, you know. It’s half the platinum she’s rumoured to have stolen.”

Boyd whistled, low and impressed. “With that amount of currency we could retire. We could live like royalty.”

“You think Neil is the Butcher’s son?” Wilds asked Kevin. “What’s going to happen if we turn him over for the reward?”

“What do you think the Empire will do to him?” asked Andrew rhetorically. The Empire wasn't exactly known for being forgiving or kind.

“So what?” demanded Reynolds, ignoring the uncomfortable shifting of the majority of the crew.

“What if we don’t turn him over, if we wake him up instead?” said Nicky tentatively. “Do you think he’ll be able to lead us to his mother’s stash? Where is his mother, anyway?”

“Dead,” said Andrew.

“So he’s the only one who knows where all that platinum is hidden,” pointed out Boyd. “All we have to do is wake him up and ask him.”

“It’s better to hand him over to the Empire,” argued Aaron.

“And trust them to give us the reward? Without arresting us instead?” asked Wilds. “Just hand him over to be tortured into admitting where the treasure is hidden? No way.”

“There’s no guarantee he’ll tell us anything,” Renee said. Wilds looked at her askance. “I’m not advocating for giving him to the Empire,” Renee continued gently, “only that he has no reason to trust us.”

“He will,” said Boyd stoutly. “We’re very loveable.”

Reynolds snorted disdainfully but didn’t argue any further.

“It’s decided, then?” checked Wilds. “We’ll wake him up?” She glanced over at Andrew. “You’ve been very quiet for someone who wanted to space him before.”

“He’s dangerous,” said Andrew truthfully. “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Two eyes, actually. He wasn’t planning on letting Neil out of his sight.

“I don’t like this,” said Wilds tetchily.

Andrew ignored her, not taking his eyes off the unconscious figure he could see through the tiny viewing window.

“I said, I don’t like this,” she repeated louder.

Andrew hummed noncommittally so she’d not repeat herself for a third time. She wasn’t shy about throwing her weight as captain around; if she was really against Andrew’s plan she would have put a stop to it. She was only registering her complaints so she could act all smugly superior in case everything went to shit.

Wilds huffed but didn’t say anything more, instead taking up pacing impatiently in front of the airlock.

The thawing process had taken several solar days; Aaron insisting on not warming Neil up too quickly to prevent any injuries. He may not have wanted to wake Neil or keep him on board but he’d always taken his role as medic seriously. Thus, he’d spent several sleepless nights working diligently at keeping Neil alive, and, once he was thawed and deemed healthy (although still heavily sedated), he’d washed his hands of him and let Andrew do what he wished.

Andrew, knowing Neil’s temperament, had decided that the best place for him to wake in a strange environment was somewhere he couldn’t escape from. Hence, the airlock. None of the others were particularly thrilled with his plan but they did see the logic of it: if Neil were dangerous or hostile, he’d be easy enough to vent into space. Andrew suspected that Wilds was here mostly to ensure Andrew didn’t kill him prematurely. Little did she know that he had no intention of killing Neil; he was too interesting to die yet.

Andrew didn’t know what Wilds had told Boyd or Reynolds to keep them away, but he’d personally given Kevin a task and made Aaron and Nicky help him to keep them from crowding around and being nosy. On the plus side, the task needed to be completed and he expected that Kevin would spend the entire time bitching so he was killing two birds with one stone.

It seemed like he’d been waiting motionless for an eternity before the huddled figure splayed across the floor of the airlock stirred. He woke slowly, likely scoping out his surroundings. Andrew could almost clock the exact moment he realized he was trapped, his shoulders tensing as he sat up stiffly and swivelled around to look at the entry into the ship.

The doors and glass were thick—obviously, otherwise what good would they be as the only things that stood between the inside of the ship and the vacuum of space?—but there was an intercom. Andrew turned it on as the man started to speak, “—are you?” His words sounded rusty, his throat likely feeling shredded from disuse.

“Who are you?” Andrew returned.

He surveyed Andrew with a shrewd expression and his jaw set stubbornly. “I—” he started before Wilds cut him off.

“Be nice,” she admonished, stepping up beside Andrew and glancing into the airlock. “Are you feeling alright, Neil?”

The man blinked once before cutting his eyes back to Andrew.

“We had to call you something and Popsicle seemed a little on the nose,” drawled Andrew. “What’s your actual name?”

“Neil’s fine,” was the easy response, the words flippant even through his hoarseness. He stiffly unpeeled himself from the grimy floor of the airlock and approached the window. “What’s the date?”

When Wilds told him, he looked disappointed for a moment before schooling his face again. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“Not the Butcher’s Men,” said Andrew, resulting in a full-body flinch.

Wilds frowned. “I’m Captain Dan Wilds and this is my ship, the Fox.”

“How did you find me?” asked Neil.

“You sure are asking a lot of questions,” said Andrew idly, “considering that you’re at a distinct disadvantage here. By my count you now owe us three answers.”

Neil crossed his arms and tilted his chin defiantly. It was incredibly unfair the way the expression made something tighten in Andrew’s lower belly. “What do you want?” he asked reluctantly.

“That’s more like it,” said Andrew. “Out here it’s finders keepers. And we found you.”

“And what? Now you’re going to keep me?” asked Neil sarcastically.

“Not quite,” said Andrew. “But you can fetch a high price at the slave markets.”

“Hey,” hissed Wilds. Andrew wished he could glare or kick her or something to shut her up. She was undermining his threats by acting so outwardly appalled by them. Luckily, she didn’t protest further.

“Or,” continued Andrew, “I hear the Empire pays generous bounties on criminals.”

“Like you’re not criminals,” sneered Neil. “There’s no way this isn’t a pirate ship.”

“According to Kevin Day the bounty on you in particular is very lucrative.”

Neil faltered momentarily at the mention of Kevin. “Get to the point,” he said with bravado.

“Either we turn you over to the Butcher’s Men or you take us to Evermore,” concluded Andrew.

Neil gave a sharp, incredulous laugh. “That’s what you want? Sure, why not? Let me out and I’ll take you there right now.”

Andrew moved to open the airlock, telegraphing his movements, before pausing. “On second thought,” he said, “I think I’ll leave you in there for a little while. Let you think about your position.”

“I already said I’d take you,” said Neil irritably.

“Which was clearly a lie,” retorted Andrew. “So you just stay in there and decide how you want to play this.” He gave Wilds a significant look and she thankfully nodded in agreement. The two of them turned and left, shutting off the lights as they went and leaving their newest shipmate alone in the dark.

Andrew felt uncharacteristically guilty for how long he left Neil before returning. Wilds definitely disapproved—as did Boyd and Nicky, based on the censuring looks they kept shooting him—but she only frowned heavily and kept her peace.

For once Andrew wasn’t uncaring about the discomfort of someone else. But he knew Neil—he felt like he knew Neil, at least—and he knew that left to his own devices he would have lied about helping them and then sabotaged the ship. Or stolen it somehow. He needed Neil at a disadvantage to keep the upper hand.

Plus, this way he’d show Neil that he was smart and ruthless and would go to great lengths to protect the people he’d made promises to.

It was just under a solar day later that he returned to the airlock. Neil was sitting propped up against the outer door, knees hugged to his chest. He had deep circles under his eyes and his lips were dry and chapped from dehydration. He blinked against the suddenness of the lights when Andrew flipped them on, shying away even from the dim orange emergency lights within the airlock.

“Okay,” he croaked, his voice completely wrecked. “You’ve made your point. If you let me out of here, I’ll help you raid Evermore.”

“That’s what you said last time,” Andrew pointed out.

“It’s in the Baltimore system,” said Neil tiredly, not looking up at him, “on the third moon of the second planet. And the security will fry you before you even get close.”

“But you know a way around it?”

“Most of it,” admitted Neil. “It’s… my mother had certain ways of doing things. I don’t know the exact specifications of what security measures she added, but I have an educated guess. If your crew is stupid enough to go after it, I’m the only chance you have of surviving.”

Andrew nodded.

“In exchange, I want my freedom. You’ll drop me off on a commerce world of my choosing and we’ll go our separate ways.”

Andrew half wanted to protest but he choked it down. “It’s a deal. You have my word.”

Neil smiled at him wryly. “Well, I have no reason to doubt that. A promise from my good friend, stranger who trapped me in an airlock.”

“We both have to go out on a limb and assume the other’s telling the truth,” said Andrew.

“Fine,” said Neil, groaning as he levered himself to his feet. “Can you let me out now?”

An image of the airlock, viewed from the inner window. Neil is sitting against the fall wall, his knees to his chest, and is asking, "Can you let me now?"

Andrew pretended to deliberate, but in the end he’d already known he was going to let Neil out. He cycled the airlock and opened the inner door. Neil stumbled through it before half-heartedly lunging at him in a weak attempt at an attack. Andrew easily fended him off with the thick metal bar he was carrying with him for exactly this purpose.

Neil grinned at him, blood welling on his lips as they cracked from dryness. “Can’t blame me for trying,” he said.

“Better luck next time,” said Andrew, poking Neil with the bar to get him moving in the direction of the eating area.

“Are you going to tell me your name?” asked Neil as he shuffled along. “Or should I keep referring to you as blond asshole in my head? I mean, it’s accurate, but…”

“Are you going to tell me your name?” countered Andrew.

Neil shrugged. “I was going by Chris before the pod. Before that it was Alex, before that, Stefan. Neil’s as good as any.”

Andrew considered. There was no real reason not to tell Neil his name. “Andrew.”

“I’d say it’s nice to meet you, Andrew, but I don’t like to lie.”

“Liar,” was Andrew’s rejoinder. They’d reached the common room and Andrew forced Neil into it, even as he shied away from the voices coming from inside. Everyone present fell silent as the two of them entered.

“Nicky, he needs food and water,” said Andrew into the silence as Neil took a seat at the table, ignoring the others with false bravado.

“Right, yes,” said Nicky, quickly heading over to get rations.

Boyd moved out of his seat to drop into the one on Neil’s right. “Welcome aboard,” he said, smiling gently. “I know you didn’t get the best greeting, but most of us are happy you’re here.” He flicked an unhappy glance at Andrew who had taken up a stance behind Neil, rhythmically tapping the metal bar against his opposite palm.

“Why,” said Neil blankly, eyeing Boyd suspiciously.

“Uh,” Boyd faltered, sending Wilds a look that practically screamed, what the hell? “Cause it’s better than being frozen in a box.”

“If you say so,” said Neil dubiously, taking a ration bar and a hydrating gel pack from Nicky and peeling them open.

Kevin had been incrementally creeping closer through the entire interaction between Boyd and Neil, the look on his face intense (even more intense than his usual resting expression; Andrew almost felt sorry for Neil who was about to feel the full force of Kevin’s unadulterated personality).

“Where is Evermore?” Kevin demanded.

“Kevin,” sighed Wilds, “let him recover a little, first. Between you and Andrew he’s going to end up dead before he’s any use to us.”

“But he knows where it is,” Kevin whined.

“Calm down, Day,” snapped Wilds.

Neil surveyed Kevin thoughtfully as soon as Dan spoke. “Kevin Day,” he spoke up. “I remember you. You’ve certainly fallen far from your previous position. But at least you’re taller now.”

Kevin was clearly taken aback. “We’ve met?”

“Briefly. I doubt you’d remember, you were pretty young. And running around with a poorly-drawn raven on your face while shouting about killing evil robots.”

Boyd laughed at Kevin, who was still obviously floored. “I don’t… how long were you frozen?”

Neil shrugged and stuffed the ration bar into his mouth to get out of answering.

“A little over eight terran years,” answered Andrew. A stardate hadn’t been provided on the video where Neil abandoned ship, but Renee had cleaned up the logs enough that Andrew had a fairly reliable timeline for them. “He froze himself to escape Butcher’s Men.”

Neil whirled on him, his eyes flashing. “How do you know that?” he hissed, his voice low and dangerous.

Andrew gazed back levelly. “You never deleted your logs.”

“You watched them?” asked Neil. “You had no right!”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “You’re a stranger on my ship; I have every right to look for security threats. Would you rather we’d never woken you up because we had no clue who you were?”

Neil crossed his arms petulantly. “Maybe I do.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” said Boyd soothingly. “We needed to know who you are.”

Neil didn’t respond and went back to consuming his food. Despite polite attempts at conversation from Wilds, Boyd, and Nicky, Neil refused to speak again. Once he was finished eating, Kevin spoke up again.

“We should plan our trip to Evermore,” he said earnestly.

“I need sleep,” replied Neil shortly. He turned to Andrew, his face set and angry. “I assume you have some terrible brig or something for me to occupy? Or is it back to the airlock?”

The ship didn’t have any cells; it was originally built as a salvage ship meant to house a small team and occasional travellers. That didn’t mean Andrew didn’t have somewhere secure to stash Neil while he slept. He nodded, gesturing Neil into the corridor leading to the pilot’s cabin. Andrew stopped halfway along it and pushed in the hatch that led to what had been Kevin’s room. He’d forced Kevin to move into the room he shared with Nicky and Aaron, and had personally spent the last half solar day stripping the cabin and making sure there was no way for Neil to escape or cause any problems while locked inside.

Neil made a face but climbed down the ladder as Andrew tapped the metal bar against the floor. Once Neil was in the cabin, Andrew pulled the hatch closed and jammed the rod into it, physically blocking it from being opened from the inside.

“Sweet dreams,” he said to the empty hallway.

Over the next few solar days, Andrew stood by and watched as Neil—warily, like a small animal pretending it was completely harmless—integrated with the crew. Unsurprisingly, Kevin commandeered most of his time, peppering him with questions about his knowledge of the secret platinum stash. Andrew wasn’t convinced of his honesty, but he answered whatever he was asked.

Despite his seeming cooperation, he shied away from the overtures of friendship from Boyd and Nicky, his attitude mainly bemused. He attended mealtimes and spoke when directly addressed but otherwise sat back and scrutinized the crew’s interaction cautiously.

Andrew never left him alone, shadowing his movements while on guard for any attempts at sabotage or violence. They never came. After several solar days, Neil seemed resigned to his fate, making no indication that he was even considering hijacking the ship or hurting anyone. Honestly, Andrew was a little disappointed. From his video logs he’d expected a more fiery personality, not such passive acceptance.

“You’re brooding,” said Renee, amused, as she took a seat next to Andrew. He was positioned outside of Neil’s cabin, waiting for an escape attempt that had not yet materialized.

“I’m not,” Andrew argued reflexively. “Why are you awake, anyway?”

She didn’t respond, simply leaning her shoulder against his for a brief moment. He generally didn’t like being touched but she didn’t butt up against his boundaries, having some kind of sixth sense for how to offer comfort without making his skin crawl.

“Disappointed with our newest salvage?” she asked, nodding to where the hatch to Neil’s cabin was held closed with the metal rod.

Andrew shrugged one shoulder, the one she wasn’t leaning against. “He’s less interesting than I’d been led to believe.”

“Of course he is,” she said, sighing and shaking her head like she couldn’t deal with his stupidity. “Why are you surprised that he’s less open with strangers than in his personal log that he didn’t plan for anyone to see?”

“I expected at least some spark of personality,” he grumbled, annoyed at her teasing.

“If you want him to trust you, you’re going to have to give him a reason to,” she said. “And he’s never going to be himself if he doesn’t trust you.”

“I don’t care.”

“Sure you don’t,” she laughed. “That’s why you’re out here glaring at his room as if it’s failed you.” She nudged him again with her shoulder. “Talk to him. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Andrew shifted uncomfortably, trying to imagine starting a genuine conversation with Neil. “I could die.”

Renee rolled her eyes and stood. “You know very well that there are worse things than death,” was her parting shot.

Despite his best efforts, Renee’s words kept echoing in Andrew’s head. And not for the reason she’d likely intended. Andrew was sure that she was attempting to gently force him into making friends (it wouldn’t be the first time) but he figured the actual benefit lay in gaining Neil’s trust so the man was less likely to sabotage or double cross them. The second Andrew’s attention wavered he fully expected him to do one or the other (or both).

The difficulty was that he wasn’t sure how to go about gaining Neil’s confidence. He was suspicious and wary and most likely still irritated about how he’d been treated upon thawing. Andrew ruminated over the problem for several solar days before an opportunity presented itself. Wilds, always a meddler (and an actual good captain who was keyed into her crew’s mental state), declared a break from planning and ordered a rec day.

It wasn’t a new thing. Back when Kevin and Andrew’s family had first joined the crew there had been more than a little strife between them and the established crew members, with only Renee getting along with both factions. Kevin’s arrogance and bossiness were impossible for Gordon and Reynolds to deal with and Wilds and Boyd had no recourse for how to handle the twins’ overall indifference and disinclination to play nice.

Things had gotten especially bad during their downtime between hijacking other ships; too much time cooped up together in deep space had led to violent arguments. Wilds had then declared that all disagreements would be solved with a rec day. They could get out their aggression and competitiveness by engaging in sports. The easiest sport to play in their cargo hold was something called exy—it was an amalgam of several old Earth games and it involved throwing a ball into a raised bucket to score points while the opposing team tried their hardest to prevent that from happening.

Andrew usually sat the games out as there was too much physical contact for his liking. He had participated several times in the past, mostly to prove to Gordon he wasn’t someone to push around.

Kevin was, unsurprisingly, competitive and pedantic about exy, arguing rule violations and generally making himself a nuisance. The day usually ended with both his own team and the opposition teaming up against him to shut him up.

Although Andrew had no interest in playing, he did admit that Wilds had been right to organize them; rec days always put the crew in a better mood and ended lingering arguments.

He spent the time up on the second level of the cargo hold, on the overhanging balcony, watching from above to make sure nobody took the opportunity to injure Kevin and keeping close enough that Wilds didn’t complain to him afterwards about being unsociable and skipping out.

To his surprise, Neil begged off of joining one of the teams. Based on his logs, Andrew had been expecting him to jump at the chance for physical activity to burn off his excess energy. Instead, he stood off to the side, arms crossed over his chest and examining the others distrustfully.

Andrew watched Neil’s eyes sweep the room, waiting until they fell on his position, high above the game. Once they did, Andrew nodded sharply at his side, inviting (or more accurately, demanding) Neil join him. Neil hesitated before unsticking himself from the wall and rolling his shoulders out. It didn’t take him long to climb up to the second level.

He kept close track of Andrew as he approached, as if he suspected Andrew was about to jump up and attack him. At the last moment his gaze darted over Andrew’s shoulder to the cryopod he’d spent several solar years trapped in. It had been shoved out of the way up here as soon as they’d removed Neil from it. His eyes hardened but he gave no other sign of being disconcerted.

Neil took a seat next to Andrew, outside of arms’ reach, and dangled his legs over the edge of the balcony. “You summoned?” he said dryly.

“If you’re not going to play, it’s better to stay up here,” replied Andrew, not looking at him directly. “After a couple rounds it’s going to get less tame and you’ll be in the way down there.”

Neil glanced down at the game, where Reynolds and Kevin were currently caught in a shouting match as Reynolds pulled Kevin’s hair. “This is tame?” he asked.

Andrew grunted noncommittally. There. That was a friendly overture, wasn’t it?

No more words passed between them for several minutes.

“Why don’t you play?” asked Neil, finally breaking the silence.

Andrew considered ignoring the question or brushing it off before reconsidering. Renee had suggested he build trust. “Too much grabbing in close quarters,” he said. “I’d most likely stab someone, and as much as some of them deserve a knife to the gut we are, technically, on the same side.”

Neil huffed a cynical laugh, his eyes darting from side to side as he watched the ball get thrown around.

“Why are you sitting out?” asked Andrew.

Neil looked faintly surprised that Andrew had continued their stilted conversation. “I don’t…” he said before trailing off and shrugging. “I thought it was only for the crew.”

“You couldn’t have missed all the invitations to join,” said Andrew. “Anyone on board can play. I thought you’d be looking for an excuse to kick Kevin’s ass after weeks of dealing with him.”

“Would you even allow that? When you’re not hulking around like my shorter, angrier shadow, I know your main priority is to protect him.”

“Nicky has a big mouth,” mumbled Andrew.

“Nah,” replied Neil easily. “You watch him almost as much as you watch me, and I’m the threat. I assumed at first that you wanted to fuck him—” Andrew sputtered in protest “—but that doesn’t fit with how you treat each other.”

“We have an arrangement,” said Andrew stiffly.

“Okay,” said Neil after a pause. “Just so you know, putting it like that definitely makes it sound like you’re fucking.”

Andrew shook his head but didn’t rise to the bait. Kevin was probably, by some definition of the term, his friend. They spent the majority of the time irritated with each other but when push came to shove, they had each other’s backs.

Neil watched him curiously. “How’d you get mixed up with an ex-Imperial, anyway? You don’t seem the type to respect his authority.”

“No one respects Kevin’s authority,” Andrew hedged.

“That’s not an answer.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“You’ve seen my logs, haven’t you? Fair’s fair.”

“Life isn’t fair,” said Andrew shortly.

“Don’t I know it,” agreed Neil. “Still, you probably owe me something at this point. I seem to remember you being big on information being given in exchange for answers.”

“It’s not like you said anything particularly insightful in your logs,” Andrew argued. “You mostly avoid mentioning anything personal. I don’t even know your name.”

“Ah, but you know my favourite flavour of MRE rations,” said Neil sagely. “What else could you possibly need to know?”

Andrew studied him for a moment. “If I tell you how I met Kevin, will you explain exactly what happened between you and the Butcher’s man at the Binghamton trading outpost?”

Neil’s eyes went glassy and unfocused as his memory jumped back to something only he could see. “Yeah, alright. It’s a deal.”

“Brace yourself,” said Andrew. “It’s a pretty good story. It involves a firefight, stealing a crate of medical supplies, setting three different things on fire, and trapping Kevin in an airlock.”

“So that’s your go-to when meeting new people,” said Neil wryly. “And here I thought I was special.”

“It’s worked for me so far,” said Andrew, before detailing the unlikely events that led to him and Kevin becoming friends.

As Neil’s stay on the Fox lengthened, Andrew didn’t feel the need to keep him under constant surveillance, especially when he was in the presence of his other crewmates. As such, Andrew reverted to his previous routines, spending most hours alone.

The first time Neil tracked him down, he assumed that Neil was testing his leash, seeing whether Andrew had set something up to track his movements while appearing uninterested (he had, of course. He wasn’t stupid).

Neil had found him in the cargo hold, in his customary spot next to the now-useless cryopod. He’d taken a seat next to Andrew and they’d spent the majority of the time in silence. Andrew found Neil’s presence surprisingly relaxing.

It became a pattern. Neil kept tracking him down, they’d spend some time together either in contemplative silence or trading stories, and then he’d be on his way, back to Kevin or Wilds or Boyd.

The fifth time it happened, Andrew asked him why.

“I know exactly what you want from me,” answered Neil, demonstrating that he had no clue how Andrew’s thoughts ran. “The others, not so much.”

“They want to be your friend,” Andrew told him.

Based on Neil’s lost expression, telling him that hadn’t helped clear anything up. Still, he kept coming back and Andrew was getting to know another side to him. He’d already met the anxious runaway and the snarky asshole. Through the video logs he’d also seen a resourceful traveller and a merciless killer and a beaten down defeatist. In person, with his guard minorly relaxed, Andrew could see traces of all of these things and the way they wove together to make up one patchwork man.

One who was taking up far too much space in Andrew’s thoughts.

“Are you trading off guard duty?” Neil asked, looking back over his shoulder. “I expected you’d be keeping Kevin in sight.”

“No,” said Andrew, happy enough to stay on the ship. After months in space the others had been desperate for time off the ship, even though they were only making a brief stop for supplies. He trusted Renee to keep an eye on Kevin. He needed to stay with Neil; giving him free access to the ship was such a bad idea that ‘stupid’ was too mild a term for it. If they left him to his devices, he’d abandon them shipless on this backwater planet.

Neil shrugged with easy acceptance and turned back to the food storage bin he was rummaging through. He eventually selected two ration packs and tossed one to Andrew. He caught it in one hand, unable to suppress his surprise when he saw it was his preferred variety.

“Worried I’ll make off with the Fox?” Neil teased. “Renee locked down the controls this morning.”

“And locked controls have stopped you before?” asked Andrew archly, taking a seat at the table. “Don’t forget you’ve told me about your dramatic exit from the mining colony in the Minos system.”

Neil grinned. “Oh, yeah,” he said, with fond reminiscence. “I did. But Renee’s a cut above those hacks. I’m sure there’s no way I can get through her safeguards.”

“Well, then, let me leave you here, completely unsupervised,” deadpanned Andrew. “I’m sure you’ll still be here when I get back.”

“You’ll never know until you try it and see.”

“I’ll pass, thanks.”

Neil shrugged again. “Was worth a try.” He bit into his own ration pack and his face turned contemplative as he chewed the rubbery food. “Seriously, though, don’t you want to at least get out on the surface for a bit? I know you won’t let me because of the whole I’m-technically-your-prisoner-and-you-think-I’ll-escape thing, but you’ve been in deep space for months. Aren’t you getting antsy cooped up in here?”

Andrew avoided looking directly at Neil as he considered his response. “No,” he finally said. “It’s safe here.”

“But it’s a false sense of safety,” Neil pointed out. “Any number of things could go wrong whenever we’re out in the black and the ship would instantly transform into a death trap.”

“Nothing bad has even happened to me here,” admitted Andrew. “And at least death by explosion or suffocation would be quick.”

Neil shook his head. “I’ll give you that ships have the ability to travel quickly across large distances, but that’s their only benefit. I’d rather have my boots on solid ground.”

“Is that your plan?” asked Andrew, changing the subject away from memories of living planet-side he didn’t want to recall. This wasn’t the planet where he’d lived, but even being under the influence of gravity slightly higher than the ship’s artificial variety made him feel queasy.

“My plan?” echoed Neil.

“After we raid your platinum cache,” said Andrew. “With your share of the spoils you can do whatever you like.” He stared down at the table, affecting nonchalance. “Are you going to settle down on some backwoods planet somewhere?”

Neil laughed, though there was no joy to the sound. “Staying still is the easiest way to get caught. With my share, I’m going to get the fastest ship I can find and run as fast and far as I can.”

“It’s been years,” said Andrew. “Are you sure anyone’s still chasing you?”

“I’m sure,” replied Neil, so quietly that his voice was barely audible.

“You never know; you could be lucky,” tried Andrew, although he didn’t believe what he was saying.

“Oh, I am lucky,” said Neil sardonically. “It’s just that the only kind of luck I’ve got is bad.”

As time passed, Neil felt more and more like a part of the crew. He was more sociable during meal and down times and had even started participating in their rec days. It was starting to feel like he had always been there.

The progress for infiltrating Evermore was stalled; they needed a specialty device that could only be found on the inner core planets and they needed the profit from a large haul to purchase it. Kevin had a long-winded explanation for why they couldn’t just steal it—which Andrew ignored—and neither Renee nor Wilds seemed suspicious that Neil was sabotaging them (although Andrew couldn’t come up with a reason why he would—he had as much reason as any of them to want the payout). Sometimes Andrew fantasized about asking Neil to stay on the Fox long-term, even after he had fulfilled his obligations to them. He always brushed those thoughts aside and chided himself for wishful thinking.

In the meantime, they needed money and supplies. They took to their usual hunting grounds—known transit lanes of Imperial supply ships. Neil fit right in with the rest of them, providing good ideas and extra firepower when they boarded ships to rob them. He was a good shot, slotting easily into the void on the boarding party left by Gordon’s death. Although Andrew and Gordon had never worked together so seamlessly and Andrew certainly hadn’t trusted the man to have his back. It was likely a mistake that would one day prove fatal that he let Neil cover him.

Before too long, their hold was filled to near-capacity with medical, tech, and other necessary supplies, all stamped with the Empire’s raven brand. Offloading such cargo was difficult without being arrested for smuggling. Or would be, if the Fox didn’t have better ways to deal with it.

The trip to Palmetto put everyone into high spirits, with the exception of Neil, who mostly looked on in bemusement.

“What makes this colony so special?” he asked Andrew, after tracking him down on the edge of the second level of the cargo bay and taking his now-habitual seat on his left side.

“Little to no Empire presence,” answered Andrew. “It’s out of the way, so they don’t care much about it and the administrator, Wymack, keeps them out. He’ll take all these supplies off our hands and give us something we can sell without raising alerts.”

“What riches does a small colony like that even have to offer?”

“Amber,” replied Andrew. “Palmetto’s practically encased in the stuff.”

“How many of the crew would believe me if I told them you made a joke?” smiled Neil.

Andrew shrugged, inordinately pleased with his pun. “It’s a tiny settlement; the majority of the planet is inhospitable.”

“How out of the way do you mean by ‘out of the way’?” questioned Neil.

“In the galactic rim, far away from the Empire’s hold of the central planets.”

Neil relaxed minutely at the information. Andrew wasn’t sure if anyone other than him could have noticed how tense he’d been to begin with.

“How’d you find it?”

“Kevin knew about it, knew it was a place he could hide,” explained Andrew. “Me, Aaron, and Nicky agreed to travel there with him. Wilds fought with Wymack back during the last rebellion so the Fox has always used Palmetto as a home base. She hired us on after several previous crew members bailed on her.”

“So do you actually get off the ship there, or do you stay put like usual?”

“Palmetto’s safe,” said Andrew. “Also severely lacking in off-world transport so even you can have a little shore leave.”

“Oh,” said Neil, his eyes lighting up in anticipation. “I can’t wait.”

He had to, but not for long. It was a long trip to Palmetto, even using relay jumps and FTL speeds. The extra cost of fuel and time could not be accounted for, but no one on board ever argued against continuing to return to Palmetto regularly. It had slowly become a home for all of them and even Andrew had people to visit.

Well, person, really. The one who had suggested he might enjoy piracy when he was looking for something to do with his life after arriving at the colony (even going so far as to gift him a book—an actual, paper book—titled The Fool’s Guide to Space Piracy).

He headed straight to Bee’s place when they landed, only pausing long enough to watch the expression of absolute rapture that passed over Neil’s face as soon as he was able to breathe fresh air. Bee wasn’t Andrew’s family, she was… he wasn’t sure he had the words for exactly what she was to him. She was someone who saw through him and hadn’t dismissed him out of hand like so many others had before her. She understood him implicitly and had made herself available for advice and treats ever since he’d met her.

She wasn’t his mother but she was the closest thing to an actual parental figure he’d ever had.

Bee smiled when she saw him coming—she always did. It was an incongruous reaction that was unique to her. She was working in her garden, digging in the dirt around her plants. “We were expecting you sometime soon,” she told him as he approached, wiping her soil-stained hands on her pants as she stood. “It’s been a little longer than usual since the last time you stopped in.”

“We’ve had some happenings,” Andrew said.

“Well, come in and tell me all about them,” Bee replied. “I’ll put the kettle on.”

“So,” said Bee leadingly, many hours later as the two of them lazily wandered back towards the main settlement. She lived slightly away from the bustle, preferring solitude. Regardless, she socialized with the other Palmetto residents regularly and there was likely going to be a feast and welcoming party in the main square as was the custom whenever the Fox crew came to unload their cargo.

“So,” repeated Andrew warily, already having an idea about what she was going to say.

“About Neil…”

Andrew sighed. He knew he’d said too much while catching Bee up with what had happened over the past few months. He could hear himself continually bringing up Neil—mostly to complain about him, but still—in a way that was suspect for someone who knew him as well as Bee did. He couldn’t stop it, either; he kept berating himself inside his own head and vowing not to say another word about Neil, and then the next moment he was telling her about how Neil had assisted them on their most recent raids. She hadn’t said anything, simply listening and occasionally interjecting a question or a story of her own.

That didn’t mean she hadn’t noticed. She was far more shrewd than Andrew was comfortable with. He tried not to rise to her bait.

“It seems like the two of you have gotten close,” she tried again when he didn’t answer.

Andrew grunted.

“Are you going to make a move?” Her tone was innocent but her eyes were sparkling with amusement.

“No,” snapped Andrew, finally provoked into speaking. “He’s a lying runaway who’s going to disappear as soon as he gets a chance.”

“Why’s that matter?” she asked, affecting ignorance. “I thought you weren’t interested in finding anything long-term.”

“I’m not,” said Andrew, biting back harsher words. She wasn’t wrong. He’d always been adamant that his sexual encounters were brief and transient. There were no associated emotions or attachments with his partners, and he never wanted to see any of them again.

Bee kept her silence while Andrew worked through his churning thoughts as they walked into the main settlement. A large game of exy had been organized by some of the younger residents to challenge the Fox crew. Neil was playing and as Andrew caught sight of him he looked up, his face a picture of pure joy. The setting sun bathed him in a golden glow, making him look ethereal.

“Oh, fuck,” said Andrew, letting himself fully realize it for the first time. “I want him to stay.”

Bee chuckled gently. “Then you’d better tell him before he leaves.”

The main square was noisy and crowded, full of loud stories and raucous laughter. It didn’t take long before Andrew had more than his fill of the celebration and retreated back to the outskirts where the Fox loomed like a monolith, silent and imposing in the dark.

The belly of the ship was still open, the ramp extended from the cargo hold due to the offloading of supplies that occurred earlier in the day. Andrew sat at the top of it: the corrugated metal wasn’t particularly comfortable, but the location offered a fantastic view of the stars. Andrew always felt like he could breathe easier when he was in sight of the inky blackness of space.

Insect chirps filled the balmy evening, supplemented by faint music and laughter floating on the wind. Still, it was easy to hear the crunch of gravel as footsteps approached. Andrew wasn’t particularly surprised as the shady figure coming up the path resolved itself into Neil, his form recognizable to Andrew even in the low light.

“You left the party,” he accused, shuffling up the ramp and taking a seat beside Andrew.

“You could have stayed,” offered Andrew. “I saw you making friends.”

“People are very friendly here,” said Neil, sounding completely baffled by the prospect of kindness. “It’s… a lot.”

Andrew huffed in response. He completely understood what Neil meant.

“Do, uh,” started Neil, before stopping and regrouping. “Do you have… someone here?” he asked hesitantly. “Nicky said he was spending the day his husband and Matt told me Aaron has a girlfriend, so is that where you were all day?”

Andrew eyed Neil, taking in the way he was twitching and fidgeting even more than usual. “I do have someone here…” he said slowly, watching Neil’s shoulders slump. “She’s more like a mother than anything else.”

“That’s good.” Neil nodded rapidly.

“Mmm,” hummed Andrew. “Were you jealous?”

“What? No! I—no,” argued Neil forcefully.

“Cause it kinda seems like you were jealous.”

“I wasn’t jealous,” said Neil grumpily, “I was just surprised, is all. You never mentioned anyone. It would make sense if you were secretly hooking up with Kevin or something, not some stranger.”

Andrew squawked in outrage at the idea and then wanted to melt into the floor in a puddle of embarrassment over how high-pitched the noise had been. “Kevin?” he sputtered. “Out of everyone, you think I’d go for Kevin? Still? Even after everything you know about both of us?”

“It makes sense!” protested Neil. “Out of the guys on board you’re related to two of them and I know Matt’s not cheating on Dan. There aren’t any other options for you.”

“Aren’t there?” asked Andrew, dropping his voice into a lower register and turning to face Neil.

“Oh,” said Neil softly, the word almost punched out of him. “Me? You like me?”

“I hate you,” Andrew corrected him; he couldn’t stand the way Neil made him feel both vulnerable and protected at the same time. It was too dangerous. “But you’re hot and I wouldn’t mind kissing you.”

Neil didn’t say anything, his body language speaking more of confusion than anything else.

“Yes or no?” said Andrew, reaching up to grip the back of Neil’s neck, the thrill of anticipation running through his blood.

“Yes,” answered Neil breathily, his voice reed-thin, like a swooning damsel in those romance vids that Nicky liked and Andrew pretended to ignore.

Which he supposed would make him the dashing hero in this scenario, which was such an absurd idea that he dragged Neil into a kiss, blotting out his thoughts until he was completely occupied with memorizing the shape of Neil’s mouth and the involuntary sounds of pleasure he was making.

He would be eternally happy if he could do nothing but this from now on, which was such a moronic thing to think, it was a good indication that his brain was severely lacking oxygen. It was a good thing that no one else could hear the sappy direction his thoughts had taken after a single kiss.

“That was…” sighed Neil. “I liked that. Can we… more?”

“Might as well,” shrugged Andrew, ignoring how wildly his heart was beating. “You’ll be gone soon, anyway.” He could have kicked himself for bringing it up.

“Right,” said Neil, a tense set to his shoulders. “There’s no harm in it, then.”

“I just meant—”

“I know what you meant,” Neil cut him off. He leaned closer. “Kiss me again.”

It didn’t really change much. Andrew still kept an eye on Neil and Neil still tracked him down when he was off by himself. Of course, now in addition to trading secrets they also spent a fair amount of time making out.

The others noticed; they would have had to be far stupider than even Andrew could believe if they hadn’t noticed that Andrew had started spending periodic nights inside of Neil’s cabin instead of monitoring it from the hallway.

No one said much to Andrew about it. Kevin made some irritated noises about how Andrew had orchestrated this to steal his room. Nicky stuttered through a rambly monologue about how happy he was for Andrew before going in for an ill-advised hug while Aaron glared quietly from across the room. Andrew assumed he was disapproving but given how he’d barred Andrew from expressing opinions about his own relationship, he had little recourse but to glower and hold his tongue.

He knew the others told Neil their thoughts on getting involved with Andrew, but Neil only shrugged and continued to do exactly as he wished. There was something more than a little frantic in Neil’s kisses that should have warned Andrew what was coming as they headed back into the galactic core, finally having enough currency for the specialized supplies they needed to raid Evermore.

He should have been more concerned about the way Neil always kissed him like it was the last time.

It wasn’t until they made port that he realized he should have been paying closer attention. Neil was cagily quiet all morning before the others disembarked as planned. Less than twenty minutes after that, Andrew received an alert that the cargo bay door was in use; a leftover security measure he’d put into place when Neil had first been thawed.

His stomach sank into his knees as he considered the implications. Had it all been a ruse, to gain Andrew’s trust and then leave? He didn’t believe it was, which meant something else was going on. And he planned on finding out what.

Andrew quickly made his way down into the cargo hold; he wouldn’t be too far behind Neil and if he hurried he could catch up to him. Once his boots hit the floor, he came up short as he saw Neil standing stock still at the top of the loading ramp, the same place they’d shared their first kiss. He was angled away from Andrew, staring out across the busy spaceport.

“I knew you’d come after me,” he said, not looking back at Andrew as he approached at a more sedate pace.

“You haven’t fulfilled your end of the bargain yet,” rasped Andrew, willing his wildly beating heart under control.

“I was going to leave a message,” said Neil, continuing as if Andrew hadn’t spoken. “A video one, to match all the private logs you watched. But that felt like cheating. Goodbyes should be said in person.”

“You’re not going anywhere.” Andrew’s voice was strong and sure, not at all matching the way he was quaking internally.

Neil looked pointedly upwards, at a sleek, silver ship that had just entered the atmosphere and was heading towards the spaceport, cutting through the sky like a knife. Its design was unique and marked it out as one of the Empire’s ships as much as the large slightly-modified raven insignia on its hull did.

Not only Empire, but—“Butcher’s Men,” said Andrew, with a sharp glance at Neil.

“They’re here for me.”

“Did you call them?” His voice was raw and harsh.

Neil finally looked at him, his eyes flashing with wrath. “You know me better than that,” he hissed.

“Do I?”

“You should,” said Neil, as the anger drained out of him, leaving him exhausted and sad.

“Then why aren’t you running? Why are you waiting here for them?”

“I’ve tried that; don’t you think I’ve tried?” said Neil hotly. “They’re tracking me. I don’t know how, but bug scans don’t pick it up and it only works intermittently at short range.”

“We’ll figure out a way to disable it,” said Andrew instantly.

“The only thing I found that worked was freezing myself,” replied Neil wryly. “I was hoping that they’d all be dead by the time someone found me and thawed me out.”

“That’s a terrible plan.”

Neil grinned without humour. “It would have worked if you hadn’t interfered.”

“You’ve been waiting for them to show up the whole time, haven’t you?” realized Andrew.

Neil hesitated and then nodded. “I figured it served you right. But then… but then, after you stopped being so awful, you gave me a home. I kept trying to keep my distance from everyone, but I couldn’t. And…” he trailed off and shrugged before steeling himself. “I knew they’d be able to find me here.”

“Did you manufacture a reason to come here? Because you don’t want to lead them to Evermore?”

“Evermore doesn’t exist, Andrew!” exploded Neil. “My mother stole a small amount of platinum ingots, sure, but not nearly as much as the Empire advertised she did.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

Neil looked away again. “My mother took me and left. My father and his superiors wanted us found and punished. What better way to get everyone looking for us than to invent a story about unimaginably wealth? It meant we were on everyone’s watchlist.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I tried. I figured you weren’t interested in the truth when you left me in an airlock without food or water.”

Andrew opened his mouth and then closed it again, unable to come up with an argument. “So you pretended to cooperate.”

“There is a supply cache in the Baltimore system. It has some weapons and medical supplies and maybe ten platinum bricks. I was stringing you along, waiting for the Butcher’s Men to show up and take you out. Now… now I’m not going to let them anywhere near you.”

“You’re planning on giving yourself up to them?” asked Andrew incredulously, starting to panic slightly as the Empire’s ship touched down.

“They won’t hurt you if I’m not with you. It’s me they want.”

“I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere. I’m not letting you do this.”

“I know,” said Neil, smiling sadly. “You really are amazing, you know that?”

He raised the gun in his right hand, which had been kept hidden by the angle of his body. Andrew blinked at it in shock as Neil shot him twice in the chest.

Andrew woke with a gasp, sitting up and punching blindly before he even knew where he was. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision, relaxing slightly as he recognized the medical bay on the Fox.

“Calm down,” drawled Aaron, who had expertly backed away from Andrew’s flying fists.

“Neil?” rasped Andrew.

Aaron avoided eye contact. “No one’s seen him. What happened? You were hit with tranq bolts and left on the cargo ramp.”

“They took him,” said Andrew, struggling to his feet.

Aaron reached out a hand to steady him when he swayed, but stopped short of touching him. “They?” he asked.

Andrew ignored him, stumbling out to the common room. The others were already gathered, watching him expectantly. Everyone but Reynolds and Kevin looked worried—Reynolds was pretending to be haughty, as usual, and Kevin looked uncharacteristically blank.

“Butcher’s Men,” said Andrew. Kevin looked up at him sharply, the colour draining from his face. “They took Neil,” he continued, his voice breaking on the last syllable.

“Are you sure?” demanded Wilds.

Andrew ignored her; why would he lie about this? Instead, he focused on Renee, who had gasped and covered her mouth with a hand at the news. “He said he was being tracked.”

“What?” gasped Boyd at the same moment that Reynolds asked, “They know about Palmetto?”

“That’s impossible,” assured Renee. “Aaron and I scanned him and his equipment more than once. We would have picked up anything.”

“He said it was invisible to bug scanners. And that it only worked intermittently at short range. The cryofreeze blocked it somehow.”

“I’ve never come across tech like that,” said Renee with a frown.

“Um,” said Kevin.

“What do you know?” asked Andrew, his voice low. He circled until he was standing at Kevin’s back. He squeezed his shoulder threateningly. “Kevin, what do you know?”

“I’ve heard of trackers like that,” Kevin admitted, trying to unsuccessfully duck out from under Andrew’s grip. “They were used for a couple years when I was younger, but they were irreparably flawed so the Empire moved to better tracking devices.”

“How does it fool scans?” asked Wilds.

“It doesn’t transmit constantly, unlike other trackers. It’s almost always in receiving mode, unless it’s close enough to its receiver and gets a ping,” said Kevin. “But it only works on one frequency, so it’s useless if you’re trying to track more than one person.”

“I still should have picked up its energy signature,” argued Aaron. “Even if it’s receiving, it needs to be powered on.”

“It, uh,” said Kevin, looking up apologetically at Andrew, “it’s embedded in the heart muscle and uses the body’s natural electrical pulses to power itself.”

“It’s in Neil’s heart?” Matt yelled. “Someone put a tracker in his heart?”

“That would explain why freezing himself worked to stop it,” mused Renee. “No heartbeat.”

“That’s terrible!” protested Matt.

Kevin swallowed and looked down. “With what I know about the Butcher, it’s not that surprising he’d do that to his son.”

Andrew clenched his hands into fists. He looked to Renee, who was watching him steadily. “Can you track it?”

She bit her lip. “I’m not sure. With Kevin’s knowledge, maybe. But we’d have to be close to where they took him.”

Andrew tightened his hands on Kevin’s shoulders. “Kevin should have some idea where to start looking.”

Kevin twitched but nodded hesitantly.

“And even if we find where he is, what’s your plan?” asked Aaron. “Assaulting an Empire stronghold?”

“Yes,” said Andrew. That was exactly his plan. He was going to go punish everyone who had taken Neil from him and burn down everything in his way until he got him back. Wasn’t it obvious?

“That’s suicide,” said Aaron in exasperation.

“I hate to agree with Midget Two, but he’s right,” interjected Reynolds. “Oh, stop looking at me like that, I’m not scared of you.” She made a shooing motion at Andrew.

“It won’t help Neil if we die trying to get to him,” said Renee placatingly, ever the peacemaker. “We won’t win in a test of firepower.”

“Actually,” said Wilds slowly, deep in thought. “I may have some friends who can help us with that…”

Andrew followed Renee’s hushed instructions toward the source of the tracker signal through the twisting corridors, swaying on his feet from time to time as the station was rocked with explosions. They’d better hurry and get Neil before Wilds’ friends got too rowdy and mistakenly blew the place up while they was still on board.

It had been a month since Neil had been taken, a very long month in which the only indication he was alive was from the intermittent blips Renee managed to pick up from his tracker; single lub-dub transmissions that sounded unmistakably like a heartbeat.

Andrew clung to the proof-of-life, listening to the transmission for as long as they could receive it, convincing himself that it meant Neil’s heart was still beating. He spent his nights in the pilot’s cabin, gazing out at the yawning expanse of space while playing Neil’s logs on a loop and trying to zero in on the tracker’s location using a starmap.

An image showing Neil's holologs. His image is projected above a flat surface and he is saying "the signal-it's a trap." Behind him, a window shows stars. On the table with projector are a star map and a book titled "The Fool's Guide to Space Piracy"

While he, Renee, and Kevin had been working on pinpointing Neil’s location, Wilds and Boyd and even Nicky had been drumming up support. One of Wilds’ old rebel comrades had put her in contact with a group that was actively working against the Empire. When she told them that Neil’s location was likely also the Butcher’s current location, they signed on to provide firepower. Taking out the Butcher would be a big blow to the Empire’s hold on the middle-rim planets where they lived since his fearsome reputation alone kept the majority of the populace subdued.

“Minyard, hurry it up,” said Wilds’ voice in his ear, tight and worried. “Our allies are here to kill the Butcher and they don’t care who they take out in the crossfire.”

Andrew didn’t answer her. Did she really think he was dawdling? On his way to get Neil back?

He rounded a corner and shot a woman standing in his way, killing her before she could even react to his presence. Kevin shouted a warning behind him and took out her companion before he could shoot Andrew in retaliation. Andrew hadn’t wanted to bring him along, worried about his safety and reaction to being on an Imperial-owned space station, but he had little choice. Kevin was the best shot of everyone save Andrew and Renee and had the most experience with Imperial technology.

“Wait, stop,” said Renee, regarding the handheld device she’d cobbled together to follow the signal. “I think this is it.”

“It” was a cell that appeared to be sealed tight, with myriad impressive locks blocking their access. Andrew scanned the corridor for more threats while Kevin and Renee went right to work breaking in, ironically using the item that Neil had claimed was required to break into Evermore—a particularly sophisticated digital lockpick.

“Minyard…” warned Wilds through the communicator.

“Soon,” he snapped back. “We’ve almost got him.”

“Is he…?” she started to ask, before forcibly redirecting herself. “Right. How soon can you make the rendezvous at the port-side airlock? We can’t wait for you for longer than ten minutes.”

“I guess we’ll be there within ten minutes then,” he said, turning as Renee made a satisfied a-ha! noise and the cell door thunked open.

Andrew pushed past both her and Kevin and forced his way into the small cell. The tiny room smelled strongly of blood and sweat and, most disturbingly, burnt flesh. There was a heap of what looked to be dirty cloth in the far corner that shuddered and curled in on itself when he entered.

“Neil,” he said, choking on the name, as he took the two strides required to traverse the space and knelt down.

Neil rolled towards him, blinking as the light from the corridor hit his eyes. “Andrew?” he asked, clear amazement in his voice. “What are you doing here?” He sat quickly and gripped Andrew’s sleeve, his pupils shrinking to pinpricks. “You can’t be here,” he panicked. “It’s not safe.”

Andrew scoffed and stopped himself from dragging Neil into a crushing hug, knowing that they needed to get out of there before any reunion could take place. Plus, probably a bath for Neil would be nice.

Instead, he gripped Neil’s elbow and helped him upright, steadying him when he stumbled, and pulled him out into the corridor. Neil stopped short when he saw Kevin and Renee and then inhaled sharply when he saw the bodies they’d left behind him.

“She’s dead,” he said wondrously, a high-pitched keening noise escaping him. “Next to my father, she’s the worst.”

“React later,” said Andrew gruffly, pushing Neil back the way they’d come, Kevin leading the way and Renee guarding their backs.

Neil tripped several times as they hurried along, his legs obviously not used to holding his weight. It didn’t help that the distant explosions were much closer now and the inertial dampeners had taken some damage and weren’t working properly, throwing them off balance each time the station shuddered.

“What’s—” asked Neil. “What did you do? The Fox doesn’t have weapons like that.”

“Brought a few friends,” gritted Andrew, keeping himself and Neil upright through sheer force of will as the floor underneath them rocked. “Or friends-of-friends. Wilds found some people who really want to kill the Butcher.”

Neil laughed, although it sounded more like hysteria than amusement. “Get in line.”

“Less talking, more running,” said Wilds in Andrew’s ear.

“Almost there,” he replied. “Get ready for us.”

They rounded the last corner to the airlock, and Wilds’ face relaxed as she caught sight from where she was guarding the entrance to their ship. “Get in, get in,” she urged, already starting the airlock cycle as they sprinted the last few yards to the Fox.

“Matt, go,” she commanded as soon as they were free from the station.

“Did you… is Neil back?” Boyd’s voice crackled over the comm system.

Neil appeared more than a little bemused by the evident worry in his tone.

“Yes, now get us away,” snapped Wilds.

“Who are your friends?” asked Neil, crowding around the porthole in the airlock, watching the space station’s destruction with hungry eyes as it grew smaller and smaller.

“Bunch of resistance fighters that never really accepted the rebels lost,” said Wilds. “Their leader’s called Stuart Hatford.”

Neil started in surprise. “I know him. My mother used to run with that crowd before she married my father.”

That brought up a lot of questions about Neil’s mother’s motivations, but they were cut off by the station finally giving out against the rebels’ weapons and imploding completely in a burst of fire that extinguished as soon as the oxygen tanks were completely consumed.

“Oh,” said Neil, starting to shake. Andrew reached out to grip his shoulder. “My father is dead,” said Neil, his tone indecipherable. He started laughing hysterically again, before slumping to the floor, completely unconscious.

Neil woke all at once, gasping and sitting up with a jolt. Andrew put a hand on his chest and firmly pushed him back onto the medical table. Neil resisted at first, until his eyes cleared and he recognized Andrew, making him pliant and agreeable (likely for the first time in his life).

“You came for me,” he rasped, words cracking through his dry throat.

Andrew handed over a gel pack for hydration and sat back in his chair. “I did,” he said, admirably keeping his temper under control. He’d managed not to succumb to his rage yet, but with Neil awake and alert he wasn’t going to last long.

“...Why?” asked Neil desperately, utter confusion painting his face.

“I promised that I’d keep you safe until we found Evermore,” said Andrew, which was stretching the truth until it turned brittle and almost broke.

“I told you—” started Neil.

“I keep my promises,” said Andrew, talking loudly over him. “Until we find it, you’re under my protection. Until we find it, you’re staying here.”

Neil opened his mouth and then closed it again, examining Andrew’s face closely. “You want me to stay?” he asked in a small voice. “Even after everything?”

Andrew didn’t answer, since he didn’t waste his time answering stupid, rhetorical questions.

“What about the others? Aren’t they mad?”

“Mad about you martyring yourself? Yes.” Andrew watched Neil’s face crumple slightly. “I know Boyd has a big speech prepared about how you’re one of us and you’re never to do that again,” he continued, “but I’m pretty sure he’s going to burst into tears and hug you before he can get it all out.”

“I—” said Neil, at a loss of words for once.

“You’re a Fox,” said Andrew. “And you belong here.” He took a deep breath. “But we won’t force you to stay if you want to go.”

“The tracker—”

“Is gone,” said Andrew.

Neil blinked.

“Once he knew where it was, Aaron didn’t have any trouble disabling it. Although, I argued you should keep it for the next time you get into trouble. It’ll be easier for me to find you.”

“Are you sure you want to?” asked Neil, sounding fragile. “Find me?”

“Always. I don’t like it when other people rough up what belongs to me.”

Neil looked down at himself, taking in his condition for the first time since he’d woken. “How long…?”

“A week,” said Andrew roughly. “You weren’t in good shape, so you’ve been kept sedated to heal. Otherwise, we figured you’d be running around the ship making yourself worse.”

Neil bit his lip. “Good instincts,” he said, a ghost of a smile on his face. He looked up at Andrew. “I’m really free?” he asked, awe dawning in his eyes.

“You are,” confirmed Andrew. “You can go anywhere you want.” His heart was beating wildly in his chest.

“Why would I want to go anywhere?” asked Neil, grinning like a sunrise. “I’m home.”