Chapter 25: Enter Night

Kasai stepped through the portal into a land shrouded in twilight. The sky was mostly overcast, but enough starlight filtered through the clouds so she was able to see the landscape with no difficulty. Ryogin and Amaryllis were a few yards ahead of everyone else. Cerina and Saija were a few paces behind them. Tannin stood in front of Kasai, waving his hands around blindly.

Onin grabbed her hand. “Dark here, isn’t it?”

Kasi’s pulse quickened at the contact. “Not really—”

“What? It’s as dark as midnight.” Cerina moved her hand in front of her face. “I can’t see a thing.”

Kasai stepped closer to Onin. “It’s not that dark.”

“Um, yes, it is.” Tannin waved his hand and prodded his head next to his eye sockets. “Either that, or the shrooms have killed my vision.”

Cerina stretched out her palm and swung at Tannin but missed him by a foot or so. “Still with the shrooms? Seriously? Come over here so I can smack you!”

Amaryllis shook her head to toss her hair over her shoulder and smiled. “It seems dragon eyes are almost as good as Nekotian eyes.”

“Wait—” Tannin took a step forward, stuck his tongue out, and made a face. “You can really see in this?”

Amaryllis nodded and flicked an ear. “Yes, I can. Put your tongue back in your head and be careful. There’s a small rock right in front of you.”

“Really?” Tannin bent down and looked down at the ground. “I still don’t see a thing.”

“It’s there,” Kasai said.

Suddenly a long red trail of light rose up into the sky. Kasai shielded her eyes with her hand.

“I saw that!” Tannin said.

Onin gripped Kasai’s hand tighter. “Looks like a ship lifting off.”

“Yeah.” The sound of Ryogin’s voice startled Onin, and he jumped. “Looks like we missed the Natas.”

Cerina swore under her breath. Kasai leaned her head on Onin’s shoulder. She hadn’t been looking forward to fighting the Natas, but they couldn’t let him loose to do who knew what kind of evil things to the rest of the galaxy.

“Well, what do we do now?”

Kasai looked up at the sound of Saija’s voice. Saija, who had been formerly possessed by a Natas, tapped her foot and tossed her long black pony-tail over her shoulder as she glared up at the rapidly departing ship. She of all people knew what cruelties the Natas could inflict on others. Kasai’s eyes drifted to Saija’s missing right leg. She shuddered in sympathy at the thought of what her friend had gone through.

Onin wrapped his arm around Kasai and squeezed her shoulders. “Well, I’m going to generate a servitor so the rest of us can see where we’re going. How about you and Amaryllis scout ahead to see if we can find any information about where that Natas left, and how we can get him?”

“Okay.” Kasai nodded and spread her wings. “I’ll head off to the right. Amaryllis, do you want to take the left?”

“Sure.” Amaryllis hopped up side-saddle style on her staff. “Cerina, would you be so kind as to use your sound manipulation gift to let all of us hear each other?”

“Yeah, whatever.” Cerina crossed her arms over her chest. “Where’s that light, Onin?”

“Sorry. I’m waiting for Kasai and Amaryllis to leave. Don’t want to ruin their night-vision.”

Cerina snorted in reply. Kasai sighed and turned away. She’d better get going before Cerina whined some more.

Onin grabbed her hand, pulled her close, and kissed the top of her head. “Don’t worry about Cerina. Be safe, okay?”

Warmth flooded through Kasai at Onin’s touch. She still didn’t understand how he hadn’t been freaked out at the sight of her transforming into a dragon yesterday. Best not to think about that. She squeezed Onin’s hand before she let go and spread her wings.

A jump and a strong down-stroke got her airborne. Weird. She’d only had these wings for about a day, and she seemed to instinctively know how to use them. A few more strokes left Onin and the others far behind.

Most of the surface was scraggly and cratered. To her left was a smooth, wide area that looked like something used to be there but had been scooped off the surface. She veered to the right. A pebble-gray field scattered with boulders stretched out before her. Despite a breathable atmosphere, this moon didn’t seem to have much going for it.

A vast scattering of larger rocks caught her attention. Kasai slowed down and back-winged for a landing to investigate further. Large girders stuck out from smooth, rounded metal pods, all of them cracked open in different areas. This was either a junkyard, or a lot of ships had crashed in the same spot.

Kasia walked between a few of the wrecks, trailing her fingers along the broken edges of sheet metal. Blackened char flaked off at her touch. Not a junkyard. A battlefield.

“Hello?” Kasai stood up and looked around. Cerina had said she’d enable them to communicate, but…

“Yes?” Onin’s voice echoed across to her, slightly distorted. “Did you find something, Kasai?”

“Yeah.” Kasai ducked under another twisted steel beam. “Wrecked ships. Quite a few of them.”

“We’ll be right there.”

Amaryllis was the first to arrive. She flew in low, stopped about a yard from Kasai, then hopped off from her staff.

“Ooo, spaceships.” Amaryllis rapped on the nearest hull with the top of her staff. “I’m guessing a fairly recent wreck, too.”

“Oh?” Kasai stepped closer and leaned toward the hunk of metal that Amaryllis was inspecting.

“Yeah.” Amaryllis pointed to a blue line that ran across the white hull plating. “The paint is still smooth and undamaged. This moon has an atmosphere, so if they’d been here long, it’d be chipped or fading.

“Excellent deduction, Amaryllis,” Ryogin said.

Kasai spun around at the sound of his voice. He and the others were cresting a small rise a half-dozen yards behind her. Onin was right behind him with a servitor floating above them that lit up the entire area.

“Ships?” Tannin’s expression perked up. He ran forward and skidded down the hill. “Like in the Space Pirates game?”

The others followed Tannin more slowly down the small hill and circled loosely around Kasai and Amaryllis.

“Why does that not surprise me that that’s the first thing you think of?” Cerina rolled her eyes and stepped closer to the ship Kasai and Amaryllis were inspecting. “Well, you’re not going anywhere in these.”

Ryogin strode forward to inspect the nearest wreck. Kasai backed up a pace to give him some room. He rolled up the sleeves on his ever-present white lab coat and tapped the hull in a few places.

Amaryllis wrapped herself around Ryogin’s arm. “Do you think we can fix one of these?”

Ryogin wrinkled his nose. “Not this one.” He turned to face the group. “Amaryllis and Kasai didn’t see the Natas, so it’s safe to assume that the lift-off trail we saw earlier was him leaving. I propose we search the wreckage to see if there’s a ship we can repair and use to chase him down. Objections?”

Kasai looked over at Onin. He had a slight frown on his face and was staring off into the distance. Was he worried that they all might be stuck here? Kasai reached over and took his hand.

Onin blinked then smiled at her. “No objections here, do you think—”

Cerina snorted. “Yeah, like we’re going to be able to fix a frickin’ spaceship!”

“Yeah, I hate to agree with Miss Gloomy here.” Saija shifted her weight to her right crutch. “But do any of us know how to fix a spaceship?”

Amaryllis smiled and twirled her staff around, stopping it so she held it perpendicular to her body. “Oh, you’d be surprised.” She placed her palm flat against the ring on the top of her staff. “Artifice: full up-link.”

A glowing white circle formed between her palm and the staff. She removed her hand and pressed her staff up against the wrecked ship. The hull bent and distorted as it slowly disappeared into the glowing circle. Amaryllis stepped forward and more of the ship was swallowed up into her staff.

“Um—” Tannin raised his hand. “Maybe it’s just me, but how does vacuuming up a ship with a mini black hole or whatnot help us?”

Amaryllis giggled. “I’m not hoovering it, silly. I’m using Ryogin-sama’s artifice gift to convert this wreck into raw materials. We can use those to repair another ship.”

“Well.” Onin cleared his throat. “Enough standing around. The rest of us should go look for a ship that’s in better shape.”

Tannin threw Onin a mock salute, then marched off into the debris field. Saija shrugged and hobbled after him on her crutches.

Onin turned to Kasai. “You want to head over that way?”

Kasai nodded and followed Onin, still holding his hand. Most of the ships they passed were just twisted hunks of metal. A few were mostly intact, but still had gaping holes scattered throughout the body. Almost all of the ships seemed to be of the same design, which Kasai was able to picture after seeing a few dozen of them. A long tubular body with widened stubby wings at the rear. They looked kinda like a typical fighter from a video game.

“Hey, what about that one?” Onin pointed to one of the ships.

Kasai stepped closer to look over his shoulder. An irregular oval-shaped ship, larger than the others, lay with its nose partially buried in the dirt. At first glance, most of it appeared to be intact. This vessel was a lot uglier than the others. Instead of a smooth hull, gunmetal gray bumps and protrusions sprouted from all over the ship. It looked almost two stories tall, about as wide, and twice as long. Large cylinders at the rear of the ship resembled engine pods from a hovership or one of those games Tannin was always playing. A large transparent canopy was up top and to the front of the ship.

“Hmm.” Onin let go of Kasai’s hand and ran his fingers over the metal side of the ship. “It’s ugly, but it looks big enough to fit everyone. Volume-wise, anyway.”

“Yeah.” Kasai wandered around to the prow. “If the rest of it is intact.”

She kept walking and circled around to the other side of the ship. It was covered with scorch marks, and most of the metal protrusions were mangled, but other than that, it seemed to be in one piece. Even the engine pods seemed undamaged, to the naked eye, at least. The rear of the ship was up in the air and rested on two sturdy landing struts. She ducked underneath and let out a low whistle. There was a person-sized hole that went from the bottom of the ship clear through to the top.

When she re-joined Onin at the starboard side of the ship, Amaryllis and the others had already made their way over.

“How’s the other side look?” Onin asked.

Kasai slumped her shoulders. “Good, but there’s a hole in the middle that goes clean through.”

“Eh.” Tannin waved a hand. “Only one hole. That’s about fifty less holes than anything else here has got.”

Cerina rolled her eyes, and Saija chuckled. Leave it to Tannin to see the bright side.

Ryogin and Amaryllis ducked under the bottom of the ship. They leaned in close, heads together and studied the hole.

“It’s not that bad.” Amaryllis said after a moment.

Ryogin raised an eyebrow. “Except the trans-dimensional drive is missing.”

Amaryllis flicked an ear and looked back over her shoulder. “Hey, Tannin, didn’t you say you and Saija saw a ship like this on the other side of the debris field?”

“Sorta.” Tannin kicked at the dirt. “It looked kinda like this, except the entire front half was missing.”

“Great!” Amaryllis made her way out from under the ship. “I’ll fly over there and take a look.”

She sat down on her staff and flew up and over the wreck behind them. Kasai looked around. There had to be something helpful she could do. Tannin and Cerina were arguing. Saija was seated on a boulder, rubbing her right leg. The occasional spark still spat out from Saija’s shattered prosthetic. Kasai winced. That had to hurt. Ryogin raised his palm and opened an artifice circle. He walked around and absorbed more of the surrounding wreckage.

Onin stood facing the ship graveyard, his hand on his chin, and his brow furrowed in apparent thought. Kasai clasped her hands in front of her. Was Onin worried about being stuck here, too? Knowing him, he probably had an alternate plan. Kasai smiled. He was always thinking about how to help others. Sometimes he tried to take it all on himself, though.

Kasai approached him and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Something wrong?”

“Hmm?” Onin looked over at her and smiled. “No. I’m just wondering if Suit-Man did all this in the few moments before we got here, or if all this is from another battle.”

Kasai frowned. The Natas was certainly capable of causing this much destruction. How many people had died in this attack? She wrapped her arms around herself.

“We’ve got to stop him,” she whispered.

“Yes.” Onin turned around. “The first step is to get this ship working. Want to help me dig out the front end while we’re waiting for Amaryllis?”

“Sure.” Kasai squatted down to look at the ship. It was hard to tell how much of it was buried. Hopefully not much. “Where do we start?”

“How about at the beginning?” Tannin walked over and leaned up against the ship. “Seriously though, that’s a good question. I could fold my shirt and reinforce it to make a shovel.”

“I’ve got a better idea.” Onin held out his hand and a servitor emerged, glowing with energy. “I’ll tell this to loosen up dirt around the metal. Kasai, can you use telekinesis to move the dirt away from the ship?”

“Sure.” Kasai stood up and brushed her hands off on her pants.

A yellow energy tendril snaked down from the servitor into the ground. The servitor hummed and snapped, causing tiny clouds of dirt to puff up all over in front of the ship. Kasai leaned into her gift and imagined an excavator scooping up the dirt and moving it away. A large clump of dirt lifted into the air and floated away from the ship.

They had just finished digging out the front of the ship when Amaryllis flew back over. A servitor of her own trailed along behind her. A large metal object was suspended underneath the servitor, cradled by yellow energy tendrils. Amaryllis landed near the rear of their ship. The servitor gently lowered the hunk of metal to the ground, then Amaryllis re-absorbed the servitor.

“I’m really excited about finding this drive unit.” Amaryllis patted the side of a person-sized inverted-bell-shaped hunk of metal that had all manner of pipes and wires coming out of it. “This is the electro-magnetic trans-dimensional drive. It’s what lets us jump to other star systems in days instead of decades. This particular unit is a classic, and one of the most powerful and dependable trans-d drives ever made. It’s an 875, made by Klinger Drive Systems Inc.”

“How the Natas do you know that?” Cerina frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “Didn’t you grow up on Gesara like the rest of us? Our spacecraft can’t even leave our solar system.”

Amaryllis drew herself up to her full height and thrust her staff out at Cerina. “Ryogin-sama has been instructing me.”

“So?” Cerina turned up her nose and leaned forward. “How does he know anything about that? He’s just as crazy as you are!”

Amaryllis drew her arm back and swung her open palm at Cerina. Kasai ran forward to stop the fight, but Ryogin got there first.

“Amaryllis!” Ryogin grabbed Amaryllis’ arm mid-swing. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Amaryllis’ face fell, her cat ears drooped, and she looked down at her feet. “She was insulting you.”

Cerina opened her mouth to say something. Tannin and Saija rushed up on either side of her and pulled her away.

Kasai wrung her hands. I know Cerina can be… difficult… but why can’t everyone get along? She glanced back at Amaryllis. Cerina had just insulted Ryogin in front of her. Kasai understood why Amaryllis was mad. Yeah, I’d probably hit Cerina if she attacked Onini in front of me, too. Kasai felt her face heat.

“Hey! Let go of me!” Cerina struggled to pull free of Tannin and Saija.

“Nope.” Tannin kept walking without releasing Cerina, his face unusually serious. “We’re gonna go over here a-ways and cool down.”

“Sorry, Ryogin-sama.” Amaryllis’ voice was low. “I should know better. It’s just that we were starting to get along, then she has to be so…”

Kasai put an arm around Amaryllis’ shoulders. “I know.”

“She’s probably just a little weirded out.” Onin raised an eyebrow at Ryogin, who kept a steady, neutral expression. “We’re on an alien planet, and you two do seem to have more knowledge about all this than the rest of us. We’re going to have to sit down and have a conversation about that at some point, but right now we need to catch that Natas. Right?”

Ryogin nodded and clapped Onin on the shoulder.

Kasai glanced back and forth between Ryogin and Amaryllis. They did seem to have a lot of information about her dragon form, the Natas, and a bunch of other stuff, and that was worrying. Where did they get it all?

Onin rested a hand on Kasai’s shoulder. “We’re all on the same side. We’ll have time to talk once we get the ship fixed.”

Kasai smiled up at Onin. He was right. This wasn’t the time to worry about it, and they couldn’t afford to fight amongst themselves.

“So—” Kasai gave Amaryllis shoulders another squeeze then let go and walked around the trans-dimensional drive. “How do we install this thing?”

Amaryllis crouched down then sprang up to the top of the ship. “If you can telekinetically lift it into the ship, Ryogin-sama and I can use his artifice gift to reconnect it.”

“Okay.” Kasai concentrated and maneuvered one of the oblong cylindrical engine pods into position at the end of the starboard strut at the rear of the ship. “Is that good?”

“Up about an inch, please.”

Kasai concentrated as she tapped her gift, imagining the pod sliding up. The engine lifted in sync with her thought. “Now?”

“Perfect. Hold it there, please.”

Amaryllis disappeared from sight. Kasai heard her scrambling around atop the ship. Ryogin ducked under the ship and lay down on his back facing the hole. He raised his palm and a glowing blue-white artifice circle irised out from a single spot of light. Kasai took a step closer. The circle wasn’t just a glowing white disc. It was composed of lines of geometric shapes, numbers, and a few symbols that Kasai didn’t recognize.

“What are all the numbers?” she asked.

Ryogin answered without looking away from the ship. “It’s a mathematical equation. It indicates the source of the raw materials to use, how to convert them, where to put them, and various formulas to specify and control the process.”

“Oh.” Kasai glanced up at the engine pod, which she still held in place, then back to Ryogin.

She watched, fascinated, as a stream of white light spiraled up out of the artifice disc and into the ship. For a while, nothing appeared to happen. Then wires, pipes, circuits and hull plating grew out from the sides of the hole until it was filled in. The artifice disc flashed then lensed down to a point of white light and disappeared. Ryogin took a deep breath and crawled out from under the ship.

“There. That’s fixed.” He huffed out another breath then trudged to the bow. “Now to get the front landing gear repaired and see what other damage there is.”

Amaryllis jumped off the top of the ship and landed at Kasai’s feet. “Thanks! Could you lift the front of the ship up, please?”

Kasai relaxed and mentally let go of the engine pod. “Sure, I—”

Ryogin looked from Kasai to the ship and back. “Are you sure you can manage that safely?”

Onin pulled Kasai into a side-hug. “Sure she can. She’s an S-class.”

Kasai felt her face heat at both Onin’s touch and praise. “Well, that red dragon was heavier, and I tossed him around with no problem.”

“Okay.” Ryogin nodded. “Whenever you’re ready, then.”

Kasai closed her eyes and reached out with her gift. She could almost feel the hull of the ship where it rested in the dirt. The aft section was still supported by the rear landing struts. She imagined a large hydraulic cylinder underneath the front of the ship, then imaged it extending upward to lever the front part into the air. The front of the ship slowly lifted out of the dirt.

“Just a smidge higher, please,” Amaryllis said.

Kasai bumped the ship up a little more and opened her eyes. Out of the dirt, the ship was a hair over one hundred feet long. She walked around to the front. It was about sixty feet wide at the rear and tapered down to about twenty feet at the front. The whole thing reminded her of a squashed egg, and the mostly transparent canopy on the top looked like someone had jammed a small bus on top of it for good measure.

“There. All done.”

Kasai glanced under the ship at the sound of Amaryllis’ voice. A new landing strut that matched the pair on the rear of the ship now hung under the front.

“Ready for me to put it down?”

“Yup. Wait—” Amaryllis ran out from under the ship. “Okay, now I’m ready.”

Kasai lowered the ship to the ground. The strut creaked, and bent a few inches at the joint, but held. “Is that good?”

“Yes!” Amaryllis turned and gave Ryogin a high-five. “We did it!”

Ryogin grinned and grabbed her hand. “Yup. Now to see what shape the inside is in.”

Onin brushed his palm over the hull. “So, where’s the door?”

“Should be this way.” Ryogin led the way back to a spot about three-quarters down from the bow on the starboard side.

“It’ll be easier to find once we get the outer hull plating on.” Amaryllis frowned. “Not to mention it’ll look nicer.”

“Wait.” Onin raised an eyebrow. “It’s not supposed to look like this?”

Amaryllis giggled. “Nope. I mean, it can function this way, but there’s supposed to be a smooth outer hull plating over all this. It helps reduce drag for landing and take-off, and provides some protection against blaster fire, too.”

Onin looked over at Kasai and raised his eyebrows. Kasai shrugged. She didn’t have any more insight into how Amaryllis and Ryogin knew so much about all this, but she trusted her friend. They’d have to have that talk with Amaryllis and Ryogin soon.

“Ah, here we are.” Ryogin reached into a small recess a quarter of the way down the starboard side of the ship and pushed something. A large rectangular crack appeared, and a ramp lowered down out of the side of the ship.

Kasai stepped forward. The inside of the ship was dark. Onin waved the others over then generated two hand-sized servitors and sent them floating inside. He bowed and gestured for Ryogin to lead the way. Kasai followed the others up the ramp and stopped in her tracks.

They stood in a small hallway that headed off to the right and left. The walls of the interior of the ship were covered in wide horizontal panels the color of mother-of-pearl.

“Wow.” Kasai blinked at the rainbow wall of shifting colors. “So, are the aliens who built this ship color-blind?”

Amaryllis wrinkled her nose. “Yuck. They might be.”

Someone clambered up the ramp. Kasai turned around. Tannin jerked to a stop when he saw the walls.

His eyes widened. “Wow, did a unicorn throw up in here?”

“What?” Saija made her way up the ramp, slowed by her crutches. “Is he exaggerating aga…” Saija’s voice died off and she gaped at the walls. “Wow. Just wow. I don’t… wow.”

Tannin turned and leaned out of the ship. “Hey Cerina, you might not want to come in. This color scheme might cause you actual physical pain.”

“I think Tannin’s right for once.” Onin rubbed the bridge of his nose. “We’re gonna need paint, sunglasses, or some orange shag carpet.”

Kasai shuddered. The current color scheme was certainly hard on the eyes. She headed down the hallway to the right. Might as well explore the rest of the ship. The others headed off in different directions.

“Make notes on what you find,” Onin called over his shoulder.

The right side of the hallway was interspersed with small hatches that looked like they could be used for storage. The left-hand wall was solid. Kasai followed the hallway as it curved around the front of the ship. The walls were buckled slightly in several areas in this section. At the front of the ship there was a neon pink and black leopard print door. Kasai pulled it open. The room beyond was lined with empty curved racks, and the front wall had one large person-sized oval hatch. It was surrounded on either side by several smaller circular hatches. Each of the smaller hatches was about a foot in diameter.

Kasai shrugged. The next door led to a spiral staircase that led up. Presumably to the cockpit. She’d look at that later with the others. For now, Kasai continued down the hallway, which curved back to the rear of the ship. The right side of the port hallway had four doors interspersed along it, about eight feet apart. The left side of the hallway had one door. Kasai peeked into the first room on the right.

A queen-sized bed with an askew mattress was against the far wall. There was a small couch opposite it. Couch cushions were scattered across the room. A double dresser, its drawers ajar, rested against the wall to her left. A door hung askew in its frame on the right wall. It hid a modest shower, sink, and toilet. Clothes and various supplies were tossed everywhere. Presumably thrown about when the ship crashed.

The next two rooms were similar but had double bunk beds and no couch. The last room on the right side of the hallway was a mirror of the first room. Kasai crossed the hall and opened the door to a large room. She covered her mouth and swallowed. The walls, floor, and ceiling in here were bright chartreuse green. The room almost seemed to glow. A seating area consisting of two couches facing each other, separated by a small coffee table that was bolted to the floor filled the center of the room. A galley was arranged along the far wall, and a long eating table and chairs were off to the left. A large display screen with a jagged crack down the center was mounted to the wall to the right. Bags of white powder that resembled flour and sugar, and assorted canned goods were scattered across the entire room.

Kasai made a face. It was going to take a while to clean that mess. She wandered to the back of the ship. The others must have found something back there… hopefully… The hallway dead-ended at a large pressure door. A large lighted green button was set into the wall next to the door. Kasai pressed it. The button blinked, then the door hissed and slid open.

A vast empty room was beyond the door. It was easily the width of the entire ship. Probably a cargo space. Currently, it was empty. The walls were the same iridescent mother-of-pearl as most of the rest of the vessel. Large hydraulic cylinders the size of her body were on either side to the right of the room. The whole side of the ship probably opened up for loading and unloading. Another pressure door was centered on the starboard wall.

This pressure door opened into the hallway. Left led back to the entry hatch and the front of the ship. Kasai turned around and headed to the rear. The hallway ended in another pressure door. This was open, and the rest of her friends stood just inside the doorway.

“It’s so hideous.” Tannin looked around. “I just can’t look away.”

Kasai blinked. This had to be the engine room, as the gray metal trans-dimensional drive was mounted in the center. The rest of the room was painted a glowing, neon-pink plaid. Lines of neon pink, blue, yellow, and green intersected and the walls almost seemed to dance.

Cerina turned and shoved past Kasai to run down the hallway, her hand over her mouth, and her face a sickly shade of green.

“I warned you!” Tannin yelled.

Onin elbowed him in the ribs.

Saija stared at the ceiling. “How’d they even get it this color? The pattern wraps around everything.”

“The more important question is why.” Onin shuddered and stepped closer to the trans-dimensional drive. “Anyway, does this thing work?”

“I think so.” Ryogin stood at a neon plaid console and pressed a few neon plaid buttons. “I think the computer is running a diagnostic. It’s hard to see if I’m pressing the right buttons, but we’ve got power, anyway. Looks like this will take about another ten minutes.” He squinted at the console. “Or ten hours. I’m not sure. Even the digital display has a plaid background.”

Kasai tapped Tannin and Onin on the arm. “If it’s going to be a while, the other rooms need some cleaning, if you two want to help.”

“Sure.” Onin smiled and took her hand.

Tannin groaned and rolled his eyes but followed them back down the hall. Five hours later, they had the bedrooms and main room tidied up and cleaned using supplies that Saija had found in the back of a cupboard in the galley. Kasai wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and flopped into a chair in the common room. The chairs were surprisingly comfortable for being made out of hard plastic. They even had a round cut-out in the back. Handy to put one’s tail through. It was weird to have a tail now. It didn’t seem to bother her unless she thought about it too much, which she tried not to do. Kasai turned to look at Onin. Despite what he said, Onin had to be at least a little uncomfortable with her having a tail. Only freaks have tails, right? Hmm. Amaryllis has a tail, and no one makes a big deal about it. Kasai sighed. Okay, maybe I’m not as out of place as I think I am…

Onin sat next to her, head tilted back and eyes shut. Saija and Cerina were sprawled out on each of the couches. Tannin lay on his back on the floor. Ryogin and Amaryllis were still in the engine room.

“Either my eyes are getting burned out, or I’m getting used to the green.” Tannin held a hand over his face and blinked one eye as he stared at the ceiling.

“Paint.” Cerina had both her eyes squinted tightly shut. “I’d give anything for some white paint right now.”

“First priority is to get the ship running.” Onin yawned. “We can paint while we’re under way.”

Cerina moaned and slouched down further into the couch. Kasai shut her eyes and leaned back in her chair. She was sore all over from bending down and picking up innumerable stuff from all over the floor of the ship. At least it was clean now.

A few moments later the door slid open. Kasai rolled her head to the side. Amaryllis and Ryogin trudged into the common room and plopped down into chairs on the opposite side of the table from Onin and Kasai.

“Ooo!” Amaryllis’ ears perked up. “The chairs have tail-holes!”

“Nice, isn’t it?” Kasai said.

Amaryllis didn’t seem to have any issues with having a tail. But then, she’d had hers for her entire life.

“Yes.” Amaryllis nodded. “I have to be careful not to sit on mine when I’m out. Most chairs just aren’t comfortable.”

“How are the engines?” Saija looked over the arm of the couch she was draped across.

“Fine.” Ryogin sighed. “It is going to be about ten hours before the diagnostic finishes. I’d hoped it’d be sooner.”

“We did get a bunch of other stuff done in the engine room.” Amaryllis covered a yawn with her hand. “Assuming the bridge is in good shape we should be good to go as soon as the computer is happy.”

“That’s good.” Onin opened his eyes and sat up. “We’ve got the rest of the ship cleaned up, so we should be able to get some sleep in the meantime. There’s four rooms. How should we divide them up, Ryogin?”

Ryogin cleared his throat and scooted his chair closer to the table. “Actually, that’s something I wanted to talk with everyone about.”

“You wanted to talk about room assignments?” Cerina sat up and rolled her eyes. “Don’t we have more important things to worry about?”

“No, not that.” Ryogin shook his head. “I meant who’s in charge.”

“You are.” Onin inclined his head at Ryogin. “You’re older, and you’re a professor.”

Ryogin held up a hand. “I’m only a few years older, and I’m a professor at a university that none of you except Amaryllis even attends.

“On top of that, I’m more of a research type, not a leader. The rest of you have a good dynamic going, and I don’t want to ruin that. I’ve watched you work a little. You all seem to look at Onin. I nominate him to captain this ship and lead the mission against the Natas.”

Onin’s eyes widened. “Well, I don’t really feel qualified…”

Kasai squeezed his arm and smiled up at him.

“Yeah, whatever. All in favor of Onin as captain?” Tannin shot his hand into the air.

“Sure.” Saija raised her hand. “You’ll do great, boss.”

Kasai blushed and raised her hand. After Onin had kissed her after she’d turned into a dragon and back in front of him. She’d follow him anywhere. It was great to see that the others saw at least some of the same qualities in him that she did.

“Yeah, whatever.” Cerina looked at the far wall and avoided eye contact with the group.

Ryogin looked over at Amaryllis.

“If Ryogin-sama thinks you’ll do a good job, then so do I.” Amaryllis pressed herself into Ryogin’s arm and nodded.

“Wow.” Onin ducked his head and ran his fingers through his hair. He looked up and around the room. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t really want to be in charge. I think we work better as a team, and I’d like us to keep working that way. But I’d be glad to lead our team if that’s what everyone wants.”

“Blah, blah.” Tannin made talking motions with his hand. “I’m tired. What room do I sleep in?”

“Not sure, let’s go find out.” Onin stood and walked out into the hallway. Kasai followed him and the others trailed along behind.

Onin pointed to the room closest to the rear of the ship. “I think Ryogin deserves one of the big rooms. Also it’s closest to the engine room. Hopefully he won’t need to be constantly running back there, but—” Onin shrugged.

“Sounds good.” Tannin clapped him on the shoulder. “Captain gets the other big room, right guys?”

“Why?” Cerina smirked. “So he can share it with Kasai?”

Kasai blushed and ducked behind Onin. Not that she’d mind sharing a room with him, but they weren’t that close yet… and she certainly didn’t want to discuss it in front of everyone.

“No.” Onin frowned at Cerina. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, or maybe we’re not ready for that yet. Also, it’s none of your business.”

Kasai’s heart sunk and she bit her lip. On the one hand, she wasn’t ready to share a room with Onin. On the other, he’d dismissed that possibility awfully quickly.

Onin glanced at the door to the other large room, then back to everyone. “For a variety of reasons, I think we’d better split into boys and girls. So Tannin will share the room with me, and you girls get the other two rooms.”

“Sounds good.” Saija looked over and raised an eyebrow at Cerina. “How are we splitting up?”

“Good question.” Onin sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He turned so Ryogin and Tannin were behind him and placed both hands behind his back. “All four of you please pick a number between one and ten. Two closest get the room next to mine.”

Saija shrugged. “Sounds fair. I’ll go with ten.”

“One.” Cerina stuck her tongue out at Saija.

“Five,” Kasai said. Hopefully she wouldn’t get stuck with Cerina.

Amaryllis pulled her mouth to the side. “Um, four, I guess.”

“Great. Tannin, how many fingers am I holding up?” Onin asked.

Cerina snorted. “Better ask the professor. Are we sure Tannin can count that high?”

“Ha-ha.” Tannin narrowed his eyes at Cerina. “I can manage, thanks. He’s holding up seven fingers.”

Kasai let out a sigh of relief. Amaryllis was easy to get along with, but she’d been looking forward to getting to know Saija better anyway. Kasai shuddered at the memory of sharing a room with Cerina at team building boot camp. Poor Amaryllis.

“Okay then. Good night, everyone. See you tomorrow,” Onin said.

Kasai grabbed her backpack out of the common room and headed to her room. Onin placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Yes?” Kasai smiled at the softness of his touch.

“I’m glad you didn’t get stuck with Cerina.” Onin held out his arms and Kasai leaned in for a hug. “I wanted to assign rooms but—”

Kasai put a finger to his lips. “But that wouldn’t have been fair. You made the right choice. No one but Cerina can complain now.”

Onin chuckled. “Can’t stop her, can we?”

“I hope to win her over sometime, but…” Kasai let her voice trail off. Cerina would just have to come around on her own. They couldn’t force her.

“Yeah. Well. Goodnight. See you tomorrow.” Onin leaned over and kissed the top of Kasai’s head. Heat flooded her core at his touch. She stared after Onin as he entered the room. She sighed when the door closed.

I’d really like to spend more time with him. She sighed. Well, to bed for now. Tomorrow would be her first time in space. She grinned.

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