Vievel whirled around, his flashlight bisecting the darkness behind him. He was alone. He turned back only to again come face-to-face with the same empty crooked passage he'd been staring into a moment before. There was no-one else in the tunnel with him, at least as far as he could see.
"I know you're there, I can see your light," the voice said, a thoroughly disgruntled sound filling up the passage. It was a distinctly male voice, an Aelfr, sounding heavy and rough, but beyond that Vievel couldn't tell much about the speaker. The invisible Aelfr continued, not interested in waiting for Vievel's response or perhaps just enjoying the sound of his own voice. "Might as well stop pretending. When we gonna stop these games huh? Wandering about, pretending like you forgot all about me - ship's dying. You might as well open that door, I ain't gonna hurt-cha if you do". His voice meandered on, growing steadily louder as he continued. "No point in wasting time, come on now, I'm getting bored-" he sighed, letting slip a small groan as he did. "Y'know if I gotta open this door myself I won't be particularly happy." An edge developed to his speech, weary and cautioning. "Give it a few hours you'll all be oxy-sick and I'll still be on my feet, why not make it now? Better for you." The voice paused for a moment. "I'm a finer friend than I am an enemy, that I promise-"
"Hello?" Vievel ventured.
"Well, hello. 'Bout time. You coming in?" Vievel looked around, listening for the speaker.
"Coming in where?" Vievel asked. He turned around once more, quickly scanning the passage behind him for the invisible Aelfr, and once again coming to face with nothing but the stone.
"What'dya mean where? Into my cell of course". A laugh echoed out, a deep-seated hoarse laugh which twisted into a cough and ending in raspy sputtering.
"Your cell?" Vievel asked once the coughing sound had finished.
"Yeah". Vievel heard the speaker tut to himself. "Wait a second - where are you?" Vievel hesitated, not sure whether to offer that information. Not knowing where the invisible Aelfr was speaking to him from made the decision all the more difficult.
"You're in the vents!" The unseen speaker let slip another short laugh, one which quickly died in a series of painful-sounding throat clears. Vievel tried to deny it.
"No, I'm-uh-I'm outside your cell," he said, squeezing the cloth in his hand.
"Hah, not a chance bub, I can see your light flickering through the ceiling vents too. You've gotta be in the vents," the invisible Aelfr said, hacking as his voice caught slightly. "Excuse me," he said. He noisily hawked up mucus before he spat, making a grunting throat-clearing noise several times before he finally chuckled. When at last the sound had dwindled away he spoke again. "So hey, wanna open the door then?"
"W-what?" Vievel stammered.
"I ain't gonna hurt ya, promise," the speaker said. The words hung trepidatiously on Vievel's ears. Even an Aælfir could be a dangerous confrontation if they were from a different home ship or even just the wrong house; just because they were the same species didn't make them friends, and his family, the Ulmadr, were long-stood enough that they had made more than a few enemies. Then, beyond even the blood feuds, rivalries, and opportunists, there were the Aælfir who belonged to the forbidden houses, the exiled who were a blight and a danger to all Aælfir in good-standing. Perhaps sensing Vievel's apprehension he spoke up again. "We can go our separate ways soon as it's open, if you like, just need a hand with the door, that's all," he said. "You know the ship's dying right?". He left the statement dangling, but the implications were clear. If Vievel didn't help, the Aelfr would most certainly die shortly after the ship, once the remaining life support and gravity systems shut down, nothing would survive on the ship; the Ulmadr home ship had done considerable damage to the Dwurkn frigate even before it had made its boarding breach. Parts of the Dwurkn ship were already uninhabitable, and it was only under the influence of Aælfir medications, designed to help cope with the low-oxygen, that Vievel could breathe normally.
Vievel didn't trust the speaker, but the consequences weighed on him. He considered leaving the unseen Aelfr and turning around, going back to search for the correct tunnel. Enough time had passed that Vievel felt confident he could use his flashlight without worrying about getting caught by the Advance, but something pulled at the back of his mind. The speaker spoke Aælfir. His voice was deep and husky, but he was definitely no Dwurkn; even if he was different, from another house or home ship, he was kin. Each time Vievel tried to imagine leaving the Aelfr behind he found himself unable to properly picture it, as though he was asking something impossible of himself; it was like trying to picture himself tearing steel with his bare hands, or leaping between starships.
"Hey, you still there?" the unseen speaker asked.
"Yeah, sorry," Vievel replied. An idea was forming in his head. "Do you know your way around this ship?" Vievel asked him.
"I got a bit of a run of it".
"I'm lost, I can't find the way back to- I don't even know where my ship docked," Vievel confessed. Silence answered him and for a moment Vievel wondered whether he had heard him. "If you can help me-"
"I scratch your back, you scratch mine. Gotcha." A note of sorrow crept into the speaker's voice, though Vievel couldn't understand why. "What did it look like?"
"No, where you docked". Vievel thought for a moment. The home ship's mag-cannon had cut a hole into the Dwurkn frigate large enough to deploy a landing channel, which the war company and, presumably, the Ulmadr advance had used to board the Dwurkn ship. Both he and Halycen had instead used jump-rigs to cross the deep and dark, jump-rigs which they'd stashed near the breach with enough fuel to make the short-range hop back to the home ship; using the landing channel would have ended with the two of them getting caught before their excursion really began, but it was the landing channel he had to find now.
The channel was a collapsible nanotubing tunnel, with an inbuilt oxygen field and wide enough for six Aælfir side-by-side, extending from an airlock on the home ship to the breach in the frigate. The breach itself had mostly covered a large single room, but it had also spread into several adjoining corridors and passages, making them indistinguishable from each other. The main part of the breach, the large room, was warehouse-like, perhaps some kind of storage bay; its walls had been made of a smooth uniform charcoal-black, the same as the main corridors of the Dwurkn frigate but with two parallel white lines running perpendicular to the wall along the edges of the floor. The room had contained a great deal of salvage, crates, and storage, mostly filled with food or munitions, but the majority of the salvage had been blown into the deep and dark when the home ship had made its initial breach; Vievel recalled his father issuing a sanction for the navigations ensign who had made the mistake.
Vievel relayed his memory of the room to the unseen speaker.
"Sounds like a loading bay, yeah," he replied. "I think I know the exact one, I can guide you there," he said. "Get the door open and we'll talk".
"Alright, how do I get to your cell?' Vievel asked, eager to get the job over and done with.
"Jump out at the next vent panel, it'll be right there," the voice quickly replied. Vievel glanced down the passage, looking for another hatch. The light from his torch didn't reflect against anything as he looked, leaving him to imagine that there was no such hatch.
In the distance of the tunnel, Vievel could hear a mechanical grinding, the ship's machinery wailing in pain. Halycen lied, he thought dejectedly. The Dwurkn frigate wasn't going to support life for much longer; he could already feel himself taking a fourth breath for every three, straining for what little oxygen was hanging in the air. The starship's systems were stressed to their breaking point.
"You alright?" The speaker's concern was palpable in the absence of Vievel's reply.
"Yeah, sorry, just gonna look for the exit, give me a moment," Vievel said, attempting to reassure the unseen Aelfr. Beneath him, his feet felt unsteady.
"Yeah, sure," Vievel sighed. He took a few tentative steps into the shadows, his hand and flashlight both hanging at his side.
What hatch? He wondered. The passage continued into the darkness further than Vievel could see, but as he walked into the gloom he was unable to make out any tell-tale reflections of metal, much less a Dwurkn-sized hatch. After a few minutes of exploring he turned back, walking to the curve in the passage where he had first heard the speaker. As he approached the tunnel's curve from the opposite direction Vievel noticed a rise in the floor-side vent; it grew as he walked alongside it, climbing up the wall until it stopped at a rectangular-shaped panel pressed up against the interior of the corridor, hidden from view for anyone walking from the direction he'd originally came.
"Found it," Vievel murmured, though the speaker didn't reply. For a second Vievel considered repeating himself, louder, so that he could be sure that he had heard him, but then a grunt of acknowledgement rose up from somewhere outside the tunnel.
"Good, just kick it out and c'mon down," the unseen voice said. Vievel glanced at the mesh panel. It was firmly bolted to the stone.
"Kick it out?"
"Yeah, give it a good boot". Vievel stared at the vent for a moment, sure that it was far too firmly locked into position to be forced out like that. Against his own doubt, he strode closer to the panel and, mid-stride, swung his leg towards it. His foot struck it head-on, his toes curling beneath the malleable metillion alloy as the force of the blow brokered a new dent in his boot.
"Illandr!" Vievel cried out, cursing. The vent rattled and shook with the blow, creating something of a din, but otherwise, it remained securely fixed in place.
"You okay hoss?" the voice enquired.
"No-" Vievel yelled, dropping to the floor and cradling his foot. He pressed his fibreweave cloth against his boot and tried to squeeze away the pain pulsing behind his toes; the metillion alloy began to regain its shape as Vievel massaged it. "T-that didn't work," Vievel managed, between grunts of irritation. An uncharitable part of Vievel wondered whether the unseen speaker had known what would happen and whether he had tricked Vievel into doing it anyway.
"Oh," came the reply. A mixture of disappointment and confusion rode alongside the word. "-oh I guess that makes sense. Guess it makes sense you can't do it," he said, not explaining himself. Vievel silently cursed the unseen Aelfr, meaning to leave his annoyance there; his toes chose that moment to throb particularly painfully however, and Vievel's anger slipped out despite himself.
"If you knew it wouldn't work, why on Ganymede did you ask me to do it?" Vievel shouted.
"Thought you'd be stronger than that, that's all," the speaker replied. "Maybe you can loosen it?" he offered. Vievel pressed down on his toes, letting the pressure relieve some of the pain, and looked over at the vent beside him. Some of the screws and bolts on the panel, where it attached to the main outer portion of the mesh, were indeed loose. Twistable spiral screws were embedded into the inner frame of the panel, whilst wrought metal bolts had been hammered into the thinner outside frame, creating three separate pieces to the vent including the segmented outer portion. Vievel lifted himself up, heaving himself to a crouch by pushing off the floor with his hands. The nearest screw was so loose that it only took a single rotation before it dropped out and clinked against the stone floor of the tunnel. The rest were more firmly stuck in place; Vievel twisted at the nearest with his hand and found it stiff and slippery, covered in some kind of grease and resilient to his attempts to free it from the frame of the panel. Unable to work the screw free with his hand Vievel began using his fibreweave cloth for grip, holding the screw with the cloth in hand so that it wouldn't slip as he turned. After freeing the interior screws he began to work on the exterior bolts, using the butt of his torch as a pry bar where necessary to force the stiff bolts free. Once the last bolt popped free, shooting across the dark maintenance tunnel and rebounding off the opposite wall, Vievel felt the panel fall slack.
"Got it," Vievel said, wondering if the now-silent speaker was still listening. Vievel put his hands on the outer edges of the vent, where there was room to grip, and reached around it so he could wedge his fingers in the gap behind. Giving the panel a mighty heave Vievel fell over, stirring up a cloud of dust from the ground nearby; it came loose much easier than Vievel had expected, the force of his pull catapulting both him and it backwards.
"You got it?" the Aelfr enquired after the noise had settled.
"Yeah," Vievel grunted. A light streamed through the hole where the panel had previously been set, illuminating a narrow corner of the maintenance passage. Vievel reached down for his flashlight, twisting it so that his own light was shut off, and kneeled down. Vievel leant forward, crawling on his hands and knees so he could see through the vent and into the corridor beyond.
With his head poking through the space the panel had occupied moments ago, Vievel marvelled at the new corridor in front of him. The corridor was narrower than the passages he had travelled through earlier, but it was still much wider than the maintenance tunnel he had emerged from. Thin oblong light fixtures were set into the walls at an even spacing of fifteen or so feet, the first such fixtures that Vievel had seen in the whole ship. The surfaces of the new hallway were as smooth as the stone from the central corridor, smoother even; yet like the red ward this new area was carved from a different type of stone, indicating it was a separate ward altogether. All around him Vievel stared at a stone so without colour, so absorbing, that he imagined himself staring into the deep and dark itself. The black of the walls, floors, and ceiling, threatened to swallow him. Without his hands pressed to the ground Vievel would have doubted the floor stood where he now knelt, nothing separating it from the adjacent surfaces. Even with the light from the embedded wall fixtures, the transition between wall, floor, and ceiling, showed so little contrast he could hardly tell where one ended and another began. He brushed his arms, cleaning himself of the dust from the maintenance tunnel, and stood to look at the door beside him.
The prison door was carved from an overcast dull rock which wasn't quite grey and wasn't quite black. The dreary stone was a great deal brighter than the surrounding ebony wall, and in comparison it stood apart from the latter as though it was luminous, giving no concealment to the cell it sealed.
"Don't try anything," Vievel said suddenly, inspiration striking him. He gathered up the cloth in his hand and balled it together, wrapping it around his flashlight to form a vaguely threatening shape. "I have a gun," he lied. Vievel heard his pitch shift slightly and hoped that his voice hadn't shaken or quivered. "-a smart-revolver," he added, flourishing atop his empty threat.
"Well, that makes one of us," the speaker replied. "Ain't we a pair? One of each possible combination," he said. Vievel didn't respond, putting a careful hand on the deadbolt of the prison cell; he slid it forward to release the lock and stepped into the cell as the door moved with him.
Despite his threats, Vievel found himself frozen once face-to-face with the man, unable to move. Some of his thoughts turned instantly to flight, whichever few didn't immediately surrender and profess their hopelessness; the din of conflicting ideas was already enough to root Vievel to the ground but in the midst of the noise a lonely and deranged thought rose up, over all the rest. The thought was laughing and celebrating his tumultuous fortune. He was the first Aælfir in centuries to meet a human.