i. (fast forward)
It’s really, really not Hardison’s fault that he and Eliot are hanging upside down over a boiling pit of purple tar, probably about to be lowered into it as a sacrifice to some alien deity whose name sounds like someone gargling with a mouthful of spit. No matter how much Eliot’s glare says otherwise, it is not Hardison’s fault. This was inevitable, honestly, Hardison has been waiting for them to be offered as a sacrifice since the first moment they stepped on an alien planet.
Eliot’s glare intensifies, as if he can hear Hardison’s thoughts.
“This is not my fault,” Hardison says out loud.
“Dammit Hardison,” Eliot says. His hair has gotten long again, and the ends are only a few scant inches from the tar that bubbles merrily away. It smells a little like cotton candy, and Hardison supposes it could be worse. Not that he particularly wants to be boiled or melted or dissolved in a pit of purple cotton candy soup on an alien planet.
“Our lives are weird,” Hardison says. “But really, Eliot, this is not my fault.”
“It is,” Eliot says flatly. “But can we save that argument for after we’ve gotten out of this?”
Hardison raises his eyebrows. “Do you have anything better to do right now?”
Eliot looks at him. Looks down at the tar. Cranes his neck to look up at the vines constricting them. Or at least, Hardison thinks they’re vines. All he really knows is that they are violently orange, seem to be organic, are covered in a fine, soft fuzz that reminds him of a cactus his Nana used to have, and that said fuzz turns needle-sharp and stings like a sonofabitch every time they struggle against it, which reminds him of an entirely different cactus that Nana had. Eliot sighs. “No,” he admits.
“Parker will get us out,” Hardison says. He has every confidence in the world that is true, because she has every other time he and Eliot have been tied up on an alien planet.
“This cannot keep happening,” Eliot says. It is the voice of a man who has reached his threshold for weird but is still wandering in a whole wide world of it.
“It’s only happened—” Hardison starts, and then pauses to think. “Huh. Three times?”
“Four,” Eliot growls.
“We are a lot better at this on Earth,” Hardison says.
“Earth doesn’t have attack vines,” Eliot growls. “Or birds that spit paralytic acid, or guard moles with five eyes, or—”
“Are you homesick?” Hardison interrupts, staring at him incredulously, and Eliot has to pause.
“I am upside down,” Eliot growls, glaring at Hardison.
“That’s—you realize that was not actually an answer, right?” Hardison asks.
Eliot looks up at the vines constraining him, grits his teeth, and tries to break free. “Oh my god,” Hardison says, watching him, “are you actually trying to throw yourself into a pit of tar to avoid a conversation about emotions?”
Eliot does not answer, wincing as the vines burrow their thorns merrily into his skin.
“Eliot,” Hardison says, his voice sharp, all trace of amusement gone, “stop.”
Eliot sighs and stops fighting. The vines relax, and though they do not lessen their grip they do lay as soft as kitten fur against his skin.
“Seriously man,” Hardison says, “what the hell is going on with you?”
“I’m upside down,” Eliot says, and Hardison wonders if he knows how plaintive it sounds. Probably, if the way his jaw clenches is any indication. “We’re being held by vines over a pit of purple tar. Last week, we spent four hours as human statues because space seagulls from hell spit on us.”
“Can they be from both space and hell at the same time?” Hardison muses.
Eliot gives him a flat look that would be so much more effective if he didn’t see it every day of his life. Honestly, it’s more comforting than it is in any way intimidating.
“I get it,” Hardison says, and Eliot looks at him suspiciously. “We keep getting into situations that you can’t punch your way out of.”
“That’s not—” Eliot starts, and Hardison raises his eyebrows at him. Eliot’s expression goes blank the way it does when he is confronted with a truth that he doesn’t want to acknowledge, and Hardison takes it for the paltry victory that it is. “I can’t protect you like this,” Eliot says, so softly that Hardison almost misses it.
“Parker,” Eliot says, jerking his head in Hardison’s direction. Hardison glances behind him and sighs in relief as he sees Parker, picking her way carefully across the swamp towards them. There is an amorphous blob the size of a small cat rolling through the air behind her and Hardison must be getting used to this because he only gives it a short second glance.
“Parker!” he calls.
“Hi!” she chirps as soon as she is close enough. “I see you made friends,” she adds, looking up at the vines.
“And so did you, apparently,” Hardison says dubiously, looking at the floating blob next to her. He can’t make out anything like a face in its features, just a faintly glittery swirl in its middle that reminds him of a lava lamp and has the same kind of luminescent glow.
“Oh, yeah. This is Bob,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Bob,” Eliot says, his voice as flat as his expression.
“Bob,” Parker agrees.
“Moving on,” Hardison says, “are we being sacrificed to some alien deity? Because I would really like to not be sacrificed today, and Eliot is super grumpy about being upside down.”
“I am not grumpy,” Eliot says, in a way that very much suggests otherwise.
Parker turns to Bob and whistles a cheerful trill of notes. Bob pulses in a quick series of bright colors, then floats upwards towards the vines. “Bob will take care of it,” Parker says.
“Why can you talk to everything?” Hardison asks. He looks at Eliot. “Why can she talk to everything?”
Eliot shrugs. “She’s Parker,” he says, like it is an explanation. Which, Hardison supposes, it is.
Bob is as good as their word, and the vines gently swing Hardison and Eliot away from the tar pit, depositing them on the ground. They linger just long enough to let Parker pet them, which she does, cooing over them the way she normally does over diamonds, and then they retreat. Parker offers Hardison a hand and he takes it, leveraging himself to his feet. Eliot is already up and frowning down at the orange residue clinging to his shirt. Hardison glances down at himself and sighs.
“It looks like you dipped yourselves in Cheeto dust,” Parker says.
“Aw man, now I’m gonna be craving Cheetos for days,” Hardison says. Bob floats back down towards them and Hardison takes a little step back, as Eliot moves forward to his side. Bob settles at eye level and flickers through a sequence of colors.
“Bob says they are sorry about the vines,” Parker translates. “Apparently, Bob’s people, the Uvali are so pretty and glowy that people come from across the universe to kidnap them and use them as decorations and jewelry. The vines protect them, and they thought you might be hunters, so they stopped you.” She looks at Bob, a little furrow forming between her eyebrows, and Hardison exchanges a look with Eliot, because they both know what that look means. Parker whistles, the notes lower and deeper this time, and Bob’s answering flashes are in darker colors, red and purple and a quick strip of black.
“Here we go,” Hardison mutters when Parker looks at them again. Eliot’s sigh is long-suffering and resigned.
“They need help,” Parker says, as if it is as simple as that. As if that is all she needs to say.
Maybe it is.
Hardison looks at Bob, who pulses a soft and hopeful pink, and then he slings an arm around Eliot’s shoulders. “Eliot needs something to punch anyway.”
Eliot tilts his head a little. “I do,” he admits.
Parker’s grin is knife-sharp. “Let’s go steal a planet.”
It starts, like most things, with a sad story and a bad guy.
“Connor Denton,” Hardison says, and the man’s picture flickers onto the screen behind him. It’s the image of a stern-faced man in his early fifties, his steel gray hair cut military sharp, nothing soft or forgiving in his expression. “Former Special Ops turned treasure hunter. He’s amassed quite a personal collection, has a small army of ex-military types just like him who go around precuring items for him. Seems like there’s nothing he won’t do to get something that he wants — bribery, extortion, mysterious ‘accidents’.” Hardison clicks and the screen changes to show a young man in his early twenties, grinning out at the world. “Six weeks ago, Tommy Erlin, an anthropology student and amateur treasure hunter, found something underwater off the coast of Malta. Whatever it was, Denton wanted it, because he showed up twelve hours after Tommy reported it, and a day later Tommy was dead. The official report says there was a mechanical failure with his SCUBA gear, but Tommy’s sister, Madeline, says that Tommy never dove without checking his gear over first.”
“The authorities probably didn’t look too closely at the story,” Eliot says. “Diver drowns, it looks like mechanical failure, no reason to look any further.”
“Especially when they’ve been paid a good chunk of change to not look any further into it,” Hardison agrees. “Denton made a fifty-thousand-dollar donation to the local authorities. Tax deductible and all.”
Parker scowls. “He killed Tommy and thought writing a check would make it all disappear.”
“It did all disappear,” Hardison says. “If there was an official report on whatever Tommy found it has been erased, and whatever the thing is, it’s gone.” He flashes them a grin. “Or at least, that’s what Denton thinks. I found a shipment record—he had something large transported via freighter from Malta to one of his personal properties outside of Boston. He owns several warehouses there, all listed as storage, but let me tell you, there is some hefty security on them for just simple storage.”
“It’s where he houses his collection,” Eliot says.
Hardison nods. “Think so. Best bet is that it’s where he keeps everything too large or too hot to be displayed without questions.”
“Do we know what it was that he transported?”
Hardison frowns. “No. Whatever it was, it’s big, but that’s about all I’ve got on it.”
Parker leans forwards, her eyes gleaming. “Let’s go steal it,” she says.
“We don’t even know what it is,” Eliot says, and Parker grins at him.
“Has that ever stopped us before?” she asks.
Eliot considers that. “No,” he sighs. “Fine, let’s go figure out what they pulled from the sea that was worth killing over.”
“Eliot,” Parker says, popping up behind him in the way that only she can.
“How many times have I told you not to do that?” Eliot asks.
“Several,” Parker says cheerfully. “Eliot, Hardison figured it out.”
“Hardison figured what out?” Eliot asks.
“What’s in the box,” Hardison answers, clattering into the room in total opposition to Parker’s stealthy entrance. He flips his laptop open, fingers flying across the keyboard. “Denton thought he erased every report of what Tommy Erlin found, but he couldn’t completely kill the rumors. The day Tommy found what he did, he called his college roommate and apparently went on and on about how he’d found it, how he’d found proof of what he was looking for.”
“What was he looking for?”
“Atlantis,” Hardison says.
Eliot raises his eyebrows. “Atlantis,” he says, and Hardison nods.
“Now, whatever they pulled from the sea was big. Like, really big. There were no cargo descriptions in the ship’s manifest, but there were dimensions, and they are straight up ridiculous. But the weight doesn’t match with the size. Something that big should weigh a lot more, but apparently it doesn’t.”
“The freighter is still in port,” Parker adds in. “All of their electronic navigational equipment is messed up, and it started during that trip.”
“I think maybe it emits a frequency that messed with the electronics,” Hardison muses.
“Think what emits a frequency?” Eliot says.
Hardison looks at him, straightening up the way he does when he is completely serious. “The ship.”
“The ship,” Eliot repeats.
Hardison nods. “That’s what they pulled from the ocean, Eliot. A ship. A ship like nothing that anyone has ever seen on Earth before.”
Eliot looks at the two of them, at the fever-bright shine in Hardison’s eyes, at the no less bright gleam in Parker’s. One is the wild glee of a man who has found hope in the existence of his wildest fantasies; the other is the look of a woman who has found something that she desperately wants to steal. “On Earth,” Eliot says slowly, and looks at the two of them. “You think it’s a spaceship.”
He gets two identical nods in return. “Yes,” Hardison says. He is vibrating with excitement and Eliot half-expects him to start levitating. “There’s a long history of theories that Atlantis was aided by an alien civilization—”
“Conspiracy theories,” Eliot points out.
“We live and breathe conspiracy theories,” Hardison shoots back, and Eliot has to give him that. “Point is—”
“Spaceship,” Parker concludes. Her serious voice just barely covers her glee.
“A spaceship,” Eliot says.
“I mean, possibly it’s just an advanced Atlantean ship and not an actual alien spacecraft, but still.”
“You’re serious,” Eliot says.
“Yes,” Hardison and Parker say together.
“Well,” Eliot says, and then sighs. “Let’s go steal it.”
Parker points an accusing finger at him. “Don’t steal my line,” she says, frowning at him. Then she grins wide and claps her hands together. “Let’s go steal a spaceship!”
“That...is a spaceship,” Eliot says, staring up at the gleaming metal ship in front of them.
“You sound surprised,” Hardison says, his tone somewhere between teasing and accusatory. “Didn’t you believe us?”
“I didn’t not believe you,” Eliot says, which he thinks is fair since they’re talking about a spaceship. An honest-to-God spaceship, shining in silver and blue and black. It isn’t quite the shape of a flying saucer, but it has more in common with that image than any of Earth’s space shuttles.
Parker tilts her head to the side. “It looks kind of like a jellyfish,” she says, and she’s not wrong. And, like a jellyfish washed up on the beach, it looks wrong sitting on the harsh concrete floor of this dimly lit warehouse, all its ethereal grace spent and dimmed.
“Don’t worry,” Hardison says to the spaceship, “we’ll get you out of here and back into the sky. Girl like you deserves to fly.”
“Are you flirting with the ship?” Parker asks, somewhere between soft amusement and suspicion.
“...Maybe?” Hardison answers, like he honestly isn’t sure.
“How do we open it?” Eliot asks, cutting that argument off before it gains traction.
“No clue,” Hardison says, but Parker is already skipping forward, ducking between the legs of the spaceship and tilting her head back to look up at the hull. She says something, too low for them to catch, and raps her knuckles lightly against the hull three times, then looks back at them.
“You ask,” she says, and steps to the side as a panel dislodges from the hull with a mechanical hiss, lowering smoothly to the ground as an entrance ramp. Eliot glances at Hardison, only to find him already heading towards the entrance. Parker waits only long enough to make sure they are coming before she disappears inside, and Eliot trails slower, lingering to look up at the ship.
“This might be a bad idea,” he calls to Hardison. “We don’t know anything about this—"
Hardison pauses by the entrance, looking back at him. “Sure,” he says. “But on the other hand, it could be a great idea.” And then he disappears inside, and Eliot can hear faint exclamations from inside, but he doesn’t hear any shrieks or screams, so at least there’s that. He looks up at the belly of the ship and lays his palm flat against it. The metal isn’t cold the way he expects; it is faintly warm, and there is a soft vibration running through it, more like the purr of a kitten than the hum of a motor.
“Don’t explode on us, okay?” he mutters, and could swear that the ship pulses in what he hopes is agreement.
The ship is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. Inside, away from the concrete and the bare steel of the warehouse, it is like walking into a different world, and Eliot supposes that is not far from the truth. Nothing in the ship has any sense of humanity to it—the lines of the ship are all soft and rounded, no sharp corners, no sharp edges. The walls and the floor shimmer like mother-of-pearl, reflecting light and color, and there is a translucency to everything that gives the impression of endlessness.
He finds Parker and Hardison in what must be the control room. Hardison is crooning to the control panel, which is bristling with knobs and buttons and levers, and Hardison is running his hands lightly over all of it, as if he cannot keep his hands to himself, as if he cannot help but touch. Parker is inspecting a panel on the wall, and when she lays her palm flat against it the far wall beyond the control panel shimmers and goes completely transparent, showing them the full expanse of the warehouse. It is a jarring juxtaposition between their soft-lit, pearly cabin and the dim, industrial warehouse.
“She doesn’t belong here,” Hardison murmurs, patting the console soothingly as if to reassure it that they have no intention of leaving it here in the darkness.
Eliot catches a flicker of movement in the warehouse and curses. “Neither do we,” he says, and points to the phalanx of armed men moving towards the ship. “We’re out of time, we need to go now.”
Hardison looks at him, alarmed. “I haven’t even figured out how to turn it on yet!” he says, looking down at the myriad of buttons.
Parker rests her hand against the wall, closing her eyes briefly. When she opens them, she hits two buttons, and behind them the hull seals shut. The ship hums beneath their feet, the soft purr that Eliot felt growing stronger, and part of the floor rises, forming three pod-like chairs. “Like I said,” Parker says when Eliot and Hardison look at her, “you ask.”
“Down!” Eliot shouts, grabbing Hardison and Parker and dragging them down behind the console as one of the men outside takes aim at the ship and fires, as the bullets strike rapid fire against the window of the ship and ping away. “Get us in the air, Parker!”
“Aye, aye Captain,” she sings, reaching across him to hit another button, and the whole ship shudders, the gunfire trailing off. “Wait, aren’t I supposed to be the Captain? You can be the First Officer, Eliot.”
“Excuse me?” Hardison says.
“You’ll be the pilot,” Parker replies. “As soon as she teaches you how to fly.”
“Now is not the time,” Eliot snaps.
“Aye, aye, First Officer Eliot,” Parker says, and pulls up on one of the levers. The ship freezes for a moment, going still, and then it lurches upwards with a speed that makes Eliot’s stomach spin.
“Ceiling, Parker!” Hardison says. “How are we getting this out of here?”
“Things that should have been thought of before we stole the spaceship,” Eliot says.
“No one ever said this was a good plan, Eliot,” Hardison says.
“All of my plans are good plans,” Parker says, and eyes the ceiling of the warehouse speculatively. They are hovering about ten feet off the ground, the armed men all scattering towards cover, save one who is lifting a heavy black weapon in his hands.
“Rocket launcher,” Eliot says flatly. “Parker—"
“Going,” she replies. “Hang on.”
Hardison flashes Eliot a look of panic. “If she flies anything like she drives—"
“Oh god,” Eliot mutters, and drags himself into one of the chairs, Hardison doing the same opposite him.
“Ah,” Parker says, “that’s the one.” She hits a button and there is a whirring sound, then a beam of red light shoots out in front of them. “Lasers,” she says, her grin just this side of maniacal.
“This was a bad plan,” Hardison says.
“Such a bad plan,” Eliot agrees.
“The best plan,” Parker says, and shoots a hole in the ceiling of the warehouse. Steel and glass rain down around them, and there are distant screams from below, but Parker aims them towards the sky and punches it.
“I’m going to throw up,” Hardison groans. He is bent over, his head between his knees, taking shaky breaths.
“Slower breaths to combat nausea,” Eliot says, his voice ragged at the edges as he tries to follow his own advice. “Parker you are never allowed to fly again.”
“Guys,” Parker says, and they both look up.
Eliot blinks, then looks at Hardison. Hardison looks at Parker. Parker looks out the window at the endless velvet black of space and starts to laugh. Hardison grins at her, at Eliot, looks at the blinking control panel and says, “I can’t believe we did it.”
Eliot tips his head back and closes his eyes, the ship thrumming beneath him. “What now?” he asks. When he opens his eyes again Parker is floating over him, her grin wide as the Cheshire Cat.
“Think of all the things we can steal, Eliot,” she says, pure glee in her voice.
“It can’t be that hard to find some terrible tyrant aliens,” Hardison says. “We can liberate galaxies, Eliot. We can be Flash Gordon!”
Eliot raises an eyebrow. “Flash Gordon? Really? Of all the things in the world?”
“Flash Gordon is awesome, don’t hate.” Hardison leans over the control panel the way that some people lean over a buffet, surveying his options and planning how best to devour every inch. “Okay baby, let’s fly.”
Hardison hums the Doctor Who theme song and grins when Eliot kicks at his ankle but doesn’t stop. “I am flying here,” he says when Eliot kicks him again, harder.
“No, you’re not,” Parker says, hanging upside down from the ceiling. She has developed a disconcerting habit of it, since they left Earth. Eliot honestly isn’t sure of the last time he saw her upright, much less on the ground.
Hardison looks down at the control panel and frowns.
“Lucille 2000 is,” Parker says.
Eliot scowls up at her. “We’re not naming the ship Lucille 2000.”
“Well of course we’re not, Eliot. She already has a name. She likes the nickname though, and that’s what Hardison has been calling her when he thinks we aren’t listening.”
“Am I the only one concerned by the fact that Parker is talking to the ship?” Eliot asks. It’s mostly a rhetorical question.
“Yes,” Hardison replies absently. “How long have I not been flying?”
“Couple hours,” Parker answers, and Hardison only frowns harder.
“Well that’s concerning.”
“You said the ship has a name,” Eliot prompts, and Parker nods.
“She does.” Parker tilts her head, as if she is listening. “Can’t you hear it?”
Eliot exchanges a look with Hardison. “No,” Eliot says slowly, and Parker frowns at him.
“I’m not crazy,” she says.
“No one said you were, babe,” Hardison says, and Parker frowns at him instead.
“Yeah, but Eliot was thinking it.”
Eliot doesn’t bother trying to deny it. “What do you hear?” he asks instead, and Parker’s frown softens.
“It’s not quite words,” she says. “It’s...it’s more like music, but it’s not in my ears. It’s not in my head either though.” She pauses, searching for a way to describe it. “It’s like when you crack a safe and you sort of hear the catch and you sort of feel it in your fingertips, but mostly you just know. It’s a sense that isn’t a sense.”
“Like when a code clicks together,” Hardison says.
Eliot thinks about that moment in a fight when he knows the next move, when his body and his mind snap into perfect alignment, when he is already continuing a motion without having to think about it, when he counters a blow before he is fully conscious of it. Parker must see the clarity on his expression because she nods.
“Yeah, like that.”
“Why is it so clear for you?” Hardison wonders.
Parker shrugs. “I guess I listen.”
“I listen,” Hardison says, his forehead furrowing. “I’m great at listening.”
“You’re great at talking,” Eliot says. “That much is true.”
“I’m wounded, Eliot. I really am.”
Eliot just grins at him.
“So, what’s her name?” Hardison asks, leaning back in his chair. “The ship?”
“Amadel,” Parker says, and the ship purrs around them as if singing its own name.
“Amadel,” Hardison repeats, rolling it around his tongue. “Well then, Amadel, why am I not flying you? I thought we had an understanding here.”
Eliot could swear that the ship laughs.
iv. (double speed)
“You know, I really wish I knew what they were saying,” Hardison says.
“I can’t tell if Parker is trying to talk them into making her their queen, or trying to talk them out of it,” Eliot says, his eyes narrowed as he tries to decipher the quick flickers of light that make up the first layer of Uvali speech. After a few weeks he has picked up some of the rudimentary signals, but the current conversation is too quick for him to follow, and he has yet to decipher Parker’s whistling.
“She would make a glorious space queen,” Hardison says, “but also wow would that be a bad idea.”
“When she gets it into her head to start a space empire, I am leaving,” Eliot says firmly.
“Oh, shut up, you’ll be leading her armies and you know it. We should really curb that instinct though, I don’t think the universe is ready for Empress Parker. Even if it would be awesome. Hey,” he says to Parker. “What’s the verdict?”
“The Kai’leen agreed to enforce a ban on hunting the Uvali and the Uvali agreed to allow restricted mining of the terelli mineral that infuses them with their glow.”
“You don’t agree with the mining,” Eliot says, considering the way her mouth is pursed.
“I still don’t think the Uvali should have to agree to mining on their planet just to keep from being hunted and enslaved,” she says, folding her arms. “It’s not right. The Kai’leen are assholes.”
Hardison snorts. “From what I’ve seen that’s accurate. But babe, you can’t solve all the problems of the universe, no matter how much you want to.”
“I can try,” Parker says, her voice steely.
“This is your fault,” Eliot tells Hardison.
“What, her delusions of grandeur?” Hardison asks. “Totally not my fault, I cannot be held responsible for this.”
“I don’t have delusions of grandeur,” Parker says dismissively. “If I did, I wouldn’t have talked the Uvali out of building the statue of us.”
“...statue,” Hardison says faintly, and then grabs Parker by the shoulders. “Parker. They wanted to build a statue of us and you talked them out of it? Are you crazy? We could have been immortalized forever on an alien planet!”
“Who has delusions of grandeur?” Eliot asks, and Hardison shoots him a nasty glare that only makes him smirk.
“A statue, Eliot! On an alien planet!”
“I told them it was a very nice gesture, but we were happy to help,” Parker says. She looks over at Bob, who is recognizable among the horde of other blobs by way of the tiny hat made of a shiny purple fabric scrounged from the ship, handmade by Parker. “I’m not sure that Bob isn’t going to do it anyway the minute we leave,” she admits.
“Yessss,” Hardison hisses. “Please, Bob, immortalize me in space.”
“I’ll immortalize you in space,” Eliot offers. “How would you like to be chucked out the airlock?”
“Neither of you appreciate this for the opportunity it is,” Hardison sniffs. “I’m going back to the ship.”
“Are we done here?” Eliot asks Parker, lingering by her side as Hardison heads away. She is frowning, just a little, as she looks over the Uvali.
“I guess,” she says. “We won. Or, they won. But—"
“But they still lost,” Eliot says. “Yeah.”
“It’s not right,” Parker says. “And I know that’s silly. There’s a whole universe of not right out there. That’s why we do what we do.”
“Yes,” Eliot says, “it is.” He looks at the Uvali, and he can pick out the children by the way that they tumble merrily through the air, frolicking the way that children of species across the universe do. “This wasn’t a fight against one corrupt person, or even a few. We’re a long way from home, Parker, and we’re all by ourselves out here. There’s only so much we can do.”
“I know,” she says, and goes quiet for a moment. “Hardison says you’re homesick.”
“Hardison talks too much,” Eliot says and earns a flash of a grin from Parker.
“Are you?” she presses. Eliot fights the urge to hunch his shoulders and turn away. He watches the Uvali instead, knowing that she won’t drop it until he answers and trying to wait her out anyway.
“Maybe,” he finally says with a shrug. Luckily, Parker lets him go with that. She squeezes his hand, brushes a feather-light kiss across his cheek, and makes her way back to the ship with a step so light that she barely touches the ground.
They barely make it out of the atmosphere of Uvalu before they find trouble. Amadel’s proximity warnings blare at them, a clang of sound and light, and the ship shudders beneath them before going still, her ever present hum dulled to an uneasy whine.
“We’re caught in a tractor beam,” Hardison says, glancing from the display blinking warnings at him out the window to the ship looming large over them that confirms said warnings.
“Can you get us out of it?” Eliot asks.
“I’m trying,” Hardison says. “Parker, is there anything Amadel can do?”
Parker has one hand pressed against the wall of the ship, her eyes closed, and then she slowly shakes her head. “No. The beam is too strong for her to break away.” Her eyes open. “They’re pulling us in.”
Eliot stands, rolling his shoulders back and cracking his knuckles. He gives them both a tight-lipped smiled. “They’re going to regret that.”
As it turns out, the Kai’leen are, in fact, the assholes of the universe. Eliot leaves about fifteen of them unconscious before a swarm of them take him down; he wakes probably ten minutes later bound to a chair by thick plastic-like bindings that cut into his skin.
He is very tired of being tied to things, but at least he’s not upside down this time.
Parker and Hardison are similarly bound beside him, Parker bristling with rage and Hardison icy with it. Both relax fractionally the moment they see him awaken, and the fact that both of them appear unharmed keeps him from completely losing it.
“How’s your head?” Hardison asks.
Eliot takes a moment to consider. “It’s fine,” he answers and Hardison nods knowingly.
“Concussion,” he says to Parker.
“I said it’s fine,” Eliot says.
“As if we can’t translate Eliot after all this time,” Hardison scoffs. “Parker can magically speak at least ten alien languages, you think she can’t translate you?”
Eliot lets that go as an argument that he is on the losing side of and is therefore not worth having. “Can she translate them?” he asks, nodding at the small group of Kai’leen huddled together in front of them, and wow was nodding a mistake.
Hardison makes an exasperated sound. “Don’t move your head, haven’t you had enough concussions in your life to know better?”
“Obviously not,” Eliot says. “Parker?” he asks, turning his head slowly to his left to look at her.
“I’m concentrating,” she says tightly.
“On setting them on fire with your mind?” Hardison asks.
“I would if I thought that would work. Now shush, I’m listening.”
The Kai’leen either hear them or finally notice the weight the Parker’s glare on the back of their bulbous heads, because they turn en masse, heads swiveling around. The closest comparison that Eliot can think of is an octopus, with large rounded heads and protruding eyes, though their mouths more closely resemble that of a dolphin, jutting forward. They bend their heads together once more, and then one of them splits off from the group to approach them.
“Where did you get this ship?” it demands, in perfect English.
Eliot looks at Hardison. “How concussed am I?”
Hardison is blinking at the Kai’leen, just as surprised. “Translator of some kind?” he hazards a guess.
Eliot didn’t know that something with a dolphin’s snout could sneer, but apparently the Kai’leen have perfected the art. “You are a primitive species,” it says dismissively. “Your language reflects that.”
Parker responds with a harsh series of guttural sounds and clicks, and the Kai’leen freezes in place, staring at her. “How’s that for primitive?” she snarls. The Kai’leen retreats a step, and the rest of its group pushes forward a step, all of them talking at once in low and furtive sounding whispers.
“What did you say?” Hardison asks, staring at Parker.
“That it was an arrogant piece of shit, I think,” she replies. “Either that or that I like its tentacles, I don’t think human vocal chords are really designed for their language.”
The Kai’leen returns, drawing itself up straight as if armoring itself. “Where did you get this ship?” it asks again.
“It’s ours,” Parker says.
“It is stolen,” the Kai’leen says. “This is a lost ship of the Royal Atlantean Empire, lost for longer than a hundred star lives.”
“I told you Atlantis was real,” Hardison hisses to Eliot.
“Dammit Hardison, now is not the time.”
“I told you, we’ve been flying around in a spaceship for months now and but nooo, Atlantis couldn’t be real.”
“Hardison—” Eliot growls.
“We found it on our planet,” Hardison says to the Kai’leen.
The Kai’leen looks down its beak at him. “Lie,” it says. “I can see your deceptions, creature. Our people are renowned for their ability to see truth.”
“Your people are dicks, I hate to tell you,” Hardison says. “It’s not a lie—”
“We stole it from someone our home planet,” Eliot says.
The Kai’leen shifts to stand in front of Eliot, looking down at him. “The warrior,” it says, with something like grudging respect. “You are thieves.”
“Are we supposed to be offended by that?” Parker asks, tilting her head. “It sounds like you think we’re supposed to be offended by that.”
The Kai’leen beckons one of its group forward and consults with it for a moment. “Where did the person you stole the ship from obtain it?”
“He pulled it out of the ocean after he murdered the person who found it,” Parker says. “We don’t know where it was before that, but I’d guess it was right there at the bottom of the ocean.”
“Probably was ever since Atlantis fell,” Hardison agrees. “Our Atlantis, not yours,” he adds when the Kai’leen start muttering.
“You speak the truth,” the main Kai’leen says after a moment, and it sounds almost regretful. “You will not be punished for your theft, because you have returned the lost ship of the Atlantean Empire to its rightful successors—”
“Rightful successors?” Hardison asks. “You are the Kai’leen, not the Atlanteans.”
The Kai’leen looks down at him disdainfully. “That Atlantean Empire fell more than sixty star lives ago.”
“I have no idea how long that is,” Hardison whispers to Eliot and Parker, both of whom shrug. The Kai’leen looks annoyed but continues over him.
“The Kai’leen Empire rose in its place. Their glories are now ours, and one of the lost ships is a fine glory indeed. As I said, you will not be punished for your theft, or for your crudeness,” it adds, with a stern look at Parker, who gives it her best who me? look.
“But you’re taking our ship,” Hardison says.
“Which, good luck with that,” Parker adds. “She doesn’t like you and she doesn’t want to go with you.”
“It has no choice,” the Kai’leen says. “We are familiar with mindful ships and how to break those who do not wish to obey.”
If Parker’s look could induce flames before, it could ignite supernovas now. On Eliot’s other side, Hardison goes dangerously still. Eliot draws himself up, ignoring the pain that rattles in his skull when he moves. “You’re not doing a damn thing to our ship,” he says.
The Kai’leen looks at him, its mouth opening in a kind of hiss. “We are,” it says. It looks to Parker, to Hardison. “The two of you will be returned to Uvalu. You are free to leave, if you find the means to do so,” it says, just enough mockery in its voice to say that there will be no leaving.
“The two of us,” Parker says.
“Yes,” the Kai’leen says. “You, warrior, are guilty of attacking ranking members of the Kai’leen Empire.” It smiles in a way that makes Eliot’s stomach churn. “That is a crime that cannot go unpunished and has only one sentence.”
“Let me guess,” Eliot says dryly. “Death?”
“Death,” the Kai’leen hisses.
“Touch him and I will make sure every single one of you is destroyed,” Parker says, her voice hissing like hot metal plunged into water.
“We’re very creative people,” Hardison says, his voice almost conversationally calm. “You can’t imagine the ways that we can find to ruin you.”
The Kai’leen cackle, exchanging amused glances amongst themselves. “How quaint,” the main one says. “Take the others away. Send them to Uvalu and make sure they are grounded there.”
“Eliot—” both Parker and Hardison say in unison as the Kai’leen reach for them and haul them up. Parker twists in their grip, trying to use her fingernails, trying to use her teeth, trying to slip out of their grip, but the Kai’leen are wise to her tricks and they keep a tight hold on her. Hardison goes boneless in their grip, dragging them down, and then explodes upwards, trying to get his arms free, trying to kick, but they swarm him, and the minute one of them wraps a tentacle around Parker’s throat Hardison goes absolutely still.
“Continue to struggle and the female will be executed as well,” the Kai’leen says, its voice somewhere between annoyed and bored.
“It’s okay,” Eliot says, and Parker and Hardison look helplessly at him. “Go,” he says. “It’s okay, it’ll be okay.” His throat is tight and the Kai’leen stare at him and he remembers how they said they could see deception, how they know he is lying just as much as Hardison and Parker do. “It’s okay,” he repeats, knowing it for an empty platitude and knowing that it is the only thing he has to offer.
“Eliot—” Hardison whispers.
“Don’t fight them,” Eliot says.
“At least one of you has sense,” the main Kai’leen says. “Take the others away.”
Hardison goes, letting himself be led off, though he keeps turning back to look at Eliot. He says something, and Eliot pretends that it is too low for him to hear, pretends that he can’t read Hardison’s lips. Parker does not go quietly, she twists, and she fights, and they pick her up off the floor only to realize immediately what a mistake that was, and Eliot closes his eyes when she shouts his name. But eventually, she goes too, disappears behind a shiny metal door that goes who knows where.
The main Kai’leen stands in front of Eliot and stares at him for a long moment, and Eliot stares back. His head aches and his throat is tight and there have been a hundred times in his life where he was sure of his imminent death, but he can’t remember any of them hurting quite like this.
“You shouldn’t have fought,” the Kai’leen says.
Eliot lifts his chin and laughs. He can taste blood in his mouth, wonders if it is on his teeth, and he smiles nice and wide just in case it is, a big bloody grin for the bastard who is going to kill him. “For them, there’s nothing in the world that could make me stop.”
The Kai’leen tilts its head. “This will.”
Eliot only grins wider. “Don’t count on it.”
The Kai’leen draws a weapon, something shiny and silver and blue and as foreign as it looks it is still unmistakably a gun at its core. He hates guns. “We are merciful,” the Kai’leen says. “This will not hurt.” It takes aim, and Eliot stares it down.
Then it gets very loud.
“What did you even blow up?” Eliot asks, a little bit dazed. His ears are ringing and his head is spinning and he has one arm slung over Parker’s shoulders, the other around Hardison’s shoulders.
“Terelli crystal,” Parker says. “Bob gave it to me—apparently they react in a very volatile way to Kai’leen spit.”
“Do I want to know?” Eliot asks Hardison.
“No,” Hardison says immediately. “Trust me, no. I do not want to even think about the bodily fluids that are on my clothes right now. Parker, which way back to Amadel?”
“Left,” Parker says. “She’s ready and waiting for us.”
Behind them, a piercing siren starts to wail.
“Crap,” Parker says.
“Eliot, can you run?” Hardison asks, glancing nervously over his shoulder.
“Get me the hell off this ship and I’ll fly,” Eliot says, groaning as he stumbles into a sprint.
“Man, you know better than to say stuff like that around Parker,” Hardison pants. “She’s going to remember that.”
“Let her,” Eliot says, as they turn a corner and the door slides open. Amadel is on the other side and Eliot has never seen a more beautiful sight. They race up the ramp, which seals shut smoothly behind them, and Eliot slumps against the wall, closing his eyes. Beneath him, Amadel purrs, and a cool hand touches his forehead.
“Can you get up?” Parker asks.
“In a minute,” Eliot says. “I’m fine.”
Parker huffs out a soft laugh. “Liar,” she says, and Eliot doesn’t need to see her to know what her smile looks like.
“The floor is nice,” he says defensively.
“Suuuure,” she says.
“Oh, go make sure that Hardison doesn’t fly us into a sun or something.”
“Amadel is flying,” Parker says. “But fine. Don’t fall asleep.”
She squeezes his hand, her grip almost painful for a moment, and he squints at her. “Don’t do that again,” she says. “Okay?”
He squeezes her hand back. “Okay,” he says softly.
Amadel drifts, not quite aimless, but not quite purposefully either, as if waiting for a current to sweep her up. Inside, Parker floats near the ceiling and Eliot reclines in one of the seats and Hardison is bent over the control panel. “Aha!” he says and pushes a button. The console shifts colors from opalescent white to a soft shade of blue and Hardison grins. “I got it!” he says over his shoulder. “I am officially piloting this vessel.”
“Is that why we’re rolling over?” Eliot asks, because they are indeed lilting to the side. Hardison curses and slides into the navigation chair, correcting their balance.
“Technically, there is no up or down in space,” Hardison points out defensively.
“Technically, I am tired of being upside down, Hardison,” Eliot says.
“I’m not!” Parker chirps, and Eliot rolls his eyes at her.
“It’s fine, it’s all good, I got it,” Hardison says. “We’ll stay right side up for the sake of Eliot’s earthbound sensibilities.” He reaches over and punches another button, and the holographic navigation panel appears. “Figured out how to program our course too,” Hardison says smugly. “There is nothing in the universe that I can’t hack.”
“Amadel helped him,” Parker says in a stage whisper to Eliot. Hardison pointedly ignores her, swiveling around in his seat.
“Where to?” he asks, and his eyes are on Eliot.
Parker drifts down from the ceiling, spinning so that she is the right way up, and she perches on the arm of Hardison’s seat. “We can go home,” she says softly. “If you want.”
Eliot looks at her, at the way she has tethered herself down by leaning her shoulder against Hardison’s, at the way her feet don’t touch the ground even now. He looks at Hardison, who is leaning just as much against Parker as she is against him, who has one hand resting on the console the same way he always had one hand on his laptop. Beneath his feet, Amadel purrs, the vibration soft and soothing and Eliot can feel it all the way to his bones. He looks out the window, at the black sky that blooms with color if you know what you are looking for.
He doesn’t float the way that Parker does, never will. He doesn’t soak in everything the way that Hardison does, never will. He is boots that are heavy on solid ground and fists that keep swinging no matter how bruised they get and the taste of blood in his mouth, and he is unsteady in this shimmering, shining ship amongst endless stars.
But no matter how unsteady he may be, he knows who will catch him if he falls.
“No,” he says. “No, I’m good.”
Parker’s eyes light up. “We’re his home,” she whispers to Hardison, who grins back at her.
“Yeah,” Hardison says, “we are.”
Eliot huffs. “I changed my mind, take me back to Earth.”
The two of them just grin stupidly at him. “Too late,” Hardison says. “Consider yourself abducted.” He looks at Parker. “Where to, oh Captain my Captain?”
“Well,” Parker says, “we did say that we were going to bring down some terrible tyrants. Like that Gorgon guy.”
“Flash Gordon, Parker,” Hardison says, his expression pained. “Not ‘that Gorgon guy.’ And I was kidding.”
“I’m not,” Parker says.
Hardison looks at Eliot helplessly, and all Eliot can do is shrug. “I’ve never overthrown an empire before,” he says.
“I’m doomed,” Hardison says. “Amadel, help me.”
The navigation panel flickers, coordinates appearing, and Hardison leans forward to squint at them. “Not you too,” he groans, but there is a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Fine,” he sighs, “but we’re doing it my way.” He makes a few quick adjustments to the navigation panel and enters the course. “I overheard one of the Kai’leen talking about a treasure planet accessible only to Atlantean ships, and we just happen to have an Atlantean ship here,” he says, giving in to a full-fledged grin. “We’re going to need some cash if we’re going to dismantle an empire.”
Parker grins and pushes off Hardison’s chair to drift over to Eliot’s instead, leaning her shoulder against his. “Let’s go steal the universe,” she says.
Amadel hums around them and catches its current in the wide expanse of sky.
It ends, as all things should, with the promise of things to come.